I shared a huge update on the last 3 years of Leave Me Alone with Starter Story. Read about how we went from an indie side-project to a profitable bootstrapped business, and our plans to keep growing whilst sailing around the world on a boat we bought with our profits!
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Hi there! I’m Danielle, an indie developer and full-time digital nomad. I’m from the UK but for the past 6 years I’ve been traveling full-time with my partner and best friend James. We own a web development agency Squarecat together and we started making money on the internet with client work, but in January 2021 we quit freelancing and went full-time on our startup Leave Me Alone - a service to easily unsubscribe from unwanted emails.
It’s been 3 years since I shared my background and the journey of building Leave Me Alone with Starter Story. A lot has happened since then so it’s time for a much needed update! If you’re interested in the story of starting Leave Me Alone you can check it out here.
Leave Me Alone is super easy to use. Simply connect your email addresses, we’ll show you all the mailing lists you’re on, and you can unsubscribe from the ones you don’t want with a single click! When you’re done unsubscribing you can add the newsletters you love to a daily (or weekly) digest email using Rollups. To keep your inbox clean you can control who is allowed to email you or block everything else with Inbox Shield.
Leave Me Alone works wonders for anyone who wants to get their emails under control. There’s no easy way to see all of your subscriptions or unsubscribe from them in your inbox. When you use Leave Me Alone you’ll be surprised at how many mailing lists you’re actually subscribed to and see how we make unsubscribing a breeze!
We have been an Open Startup from the very beginning and you can see all of our metrics, including revenue and profit, since we started building Leave Me Alone in 2018.
When I last shared my journey with Starter Story we were making just $500 a month and now Leave Me Alone makes around $10,000 a month! We have smashed our goal of becoming ramen profitable and we are super happy to share that Leave Me Alone is at $5k MRR (monthly recurring revenue) and it’s growing each month!
We also completed our goal of earning enough money from Leave Me Alone to buy the sailboat of our dreams and sail around the world! We’ve been living aboard our 36ft boat Nayru since May 2022 and we’re still working on Leave Me Alone - I guess you could say that we’ve transitioned from nomads to sailmads!
Tell us about what you’ve been up to. Has the business been growing?
Since my last update in October 2019 Leave Me Alone has grown significantly in terms of customers, revenue, and features - you can now do so much more to manage and organize your emails!
In 2019 Leave Me Alone was doing ok, we were making a bit of money each month, and we were enjoying ourselves. However, we were struggling to grow our revenue since our pricing was one-time payments between $3-10.
We knew it wasn’t sustainable and we wanted to improve customer retention since most customers were unsubscribing from everything and then not using the service again. We had a roadmap full of ideas and started working hard on some major updates to Leave Me Alone.
We spent most of 2020 doing a complete redesign of Leave Me Alone - there wasn’t much else to do during the COVID-19 lockdown! It was time for the product to feel more professional but we made sure to keep it fun and friendly with bright colors, playful fonts, and cute illustrations. One of the biggest changes was to give Leave Me Alone proper branding for the first time which meant finally ditching our emoji logo!
Simplified UX flows:
We also set out to simplify some of our UX flows such as logging in, onboarding, the subscriptions list, and connecting accounts. The goal of this update was to complete a lot of feature requests and make improvements to the unsubscribing process before we moved on to our next big feature.
In March 2021 we launched Rollups! Rollups allows you to add the newsletters and emails you love into daily or weekly digests. You can create multiple Rollups for different topics, such as News, Travel, Finance etc, and decide exactly when you want to receive them.
Leave Me Alone will watch your inbox for mail arriving from those senders and add them to your Rollup. You can read your Rollup in our calm and distraction-free reader with any tracking links removed so it’s privacy-friendly!
With the launch of Rollups we also launched monthly payment plans for the first time. We finally had something worth paying monthly for and we hoped this would kick off our MRR growth (spoiler alert, it did!).
However, our pricing was now quite confusing since we were still selling packages of unsubscribes alongside our new monthly plans. This resulted in customers buying a subscription just for the unlimited unsubscribes and then canceling immediately - as you can imagine this was horrible for our churn rate and was not the intended strategy.
We decided to make a huge change to our pricing model that had been focused on selling unsubscribes since day one. We ditched selling unsubscribes and gave all plans unlimited unsubscribes!
Since we still wanted to cater to customers who only needed to unsubscribe and didn’t want to use Rollups or Shield, we introduced a “seven day pass” to Leave Me Alone for $7. With this customers would get unlimited unsubscribes (same as the other plans) and access to all of the premium features for just one week with no monthly commitment.
This change was inspired by Ahrefs who also sell short-term access passes and it fit our needs perfectly. The other goal of the seven day pass was for customers to try out Rollups and Shield for a week and see how it helped them manage their inbox - and hopefully would result in them upgrading to a monthly plan!
To ensure our customers were getting the most out of their seven day pass we started our first ever onboarding email campaign. We are very careful about the emails we send out but lots of customers were buying the pass, unsubscribing on the first day, and not making the most of the features they’d paid for.
We send 4 emails over the 7 days that include a welcome email, information about Rollups and Shield, and a pass ending reminder. Just one month after sending these emails our conversion rate for 7 day pass purchase to paid plan increased from 1% to 3% and has stayed that way - definitely a success!
Now we had a way to keep the emails you love in your inbox, but what about the emails you don’t want? Well we had a solution for that too…
A year later, in March 2022 we launched Inbox Shield! With Inbox Shield you can control who you want to let into your inbox. You can either block everything and you can decide which emails to allow through. Or, you can allow everything and add specific senders or domains to be blocked.
With Shield launched the majority of our roadmap plan was finally coming together and we were close to completing our mission of helping people keep control of their inbox.
Since we now had three actions customers could do for each email we did another update to the design to reduce the noise and make it super clear. We switched the unsubscribe toggle out and added buttons with simple text for each action.
This is how Leave Me Alone looks today and I think it’s clean, intuitive, and easy to use - especially considering how much you can do with our service now compared to day one!
We had run out of features to build for the time being, so it was finally time to do something about marketing. Indie makers are notoriously bad at marketing and it’s a bit of a running joke in the community. Neither James or I particularly enjoy writing blog posts or doing SEO so we decided to make our first hire a marketing manager!
Over the last year we’ve seen a 12% increase in visits, 15% increase in page views, and 3% increase in time on page
In April 2022 Aleksandra started working with us to improve SEO, write blog posts and content briefs, suggest new long-tail pages, and help us figure out where we should be focusing our efforts. We still don’t have a huge budget for this so the growth has been slow, but we have seen an improvement in organic search traffic.
Aleksandra posted a few articles on our blog that targeted keywords such as “how to unsubscribe” or “how to block emails”. These have done well and we think it’s because they are long-form content that provide step-by-step instructions for unsubscribing that are actionable and useful to the reader. E.g. these 3 have performed well;
- How to unsubscribe from marketing emails on Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo & more
- Step-by-step guide on how to block emails on Gmail
- How to block emails in Outlook: Full guide
The other big improvement we did for our SEO efforts was identifying our best-performing long-tail pages and making them more helpful for readers. We have pages for “how to unsubscribe from X emails” (see them all listed here) where X is a common mailing list such as Quora, eBay, Amazon etc. We updated and improved several of these pages to include step-by-step instructions and videos on how to unsubscribe from the emails on several different platforms like this one for Pinterest.
Our goal with this was to provide useful information to the reader which would hopefully result in a longer “time on page”, and eventually better SEO ranking. Over the last year we’ve seen a 12% increase in visits, 15% increase in page views, and 3% increase in time on page - another success!
Last year another marketing channel opened up for us that was completely unexpected. In May 2022 we saw a huge spike in traffic and discovered that someone made this TikTok video mentioning Leave Me Alone. We got 3,000+ new sign ups, made $2,600 from 7 day pass payments and added about $400 MRR in just 2 days!
Since TikTok videos can’t include links, everyone was landing on our website from Google and it was hard to figure out where the traffic was coming from. I quickly added a dropdown to ask customers where they heard about us in our onboarding flow so that if there was a next time we’d know!
Luckily there was a next time. Actually, there were several more like this one in November and this one in December that resulted in lots of traffic throughout both months, and they were all completely organic (not paid or partnered).
TikTok seems to be a good channel for Leave Me Alone so we have recently started looking for TikTok influencers to partner with in 2023 and we’re excited to see how that affects our growth!
The last big thing we did in 2022 was to hire someone to do customer support. We’ve been putting this off for a long time and definitely I wish we’d done it sooner! James (yep, another James but you may see him replying to you with his nickname Otter) picked up how Leave Me Alone works very quickly and he’s excellent at replying to customers with genuine interest and enthusiasm.
We were hesitant to let someone take over since lots of customers enjoyed receiving replies directly from the founders, but we can’t do everything and we also needed someone for the times we might be away from land for several days at a time (sailing)!
It’s now January 2023 and we are over the moon with how things are going! We have just shipped something very exciting that we have been working on for a long time - our domain change from .app to leavemealone.com!
We purchased the .com nearly 6 months ago and decided to upgrade our infrastructure and services as part of the migration. This ended up being hard work that required a LOT of testing, but Leave Me Alone is now much faster, more robust, and ready for the next step in our grand plan!
What have been your biggest challenges in the last year?
By far the biggest challenge has been balancing working on Leave Me Alone and living on a sailboat! We’ve been nomads and working remotely for 6 years, including 4 months living in a van, but boat life is hard work! It’s difficult to plan work days when we have to contend with sudden weather changes, spotty internet, and boat maintenance, but we managed to achieve a lot last year despite all this.
Our goal with Leave Me Alone was to build a business that would make enough money so that we could pursue our travel dreams without having to work every day, and aside from releasing new features Leave Me Alone now requires very little input from us!
Something else I’ve been struggling with is zooming out and looking at the bigger picture. Even though I know we have come a very long way in the last 3 years, I still panic when we have a spike in churn or it looks like we won’t have positive month-on-month growth. So, I have decided it’s finally time to stop receiving push-notifications for payments failures and cancellations. I’ve kept the new customer and payment ones since the endorphin rush is hard to give up! But real-time notifications of cancellations are not useful to see since there’s nothing I can do.
I’ve also struggled with the expectation to reply to support at all hours of the day, and although they’re rare, negative customer interactions can affect my mood for the whole day. It’s completely ridiculous, but I’m pretty sure almost every founder can relate! Since we have someone doing support for us it’s been nice to take a step back and let someone else handle it.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
Overnight success does not exist, and although you may not see the years of hard work that went into a product, just know that it’s there.
We waited too long to hire people to help us grow Leave Me Alone. We thought it would take too much time and effort to find the right people to join our team, and it’s been just the two of us for so long we were hesitant to change things. We were also a bit concerned that managing new team members would take us away from doing what we love - coding!
We didn’t jump straight into hiring full-time employees, but started slow by hiring part-time and seeing how it goes. The result has already been incredible and we realized that we had been missing out on outsourcing our least-favorite tasks to people with more knowledge and expertise than us!
In December last year we actually built and launched a new product, Ellie - an AI email assistant! James was experimenting with OpenAI and GPT-3 when he came up with the idea to build a tool that would write replies to your emails.
We built and launched Ellie in a little under a month, and what started as a fun side project quickly took off and has been growing ever since. This also means we now have two support inboxes instead of one, but with Ellie to help us write replies and our new Leave Me Alone team members we don’t feel too overwhelmed.
We didn’t intend to build another startup, at least not for a while, but having two revenue streams has actually made us feel more relaxed about growth. If we’re having a low sales week with Leave Me Alone then we know we’re still making money from Ellie.
This means we know we can continue building and improving both products and don’t need to panic! Relying solely on Leave Me Alone was slightly risky, and although we don’t expect it to come crashing down, it’s good to have a backup plan.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
The next part of our grand plan for Leave Me Alone is to start using the Gmail API for connecting to, scanning, and watching Gmail accounts. At the moment we connect to Gmail accounts using IMAP, but since Google wants developers to use their API they have made this a difficult and time-consuming process for our customers.
Lots of customers struggle with the connection instructions because they are required to change settings in three different Google Account screens and generate a new password just for Leave Me Alone. Many of them get frustrated and quit the process, or don’t have time to go through the process, resulting in lost customers and potential revenue for us.
To use the Gmail API we have to complete a Google Security Audit, which is going to be expensive and time-consuming. We have been preparing for the audit over the past year by upgrading our systems to make everything faster and more robust, so we can submit Leave Me Alone for review soon!
When the audit is complete we will hopefully see an increase in our conversion rate for paid customers, since it’ll be much easier to connect a Gmail account. There’s also a chance we’ll get lower quality leads and more support but I’m sure it’ll be worth the trade-off. Hopefully this will help us on our journey to our next big milestone of $10k MRR!
What’s the best thing you read in the last year?
I’ve never been very good at reading startup books but the most popular ones are widely recommended by other entrepreneurs anyway! When I’m away from my laptop I want to relax and escape into a different world, which I find crucial if I want to avoid burnout and keep enjoying my work.
Since buying a boat I have been devouring sailing books, and they offer a wealth of life lessons. When I’m on the ocean it’s just me and my boat. If there are any problems or I experience bad weather then I can’t ask for help and I can’t give up and quit, I have to push through and find solutions. If you’d like to join me in escaping then I recommend starting with A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols and Adrift: Seventy-six days lost at sea.
I’ve also been listening to sailing podcasts (my life is very boat oriented now), but next on my list of tech podcasts to listen to are The Weekly Build and The a16z Podcast. Both are hosted by awesome women that have inspired me in the indie maker community so I can’t wait to give them a try!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
Stop comparing yourself and your product to other people. Every business is different, every founder is different, and every solution is different. Just because something worked for someone else, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you.
As soon as you get caught up with copying someone else’s strategy you’re going to lose sight of your own goals. The most important part of building and growing your business is staying focused on the problem you were trying to solve and doing everything you can to help your customers solve it too.
This also means knowing when to give up when something isn’t working and trying again. Every single successful founder I know has tried and failed many, many times before getting traction. Overnight success does not exist, and although you may not see the years of hard work that went into a product, just know that it’s there. It’s easy for people to look at Leave Me Alone now and want to know our secret, but the reality is that we’ve been working our butts off for four years and there was a lot of luck thrown in the mix too!
Growing Leave Me Alone has been a wild ride and it’s been incredibly fun to look back on how much has changed in the last three years! I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you’ll continue to follow along with our journey.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions, comments, feedback, or just want to say hi, then Twitter is usually the best place!
Originally published at Starter Story on 19 Feb 2023