20 years to overnight success
A detailed look at how to create a lasting and successful product.
June 18, 2020
Yesterday was the best day ever for Fathom in terms of sign-ups.
Some might think, “Overnight success!” but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Thinking about yesterday, there’s quite a bit that has led up to new customer trials exploding for us. And, of course, those trials are free for 7 days, so we can only assume that most won’t churn out before payment (we have a low, single digit churn rate).
As I mentioned, none of this happened over night. I’ve personally spent 20+ years working online, building an audience and working hard to earn their trust. This was the catalyst for sales initially, people who followed my work and my newsletter, believing that I had built something great for privacy-focused website analytics.
In addition to building an audience, I have years of experience in product design, having worked with companies such as Mercedes Benz, Microsoft, and hundreds of companies around the world. Jack has been writing code since he was 13, and has worked on large applications since he was 15. The combining of our primary skill-sets enabled us to build an incredible product. We both also have experience running our respective companies. To make Fathom work, we put in years of honing and mastering our skills before starting anything.
We also had some big splashes when we launched (in 2018) on Producthunt, several times, and Hacker News. But you can’t launch on bigger platforms every single week, so once those initial sales spikes ended, we were left with 1-2 new user sign-ups a week for quite some time. That was still huge for us at that time, because it meant that a) people were finding out about us, and b) people were willing to give a new company like ours a shot.
Our first version of our open-source product was downloaded over one million times. We’ve since put our focus on our paid version, but still, the OS version really demonstrated a desire for people to want to use a simple analytics product (a single page of stats), with privacy baked in.
At this time, we were creating a customer-base slowly and organically (word of mouth mostly, because people who tried us ended up loving our product and telling their friends). We were methodical about creating new features, adapting them, and then rebuilding them better.
This was still our side-project, because both Jack and I had other full-time work that was bringing in much more revenue than Fathom. We had to be careful to manage our excitement and not burn out on taking on too much, too quickly.
Then, before we knew it, we started to see 1-2 sign-ups per day. This was surreal. To be honest, there were a lot of “🥳” and “🎉” emojis exchanged in our Telegram chat. We started seeing people sign-up whose names weren’t familiar to myself or Jack. It felt like a pace of adoption that couldn’t be beat. And, because we spent as much time doing support and talking to our customers to help us understand their needs better, our churn was still very low.
Now, in the middle of 2020 (as I write this), we see dozens of sign-ups for trials everyday, and see about the same number of folks converting from a free trial to a paid subscription. Jack and I make enough from Fathom to pay our expenses and, more importantly, pay us each a full-time salary. I have to be honest though, my favourite part is when someone goes from a trial to a yearly plan instantly (it means they trust and like our service enough to lock in for a year).
Yesterday we saw a lot more trials than usual. I still don’t know if that’s the new normal or a blip. But either way, I’m stoked.
Like I said, this did not happen overnight (unless you consider 20 years of work an “overnight success”, ha). I’ve also failed at creating profitable software companies at least eight times in the past. I’ve done similar (listened to my audience, built something well) and still utterly tanked more than once. We’ve spent 1,000s of hours writing code and content, designing experiences, and most importantly, 1,000s of hours listening to what the market and our customers were asking for.
I wouldn’t have looked for a tech founder if my initial tweet with a mockup from Photoshop about what I thought analytics could look like if they were simple and privacy didn’t take off. I wouldn’t have helped create a paid version of Fathom if the open-source version hadn’t been downloaded more times than there are people on the island I live on. We wouldn’t have moved to full-time work on this unless it was generating enough profit (not just gross revenue) to easily support two modest salaries.
I’m stoked to see how far Fathom has come from the crappy screenshot I designed years ago. I’m excited that there’s now a whole segment of the market which focuses on “simple, privacy-focused analytics” (yes, I’m claiming that I started this, haha).
Fathom still doesn’t give a care about shady growth-hacks, nor have we ever done anything that doesn’t put our customers first (example: we send an email before we renew a yearly subscription because it’s the right thing to do). We don’t care about VC money, and regularly turn down offers to invest and rapidly grow. We focus on the customers we have and how we can keep them happy using Fathom. Growth is an outcome of that, not a primary goal. We love that new people hear about us because our customers can’t stop telling their friends (I’m sure our affiliate program helps too).
Companies can’t solely rely on big launch splashes to sustain their revenue. Those are great, for sure, but they don’t last. What does? Constantly talking to your customers. Helping when they need it. Releasing updates they want and listening hard in your support channel. And then, making marketing something you always do, instead of something you do when there’s a launch. That’s why we have this blog (and why you’re reading this piece right now, how meta!), that’s why we have a podcast. That’s why we (err, Jack) continue to be active on Twitter.
Fathom Analytics wouldn’t exist right now if we didn’t find and build an audience, listen to the market, and then solve an existing problem. It’s hard (impossible?) to build a product then go out and look for an audience for it, or more specifically, for people who have a problem it could solve. Instead, Fathom exists because people were asking us to build it before we had written a single line of code. Like everything else I’ve done that’s worked out in business, I focused on my audience first, listened, then built something they asked me to build.
I’m thankful that Fathom is doing well. We’re sustainable, and companies rarely go out of business if they’re sustaining profit. We’re in for the long haul, and can’t wait to keep doing what we’ve been doing: growing organically, working with customers to make a great product, and of course, using ugly cats in sweaters in our marketing.
We’re lucky to work with the customers we do. You’d recognize the names of several of the companies who use us. But there are also so many customers who run tiny businesses, like ours, making the internet a better and more private place. I can’t wait to see and share what’s coming next.
Over and out,
Cofounder, Fathom Analytics