31 Dec

Starting The Web App Challenge: From Zero to $5,000/month In 6 Months

My last two projects, both books, have been insanely successful. Selling more than $80,000 worth in just over 3 months. The connections I’ve made, marketing lessons learned, and financial freedom I now have make a huge difference. There is  only one problem: those were all one time sales.

Note: Do you design software? Take a look at my latest book, Designing Web Applications

So I may make $40,000 in a month, like I did in December, but January 1st I start at over zero. I have to continue to drive traffic, write blog posts, and promote the book month after month for the sales to keep coming in. Some sales will keep coming in from the work I’ve already done, but that will probably be less than $3,000 a month. The biggest downside is that the customers who love the product the most only pay for it once.

When planning for 2013 I knew that my next project would involve recurring revenue, where the customers pay a monthly fee to use the service. Software-as-a-service is the best model I’ve seen for doing this, so that’s where The Web App Challenge comes in.


The Web App Challenge

I could just start a new web app and work on it quietly for a year before launching, but where is the fun in that? Writing and launching Designing Web Applications in only three months taught me that if I compress the deadlines I can meet a goal much more quickly. So here is the challenge:

Within six months build a web application to $5,000 in recurring revenue each month. A friend just referred to that timeline as “aggressive” so let’s add some more restrictions to make it more difficult:

  • I am starting without an idea. So I don’t know what the application will be, what it will do, or who it is targeted towards.
  • I can only spend $5,000 of my own money in this entire process. Meaning all other funds necessary have to come from paying customers. Since I will be hiring out the development, getting paying customers right away is mandatory.
  • I cannot spend more than 20 hours a week on this project. If allowed, I waste tons of time on projects. This limit is partially because there are other things that need my time (contract projects, writing, etc) and to help keep me focused.

The best part of this is that I am going to be completely transparent about every step of the process. Follow along on this blog to hear how things are going, what I’m learning, and the mistakes you shouldn’t repeat. The deadline is July 1st, 2013 to have $5,000 a month worth of paying customers. That could be 50 customers paying $100 a month, 10 customers paying $500 a month, or somewhere in the middle (most likely) Think I can do it? Good. Me too.

A little help.

I want to do everything possible to remove risk and make this project successful. So I’ve asked my friend Brennan Dunn to be an official advisor to my web app challenge. It’s not very official really, but he will be there to answer questions, help me choose a developer, and help me work through marketing strategies.

Brennan has been a Rails developer for years and runs his own project management web application called Planscope. Since Brennan did all the design, development, and marketing of Planscope himself, he has already solved many of the problems I will probably face. I expect his advice to be very helpful.


Frequently Asked Questions

Okay, so no one has actually asked these questions, but you might, so here it goes.

Where will you get your idea?

From my customers. Dane Maxwell taught me about the concept of idea extraction. Instead of trying to come up with an idea yourself, you talk to a market, let’s say photographers, and try to find what painful problems they have that could be solved with software. Then when you find a problem you not only have an idea for what to build, but also a first customer.

My most successful software projects have been someone else’s idea, talking to Dane was just the first time someone had explained it so clearly. I’ll write more on this topic in future posts.

Who will your application be for?

I don’t know. What I do know is that it will be a targeted niche. That may be lawyers, web designers, real estate agents, landscapers, insurance agents, marketers, construction companies, programmers, or pretty much anyone else. I’m just going to talk to people until I find a painful problem that can be solved with software.

What language will the application be written in?

It will probably be a Ruby on Rails application. Rails works well for the style of application I am going for and there are a lot of developers with experience writing Rails apps. Personally I don’t have a lot of experience, but there are some great books and tutorials I can pick up to learn.

Will you be doing the development yourself?

No. I’m not a very good developer so I will be hiring someone to work with me on this project. I plan to do all the wireframes, visual design, and HTML/CSS while leaving the real code to someone smarter. Though I do hope that having my own project will help me get a lot better with Ruby and Rails.

In addition to the contract developer I will be hiring, I am working with several talented Ruby developers who will be advisors on the project. Basically just answering a few questions here and there as well as reviewing the code changes every few weeks.

Are you hiring developers?

Yes, but my budget is small. If you are a Rails developer and are interested in working with me then send me an email (nathan@thinklegend.com). I will also be looking for developers on eLance and other related sites.

How much will it cost to build?

I have no idea. I’ve allocated $5,000 of my own money to get things started, but the goal is to get customers to fund the development.

How can you build software that quickly?

By focusing on solving a really specific problem the simplest way possible. I’m not trying to create an all-in-one solution, but rather solve a single, really painful problem and work from there. That means not as many screens to design and not as much code to write.

What if you fail?

I don’t think it is likely that I will fail completely. A more likely failure is that I reach only a couple thousand in revenue, but that’s still a partial success. If it does completely fail, then it will be public. At least I, and everyone reading my posts, will have learned something to apply to future projects.

Why are you starting a day early?

Because I am really eager to get started! Also the extra day head start may make all the difference. ;)

Is it weird to be asking yourself all these questions?

Yes, it is. Maybe that means it is time to end this post. If you have more questions ask them in the comments.

Six months starts now.

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77 Responses to “Starting The Web App Challenge: From Zero to $5,000/month In 6 Months”

  1. Love the chutzpah you’re showing here! I can sense your drive to make this happen. I’ll be cheering you on!

  2. Matt says:

    Good luck man. I’m very interested in what the end result will be.

  3. It seems very interesting, very aggressive, and I wish you luck (and I will be watching with great interest.)

    I hope you’re very transparent about the various challenges you face and decisions you make, including tech and hosting, etc. But also down to how you choose people to work with.

    It may be a bit of a cheat if you accept a significant amount of free labor offered in return for association with this project and reputation building.

    I wish you the best and look forward to seeing how this works for you.

    • Nathan Barry says:

      I plan to be transparent about everything. Sometimes my tendency is to just talk about the things that worked, so I’m actively trying to cover everything.

      I may get free labor in terms of advice and maybe help solving some really specific technical bugs. But otherwise I plan to do it myself or pay for it. If I do get free labor, I’ll say so.

      • And don’t get me wrong, anyway you can get even half way to $5K / month on 20 hours per week through development of a webapp would be terrific.

        And associating with new designers, up and coming developers, etc. would be very reasonable.

        But too much would dilute the value of your project in terms of being replicable, much like the original $1,000,000 homepage — but he walked away a million bucks! (It just wasn’t replicable.)

        Anyway, have fun with it.

  4. Cool idea , ill be watching and hopefully learn. This is something I are myself doing, would u suggest getting started on tryin to build something ASAP?

  5. Good Luck Man. Focus on a market with money to pay you.

    • This is the critical tip. It looks like Nathan knows it when he’s talking about serving niche markets made of “lawyers, real estate agents, landscapers, insurance agents, construction companies”, etc. However, this is easily overlooked by those leading with their idea rather than leading with the market and it’s pain.

  6. Best of luck! It can be done (personal experience), though I’ll be curious to see if you can stick to that 20 hour / week limit ;)

  7. Best of luck Nathan. I’ve enjoyed hearing your prior success stories and look forward to another. I’ll stay tuned.

  8. Started reading your posts since your first book post on HN. I’m in a similar boat as you… spent the first 9 years of my adult life (18-27) developing for others.. I made a good amount of money, but made them even more. Started doing my own thing 6 months ago and haven’t looked back!

    Good luck!

  9. Steve says:

    Good luck! I’m interested to see how this pans out for you.

  10. Do you think your network will be your strongest asset in this challenge? I do freelance consulting, and have tried to launch applications but always find marketing to be the hardest part.

  11. As a complete dunce with no mentors and divided attention I got to 10k after 3 years, so certainly with your resources, list etc. your goal is achievable. Question though, how do you know that you’re not making an all-in-one solution if you don’t know the problem? Sounds like you have ideas already.

    The single pain you find had best be deep for $100-$500/mo IMO

    20 hrs a week AND only 5k out of pocket is a pretty tall order. Why not give it what it needs to get there?

    This is a bold announcement and a worthy pursuit.

    Good luck!

  12. Love that you are going out there and doing something, that is more that 99% of people out there. Getting to $5000/month in paying customers is not that easy, even though the number is pretty small. I am a big believer in the idea does not matter that much cause it will change in time anyway but I am not sure picking a target first is the best approach.

    I would suggest reading The Innovator’s Solution, which will help you think about the market, opportunity and how to grow. Also if you do move forward with this I would be more than happy to donate 6 months of a free http://chargify.com account so you are not wasting time building billing for your venture.

    • Love the fact that you’re so supportive David. However, isn’t offering him Chargify free for 6 months partially defeating the $5000 limit that he set for himself? Good luck, Nate! What you are doing is awesome and I’ll definitely be following your progress.

  13. Best of luck, hopefully it won’t take the full 6 months just to come up with a good idea! ;)

    Looking forward to following your adventure.

  14. Jayaram says:

    I had been thinking about an idea for quite few days. One of the problem is finding a good developer for less money.

    It would be interesting if you can share that part of your story.

    Good luck!

  15. This is an awesome project with an awesome goal! I’ll definitely stay updated on your progress. I wish the best of luck to you, Nathan.

  16. Nathan, are brains must be connected at the hip…er, maybe. Anyway, starting the same thing with the same time frame. We definitely have complimentary skill sets though: I am a Rails Dev and you a skilled designer.

    Super interested on who hits their goal first. Good luck to you man!

  17. Brad says:

    I don’t think this is aggressive at all.

    I have MANY friends who have started app development shops (1-2 people), completely bootstrapped, and make at least $500 a day. At least 2 or 3 make $100K+ a month with teams of under 5 (completely bootstrapped, not a dime of funding).

    Not to mention, there are moderate-sized companies in this world that make $5k in minutes/hours.

    Just objectively, $5K a month seems so little, that it really is silly to consider that “aggressive”, factoring out the mediocrity of the masses.

    But it’s a great start, and I am really looking forward to seeing your progress. Exciting!

    • The idea is not to be a contractor I guess, it’s to create a product with recurring revenue and many customers for the same SaaS product, that’s more difficult.

      • Brad says:

        Yes, I’m referring to product-oriented companies/shops, although a mixture of consumer and b2b, so not just SaaS businesses.

        • Dev says:

          Can you give a link to their sites? I’m hoping to start one up and would value looking at a successful example! Thanks.

  18. Good Luck! :) I’ll be cheering you on

  19. Justin @ Flipfilter says:

    Good luck Nathan.

    Personally, my biggest mistake has always been not solving a big enough pain / problem. Although if Dane’s helping you out I doubt that will happen to you!

    Happy New Year

  20. This is a fantastic start to the new year as building a product and making some regular money (to begin with) is definitely one of my goals. I will definitely be keeping my eyes on the updates.

  21. Alberto Plebani says:

    Hi Nathan, i’m really interested in your progress ’cause i’ve got the same mission! I’m facing difficulties in the marketing part of the project so i’m really interested on how you will solve that problem! And i think that 5k a month is not so little…

  22. Hey Nathan, this sounds like a brilliant idea and I believe it is completely feasible. I’m a Rails developer myself and have often though about building a web app myself. I actually co-founded a startup as developer, but that eventually failed. I’ve learnt a lot from that but just need an idea to build something for myself.

    The best of luck, I’ll be checking out your progress :)

  23. Gary Thickett says:

    Looking forward to seeing how get on with this, would love to be able to have a to at this myself but simply don’t have the time at the moment.

  24. […] was reading Nathan Barry’s blog today and have decided to join him in the Web App challenge. Unlike Nathan, I have some idea about the web application I want to build, but I’m still […]

  25. Hi Nathan,

    I’m glad this is one of the first things I’ve read in 2013! I just wrote on my blog that I’m planning on tagging along on your adventure and seeing how much I can achieve in the same 6 month timescale :)

    Wishing you all the best,


  26. This is an awesome idea! I’ve also taken up a similar challenge for 2013 although I’m already two weeks into my development cycle. Very curious to see how you progress in this endeavor!

    If you need any development help (or things related to hosting) I’d be more than happy to assist.

    Good luck!

  27. Good luck Nathan! I’ll be cheering and watching every step.

    It’s hard to judge how difficult this will be without knowing your target niche. If you build something for designers or developers you’ll obviously have a massive head start with customer acquisition. I’d love to see you go after a different market, like lawyers or accountants.

  28. Miguel says:

    Hi nathan, im planning to do the same myself here, already have an idea, i would like to see how are you going to arquitect your app to be multitenant and which cloud services you will be using .

  29. Awesome post Nathan.

    I’m a Developer (Rails and iOS) and Designer and I want to do the same thing. Just have a really hard time finding an idea that can actually generate money. Looking forward to hearing how you’ll do it. Let me know if you wanna give a sneak peak :-).

  30. […] mobile app developer/designer, eBook author and blogger, set a personal goal and named it The Web App Challenge. The break down of the challenge he has set himself is to create a web app that generates $5000 per […]

  31. If you want to take our free app, https://www.draw.io/ , and charge straight on that, be my guest, we’ll give you a free commercial license to the whole thing. Source is at https://github.com/jgraph/draw.io.

  32. I’m really looking forward to following this. I too plan to push something together and launch in the next 6 months, hopefully I can learn a little from what you share. Best of luck !

  33. Sounds awesome, look forward to seeing how you progress!

  34. Good luck Nathan! I will be following your progress while attempting to do a similar (slightly less ambitious) push to getting the first ten customers for our SAAS projects.

    I didn’t set the $5,000 per month goal that you’ve set and already have a couple of products – but I’m providing full transparency into the entire process ( it’s at http://first10.255bits.com ).

    Best of luck – looking forward to the next article.

  35. Charles Jamerlan says:

    Good luck Nathan! Great read and you are inspiring me to do the same! Much success in 2013!

  36. Marcos Garcia says:

    Good luck Nathan! Going after a niche market is definitely the best way to go (there are too many “products/services” out there doing the same). The problem is to identify the niche, you could create a web site for the challenge where people can post their needs/ideas and, in return, you can give the winner free access to the service for one year or so.

  37. Challenge accepted! Good luck mate, looks like you will have some competition :) http://devcomsystems.com.au/2013/01/the-web-app-challenge-accepted/

  38. Hi Nathan,

    It’s a inspiring post. I’ll try to follow your progress so already look forward to the next update. Good luck mate!


  39. Good luck! i’m following

  40. I’m very interested to see how you handle the marketing aspect and getting loads of users. You already have a jumpstart with the blog and recent writeups in Hacker News. I’ve got an comp review/presentation sharing app up http://previewcloud.com but no idea how to go about marketing it and getting it in front of eyeballs.

  41. Hi. came here via HN. i wish you good luck! can you mention how you are planning to speak to the market? What methods you are going to use etc? I just subscribed to you! Cheers!

  42. Good luck Nathan! Looking forward to your progress and reading about your success.

  43. Love the enthusiasm you have going on here. Great to see focused motivation and a setup for accountability by putting this goal out to your audience, which, by the way, really seems like they show great support. Your idea makes me think of the book I just got done reading called “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur” (not just a clever name but a good book, that again, reminds me of your determination here).

    You’ve got a lot of eyes on you here and mine will be another set that will be checking in periodically to see the progress.

  44. Best of luck Nathan! You are truly an inspiration to many around you (including me!)

  45. […] So I was have a perusal through hacker news, and came across a blog post from someone I hadn’t heard of before, Nathan Barry. As far as I can tell, Nathan is a professional SaaS (Software as a Service) Developer and Author, and the post I read was “Starting The Web App Challenge: From Zero to $5,000/month In 6 Months”. […]

  46. Love it Nathan!

    Awesome post for the NY

    By serendipity, I came across your blog post.

    I’ll be following and working alongside your challenge with much interest!

    There’s a cheer we say for this in Chinese – JiaYou!

  47. […] Starting The Web App Challenge: From Zero to $5,000/month In 6 Months (nathanbarry.com) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  48. Hey Nathan! I was inspired by your post and started my own web app challenge!


  49. […] Nathan Barry’s $0 to $5000 in 6 months […]

  50. Paddy Clifford says:

    Hi Nathan,

    Great challenge!

    I have not done any development since I was in college and, considering it as a potential career move, I wanted to learn about App and Web App Dev. Together with your ebook, Designing Web Applications, this blog is serving as a true inspiration!

    Thank you!

  51. Go for it Nathan.
    I am also doing the exact some thing as you, however I have embarked on a larger scope. I have given myself 2 years and I want to (need to) generate a revenue of 10k month. I am eighteen months into my project and I am at the stage now where I am starting to gain traction and buy-in. Best of luck and pace your self. The most important thing is to stay flexible and prepare to pivot to where the market needs you most.

  52. Nathan, I have an idea that I’d dearly love for you to take on: There may be thousands of competent iOS app developers, but there are millions of us in mid-career that want to build apps, but aren’t programmers. Would you consider building an app-building app? If I could build an app using dialog boxes rather than code, I’d do it in a minute.

    I realize there are web-based products like AppMakr.com, but they come with lots of strings attached and have graphic limitations as well. An app-making app would let me build something that looks like my work, not like their work.

  53. Brilliant idea Nathan, and best of luck. I just started something similar – currently in the process of re-launching our business site (www.quarkspring.com) and starting customer development. I haven’t set a specific monetary goal (maybe I should) and plan to do most of the coding myself. I look forward to reading about your progress and hope to learn from your success.

  54. […] many of you know, Nathan Barry is currently doing “The Web App Challenge” (http://nathanbarry.com/starting-web-app-challenge/).  I am the developer he chose to develop ConvertKit.  In this post I will talk about my […]

  55. Sounds like a great idea. Kudos on the transparency of the process!

  56. So… what new?

  57. Inspiring post. I really like the idea of setting a specific goal. I also like the post mentioning the first 10 users/customers as an initial goal to shoot for – kind of like that first dollar you hang on the wall. Just encouraged me to post a screenshot ad an update to our mysimpleads.com saas. I hope you continue to update us on your progress.

  58. Looking forward for updates on this – best of luck Nathan! :-)

  59. […] other things, Nathan Barry’s Web App Challenge thought me that if I compress my deadlines, I can meet a goal much more quickly so I have decided […]

  60. […] like Nathan Barry’s Zero to 5k SaaS app self-challenge, I’m publicly challenging myself to solve this problem by October 2013. I hope you all hold […]

  61. […] been a little quiet about The Web App Challenge lately. Launching Authority and speaking at a BaconBizConf have taken up all my time. Though […]

  62. Ambitious challenge and I look forward to your updates Nathan, good luck!

  63. Tim says:

    Wow, thisis great. How did you go with this? It’s been 8 months – keen to hear.

    • Nathan Barry says:

      Go read the latest post. Or rather, go read the rest of the blog to see all the posts since then.

  64. […] by others before with varying degrees of success (you can read about Nathan Barry’s 2013 effort here), so I am not plowing new ground here, but the public accountability should keep me […]

  65. […] before he announced his Web App Challenge, to build an app from scratch that would reach $5,000/mo revenue in 6 mos, I was sure it would only […]

  66. […] idea to set myself a six month target is in large part inspired by Nathan Barry, and just like him I’m taking a lead from Dane Maxwell on the process of how to do […]

  67. […] Turnbull.  The last straw was, over the Christmas break I stumbled across Nathan Barry’s Web App Challenge and thought “I need to get off my ass and do […]

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