In the March edition of our London founder interview series, we spoke to Philip Baretto on growing Tiiny Host to $500MRR and 12k sites uploaded.
Hey Philip! Great to chat to you. To get started, how would you describe Tiiny Host?
Hey Indie London! Thanks for taking the time to read about my journey.
In a nutshell, Tiiny Host is the simplest way to share your web project. It’s perfect for prototyping, learning web development, small web apps or just host snippets of code.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into building products?
I first got into programming by developing websites as a teenager. I was fascinated with the web and the ability to have a presence online for the world to see. I eventually figured out that I could charge people for making websites and that’s how I earned pocket money as a teenager.
I consequently studied computer science and got my first job at a big bank as a front-end developer because I discovered that I had a good eye for design from my web design days. This is where I really understood what it took to build and ship software at a professional level, but I always felt like a small cog in a big engine. I realised that I wanted to do more than just write code. I wanted to design the UI/UX, decide what to build, market software as well as engineer it. I wanted to be a product engineer and build and ship products.
Where did the idea for Tiiny Host come from, and how did you validate it?
I actually went against the book here and didn’t really validate Tiiny Host before building it. As part of my job, I set up static sites using Amazon Web Services for multiple companies and realised how easy and low cost it was for web hosting - if you knew how to set it up.
Given the modern cloud, I thought there should be a really simple and quick way to host web files but not necessarily websites. Perhaps you just wanted to host a small project, a website demo or prototype but only for a temporary amount of time. I really enjoy simplifying complex technology and making it more accessible and user friendly.
I then wondered if I could automate all the configuration steps and make it accessible through an easy-to-use drag and drop interface. So, I set myself a time limit for 2 weeks (part-time) and launched the first version of Tiiny Host to the world!
I later realised that there were other tools on the market doing similar things but in a more complex way. In hindsight, learning this later down the line was better than finding it out before I built Tiiny Host. I think I would have been put off by the competition. However, the competition turned out to be validation for the problem I was trying to solve, I just needed to position it differently and target a new audience.
Can you tell us about your business model?
It’s a very simple business model. We currently have one Pro plan which is $12 per month. This allows you to host up to 5 live sites, link your own custom domain and password protect sites.
We’ve also proven to be a popular tool for students, so have a Pro Student plan for $18 per year which allows you to host up to 3 sites.
Customers will usually pay for something if it saves them time or money. Tiiny Host saves a lot of people time because it is the simplest and quickest way to host a website.
What’s the vision for Tiiny Host?
I’d like Tiiny Host to continue to be the simplest and quickest way to share your web project. This means making it even easier to share and host your project as well as simplifying complex web technologies into more accessible features.
In the immediate future, we plan on adding the ability to edit & deploy your code online, saving multiple steps in the updating process. In the long term future, I think Tiiny Host could become a tool that not only helps you publish your project but also automatically optimises your code. Speed and performance is becoming an essential part of the web.
We’re continually listening to all the feedback we receive from our customers to plan our road map ahead.
What’s your tech stack?
Besides the technical stack, there are a few tools and services that I’ve found to be invaluable whilst building Tiiny Host: Crisp Chat (customer service), HotJar (UX research), Google Analytics, Sentry (bug tracking), Google reCAPTCHA v3 (spam protection) & Stripe (payments).
What growth tactics did and didn’t work for you?
We’ve tried a wide range of different growth tactics over the last 14 months. These included:
- YouTube Videos
- Sponsored YouTube Videos
- Slack communities
- Dev communities (Indie Hackers, Hacker News, Dev.to etc)
- Product Hunt launches
- Blog posts
- Lifetime deals
- Startup directory listings
The majority of the above tactics didn’t move the needle for Tiiny Host but they did collectively build up its online presence. I think when you’re building an online product, it’s really important to sprinkle seeds all over the web. This not only helps with SEO but getting your name out there and making a stamp on the web. It’s enormous.
Reddit was instrumental in the early days, the community is a great resource for feedback and acquiring your first users if you engage with them in the correct way. It’s important to post in the correct subreddits, be honest about ownership and ask for feedback rather than blindly spamming the platform.
Product Hunt was a really great PR boost at the right time. It generated the largest single volume of visitors in a single day which was a big morale boost. However, as is often the case, the traffic swiftly declined and was back to its usual daily volumes.
The developer and Slack communities were also really important for feedback and morale boosts. Growth is hard at the beginning and full of peaks & troughs. It's important to harness the morale boosts in these strategies in addition to user growth.
What has worked (by order of success) and what hasn’t worked?
Most recently, Tiiny Host’s growth can be attributed to SEO tactics implemented over 9 months ago. SEO is often seen as this mysterious strategy, and it can be in many ways, but there are a few simple well known strategies out there that can help and should be implemented very early on. With Tiiny Host we created a bunch of different landing pages targeting specific keywords and use cases for the product. These were then indexed by Google six months later and now channel the majority of users to Tiiny Host. SEO is a long game but can be a really powerful channel for your product. What didn’t really work early on was any paid marketing tactics. We sponsored a YouTube video as well as tried to double down on Reddit through Reddit Ads but they both failed to significantly move the needle.
What was your lowest point in building Tiiny Host so far, and how did you get out?
About 4 months into launching our first subscription plan and continuous marketing efforts, Tiiny Host hit the 10 subscribers milestone. We were chuffed. It was a huge milestone early on in our journey and we were gaining a new subscriber every two weeks or so. Things were going really well.
At the time, we exclusively used Gumroad as our payment processor and I remember walking through a park one afternoon and receiving a flurry of emails subtitled “Customer subscription cancelled”. Every single subscription we had was instantly cancelled and Gumroad had suspended our account.
It turned out that there were several fraudulent attempts to subscribe to Tiiny Host Pro using stolen credit card numbers. Gumroad being a small indie payment processor had had enough and disabled our account. Additionally, we later found out that it was against their terms & conditions to use them for hosting services and so there was truly no route back. After four months of hard work we were back to 0 subscribers.
That same weekend I rewrote our payment processing flows using Stripe, who are better at handling fraudulent transactions and re-launched our subscription plan. We tried to reach out to our existing customers and move them to Stripe but we were only able to migrate 3 or 4 customers.
We then began all our marketing efforts again and 9 months later we have over 60 subscribers at a higher price point.
How do you stay focused and avoid distractions?
Not very well is the truthful answer! But there are a few hacks and tricks I’ve learnt along the way to help me. One of the most important is the choice to build Tiiny Host as a side, rather than a full-time project. I think when you have a lot of time on your hands it’s easy to fill it with a long task list. However, generally only a few important tasks on the list actually move the needle. Limiting the time you spend on a project forces you to prioritise the most important tasks.
Another hack I’ve found to be effective is procrastinating until you get bored of procrastinating. I often have the urge to do something else rather than what I’m supposed to do (Netflix, browse the web, other errands etc). So, I just go ahead and follow that urge and then another one until I’ve satisfied myself and realise I have an urge to complete the original task.
Later down the line, outside forces such as customers really help drive your todo list with urgency. I do also think it’s important to take time away from your product to avoid tunnel vision and allow ideas to flow. It’s important to avoid burnout and unrealistic deadlines.
How would you have done things differently if you started again?
I would have definitely added a Pro plan earlier. Acquiring paying customers just takes time, there’s no silver bullet here and the earlier you begin this, the better.
What are the most common mistakes you see Indie Hackers make early on?
It’s genuinely the same thing you read over and over again - launching late by investing too much time in software development and not enough time in marketing.
I think this is a common mistake because Indie Hackers come from a software engineering background which means they find it easy to build, but difficult to market. However, building features does not acquire customers, marketing does. The very first version of Tiiny Host is not actually that different to what exists today.
I was definitely guilty of the same strategy with my past products but made a conscious effort with Tiiny Host to build a small MVP and focus on marketing. I wanted to treat Tiiny Host as a project to acquire a valuable set of marketing skills. It’s something I’m genuinely very bad at.
My new motto is: be lazy, build less & market more.
What else have you built before Tiiny Host, and what were the biggest lessons from those experiences?
Back in 2013, I was inspired by the hit film The Social Network and thought to myself: how hard can it be? How wrong I was about that. My first foray into this world was with a social planning app which I built with 4 other friends.
I learned so much from this project and made every mistake in the book. We were very secretive about the idea, spent months developing it with no user feedback besides ourselves, had a large, unbalanced team and no proven business model. We did manage to grow it to a few thousand downloads but ultimately users were not sticky enough and we realised that the problem was a lot harder to solve than we first anticipated.
A few years later I went solo and designed and built Runmore, a couch-to-5k running app. Here, I fumbled with marketing strategies and figured out how to grow the app to 50,000+ downloads. But I always treated it as a small side business and struggled to grow it any larger. It still exists today consistently generating ~$100 MRR per month.
A few years later I went full-time into the startup world to build a SaaS solution for law firms. This is really where I personally grew my technical & management skills. I learned how to build a reliable SaaS platform but more importantly how to hire and manage a large team of engineers remotely, with a few mistakes of course.