How Starter Story grew to 1.4 million monthly visitors and $500,000 in annual revenue
Founder Pat Walls discussed how he automated his process so that the site now operates as a sort of flywheel.
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The entrepreneurship world is full of success stories about startups that began as side hustles, but in 2016, Pat Walls learned firsthand how hard it can be to grow a company while simultaneously holding down a full-time job.
That year, Walls and a couple of other friends founded a B2B SaaS platform aimed at helping small brands sell products to retailers. He spent his days at his software engineering job and then devoted his nights and weekends to building a minimum viable product. Their hope was to get into that year’s Y Combinator and then use that as a launching pad to acquire investment and users.
But they didn’t get into YC, and their struggles didn’t end there. “We were hopping out of work to jump on sales demos and fixing critical bugs while on the job,” Walls recalled later. “We realized how hard it is to build a B2B SaaS app when you also have a full time job.” After several months of failing to gain any traction, they finally threw in the towel. “We shut down the company and moved on.”
The experience was demoralizing, but the entrepreneurship bug never quite left him. Walls now knew that if he were to launch a new product, it needed to be something that could be better managed as a side hustle. “I also wanted to do something on my own – without co-founders,” he told me. At the time, he was a big fan of the website Indie Hackers, which publishes case studies from founders on how they grew their online businesses. “I did find that a lot of content about entrepreneurship — from business publications like Forbes — didn’t really showcase real stories about entrepreneurs.” Instead, they largely focused on the small number of startups that raised massive amounts of investment from VCs. “I wanted to interview just regular people and share small business success stories, like how someone started a business that sustained their lifestyle, stuff like that.”
Walls didn’t have a track record as a journalist, nor did he even have a website to show potential interviewees, so he started out by interviewing friends of his on the phone. In October 2017, after he had completed transcribing a few of these interviews, he launched Starter Story. His initial plan was to use Wordpress to publish his blog posts, but after some initial frustrations with the platform, he ended up coding his own CMS.
Once Walls had a few sample case studies up on Starter Story, it became easier to convince other entrepreneurs to agree to interviews. Traffic was anemic at first, but some of the founders he interviewed started sharing their case studies on their social media accounts. He also had some early posts take off on platforms like Reddit, Hacker News, and Product Hunt.
Encouraged by this early success, Walls increased his production schedule and was soon publishing dozens of new case studies each month. Flash forward to today, and they’re now driving 1.4 million visitors a month and over $500,000 in annual revenue.
Not only does Walls now work on Starter Story full time, but he’s figured out all kinds of ways to automate his process so that the site now operates as a sort of flywheel. In an interview, he walked me through how he built this flywheel and the lessons he learned along the way.
Let’s jump into my findings…
Some early wins
Early on, Walls figured out that there was no way that his interview process could scale. It just took too long to sit on the phone with the founder for an hour, transcribe the recording of that entire conversation, and then massage the transcript into a case study format. So he developed a Q&A template that he would email to founders so they could answer on their own. “One of the biggest challenges is getting people to write well,” he explained. “Founders are not always traditionally good writers. So we have this template and we have our main questions, things like: What's your background? How'd you come up with the idea for the business? How'd you grow the business? How'd you launch the business … et cetera. And then under those questions, we have a lot of what we call sub questions. They’re basically guidelines, like, ‘hey, you should write three to six paragraphs here and you should talk about this thing and this thing and this thing.’ So it does guide a non-writer into figuring out how they can write something compelling.”
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