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I’m a 27-year-old developer based out of Chicago. My first experience as an entrepreneur was in middle school when I was hustling modded nerf guns on internet forums. A disgruntled buyer even taught me about customer support by telling on me to my parents when his shipment was delayed.
I fell in love with web design when I was in high school and have spent the past 10 years working full-time jobs while building projects on the side. I’ve always dreamed of working for myself so when I left my last job in December I decided to take some time off to try and launch a couple product ideas I had.
I launched the first version of Pull Reminders in January and have been bootstrapping it for the past several months.
Pull Reminders helps development teams stay on top of pull requests and improve their code review process. You can set up reminders in Slack channels and have everyone receive direct messages about their assigned code reviews. Pull Reminders also provides metrics like pull request size, code review turnaround time, and the number of reviews completed — these help you recognize contributors and improve your team’s processes.
Pull Reminders is used by over 400 companies like Pivotal, Instacart, WeWork, and Trivago.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I got the idea for Pull Reminders at my last job where I was an engineering manager. We had a pretty standard process for code reviews where we’d open pull requests on GitHub and share them in Slack.
I remember one time I asked an engineer on my team what was up with a pull request that had been stale for a couple of days. He told me that he had asked someone for a code review multiple times and had gotten tired of nagging.
As time went on I started spending a lot of time monitoring open pull requests and pinging people on Slack that needed to take action. I hated spending my time this way but it really helped the team because otherwise pull requests would drag on and take longer to release.
When I left that job last December I couldn’t shake away the idea of building a tool to automate what I had been doing. I was also hesitant because I wasn’t sure if anyone else would want to use it. I’ve probably launched over a dozen projects that have failed so my side project graveyard felt big enough.
I overcame this fear by doing more research. I asked some of my peers in a “Chicago CTO” Slack group whether they had problems with pull requests dragging on, and many responded yes. I also looked for existing solutions and found a bunch of "pull request reminder” projects on GitHub that were similar to my idea. This was proof to me that this was not an uncommon problem.
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I built the first version of Pull Reminders in a couple of weeks using Ruby on Rails. I don’t think there’s anything better than Rails for shipping and iterating on a new product. The goal of Rails is to be the “framework for small teams to do big things”, so it’s a great fit when you’re a one-person team.
When I took Pull Reminders live at the end of January I had no expectations of making money. I actually planned on letting people use Pull Reminders for free as a marketing strategy for something else I wanted to build. I didn’t have a pricing page or payment form.
After launching I started getting a small trickle of signups through the Slack App Directory. I emailed every user that signed up to find out who they were and what they were hoping to get out of Pull Reminders. A couple of those early users were from larger companies and I could tell they were taking my product seriously because they asked for lots of changes. I kept making changes based on their feedback until they seemed satisfied. Finally, I asked if they would be willing to pay. I thought I had about a 30% chance but it worked. Landing those first couple paying customers really blew my mind. It dawned on me that Pull Reminders could be an actual business.
To give you a better sense of the timeline, my first payment didn’t come through until March 1. After that, I started converting more and more signups into paying customers and eventually added a pricing page and payment form so I didn’t have to personally ask everyone to pay. I charge companies about $2 per month per developer through preset pricing plans of $10/mo, $49/mo, and $99/mo. Pricing is still a work in progress for me, but I like to justify the $2 per month per developer because it's less than a cup of coffee for each developer and I think Pull Reminders gives you more productivity than coffee.
What were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
In April I was able to get Pull Reminders published in the GitHub Marketplace. This felt like a big moment but it took a lot of work and I wasn’t sure what the results would be. Thankfully it’s given me a nice boost in signups and accelerated my growth.
Since then I’ve mostly been focused on improving my product. I have experimented with a referral program but it hasn’t gotten any traction. I’m still trying to figure out why. First, I tried to offer a package of free gourmet coffee per referral. Then I switched to Amazon gift cards. Right now, it’s a dual-incentive system where both the referrer and the invitee get Amazon credit.
Although I get a steady stream of signups from Slack and GitHub, I’m at the point now where I want to do my own marketing to grow the business faster. My plan is to start writing a lot about my own experiences and create guides for other developers that want to start businesses. My customers are developers so it seems like a nice alignment of what I can write about and an audience that’s relevant to my business.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame?
The biggest obstacles for me have been doubting myself and being a perfectionist.
As a solo founder, it can be difficult to stay positive and motivated. I think all creative people deal with fears of being rejected or failing. When you invest so much of yourself into creating something it can be very scary to put it out there. Sometimes I get down about stupid things. For example, if I have one week where my signups decrease or a customer I admire doesn’t purchase a subscription, I start to get negative thoughts. It’s a very stupid thing because my business is growing well and I know I am lucky to be in the position I am.
Another problem I have is being a perfectionist. It’s easy for me to go down rabbit holes and labor over details that aren’t practically benefiting my business. For example, I’ve had to stop myself from wasting time overly refactoring code or redesigning something that looks good enough.
I think being a perfectionist can really backfire because when you start over scrutinizing your work, you often end up making it worse. For example, when I was working on my responses for a written interview I started word-smithing things to the point where I was making it longer and more boring. I had my brother and a couple of my friends rescue me by proofreading and telling me to stop.
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To be honest I’m not sure. I mentioned some of my personal weaknesses in the previous section but from a business standpoint I think a lot of my disadvantages are also advantages.
For example, my business is a bit fragile because it is completely dependent on GitHub and Slack. But that’s also been a huge advantage because a lot of people can easily adopt my product on top of their existing tools.
Being a solo founder can be seen as a disadvantage, but I actually see it as a huge opportunity. Having complete autonomy and low overhead means I can pursue opportunities that most other companies wouldn’t even bother with.
During the process of building & growing Pull Reminders, which were the worst mistakes you committed?
One big mistake that I continue to make is building large features without testing and validating them along the way. For example, Pull Reminders currently has some reporting features that I don’t think anyone is getting a lot of value out of. I spoke to customers about it before I started and had a good idea of the problems I was trying to solve, but designing reports and data visualizations is very hard without a deep understanding of how, who, and when they’ll be used. As a result, I created something that wasn’t quite the right solution. It would have been better for me to take the process slower and show users mockups of what I could build before I actually built it. I’m now redesigning a lot of my reports based on what I’ve learned, but I could have gotten to the same point faster with a better process.
Another mistake I made was spending way too much time and energy trying to get a new logo designed. The logo I have now was designed by me, but a couple of months ago I became infatuated with the idea of creating a cute illustrated logo that was “bot” themed. I spent lots of time reaching out to various designers, writing up briefs, and iterating on different design concepts. Ultimately, I didn’t like any of the concepts and realized my current logo was perfectly good enough. I wasted a lot of time on that whole process which wouldn’t have really made a difference even if it had been successful.
If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?
I think that a big part of turning your idea into a business is having the mental and emotional stamina to keep going, even when things aren’t going well. When I was getting started I wasn’t good at this and would get really affected by the roller coaster ups and downs.
These days I actively focus on my mental health and staying positive emotionally. If I’m feeling off I try to take a day or two off to recharge a bit. I’ve found that if you focus on getting into the right mindset, the creative success follows much more easily.
Apart from mistakes, what are other sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
My recommendation is to learn from books and supplement that with a very minimal amount of online content. It’s easy to get sucked in by “entreporn”. My favorite books are Nail it then Scale It for the entrepreneurial process and the Fearless Mind for the mental aspects of quitting your job and pursuing your dreams. The links I provided are to my book notes on my website.
If there's one thing my journey has taught me it's that just like there are many paths to becoming a programmer, there are many paths to starting your own business. My journey has had many twists and turns and one thing I haven't talked about is all the people that have helped me along the way. For any readers going through a similar journey, I'd be happy to answer any questions you have along the way. I’m also working on a new website where I’ll share what I’ve learned and create guides on everything from incorporating and taxes to sales and customer support.
I talk a bit more about my journey on this video:
Where can we go to learn more?
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