In two years, Arvid Kahl founded, ran, and sold his bootstrapped company, FeedbackPanda, with his partner Danielle Simpson.
Now he’s in the business of putting his audience first. The way he sees it, “You can’t build a successful business without an audience. And I don't mean people who look up to you. I don't mean fans. I mean a group of people who you want to help.”
Since selling his company in 2019, Arvid has been sharing what he learned with indie hackers and bootstrappers, and building a following as the creator of The Bootstrapped Founder and author of Zero to Sold: How to Start, Run, and Sell a Bootstrapped Business.
In four months, Arvid has sold thousands of copies of his book and doubled his Twitter following. We asked him to reflect on his journey, and here’s what we learned.
Steering the Ship, Checking the Cargo
When Arvid was running FeedbackPanda, he took meticulous notes so he wouldn’t have to do the same work twice. “I’m lazy,” he said, “I always try to avoid extra work.” Every day, he automated and documented what he was doing and turned repeated tasks into standard operating procedures. But, he didn’t have time to reflect on what he was learning. “While I was there, it was just operations, building, and fixing problems. I’d write as much as I could and be done with it, then never do it again.”
In July 2019, after selling the company, Arvid went from running a business full-time to running “nothing” full-time. “For somebody who’s been working for decades, that’s surprisingly tough to accept.” For the first time in years, he went on vacation, got off the grid, and thought about what he was going to do next.
When he got back, he knew he needed to do something. “I knew there were thousands of hackers in online forums, and I knew I could actually help them. That community is extremely supportive and extremely empowering.” Arvid thought back to his business, took out his old notes, and started adding to them. “Once the pressure of steering the ship was gone, I could finally check out what we had in the cargo hold the whole time.”
Throughout January and February of 2020, Arvid distilled what he learned into advice for others and turned his notes into blog posts. “I started with the blog because I wanted it to be manageable and hold me accountable at the same time. Before I knew it, I had ten blog posts, then ten more, and soon enough I had a lot of content, plus more in the works.” By June, Arvid had given the writing more structure and pulled it into a guide. He shared it with the hacker and bootstrapper community and was surprised to receive the reply, “If I could print this as a PDF, I’d give you $10.”
“That was the moment I understood this was something I could monetize,” he said. “I never thought this would turn into a book or even a PDF. The intention for me was to reflect and take everything I had in my mind and shared experience with my co-founder, Danielle, and put that into a shape where it's not forgotten.”
Writing in Public
Looking around, Arvid didn’t see a single source on the subject of building a self-funded business the way he did it. He started to look at his guide as the skeleton of a book. “It was just small fragments. At that point, all I really needed to do was turn those little fragments into full-blown chapters.”
He thought about the structure in a recursive way. “You think of the birds-eye view. What are the big things I want to talk about? You go into each theme, figure out the sub-themes and how they fit with the content you already have. Then you also know what new things you need to write. I did that for two days and I was sitting there with a nested structure of blog posts and topics.”
On Twitter, Arvid told his audience what he’d just written about and the concepts he was struggling with. He asked if people had any input and what they would be interested in. “That paid off. My interactions created a book that was written to the specification of the people who would read it. People commented on my blog posts and what I was talking about in my podcast. Then I could go back and add those elements people were telling me I may have missed, or I may have misunderstood. I just put it into the book.”
By writing in public, Arvid knew people would give the book a chance. “I tried to distill what I learned into advice for others, sharing what I did to make the business successful. I was just trying to be honest with people because there's a lot of contingency in success. I'm not a guru. That would imply I know something that other people don’t. I just learned by going through the motions.”
Once Arvid finished writing the other chapters he needed to add, he published the book on Gumroad and launched it on Twitter immediately. As Arvid put it, “People gladly purchased the book. It was wonderful, heartfelt admiration and support I didn’t expect. I thought I'd sell 20 copies. I sold 350 on the first day. It was mind blowing.”
Marketing, Audience Building, and the Role of Gumroad
Arvid knew if he wanted to build an audience, he’d have to reliably and sustainably provide value, every single week. In his words, “That’s what the blog was. And the blog turns into a newsletter, and the newsletter turns into a podcast, and all of this was centered around Twitter as the audience, because that's where indie hackers and bootstrappers are. And by giving them something without asking for anything in return, consistently for almost a year, every single week reliably, people were just waiting to give something back to me at some point.”
Arvid describes himself as a technical person who shies away from marketing, and self-marketing, in particular. “I have a hard time doing that. I just try to give people something meaningful. My audience building strategy has always been about empowering people and providing reach to people who have something cool to say. I do a lot of retweeting of people who have something nice to share. I use Twitter as an amplification system for other people, and I sprinkle in some marketing for my own stuff.”
For Arvid, Gumroad’s role has been enabling him to reach who he wants. “Gumroad is global and has helped me reach a global audience. The whole point behind Zero to Sold is to enable people to understand how to build a business, and you don't have to live in the United States to do that.”
Arvid wrote Zero to Sold for people who want to build something no matter where they are living. “They could start a company through Stripe Atlas and charge people all over the world for a SaaS product. It doesn't matter where they’re from. It doesn’t matter where they are or where they work from. It doesn’t really matter if they’re technical or not. You will find somebody to help you with that.”
Today, Arvid is working on his second book where he’s addressing this part of his journey. The book is titled, suitably, Audience First: Why Businesses That Start With An Audience Succeed. “I've been part of many failed things, where I learned and then I could use those experiences later to not fail as much. My experiences have taught me about the audience and about putting the audience first. That means structuring your idea, not in the beginning, but after you understand what people actually have problems with – and you can feel where you should explore more. So that was going to be my next project.”