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Pat Walls from Starter Story: Interviewing Over 500 Businesses While Bootstrapping His Own

In an exclusive Trends Interview, the founder of Starter Story sat down with us to discuss what successful founders are doing right, how he’s managed to scale up his operations, and why he chooses to share his metrics openly.

14 Minute Read

After a failed Y Combinator application in 2017, Pat Walls decided to bootstrap his next business. Hustling around his full-time job as a software developer, he built up Starter Story as a “solopreneur.”

Since inception in November 2017, Starter Story has interviewed over 500 businesses and is now averaging multiple interviews per day. He’s built out new features of the platform, including search functionality, suggested toolsfounder-recommended books, and social engagement features. He’s even released an ebook showcasing the 24 most inspiring interviews. 

The site mostly features e-commerce hits, although Pat has plans to expand past that. Products range from swim trunks made of trash to non-fiction book clubs to portable treehouses to miniature construction supplies to carbon fiber instruments, and these businesses do anywhere from a few thousand per month to up to millions per year.

Due to automating several parts of his process, Pat has managed to stay lean, while growing quickly. In less than two years, Pat’s earning a nice $7k monthly from the business with healthy margins. He’s also built up traffic to 150k monthly pageviews and a subscriber base of over 9,000––all with a marketing budget of $0.Pat, now bootstrapping both Starter Story and a new product, Pigeon, sat down with us to talk about what successful founders are doing right, how he’s managed to scale up his operations, and why he chooses to share his metrics openly.

Key Takeaways:

  • Build sustainable businesses that won’t disappear with fads. Ask whether your business solves a human need, like helping people lose weight or be happy, that exists today and will still exist 20 years from now.
  • Paid advertising is getting saturated. The businesses doing really well have built up a brand, owned their marketing, and aren’t competing solely on price. When you build a brand, people are happy to pay a premium on your product. 
  • Understand your processes at a deep level, before automating or scaling. When you do choose to automate, focus on “mini-automations” that compound over time. 
  • Free up your time as a founder so that you can focus on the bigger things that will really drive your business forward. 
  • Openly sharing your metrics keeps you accountable to improve, since there’s no hiding.

1.0 Starter Story

You’ve interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs who have told you their “starter story.” What was yours?

I always wanted to start a business, but I never really thought it was possible. I always read biographies and watched movies like The Social Network, and got really excited about the idea of starting my own business. But entrepreneurship doesn’t really run in my family, so I always just dreamt about it.

As I graduated from college and went into the workforce, I kept thinking more about it. It started to seem possible. And about 4 or 5 years ago, I went to a coding bootcamp because I didn’t feel technically challenged at the startup I was at. I did the coding bootcamp, which was just an amazing experience, and I started working as a software engineer.

Eventually, a couple friends and I got together and decided we were going to try to build a software app on the side. We were in San Francisco at the time and tried to get into Y Combinator. It was a crazy, interesting, and really fun process, but it ultimately failed for a lot of reasons. Even after it failed, I got the start-up bug and realized that it was possible for me and I should pursue it.

After that, I found this website called Indie Hackers that’s all about people building businesses by themselves. I started reading these stories about businesses making $5k a month, just as some simple online product or website. So I decided to start a blog where I would interview entrepreneurs and I figured that would be great because it was something I could work at over nights and weekends. And I could meet people, network, and learn about new businesses.

That was about two years ago and ever since then, it just kind of took off. I just kept interviewing entrepreneurs. I got the website and newsletter sponsored. I started making money and I quit my full-time job. Now, I’m starting another new business while I’m running that business, so it’s kind of a crazy and exciting time.

You’ve interviewed a ton of different “starters,” as you call them. Is there a single story that stands out to you?

There’s so many. We’ve done over 500 now, and I probably have a short list of 50 that I really love. 

There’s one called Brumate. This is a story about this guy who is 23 years old and running a business doing $1m/month. I think he makes way more than that now, since those stats are from 2018 and I know he’s been growing.

They sell wine and beer coolers, like those metal koozies. He did it all as a single founder and a really small team of outsourced people. And he validated the product through Facebook ads before actually building or manufacturing the product.

What I really liked about that story is that I think he broke the boundaries of what I thought was possible in e-commerce, as a solo bootstrapped business. He didn’t have any funding, and the way he approached growth, automation, and outsourcing was really impressive. 

There’s another one called Lazyjack Press, which does significantly less revenue in comparison to Brumate, but it’s about a girl who started this preppy clothing business out here in New York. She sells ties and “frat boy” clothing. When we interviewed her, she was doing about $20-30k per month, but she does it all without paid advertising.

When I talked to her, she just had so much passion for her product and you could tell that permeated into every aspect of her business. 

Was she opposed to using ads, or did she just want to focus on organic growth?

Yeah, I think she probably tried them and they just didn’t work that well for her product. Instead, she decided to play to her strengths which was better as an advocate. She does a lot of onsite sales at conventions and trade shows, where she’s out there in the real world selling her product. 

A lot of times, people get so excited by Facebook ads, but sometimes Facebook isn’t a great way to build a loyal customer base. She’s really built something that has kept customers coming back. As I built my businesses, a lot of it comes down to having a great story, a great product, and a great brand. 

After interviewing so many companies and founders, what trends have you noticed that led to success?

My answer will be biased because I interview a lot of smaller online brands that are doing on average around $300k per year. With these types of businesses, I’m seeing certain advertising techniques dying because they’re getting too saturated. Even if you have a unique product, competitors will come along, make the ads more expensive for you to run, and saturate the market. 

The trend I’m seeing, which really has been around forever, is companies really owning the marketing they do. Whether they have their own email list or approach it organically like Lazyjack Press, these companies are building their brand over time.

Sometimes I’ll see businesses that sell commodities––often things you can easily find on Amazon––and those brands are struggling because they’re really just trying to compete on price.

The businesses that I see do really well do a great job of branding and building that loyal customer base, not just going crazy and spending a million dollars on Facebook ads in the first two months. And if they use Facebook ads, it’s often to bring back people who have already visited their site through their pixel.

I think when you have a brand, you get word of mouth and people willingly share it, but you can also put a premium on your product. So if you sell widgets and those widgets cost $20 on Amazon, if you have a great brand you can charge $40 for that widget and no one’s going to complain.

There are a lot of unique products on Starter Story. Where do you find these businesses?

They come through in a lot of ways. When I first started looking for interesting people to interview, I would just go online and look for successful, unique e-commerce brands. I’d find directories online that said “Here’s the hottest Shopify stores,” for example.

Most people probably know about Shark Tank, but it always has these really interesting, kind of weird businesses. That’s what sells: the story, not just the product. Shark Tank is such a successful TV show because people are like, “That’s such a cool idea.” People that have these kinds of businesses also seem more willing to share their story, because it’s fun to write about and it’s fun to read about.

I started by going out looking for those kinds of businesses, but it’s turned into a network effect. I always ask for a lot of referrals, and as the site has grown, I have a lot of inbound where people reading may have a similar business will reach out saying, “Hey, I want to share my story too.”

Are there any industries or product categories that you think, “Wow, this is an open arena for people that know about it?”

There’s a couple that I can think of that are like that. For example, a couple years ago there was a ton of beard-branded products. That was a really hot niche because beards were really in, but a lot of those businesses end up struggling because if the trends die out, then it gets harder to compete.

The one that I see now that seems to be really big is CBD, but again, I was talking to one of my founder friends and he was saying that CBD is becoming a commodity, so it’s just going to get harder as the market gets more saturated.

There’s something to be said about getting into something while trends are hot and riding the wave.

But sometimes it really is about the simple stuff, right? Like starting a blog about founders and their stories. Sometimes it’s just about executing on a solid foundation.

Yeah, I think that I really want to focus on solving problems that will always be there. Does your business solve some sort of human need, like losing weight or helping people be more happy? Does your business solve something that was around 20 years ago, is around today, and will be around in 20 more years? I want to be able to build a business that I can be happy working on for the next 20 years and not scared that it’s going to fall apart. 

You mentioned in a previous interview that at the beginning you were doing a couple interviews a month and now you’re publishing multiple pieces daily. How did you manage to scale that up?

First, I want to say that when I started, I didn’t have any experience building a blog or interviewing. It was all a learning experience for me, and like you said, it took me 5 or 6 months to get to, let’s say, 10 interviews, and have a site that had enough data or content on it for it to look like some sort of legitimate publication.

I spent a lot of time on them too, because I was just learning every little piece. That goes further down to transcribing the interviews, editing the grammar, understanding how to write a good title, understanding how to have a good angle for a story, where to share it online, creating social media posts, and building a pipeline of interviews. 

Scaling it up was really just a matter of solving each little problem that I came across. I would always ask how I could get it better and faster next time. Now, I do a lot of automation, but it took me a long time to get there. 

Sometimes I actually like the manual side of things, so I really do like to learn how things work deep down. You really have to understand the problem itself, and what you’re really trying to do before you can really scale anything.

Can you explain what parts of your business that you’ve automated or outsourced? 

I’ve automated nearly every aspect of the Starter Story social media accounts, meaning we auto-post new content every day but rarely log into the accounts. I actually have not logged into the Instagram account in over a month!

I also automated a lot of other social sharing features. Our Pinterest account is fully automated using some API magic. All those images are auto-generated using an amazing application called Placid.app.

I’ve automated cross-posting our content to Reddit and Hacker News as well.

Most importantly, I have automated most of the outreach, interview, and publication process for Starter Story by building Pigeon. Because Pigeon works inside Gmail, it allows us to automate the entire process across hundreds of in-progress email conversations without losing track.

Because of the time saved, we’ve been able to do more interviews, focus on quality, and scale without hiring a lot. We punch out more content than very big publication teams and I’m really proud of that.

What’s your advice for the non-technical founders out there? Should they learn to code? Should they hire someone?

I would encourage people to look closely at their day––like what are you doing? For example, for social media I automated all of the Instagram posts, because before it was automated, each time we listed a new story, putting together Instagram posts would take me maybe 10 minutes. I just looked at that process and said, “How can I automate this?”

But when I think about automation, I don’t think about how I go from zero to full automation. I’m like OK, there’s one step which is writing the description of the Instagram post. I don’t want to write the description every time, so I’ll build some code to generate it from the article content itself. Then, when I go to post on Instagram I’ve shaved off maybe like a minute or two of extra time that it would take me.

Once I do that, then I go, OK, what’s the next thing I can automate? OK, maybe the image. I want to put some text on the image, which you could probably do with a bunch of tools online. Then I’ll automate that. That would shave off another two or so minutes.

Before you know it, you have all these little mini-automations, and then you finally get to the point where you’ve learned all this stuff too. Like, “I learned how to use Zapier and I learned how to automate this. I don’t even know how to code, but I learned it.” 

2.0 Sharing in the Open

How much traffic are you currently getting? Where is it coming from?

Right now, we get a couple thousand unique users daily and are approaching 100k monthly users. This has scaled up consistently, as we’ve built a larger base of organic traffic––around 40% of traffic has come from organic since inception.

At the beginning, there were quite a few posts that trended on Hacker News or on Reddit (the r/entrepreneur subreddit was huge for me).

Do you have any scrappy growth tactics that you would like to share?

I don’t like the idea of growth hacks, because by definition they are hacks and won’t last forever.

For example, Reddit was a big “growth hack” for me when I started out. I had countless interviews hitting the front page, and it really did great things for Starter Story. But nowadays, Reddit doesn’t really move the needle in terms of traffic to the site.

I tried a lot of stuff in the early days that didn’t work out, but when I tried enough things, I eventually got lucky with Reddit. Once that happened, I doubled down.

So my advice for finding growth hacks is to just experiment. Post on Quora, try to go viral on YouTube, or try to get some press. Just put yourself out there and you never know what might happen!

You openly share a lot of your metrics and one of those is your revenue. At the moment, Starter Story is doing around $7k a month. How much of that is profit?

That’s changed a little bit recently. I was initially just doing everything by myself and spending $200 a month on software.

But I recently started hiring people. For now, just 3 people through Upwork to help me with the stuff that can’t be automated. I have this small team of people that do micro-tasks, which costs me around $1,000 a month. Even though my profit is a little bit lower these days, it has helped me scale revenue much higher, and it’s just been an amazing experience to hire, because I’d never managed people before. 

I’ve also taken myself out of the business a little bit. Before I had this team, I was processing every single email and reviewing every story.

What’s your philosophy behind sharing everything openly? A lot of people think this info is proprietary and if a competitor finds out how you do something, they’ll be able to use that against you in some way.

First of all, I deal with a lot of people that need to share their revenue to be featured on Starter Story. Behind the scenes, a lot of interviews don’t happen because they don’t want to share their revenue, and sometimes it’s for a good reason––sometimes you really do have a competitive advantage or maybe you don’t want to share because your revenue isn’t where you’d like it to be.

I personally found that sharing my metrics and being transparent was just a really fun way to meet people online, share your story, and help others out.

Another really cool thing for me was that I started from zero. So, when I started sharing my metrics, I was like, “Oh, maybe this month I’ll get $3 for revenue.” Starter Story wasn’t monetized for 5 or 6 months, so when I’d share my revenue it was $0. 

I wasn’t even thinking about revenue in those early days. I was so excited about traffic and email subscribers. It was “rock bottom” for me, so I didn’t really even think twice about sharing my numbers. 

And when you get that first $50, you’re so excited that you want to share it with everyone. That really motivates you, because people congratulate you on making that. Most people would be like, who cares, you made $50 a month. But for me and maybe some people reading, making your own money on your own project is so exciting, and it doesn’t matter how little it is.

Every month that number would just keep going up, and that would give me more motivation. When people will ask me how my business is going, I love being able to just say, “Yeah, this is how much I make,” and I’m not ashamed. When you can just own that, you don’t have to hide.

Now that you’re working on Starter Story and Pigeon, how do you manage your time across projects?

Lately I’ve been doing monthly goals that I set across both businesses. I identify the most important thing I need to do. I set those at the beginning of the month and then I just work really hard to build out my week, by setting specific micro tasks so I can stay on track.

The big thing for me recently has been to free up more time so I can work on more high-level stuff for the business and not work on things that don’t move the needle. For example, I used to process every email for my business.

Recently, I’ve been just so enlightened by recognizing “I don’t need to do this.” 

For example, I used to think that only I could review interviews, because I know all these little things about Starter Story and that’s going to make the article better. But I recently had that outsourced to someone and he does an amazing job. 

I’ve realized that almost anything can be outsourced. If you run your own business or a small business, that might be the best decision you’ll ever make; getting your hands off those smaller tasks so that you can work on bigger things that can really move the business forward.

What’s next for Pat Walls?

Pigeon, my new business, is pretty new and it’s a SaaS business, whereas Starter Story is more of a content site. It’s just a much different business model, so I’ve been learning a lot, like how to do support, sales, and build and validate a product.

Every day is a learning experience. A lot of failure, a lot of rejection.

People often ask me about Starter Story. A lot of people think, “Oh, you’re going to run out of businesses to interview.”. I used to think like that, but there are millions of businesses in the world, and Starter Story has only touched a very, very small fraction of that. So I just want to continue to interview businesses and do that at a higher scale, across a more diverse set. I want to share the stories of thousands and thousands of more people. 

There’s an abundance of stories and I think every entrepreneur has a good story to tell, even if it’s a failed product. Because starting a business is so hard and only a very small percentage of people do it successfully or do it at all.

The model for Starter Story works really well. It helps the businesses we interview, it helps me, and it helps my advertisers, and I don’t see that model falling apart.

In an exclusive Trends Interview, the founder of Starter Story sat down with us to discuss what successful founders are doing right, how he’s managed to scale up his operations, and why he chooses to share his metrics openly.

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