1. Hello! Who are you and what is your business?
I’m Jason, from Singapore. My professional background lies at the intersection of UX design and social impact, where I run Outsprint, a one-person consultancy providing design sprints as a productized service for government agencies and not-for-profit organizations, helping them create products and services that deliver public good and social impact. That’s a productized startup story for another post perhaps! 😉 I’m mostly self-taught when it comes to development and indie making, and I tried the 12 startups in 12 months challenge last year as part of a self-enforced learning. I didn’t start out interested in coding, but fell into it because I enjoyed making things. I really fell in love with JAMstack recently, and that’s why I started Sweet Jam Sites, a productized service to help create JAMstack websites for other productized services and freelancers.
Discovering JAMstack made me want to create a productized service around JAMstack and nocode. It’s basically a productized service for building websites for businesses, but specifically, JAMstack websites with free hosting for productized service businesses. So it’s for productized services, by a productized service. The value proposition (so far) is the free hosting component and the fact that it’s a done-for-you service instead of DIY web builder. This saves them not just annual hosting fees but also time and effort. I built the JAMstack site basically without code (ok with some HTML and CSS, but 95% nocode), and I’m in the process of hooking up the onboarding and payment workflows using Google Forms and Stripe-based payment app Wirize. This is mostly a solo setup as I’m still in the initial startup stage.
The first thing I did was to offer to build a friend’s service business website for free, to see if providing a service like that was possible. And it was! Throughout the process, I was jotting down process steps and the information I needed, which fed into my customer onboarding form later.
2. How do you attract and retain your customers?
I first scoured various platforms for prospects who are in the service business — Indie Hackers, Starter Story, Fiverr, 99Designs, Upwork, Carousell, Makerlog, Craigslist, Productized Startups Facebook group. Give value back to the communities, shared backlinks. Collected over 20 possible prospects from these communities.
I also created profiles on freelancer sites (Upwork, 99Designs, Fiverr) and ad platforms (like Makerads.xyz) not so much to get gigs but to backlink to Sweet Jam Sites. Not sure about the efficacy of this hack so far, as some sites like Upwork switch your profile to private and hidden if you don’t buy credits to bid for work. Interested to try listing on Craigslist but it feels intimidating!
How I found eventually found my first customer
This was the result of my cold email marketing experiments, from doing things that don’t scale. I scoured for leads on websites and places that my potential customers—service businesses and freelance professionals providing services—might be. Indie Hackers, Makerlog, Reddit, Starter Story, Carousell, Upwork, Fiverr, 99Designs, Telegram groups, Facebook groups. I went to places where they might be posting gigs (e.g. Upwork), but also where they were talking (e.g. Facebook, Telegram). What was surprising and new was how much easier it was to find them in places where they were promoting themselves! Starter Story was one such site. When I saw Lenny’s story and website on Starter Story, I knew I could provide value. Thankfully he saw the same too!
Cold site as a proposal
I did up a demo website using Stackbit, Netlify, and Github, using the content on his existing website. In a way, I did work even before he paid me. I called it a “cold site”, and used the demo as a proposal instead of persuasive words. Visuals and tangible prototypes speak a thousand words. I sent the link to him, all the while stating upfront that “this is a cold sales email”. He replied that cold emails were something he tried before, and he respected that transparency and honesty. Most important of all, he liked what he saw on the demo site, and it so happened he had been thinking about revamping the site. Opportunity meets need. I knew I needed to do whatever it takes to serve this first customer well. The monetary payoffs weren’t life-changing for sure, but it was the spirit that mattered. I wanted to start right and do it well. Even if it meant doing more than what the service was supposed to deliver.
Whatever it takes.
And I did! I’m glad it went well, for both sides. He enjoyed the process and gave a glowing testimonial in return. I got paid, and also learned about some new kinks in the process that I need to look out for in the future.
Here’s his review at the end:
“Sweet Jam Sites is a pleasure to work with! Jason was incredibly helpful and knowledgeable. He held my hand through the entire process and thoroughly answered every single question I had. If you don’t know the difference between a URL and a nameserver, and even if you do, I highly recommend working with Sweet Jam Sites to help you get your website up and running! In fact, he even saved me money because I previously paid for hosting, where now the hosting is free. You can’t beat that.”– Lenny Bron (TheBlogProofreader.com)
Cold sales, or warm help?
To be honest, I never quite took to cold sales techniques. I personally don’t enjoy it when it happens to me, and (still) see it as a major source of annoyance and noise. So suspending my own principles to try cold sales had been difficult. What I enjoy doing instead is helping someone with warmth – the opposite of what cold sales literally means. I’m still trying to come up with less annoying ways to help people, provide value, without coming across in a cold sales-y manner. Dropping email bombs on someone, even in the spirit of helping with warmth, still sounds cold and sales-y.
Moreover, there isn’t any existing interaction or relationship to start with when it comes to cold emails. Why should anyone listen? I wouldn’t. In fact, I was lucky this time round. One answered the call, while the many dozens I sent out didn’t. While this was encouraging, I’m not sure cold-sites-as-proposals will have the scalable payoffs I’m seeking. I need a warmer, more relational lead-in to a sale. That’s more my style. A little conversation starter perhaps, or a discussion back and forth on a forum. Before offering something in suggestion. I can accept that, if I’m on the receiving end.
Warm help, not cold sales.
Provide value even for non-users
Conventional content marketing wisdom is to write many blog posts offering your unique point of view, and share it in different communities/platforms. I had planned some topics to write for Sweet Jam Sites, as it makes sense for that product to talk about what JAMstack means for business owners, and for example, how to set up one themselves if they prefer to DIY. Yes, providing value for non-users can also be a tactic for getting more actual users.
Find where your customers are by where they are selling their stuff
For Sweet Jam Sites, my initial problem was that I was targeting business owners of productized services. But the reception seems lukewarm at best. If not them, then who? I’m sure there’s more non-technical founders, owners of service businesses and freelancers who would find my solution compelling. Where else could they be hanging out? I went online to hunt them down. I looked in Indie Hackers (not much), Makerlog (even less), Starter Story (promising leads). But a conversation with a friend got me thinking about where freelancers would list their services. So I went looking into a local bulletin platform called Carousell . It’s like a local but better version of Craigslist, and indeed, there’s many freelancers there listing their services, in marketing, accounting, admin. I manually scraped their websites and emails manually, compiled them all into a crude CRM spreadsheet. Next week, I’ll cold email them. I always hated cold calls and emails, so it’s going to be another interesting learning experiment on how to not come across as annoying and sales-y.
Give first, and hopefully they reciprocate
The key to using the Principle of Reciprocity is to be the first to give and to ensure that what you give is personalized and unexpected. For some of these leads with more potential, I even made a new JAMstack website based off their existing website, copy-and-pasting the content over. A bit more time-consuming, but I wanted to try this gifting approach to first demo what their new site can look like, and hopefully, to elicit some reciprocity. Even if the lead goes cold, at least I would have built up a series of different demo sites to show others. The next tactic is to create some sites for specific vocations, like accountants, marketing, etc.
Following the same reciprocity principle, I also offered free websites to 3 users on the Beta Testing topic group in Indie Hackers platform, but no takers so far. Perhaps that’s not the ideal platform, since most there would know how to create their own website. Will try it elsewhere.
3. What were your challenges and obstacles of growing your business?
I’ve always had a subconscious aversion to selling, therefore suck at monetization and marketing. I wish to get better at it, and I want to see if I can get out of my comfort zone and learn this vital entrepreneurial skill of selling. So since January, I had been diving deeper into everything marketing and monetization:
- growth hacking, and how to set up acquisition channels
- content marketing, to provide value and get the product in front of potential customers
- conversion funnels, to convert interested shoppers into paying customers
- monetization strategies, or how to get people to open up their wallets
@GoodMarketingHQ has a whole bunch of awesome, no-BS sort of marketing examples that works. I’d been referring to that playbook, to try out some of the marketing experiments listed.
You can’t monetize an audience you don’t have.
The funnel matters. Awareness > Consideration > Decision > Retention. I can’t monetize (Decision, Retention) when I got no traffic (Awareness). “Duh!”, but trust a marketing noob to make this stupid mistake. Lesson well learned, for sure. I got to start from the beginning all over again, and get more content out, optimize my site’s SEO, and experiment in Google and Facebook ads. Marketing is a long game, and I need more patience than I initially expected.
Marketing alone cannot cover up a poor product
I wanted to do more marketing and monetization, less development. More selling, less making. But after trying so hard to sell my products, I realised that perhaps the value propositions on my products actually aren’t all that strong. Of course, I need to continue iterating on making the value propositions stronger. But I shouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket too—perhaps I need to continue making new products until something with a really strong value proposition really sticks. I also always went for the under-served, ultra-niche approach when it comes to making products. But I’m ready to try a different tack now—selling to a over-crowded mainstream market. Above all, make products that are painkillers, not just vitamins.
Making vs selling: 2 distinct skillsets
I realised I enjoy the act of creating more than the act of storytelling. Some people are born marketers, great at selling a story about their product. I’m not. Again, this is an inner narrative that’s blocking my progress, and something that I have to continue to work on. I remembered how irksome I felt sending out that very first cold email on 1 Jan. After sending out many and getting the cold shoulder, I feel much more thick-skinned now lol.
4. What has been helpful to help you to grow your business?
- Free tools like Stackbit, Netlify, Github, unDraw.
- Supportive communities like Indie Hackers, Productized Startups, Makerlog
- Marketing resources like https://marketingexamples.com/
- Atomic Habits book by James Clear had been instrumental in helping me build my entrepreneurial habits, like marketing, selling, monetization. Learning how to break new habits down into tiny steps makes it easy to develop them.
5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?
Behind every story of overnight success is a slow grind you never heard.
It’s a slow grind, not the usual overnight success stories we’re used to reading about in the news. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing something wrong, but reading stories of other startups here, on Starter Story and Indie Hackers made me realise that most of us are grinding it out on our own time, at our own pace.
Make something that you yourself would want to pay for.
I don’t know why it took me this long to realise, and in hindsight, it sounds so plainly obvious and silly that you might be wondering why it’s even an epiphany. For what felt like the longest time, I always followed that golden rule. Be your own user. Dogfood your product. Make something you’re also personally invested in. I kept to that, and always made something I would want to use myself. Actually useful stuff. As a designer involved in UX consulting and understanding user needs when designing products, I like to think of myself as someone who knows how to design something that users want. But since starting on my indie maker journey, I’d been okay in getting users for my products, but not so successful in getting paying customers. I could never understand what’s missing. If it addresses a need and they’re using it, why aren’t they paying? Or so I assumed.
There’s definitely a higher threshold to cross when it comes to getting someone to pay for your product, not just use it. Especially digital stuff on the internet, where the common expectation is to get for free. I was also probably designing stuff that’s more vitamins, not painkillers. Useful, good-to-have, but ultimately, not that critical. Designing for user needs is one thing, but having that business acumen to see whether what you’re designing translates to something a user would want to pay for, feels like another skill altogether. That’s one muscle that, regrettably, I probably didn’t train that much in my work with governments and non-profits!
So, don’t just make something that you yourself would want to use, especially if you’re serious about making a living off your product. Make something that you yourself will willingly pay for. Ask yourself: “Would I pay for this? Right now?” Be brutally honest with yourself, and if it’s no, then tweak it, iterate it to something fulfills that benchmark.
6. What are your plans for the future?
- Start from the top of marketing funnel again – blog posts, more content, more community sharing.
- Try Facebook/Google ads
- Create SEO-optimized landing pages for different target customers – agencies, freelancers, JAMstack folks, productized services
- Expand template options to cover more use cases and industries
- Next milestone goal is to bring Sweet Jam Sites to at least $1000/m revenue.
7. Where can we learn more about you?