How Plausible bootstrapped to $500k ARR through community
I had an inspiring talk with Marko Saric, the Co-founder of Plausible Analytics. He shared how social media presence and the growth of Plausible Analytics are connected and gave valuable advice on how they grew their community. Marko also explained the hurdles that Plausible Analytics, like many other open-source start-ups, was facing and how he and his co-founder tackled them. Additionally, he explained what he defines as “ethical marketing” and why Plausible donates 5% of its revenue. Enjoy this super inspiring interview about a truly open and sustainable startup.
Jonathan Reimer: Let's get started. Do you shortly want to introduce yourself and say a few words about your person?
Marko Saric: I am the Co-founder of Plausible Analytics. I'm a marketer by profession, and this is the first time I'm a start-up Co-founder. I've worked in some start-ups before, but as a regular employee. So it's quite an exciting change. My Co-founder is the technical person in the team, so he's the one doing the design, the development, and all the server infrastructure.
Jonathan: Can you give us a quick overview of what Plausible Analytics is doing?
Marko: We are a Google Analytics alternative. We are privacy-friendly, meaning we don't use any cookies. In addition, we are very speedy and lightweight, so your website performs very fast even with us installed.
Jonathan: I noticed your product a few months ago, and I think it's way more usable for me as someone who just wants to get a few basic numbers. Furthermore, the privacy-first and open source aspect is a big plus.
Marko: Yes, thank you. We're privacy-first and open source, but many people don't worry about that side if you look at it. They're like: "Oh, we use you because your dashboard is very easy to understand or fast to load or beautiful to look at". So in a way, we're getting more people to use open source and privacy-first products, but people that are not coming from that world at all. So that's a nice little touch there.
Jonathan: It's a great thing when privacy doesn't come with a trade-off for usability. So, very well done! How did this journey start?
Marko: My Co-founder started development in late 2018. The first beta version was released in January 2019, and then around April/May 2019, it was the first product as you know it right now. He was kind of hitting some limits in terms of reaching new people and doing marketing. He didn't enjoy this as much as the development side of things. So he went out and looked for somebody to come to help him. We got in touch, and then I joined in March 2020. It's been a crazy journey.
Jonathan: I've seen you have 7,000 followers on Twitter and 8,000 stars on GitHub. Both accounts developed quite steadily. What actions did you take to grow that community?
Marko: We did not take any specific actions to build our specific profiles. We have been very proactive in publishing content and sharing our opinions about privacy, open-source, and Google’s surveillance capitalism. By posting that content, the word spread. A few blogs got popular on Hackernews, Reddit, and Twitter. Because we have links on our homepage, our communities on Twitter and Github started growing. As a result of this, our product and brand got to be more well-known.
So you can say that Twitter and Github indirectly grew through the growth that we experienced in general.
Jonathan: So your growth was primarily led by content?
Marko: When I joined Plausible Analytics, the first thing we did was publish content pages on open source, privacy-first, cookieless, or how to use web analytics. I published one specific blog post for each of these topics, which took me a few weeks.
After this, I wanted to write the first blog post about something more general rather than about Plausible's features. So I wrote a post about "Why you should stop using Google Analytics on your website". It lists facts and opinions about what's not so good about Google Analytics and why you should consider removing it from the website.
Within two hours of publishing, it was on the top of Hackernews. It worked so well that we decided to continue this way of doing things. So we've been on Hackernews maybe six, seven times since then in the last year.
I've published, on average, probably one blog post per week in the last year and a half. So there's a lot of content about many different topics.
That has been the way we started the growth. Then obviously, as people find us through the content, they explore the product. They may like the product, like the post, and then share it. They share it with the communities, their network, their friends, and basically, word of mouth drives us forward today.
So we have not spent any money on advertising on paid ads, and the whole growth. So everything we do is thanks to people who share the word, and thanks to people who find us through the blog, content, etc.
Jonathan: What are your thoughts on “ethical marketing”?
Marko: I've been working in digital marketing for about 15 years. Pretty much the default way to do marketing is: "Let's spend money with Facebook. Let's spend money with Google. Let's throw all the money we have at them, run as many ads as we can, analyze things, and see what sticks."
Because you're spending several dollars per click every time, you need to maximize what happens on your site. So that leads to pop-ups, live chats, and whatever trick you can use to make the visitor stay. Visitors bouncing back immediately will be such a big waste of money.
We said we would not use any of these tricks. We don’t spend money on advertising. We don't want to create a messy and user-hostile experience on our website. We want to have it clean and nice looking. So we don't do any ads. We don't do any growth hacks or tricks. We don't pay anyone to recommend us.
Jonathan: Going to your community on Github: Did you do any particular actions to get developers to contribute to your project?
Marko: One thing we've done is release an easy and self-hosted version of Plausible. You can be open source but still don't necessarily need to have a self-hostable version. What we did was spend some time creating this tiny docker file, which is simple to install. Now you can download it, put it on your server, and run it for free without having any attachment to us.
Basically, by releasing the self-hosted version, we were able to get a lot of buzz in the developer world. When we released that post, it went on top of Hackernews again. We had thousands of people looking at our GitHub. That was a natural way to get more eyeballs to that, and a few people reached out to give us ideas.
Again, it's more indirect. You do something worth talking about. You don't necessarily go and say: “Come and contribute to us”, but you present something that people find interesting. Then naturally, 1-2% will be like: "I want to go deeper into this and contribute or help them fix something".
Jonathan: What was the biggest challenge while building such a community-driven company, compared to the companies you have been working with before?
Marko: I mean, the open-source part is huge and amazing for us. There was also this license thing that was probably one of the biggest challenges we had last year. So we're brand new to start-ups, but we're also brand new to the open-source side of things.
So my Co-founder chose the most popular license, MIT. We did not have any big plans. He just picked it because it's the default or the first on the list. It turns out when we started becoming popular, some bigger companies were like: "Oh, can you fix this or that so I can take Plausible and resell it to my tens of thousands of customers? By the way, we cannot contribute anything back. We don't care about your community or you being sustainable. We want to take this, if you can help us, to take it and resell it? "
We were like, what? This will kill Plausible immediately. So the challenge was to figure out how we prevent that kind of threat against us. We did a few weeks of research and ended up finding a new license. When we changed it, it was again something we announced and again went to the top of Hackernews.
Jonathan: You donate 5% of your revenue to open source projects and projects that do something against climate change. Can you tell me about it?
Marko: Becoming sustainable with an open-source project is a huge milestone. We've reached that in late 2020. Then we decided, okay, we've come sustainable now, so let's try and take a little bit of our gross revenue and see if we can contribute it back to some other projects. Try to help them become sustainable, too, which includes the sustainability of the whole earth with climate change.
We're going to split the donation half/half. So half is going to be on a kind of climate change initiative, and half will be basically on open source, especially support tools that we rely on. We will hopefully get to more than 15,000$ by the end of the year. The idea is to pick a handful of projects early next year and perhaps give them 1000$ each. It is a pure charity donation. There are no strings attached or anything.
I have realized how becoming sustainable as an open source is such a rare achievement. It's crazy that it is, but it is what it is. We're lucky to be part of those very few projects. We are trying in our little way to donate this little bit of money to this project and to spread the word that open source projects need to find better business models.
It's a weird world where projects used by millions, including some of the largest companies in the world, are run by a handful of part-time people. They do this at night or on the weekends because they have to do other jobs to pay their bills.
Jonathan: If you look into the future, what do you think will be the role of community and community-driven companies?
Marko: Most companies don't have these communities. Many thrive without it, so I think what you can do as a founder is to be transparent and contribute something to divide their ecosystem. You need to take those steps and work within the community first.
I hope we're very transparent, so we share everything on our Twitter and our blog with the hackers. We share the numbers, the growth, and the MRR. We hope that by being one of these examples, (privacy-first, ethical, open-source, community-driven), that may not be the default version of running a start-up, people see that you still can be successful. You can still have thousands of customers, get tons of traffic, and still get incredible MRR growth.
I hope more purchasers will be doing something similar in the future. All the billions of people use Google and Facebook products. There's a need for better, more ethical, more open, and more human-first tools.
Jonathan: And it can still be super profitable. How much monthly recurring revenue (MRR) do you have at the moment?
Marko: We just announced 40,000k$ MRR. So we can cover our bills, taxes and the donations. Furthermore, we now have our first part-time employee as well.
So we're now in a state where it's getting good, and we're fully sustainable. We can afford to give 5% back, and we can afford to start thinking about hiring the first employee and so on. It's been a great journey, and hopefully, it continues.
Jonathan: I hope so as well. Thank you very much!
About "The Rise of Community"
Community is moving more and more into the focus of the software industry and beyond. Traditional marketing approaches are coming to an end with more of our (professional) lives taking place online. Therefore, companies are relying on building communities now more than ever. This is especially reasonable for products that rely on a bottom-up approach such as open-source or API. But how do these new, community-driven organizations work? What are their tips and tricks? And how will the future of communities look like? In the interview series “The Rise of Community”, you will read about the world's best community builders, including founders, DevRels, developer marketers, and community managers.
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