For some people, software development is in their blood. But for Courtland Allen, developing was seen as a means to an end.
“When I was in college, I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a builder. There are things that I wanted to create. There are things that I thought should exist in the world.”
“I thought of software engineering as a skill set that would help me create those things, rather than as the core of who I am.”
Create he did. Determined to make his own path, Allen strived to build the next brilliant startup. After years creating projects as an independent developer, he launched Indie Hackers, a community where other founders like him could share their stories and learn from each other.
In the new episode of Decoded, Allen shares the path he took to creating Indie Hackers, the path he sees others taking to reach their independence, and the power of storytelling in the developer world.
From Rolling Solo to Building a Community
Allen knew when he graduated that even the most skilled programmers end up working for someone else. However, the idea of creating value only for others to reap all the rewards didn’t sit right.
“You can be brilliant, you can be creating the algorithms that Google uses to generate billions of dollars, but they’re probably only going to pay you a tiny fraction of that. There’s all these different things that just didn’t really jive with me as a pure software engineer. And so I thought, how do I battle against this force of wanting to have my freedom, wanting to be self-determined to use my skills as a developer to create the life that I want to live and build the things that I want to build?”
Over the years, Allen honed his skills as an indie hacker that could do it all: come up with the idea, identify the consumer, build the product, and then sell it directly to the customer. The experience helped inspire the idea of Indie Hackers.
In this community, founders and entrepreneurs share the nuts and bolts of their business — from challenges to revenue — in order to share, educate and support others in their own journeys to independence. The site features articles written by founders themselves, in addition to a podcast hosted by Allen where he interviews successful indie hackers such as Michele Hansen, Valentin Hinov, and Andrey Azimov.
The Path to Freedom
Since 2016, Allen has been the driving force behind Indie Hackers, nurturing a community of like-minded developers as they seek to gain financial and career independence. He said that the prototypical indie hacker tends to be an experienced software engineer who is ready to take a chance in their career.
“They feel a lot of confidence that if they were to take some time off and start a project, [knowing] that if it doesn’t work out they could probably just go get a job elsewhere.”
While Allen is a proponent of taking a big swing — after all, he quit his job to work on projects full time — it’s by no means the only strategy he encourages budding indie hackers to explore.
“I don’t think you need to completely dive into the deep end, quit your job, and bet it all. I think it makes a lot of sense to gradually work on your project on the side.”
While he says a lot of people think they don’t have the time due to family, kids, friends, and hobbies, these people have an advantage: a software engineer’s salary.
“You probably have a lot more money than you have time. You can use some of that money to buy yourself a head start.”
He shared the story of Rob Walling, a software engineer who would buy tiny companies that had already gotten their products off the ground. This would help him save months in developing the product and building up the initial customer base, giving him the foundation to immediately jump in and improve the products. Allen said that this strategy allowed Walling to generate enough revenue each month in order to quit his job.
“There’s a lot of people I’ve talked to who've gone down this path, but it's not nearly popular enough in my opinion. I think as a software engineer, we get giddy over the idea of building our own projects from scratch.”
After its first year of operation, Indie Hackers was acquired by Stripe in 2017. The acquisition came at a point when the site was generating enough revenue to pay the bills and give Allen the freedom to explore his next project. While the irony of Indie Hackers going corporate was now lost on Allen, Stripe acquired Indie Hackers with the intent of keeping it indie. The result was that Indie Hackers now had the support and financial backing it needed to grow its community to its full potential.
For Allen, the fit between a hacker community and a payments processor is natural: it’s all about storytelling. Each tells the same story — empowering developers — making the two cultures a natural fit. In addition, both companies know their role in their customer’s story: that of a guide, not the hero. It’s a story he feels all successful indie hackers share.
“Imagine that you are Yoda and customers are Luke Skywalker; they are the hero. When you’re sharing the story of your company, it's not about how big and great you are. It’s more about understanding your customers' challenges. How can you be this Yoda figure in your customers’ lives?”Hear the full episode with Courtland Allen — who shares even more startup lessons learned as he chats with Sydney Lai — and subscribe to Decoded today.