Indie Hackers podcast

20 Jul 2017 · by David DeSandro

Courtland Allen at Indie Hackers invited me on his podcast to discuss Metafizzy. I got to share Metafizzy's story, turning a side-project into a full-time job, how much money Metafizzy actually makes, and some of the marketing moves I've been making.

Indie Hackers is a tremendous resource for independent business owners like myself. Seeing actually dollar values makes it clear just what's at stake.

It was a great pleasure talking with Courtland! I very much appreciate that our whole conversation has been transcribed. Look at all this wonderful content.

Courtland Allen: Hello everybody, this is Courtland Allen from where I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and side projects. I try to get a sense of how they got to where they are now.

Today I'm talking to Dave DeSandro of Metafizzy. Metafizzy is a one man operation that Dave started really as a side project. But eventually grew into substantial enough business that he was able to quit his full time job at Twitter. What's interesting about Dave's story is its simplicity. He didn't set out to change the world as we know it with a revolutionary new product, but instead used his skills as a developer and a designer to sell basically widgets to other developers to use on their websites. Metafizzy has been incredibly successful in the past seven years and today Dave comes on the show to talk about what that journey has been like. And also, later on in the episode, how his life has changed as a result of being able to work for himself full time on his side project. If you are yourself a developer or designer an artist or really any other type of creative. Who's interested in making living by doing what you love and taking advantage of the scale provided by the internet. I think Dave's story is a great example. So without further adieu, let's jump right in.

I'm here with Dave DeSandro. Dave, thanks for coming on the podcast.

Dave DeSandro: Yeah, thanks for having me!

CA: I'm excited to have you on it. You're a little different than some of the people that I've had on recently who are more traditional business founders. They're building this huge companies. They're hiring and managing people. They're building out sales teams and you on the other hand are a lot closer to the side project end of the spectrum. Both an incredibly successful and popular and long-lasting side project. Where you've really just started using the skills you developed as a programmer and a designer to build things that you love, and to make money while doing it. I think it's really great to get chance to talk to you and to bring someone onto the podcast who's coming at things from sort of a different angle. Before we jump in, let me ask. How would you describe what you do?

DD: Yeah sure, my basic pitch for people that don't even work in tech is that I make widgets on websites. I don't even make the entire website. I make something that another developer would put on their website and I take care of all that. They don't have to reinvent the wheel. They can use one of my products, so I make things like carousels. One of the products is Flickity. I have another product called Isotope which does sorting and filtering of lists. So kind of basic functionality that you see all across the web. That's the core business model of what I do. Those are the products.

CA: So you're like the developer's developer really.

DD: I'm the man behind the man.

CA: You're also this rare unicorn where not only are you a developer who's capable of building tools that other developers hold in high esteem and widely make use of, but you're also a damn good designer. And I think by combining those two skills, you're really getting much more than sum of each part. So you could build products that literally nobody else can build without having to have a two person team. But you can build them entirely on your own without any sort of overhead or communication or things that might get lost in translation. Let's go back to the point where you develop both these skills. How did you do that?

DD: I guess it's just like a shared interest in making stuff. When I was first looking at... It all just started out as a hobby. I was working on a blog and I just had a photo blog and I enjoyed working on the web design of it and I didn't really think that I could even make a profession out of it at the time. But I developed the interest and at the time, this is 2006/2007 or so. There was just one title, and that was "web designer," and that was a wide funnel that brought in people with lots of different kind of talents.

So I would say like John Hicks was somebody who's a web designer but he also did icon design and then you'd have other kind of people are just back end. So maybe it comes from that history of these catch-all web masters that have different kind of things. And so I never thought going into it that… again, I just kind of pursued my interest and so I was interested in some design stuff and some programming things. And I would say that if anything I'm a jack of two trades. Master of very few. I've also have concerns about am I spreading myself too thin. Not spreading myself too thin, but could I advance myself on a certain niche further than other people. Since I am working alone. I'm concerned about how to best use my time. Does it really make sense for me to try to be a designer because I feel like there's way better designers out there. However maybe I could be a better front-end developer than other people in my group.

CA: Yeah designer can be intimidating and I think it's because at least one of the reasons because it's like any other skills. It's something that you have to learn but for some reason with design it just seem like people are just born with it You see a really good designer and you're like there's just no way I could have come up with that. And yet, I look at what you've done and it's awesome. How did you go from being someone who was maybe on the outside looking in? Thinking, okay I want to become a designer but I'm nowhere as good as all these other people to being someone who's actually good.

DD: Yeah, that's a great question. I'll go back to my origin story is that in college I didn't get a degree in design or programming. I kind of got a general bachelor of arts degree and I didn't really know what I wanted to do with that. Then out of college, I got a office cubicle monkey job where I was dealing with spreadsheets and I hated it. But at the time I had this hobby where I had this photo blog and I loved working on the photo blog and working on the CMS and with the design. And just kind of pinging around that.

There was this tight knit community of web designers and it just seems very exciting and very appealing. They seem like they all knew one another and they would all be together at SXSW. So I definitely felt like I was outside looking in on this from my cubicle. And what I did was, I just kept on working on the photo blog to the point where I realized this is who I am. I'm not just somebody in a office job. I am a designer and once I made that decision for myself that changed everything.

After that then I was okay, I'm a designer. What do I need? I need to make a portfolio. I need to actually build these skills. I don't know Photoshop or Illustrator. I don't know what designer does in a actual company. I was able to find a certificate program that taught me the Adobe Suite and also did web design stuff and got me in touch with a lot of people in the area, who are actually working as designers, and some of those people are still my friends. And this was back in 2010 or so and those those relationships have still helped me throughout my path.

CA: Yeah, that's a great answer. A lot of people ask each other and have asked me also about web design. And I think a while back, 5, 10 years ago. If you were a great designer that was something that really made you stand out compared to other apps. Whereas today, it's almost like table stakes. It's so common for people to launch with just these amazing design and it's easy to feel inadequate, especially as a developer if you don't have any designs skills. People are really search for a way to develop those skills from scratch. At least till a passable level. I think your example and how you went about it kind of just diving in should serve as a good example for people who are looking to do the same thing.

DD: Yeah, I would say the hardest part to know is when to stop. You can endlessly keep tweaking and I think. Maybe it's a good thing or bad but for me, I lose steam eventually working on a design. I'm like this is good enough. Because I'm concerned with other things. Once a thing, I feel meets a low threshold. I'm more concerned about the other thing and I look at what I've designed so far. I never feel like, wow, I really put out a lot of time and effort into the web design things. Because I see it as one of many things.

CA: Yeah it certainly is and even the other angle, coming out of from okay, what is enough time to put into it is pretty hard because I feel like a lot of people think that if you're a designer. You're designing something that you just get it right the first try and you just move on. I think the iteration, the iterative nature of it is completely invisible to people. You probably make something and it looks like crap at least to you when you first make it. And then you keep refining it, refining it until you hit certain point where you're like okay I'm done with this. But all of that work that you did is completely invisible and people only see the final product and think well you know I can't first try make something that looks that good. And so they get frustrated.

DD: Absolutely, I like to think of George R. R. Martin. He's probably the most popular writer right now. He knows the hottest writer that could possibly be, we're all waiting on pins and needles for the next book to drop. I was reading his, he has his anthology of pretty much his entire short story career. Even including the stuff where he's in high school and he's basically writing fan fiction. And there's two fascinating parts of it, one is just like you said.

He starts off awful and works his way better by better and by the time he's about 25. The stories aren't that interesting, but you can see there's a hint of the writer he's going to become or he's talking about the human condition in a very ridiculous horror/fantasy setting. And the other funny thing is that his ideas will propagate throughout his career. He mentions in high school, he has just like an action figure called Khal Drago and it's like he brought that name with him all the way until he was in his latter career. He's like let me use this idea that I always thought was good and he keeps recycling these ideas and that's why I like, so when you read the Game of Thrones books. You're not just reading a great writer. You're kind of seeing a writer who's built up all these things over decades. And it's impressive but it's also is humanizing and that this person doesn't just show up one day and knock it out.

CA: Yeah and I think what's interesting is it's analogous to kind of you and Metafizzy because you've been working on Metafizzy now for seven years, which is an eternity and the internet age. I mean, you've had a long time to build these libraries and to learn from what you've done in the past and improve. And even before you started Metafizzy, you released Masonry. It's really been longer than seven years, so maybe it makes sense to start at the beginning. What is Masonry and why did you build it?

DD: Yeah Masonry was kind of like my first claim to fame in internet terms. Masonry is a cascading grid layout library and you probably seen it all over. It's like Pinterest. I guess most popularized this kind of style and even before Pinterest, Masonry was around. There were other things things that did Masonry stuff at the time but they were kind of silent. So there was another product called Grid-A-Licious. And there was another thing that worked with WordPress. There's also Cargo Collective. Masonry was a jQuery plugin which meant that other developers could use it and it was easier to spread. It didn't have to fit in a certain CMS. I think a lot of my products (and) a lot of the things I make, it's not an original idea but it's maybe a little bit easier to use and it was the right tool at the right time. This was 2010 and that's right around when Pinterest kind of took off and. Having lots of images on a web page was a whole new way to experience the web and Masonry was big part of the trend of these image heavy sites at the time.

CA: Yeah, it's the perfect time to launch. Were you aware of that going into it? Or was it just a happy coincidence?

DD: The original reason why I made it is that I have my little photo blog and I had an idea for the way I wanted to lay out the comments because some comments are longer than others and they didn't really matter which order they were in. I personally just, like a lot of to make things. I needed it for my own reasons and it was just something I wanted to use on my site. And I saw it as a way to market myself because at the time I may have just landed my first job and I was trying to make a name for myself. That's all I thought it might be useful but it also shows my skills. I didn't anticipate that it would be such a huge phenomenon.

CA: Yeah and it's really huge. It's been used on 40,000 websites. Your Github repository has almost 12,000 stars, 11,991. I'm going to star it to if we can get you to 12,000. It's just incredibly successful. A year later, 2010 you start your actual company Metafizzy on the side. And at this point like you said, you just gotten a new job. You're working full time as a web designer at an agency but you wrote something really interesting in your blog post about launching this side project, this company, Metafizzy.

You wrote, "As Masonry's open source and free from commercial applications," "it has been leveraged in a number of premium templates. It is awesome as my work can lead to some sort of money and if developers of the premium templates are making money off of my resources. Why not me? Clearly there is a market for developers who can use my work to turn a profit." Were you kicking yourself at this point? Like a year after launching Masonry, this thing that turned into a huge phenomenon. Were you kicking yourself for not having decided to charge from the get go?

DD: Oh no because Masonry kind of did much better than I expected. My goal was for me to make a name for myself and it absolutely did that to the point where today, if I'm at a talk or introduce myself to other developers. I can say I'm the guy who made Masonry and I feel like some people would know what that is. That's why I started my business is that because there was a part of me, like "Man, I should be making money." When I saw all the people making this stuff. I was, "Well why not me?"

CA: I think it's so hard in general to build something that people like especially at that scale. And so I can totally identify with okay, if you're going to build something that that's successful. Why not also take advantage of that and also charge money. But your decision was to essentially to start building other tools. Why didn't you put a price tag on Masonry itself or add more to Masonry and start charging for a premium version?

DD: I guess 'cause I and I still feel this is that the general spirit of the web is that things are free and open. For the things that I work on which is Javascript, HTML, CSS that's largely, largely the case. And I didn't really want to buck that trend and I felt that Masonry was so popular that it wasn't exactly mine. It belonged to everybody and the other thing is the Masonry already existed. Whereas if I created a new project, I would be able to introduce it with a new set of rules and make money off of that. So it was kind of like trying to follow the spirit of front-end development and the community that I was already apart of.

CA: Yeah, it's very true and I think the way that your business models have worked. I really want to go into that in detail later on because it's such an interesting topic and for people listening who aren't developer. What Dave's talking about when he says front end development has this culture of being open and free. When you write JavaScript and people use it on their website. The code is visible to everyone. You don't really have any choice other than to make it basically open source which facilitates this culture that you alluded to of things being free and open. It's hard to make money off of something where all of the code and the functionality behind it is totally opened anyone could just take it and not pay you. But we'll get into that. Back to the beginning of Metafizzy back in 2010. You decided that you want to work on extra projects and products and try to solve them for profit but you don't want to charge for Masonry itself. What were your long term goals? Were you thinking that hey this is something that I'm going to do on the side or you're thinking that, hey this is something that I want to do full time eventually?

DD: At the time it's something I wanted to do at the side. I could never think it be a full time gig and I was happy with the work at the agency so I wasn't thinking about it over taking things. Before I even started I got the blessing of the two founders of the agency, Alex and Martin. Who are two awesome dudes and led me to this path because they had a great entrepreneurial spirit, and big advocates for being in the community. And sharing what you know and putting together events that brought people together. And so I asked them for their blessings on this and they were absolutely for it because the release that my success would lead to the agency's success.

CA: So let's talk about some of the things that you built because following the success of Masonry, probably seem like a tough challenge at the time. What was the very first thing that you built after starting Metafizzy?

DD: Well I started Metafizzy around one product. It was called Isotope and again this was something that it wasn't my idea. There was another thing that did it at the time called Quicksand, but I thought I could do it better, and also I built this thing around Masonry. And so I was just really building on top of Masonry so in two regards, it wasn't a big step. It was kind of like a one plus one, plus two kind of thing. What Isotope did is it had the Masonry layout but it also had the ability to filter and sort items. It could dynamically change where things were and what things were visible and what things were hidden. And I already saw that this other thing called Quicksand got some buzz, so I knew I could shimmy off that. And I also had Masonry out there so. I had notoriety from that and I could also use it to point to Isotope.

CA: Yeah, I think there are a lot of people who are excited to work on a project but aren't sure what to work on and have a lot of trouble coming up with an idea because they're under the misconception that whenever it is that they're working on needs to solve some totally unsolved problem. It needs to completely just change everything when in reality, I end up talking to entrepreneurs like yourself and a lot of what you're doing is looking what came before. Looking at what things are already succeeding and what problems are already solved and saying, hey I'm just going to go after this stuff. Then I don't have to validate the market. All I need to do it build a solution that's better than what's out there or at least different than what's out there in some way. And I think it's really the safe bet. Were there any other examples that you learned from or that you felt inspired by?

DD: I do feel like if anything is new about Isotope it was the business model, and there wasn't a lot of things for me to look at, at the time. But I do remember the one thing that was kind of in the same realm where I was charging money for an open source project was this suite of tools call Wijmo and I think it maybe still be around. I don't know if it's still in development. That was an inspiration. Now I'm thinking about there's other two. There was Shaun Inman's Mint which was a service that did analytics. Like before Google Analytics was around. It's something you can put on your site for tracking like that and so that was a commercial product that was associated with the web. And there was generally things like premium WordPress themes. Premium Tumblr themes so I knew there was other things that were similar to it. And so even though there wasn't anything else specifically like a JavaScript plugin that I could charge for. I definitely looked at these other things and looked at their licensing, their commercial pages. How to do they sell it on their home page? And that gave me something to always build off of it, work as a reference point.

CA: Okay so you're working a full time job. You're doing Isotope on the side. How long did it take you to get Isotope to the point where it was ready to be released? And how did you juggle that with your work responsibilities?

DD: I didn't really have a timeline because it was a side project. I was able to let myself have enough breathing room if I remember correctly, it probably took me about three to four months to launch it. And this is my first time working on a project extended like this, even as a side project. I remember the time breakdown was something like it took me close to twice as long to build the documentation as it was to build the actual Javascript. The core code maybe took a month and a half but the rest of the stuff took two and a half months.

Subsequently, the products I've built since then have the time break down has been like that. Because when I get to the documentation stuff that's actually when it's being put into actual use and I start having to verify the features that I thought that I built and I start catching a lot of edge cases and so I realized that something was idealized. I thought it would be worked this really smooth way but when I actually put it into use, I see the rough corners that need to be sanded off. And I took my time with the documentation and that's still where I feel my products can shine because I don't see a lot of the developers or when I look at other projects. I feel like their documentation can promote their product much better.

CA: Yeah, I was going to say I think in the open source community. A lot of people don't have time to put into documentation. They don't have much time to put into their product to begin with especially since they're not charging. And one of the things that's really cool about Metafizzy is how much time you put into all your documentation. It's really differentiating factor because for any developer, I think this lesson applies to other companies too but for any developer.

Your first point of contact with the project is the documentation. What even is this? Are there demos? What does it look like? Is it right for me? How do I use it? I'm running in this spot, how do I fix? And if the documentation is this after thought that is been tacked on at the end with very little effort. Then it's a significant impediment to people actually adopting and using the product. I think it sounds like you did it right by focusing a ton on the documentation. And really it seems like that comes about from focusing on what things are like from your users point of view rather than just your point of view as a developer. Which is a lot easier said than done.

DD: At the time I didn't really have these kinds of thoughts formalized. I just kind of want to make something that was special but since then I've been thinking about this point. And how I frame it is that, how do I use other people things and typically when I'm using some other tools or something like that. It's like I don't actually care about the tool. The tool is just one of many things that I'm using to build the site. Let's say that it's a package manager like NPM. For whatever reason I'm working on a project with this new package manager. It's like I don't care about the package manager. I'm only using this to get to the next step.

And so with that thought in mind, I try to make everything that it's as quick as possible being very upfront. Don't have a lot of happy text so people can get the information they need and move onto the next thing. They don't need to know the philosophy or the methodology behind this sort of tool. It's just like get me to the point where I'm using it and then if I need to see more stuff, it's there but this first kind of initial onboarding steps are very important. And I think that's something it's driven home if you're actually working on a commercial product that people need to be onboarded in. But I think a developer, you don't really frame things in that way. You think about onboarding for using a tool. It's just not part of the vocabulary.

CA: So fast forward to today and Metafizzy has a ton of products. You've got Isotope. You have Flickity and Packery. You just release Infinite Scroll. It's a lot of stuff and what's striking me about this approach is it's so different than what you see with most startups. Most startups just build one thing because it seems a lot simpler, and they just iterate on it forever and ever because they wanted it to be. I guess 'cause it takes awhile to get it to be good enough to compete on the market. And yet somehow you've built six different things that are all good enough to sell. How did you decide on the strategy?

DD: Obviously I found about the breakdown. Isotope is still the big tent pole for Metafizzy and I'd say it's about 50%-60% of the license sales that I make. From then it's I already have one product, maybe I should make another and Packery came out because that would allow me to point to something else. And hopefully one helps drive sales of the other and that's my basic marketing thing behind building a product line up is that somebody may be looking for one thing and eventually they find in the future. Didn't that one company have the carousel widget or something like that. Where they are already using a filter and sorting thing. And so that's why I build multiple things and the other reason is that once something is built, it doesn't require as much time. Isotope took three to four months to actually build but after that it's still been making revenue. So I don't actually have to be actively developing it everyday in and out.

CA: That's one of the things I really love about your approach to Metafizzy too because most companies build these behemoth products that a giant to do list of features that never get any smaller. Whereas in Metafizzy, you're just building individual features for other companies to use in their products. Which means that your products that you release have a start date and end date. Once you're done with Isotope, you might have to fix a few bugs in there but you're done with Isotope, and you can move onto something else. That's really the key to passive income. Is this approach something that you planned on taking from the beginning?

DD: I didn't know that going into it but after Isotope was successful. I realized that was the way to go. And since then I've had ups and downs with this kind of approach. So my second product Packery, it's another grid layout library but at the time people kept on asking for this one feature. And I was like I can't actually build it. It's tough to do with the things I have with Isotope and Masonry. So I said let me build something that's specifically does this problem which was dragging grids of items. Which is a very complicated math problem. You have to do bin packing and stuff like that and I thought it was like people kept asking for it. I was like, alright you know what. I'm going to make it because I finally have the opportunity to do so. As it turns out, it was one of these things that got a lot of questions, but it's very hard to sell it because how many people are looking for a dragable grid layout libraries? It's a very niche product but at the time I wasn't thinking about that. I was just thinking about quieting the big request. And so then the next thing was, alright, let's not do something that's so niche and also spread the availability of what actually Metafizzy does. So the two first products were very similar and they were very similar to Masonry. So the third product was Flickity which was a carousel library which is everybody uses carousels. So you have some completely different and would be different from Isotope and Packery but I knew people were actually using it. And so Flickity has been much more successful than Packery and so now I'm trying to broaden things. And that's why the latest thing I did was Infinite Scroll which points back to stuff you can do with Isotope. But it's different from that and Flickity so hopefully making that tent bigger.

CA: And just for context, I would love to talk about how successful these things have been for you because in terms of usage. Masonry like I mentioned earlier is 12,000 stars on GitHub. You made a library called Images Loaded. It's used on some 7000 websites, 600 stars on GitHub. Isotope is 30,000 websites, 8000 stars on GitHub. How much money are you making from all this stuff?

DD: Yeah so I'd say that Metafizzy makes six figures. It has for the past four years. The most successful years were 2015 and 2016 which had made $120,000 in revenue those years.

CA: This is full time programmer job. You know you have to have a job as this is your full time thing.

DD: Yeah, and so at the time. Those years I was making about what I made from my full time job. The last time I worked full time not on Metafizzy was 2014 and that year my salary over in Metafizzy revenue.

CA: What made you decide to quit your job and go full time on Metafizzy?

DD: At the time, this was 2014 and I was working for Twitter in New York city, and Metafizzy had been going for four years at that time. And you know it grew basically 200%. It doubled over every year. The first year was like 25,000 and then it as 50,000. When I looked at that I was like I can be, it's legitimate money and I wasn't transferring. I wasn't taking too big of a leap so I didn't have to worry about, I felt that I could sustain this at least for the next year and see where things go from there. It was just the right time for me to leave the job. Why anybody leaves (a) job? You grow tired of something or you don't feel like you're a full person working at that. It was the right time but it also wasn't too big of a risk.

CA: Yeah but it makes it a lot easier to leave your job when you're actually making hundreds of thousands of dollars from your side project. How did you juggle during this period where you're working at Twitter and also growing Metafizzy? How did you juggle the two things? That sounds like a lot of time.

DD: Well to put into context. I was married but I didn't have a kid. I do have a son now, but it was just a lot of things in my life had already been taken care of. I kind of had enough availability to work on Metafizzy on the side during those years. And it's funny, those years when Metafizzy was growing double, that's when I was working on it least. And so a large part of my success is really just luck. Isotope is the right product at the right time and it didn't have too big of a competition. It's flattering to talk about this like I planned it all but I look back on this. I just got really lucky with Isotope and it took off on its own. I hardly did any actual marketing during those years where it was doubling over.

CA: I think it's fascinating and something you mentioned earlier too about Packery. How it's this dragable grid library for JavaScript. How do you market that thing? How do people find it? But it seems like you did a really good job leveraging your early success and having that help the success of your later projects. For example, Masonry is this grid library. Isotope is basically like you said built on top of Masonry and Packery is basically a feature request that came about from Isotope a lot. I'm sure there's a lot of luck but also it seems like you have a really good strategy for ensuring that the things that you are building are things that people needed. And that people who discovered you for one thing would also become aware of similar products that you made.

DD: Everything I make is just another different version of something else that's already out there. I remember at the time I was like, oh I'm such a big innovator. Masonry is this whole new thing but I've come to embrace what it is I do now or I can clean up stuff and present it nice and write okay documentation. And that works so far.

CA: The other half of the equation besides the building of the actual products is the marketing. How have you thought about marketing? Because I know it's not an easy task in general especially not easy for a lot of developers. I've been there in that phase. A lot developers get stuck in where it's like way easier to code then it is to figure out okay how am I going to get this into people's hands? Yet you've been working on Metafizzy for seven years now. See you kind of seen the entire marketing landscape change. I mean there was no Product Hunt. A lot of the channels and a lot of the things that I've been written about how to get the word out about your products just didn't exist seven years ago. How have you thought about finding customers and making sure that people know about your products?

DD: I'll tell you marketing is definitely a sore spot for me because it's so hard to know when something is successful in that realm. And for something like the products that I make. It's not like I'm selling shoes where you see the shoes and you're like I want those shoes and you immediately buy it. I'm making a tool for developers. So other developers might be working on a site and they might come across the product 'cause it gets retweeted for something like that. But they might not be working on the site that needs it at that time. It's hard for me to track these things and my sweet spot is working with code and doing designs. So you know I'm always reluctant to do marketing things because I don't see the immediate results. But I've been trying a bunch of different things and it's really what are the things that appeal to me. And some of the basic stuff where it's I never did a email campaign before I started working on Metafizzy full time. That was one of the first things I did. Is alright I'm coming out with a new major version and I'm going to be putting together an email list of all my previous customers. I hadn't thought of that at the time. Alright I just hadn't put the time into it.

CA: How big is your mailing list by the way?

DD: It's over 10,000 previous customers right now.

CA: Do you find that it really helps you getting the word out about new products or what kind of emails do you send to your mailing list?

DD: This is one of these things where it's like there's part of me that wants to be a marketer and grow the business and the other part of me wants to be a human being and not be. When I get emails it's always like "Ugh." But every now and then there's a product or service I really love that I get the email and I appreciate. So hopefully I try to position Metafizzy like something people appreciate. So it's something like Panic who makes Mac apps. They have really great emails so I try to copy off of their stuff. And is it successful? Yeah, it definitely brings in previous customers. It's so fulfilling to see when I send out one of those emails. There's the cohort that will immediately buy it and it's just like those are my people right there. Before doing the email, I didn't really know that that existed.

CA: That's like your tribe. The people who will follow you and buy anything that you make because they love what you do.

DD: Yeah, you know but it's like how do they get to that point? Do they even need to see this email or they already found, there's always questions out there.

CA: I responded to your email to ask you to come on the podcast because I think you launched the new version of Infinite Scroll. And I was like holy shit, I should get Dave on the podcast, Metafizzy is so awesome. And I don't think I would have thought about it without the emails. There's a limited as one data point for you.

DD: That's great to hear. It's always like so murky what works 'cause for all I know. My emails now go into spam. I'm doing too much spammy things and now I'm preventing from actually seeing people. But hey I got this gig so I'll take it.

CA: What are the marketing tactics have you tried over the years and what are some things that have worked or that have not worked?

DD: Last year I tried doing a series of video recording and I just did it over Twitter. So at the time, it only post 30 seconds to Twitter so I was like, it was really short. It's like I'm working on this feature. I closed out these issues and I made this much money this week, see you next week. Really fast and the response to that was interesting 'cause there was a lot of people like hey, I don't know why but I've listened to your video once a week. Even people like my brother-in-law who doesn't work in tech whatsoever.

It's nice to see and there's also something compelling about putting a human face to things. It wasn't just like a website when you think of Metafizzy. It was actually Dave DeSandro behind it. But did that get me any new customers?

I also tried a campaign for CodePen. Which is a site that you could make website demos on. I got a bunch of demo people in that scene to make things with Isotope and Packery my products. And hopefully get that community excited or at least that community know about it. Because then I'm leveraging those demo people. They have there own followers around them and hopefully they can spread out the word. I thought that was interesting way to get different people to see it.

And then another thing I did was try Twitter promoted tweets. I'm a big Twitter user but it's so close to me that it's all I can see sometimes and I've had some tweets that get lots of retweets and things like that so that's how I judge if it's done well. 'Cause again I don't know if people see that tweet and they eventually come back to actually buy something but there are just a more general awareness.

Those are the things I tried so far and then the other thing was something completely new which was last year I did this completely different project called Logo Pizza. Where I was so tired of working on code that I was like let me work on logos, that was way more enticing. It was the new shiny thing for me to chase at the time. I was like no more code. And so I made these logos and it was this gimmicky site. The price went up with each logo purchased and that was when I came out got a lot of traction on Hacker News and via tweets and stuff like that, and I helped promote the brand. And also brought in all these different logo clients.

CA: Can you explain the gimmick you talked about with the pricing?

DD: The way it worked, there's 50 logos. The original price for any logo was like $100 and as soon as one person purchase a logo. The price increases by $20 then it's $120 for the next logo then it's $140 so the idea behind that is if you're going to sit on your butt. The price is going to go up. In addition to the logo you want might not be available because once it's purchased that person owns it. It was this kind of gimmick in addition to just logos.

CA: What was the point of it? Was the gimmick to, do you think it would make it more interesting to people or more likely to succeed in Hacker News or was there another reason behind it?

DD: I had this inkling that it was a non-conventional thing. I've seen good results from these and I don't even know how. The things that I see on my Twitter feed. It's not just a company releases new product. It's like a special one time thing. And so I guess that's what I would was trying to go after.

Also, I got this idea from another kind of promotional website. Where it was like Or it was the same thing, it was like this guy who wore a T-shirt and he would take pictures with it and so he'd be in posts on Instagram. And so you would pay this guy $20 for January 1st. Now on January 2nd it was $40 and by the end of the year he made like six figures just on wearing T-shirts. And it was one of these things like, I should of thought of that! So I just reused it, that exact concept, and I felt like it produced the same results. People were like… people bought these logos. Some people they just wanted the logo. They didn't even have a project for it. They're just like, let me get it. It triggers some short response in their head.

CA: Well it's like the price is going to go up. They're going to buy it now otherwise. It will just going to be hundreds of dollars.

DD: Yeah and also logos are ever present but they're hard to find. If you have to work with a logo designer that costs more money. And if you go to something that's like logos for sale. I feel like you don't get as a good a product so I was somewhere in between there. Where you pay more money but you might be feeling better about it because it's a nicely designed site or something like that. I had a particular skillset there that I could exploit.

CA: Not only do you have an interesting pricing model for Logo Pizza. The price increase every time somebody buys a logo but you also got, all of your other projects have. I would say pretty abnormal pricing models at least compared to all the other people that I've interviewed. Where you're selling open source software. Anybody can just come through and basically download what you've made and never pay you a dime. But you've got a license that says hey if you're going to use this for a commercial reasons then you need to pay me $20 or $30 or however much different libraries cost. How does that work exactly and how do you ensure that people are paying who are suppose to be paying?

DD: Whoo boy licensing has been another sore spot for me because it's legal stuff and who understands it. When I first started out it was as you said. It was kind of a stipulation where if you use this for commercial reasons, you need to pay for it. And then eventually that was problematic because there was some people that actually knew legalese and said you're not using the right license here.

And so I tried different things and eventually where I ended up now is that the actually terms of the license is that the product is open source and it's also licensed under GPL and one of the stipulations of GPL is that if you use this publicly. You have to in turn open source your project. So if you do not want to use this project or open source your project. You need to pay for this license which will allow you to use the Metafizzy product under closed source. And the reason why I got there is because of things like WordPress which needs GPL is a big thing in WordPress. And it was just like, it's been working so far. So I actually work with a lawyer to develop that.

But as you mentioned it's front end software so all this stuff is readily available and the things that I'm competing against are free. There's a part of me that's should I be making more money or is it miraculous that I'm making money at all. Because somebody can be like I don't want to pay this but I think the way I went about it was try to make it official, work with the lawyer, so if at least somebody does check it. It looks legit and Metafizzy whole business has been built around the appearance of being legit. It actually is legit. It feeds back on one another.

CA: Yeah, you definitely have the appearance and I think that Isotope was one of the very first purchases that I made when starting Indie Hackers. I was like I'm going to have a grid. I've seen this cool animation effect somewhere. Let me just Google and try to find out where that came from and it took me to Metafizzy and I checked your licensing page and I was like, I just bought it. It's supper cheap too. How do you decide on pricing? Because that's a thing that a lot of people struggle with where the common advise you hear from every angle is charge more but psychologically it so easy to come up with reasons why you can't charge more. Why you shouldn't charge more especially when like you said all your competitors are basically free.

DD: Yeah and this is another thing too where I have a personal feeling about how to do pricing because I'm a front-end developer and it comes from a community of free and open opportunity. And the stuff I'm competing against is also free. So the way Metafizzy pricing works is that it's per developer and it's a one time purchase and it is tied to the major version. So if there's a big version upgrade, you'll need to make a new purchase. However it's not annually reoccurrence and the current pricing scheme is that it's $25 for a single individual. It's $110 bucks for up to eight people and it's $324 everybody in your organization.

And I haven't played around too much with that over the years. The way it's worked out is that between those three tiers I'm making the same amount of money for an individual product amongst those three, so I think that seems like a good thing. But it's not like lopsided in any way like that. I'm sure I might be able to make more money if it was reoccurring but a part of me that just hates that model. I hate paying for Photoshop month after month and I kind of see the updates. It doesn't feel like I'm getting that much and it's also there's just something weird about paying for open source software in general. So there's part of me that feels icky about it even though it is my income. I do it so I can feel good about it too. That's the pricing model. It hasn't been A/B tested.

CA: Your entire situation is pretty cool because you're basically just doing whatever it is that you want. You're working on projects that are fun for you to work on and when they stop being fun. You just work on a different thing like Logo Pizza and you're charging the amount of money that feels right for you. And it's all working out to the point where you can still sustain basically a developer salary on your own which is like pretty much living a dream Dave. How has you life changed since you quit Twitter and started working on Metafizzy on your own? Have you found that its lived up to your expectations and what it's like to be the solo bootstrapper or have you found you have a lot more free time? What is the upside of this new lifestyle?

DD: At the time it was just so liberating. I was working at Twitter and being apart of the big company, it's hard to see the fruits of your labor manifested with a company at large. 'Cause it has to go through multiple rounds of revisions and massive work with the larger experience. And I was really feeling pressed down against that pressure at the time I left Twitter.

And so the first couple months working for Metafizzy full time, it felt just so enthralling to work on something that I knew was going to see the light of day that was all my work and even if it was successful or not. I could feel that I did something with that and so that was just amazing. That's one of the highlights of my career at that time. Just the fact I didn't have to deal with meetings. Oh my gosh. I'm going to go see a movie or I'm going to go play at the arcade for a day. Because you know what if I was at another company, this time would be stuck in meetings or responding to emails.

CA: Yeah it would just be wasted. I feel the same way. I think just the freedom and the self determination that comes with being self-employed and being able to work whenever you want. Take care of chores whenever you want. Just take a day off or a week off whenever you want is awesome. Do you still feel kind of the same way you did right after you quit?

DD: That initial high has smoothed out a little bit. But recently the big thing was that my son was born six months ago, and I was able to set my own hours. And it's like I'm going to be taking paternity leave and focusing on my wife and my son for four months it ended up being. I didn't really hard deadline there but I was able to do that and that's a whole big life experience and I'm very thankful to have. And that occurred because of Metafizzy and working for myself. And there's other things that you know like moving out of New York and buying a house. It's like how do people do this when they work full time? It's how are you even sign all the papers and stuff like that. I was working for myself, I could scan in stuff. It's so much paperwork.

CA: People just don't read stuff. They just sign it.

DD: Well even just like I need to scan something. You got to print lots and scan it. It takes a lot of time. I absolutely appreciate it and I feel so lucky to be able to do these things. At the same time, it does come with its own responsibilities. Right now Metafizzy, it's having a down year that might be because I took paternity leave or might be just because other market forces something like that. Now there's this question hanging over me like what do we do to get it back to where it was a year or two ago? Or how does Metafizzy change or is this going to be a full time thing come a year later? It does come at its own cost.

CA: Yeah, it's actually a perfect segue. I wanted to end by talking about how things have changed and dealing with competition and really your long term outlet. Because obviously one of the up sides to having a job and you can be fired at anytime, but there is such a thing as job security. And to be reasonable certain that if you have a job that you'll probably be employed and definitely into the future. Whereas when you branch out on your own nothing is guaranteed, your business can decline. Your marketing efforts fail. Your new products might not take off et cetera. How do you thing about the future and what are your plans to key up this lifestyle and keep Metafizzy successful?

DD: Plans for the future. Well each year it's been get to the end of the year. Now that I've been doing it full time for 2 1/2 years. I'm able to see what have I been able to do within that time. So things like Logo Pizza were a big time investment but I feel like it paid off. So for me right now the biggest thing was getting a new product out the door, which was Infinite Scroll which brought us to this conversation.

Now it's like can I build a business and then also there's these bigger goals which would be like can I hire somebody else. Can I grow the business to that much? Because I think what Metafizzy is doing exactly bringing money into a front-end developer just on my front end code is very special and I wish more developers would do it. It's kind of like a lofty, touchy feely kind of goal but it would be great to distribute this business model kind of in an open source spirit and have other people do this sort of thing. And I have seen some other people try like that but to the point where Metafizzy it's still just me which is you know one of the things I've always felt reluctant about is I haven't been able to grow it past me. I'd love to be able to hire somebody else. It's one year at a time and right now I'm just thinking about getting that sales back up to be honest.

CA: A friend of mine was talking to me and he said that he really wanted to start something but he felt like he was late to the party. He wished he started an online business or side project five years ago, but he dragged his feet. And now he feels like it's too late 'cause it seems like everybody is doing it. There's so much written about it and I personally think that it's not true, and it's still early days. And that 10 years from now there will be a lot more people doing what you're doing and what a lot of other people are doing than there are now. But what would you say to someone in that position who's considering starting a side project? Who's considering starting online business but is on the fence about it?

DD: I say the first thing you do is start. Just do it like any other thing. Make a demo and do it for you and see where things goes. In my experience, you get better by doing something over and over. But you also see how you personally respond to it. So this is when I ever tried some new stuff or it's like freelancing or working for different clients or things like that. That was new for me a couple years ago but I at least tried it and I also didn't feel that it had to be the next big thing. So start and also keep it small. It's okay if things don't work out 'cause everything I did worked out.

CA: Alright, well thanks so much Dave. I think I've had a really good time talking to you.

DD: Yeah thank you for letting me share my story.

CA: Where can people go online to find out more about you and about Metafizzy?

DD: My sites are and

CA: What's your Twitter? I'm going to go follow you right now.

DD: My Twitter handler is @DeSandro and Metafizzy's handle is @Metafizzyco.

CA: Alright, take it easy Dave.

DD: Thank you!

Refactor t-shirt

Refactor shirt

You know what’s truly metal? Nicely encapsulated code with human-readable comments.

Printed on super-soft Black Tri-blend. Women's sizes available.