Lessons from starting a design-as-a-service startup


208 points | by vinrob92 488 days ago


  • robodale 488 days ago

    I see the comments here already tearing apart the article. I'm creating part of my SaaS offering that includes an optional service for new signups (importing and formatting company documents into our system). I thought the article was thoughtful, well-laid out, detailed key steps, and above all...offered much-needed value to me. The Facebook group offer at the bottom was a nice touch, as I want to learn more and share what I have going on. OP if you're reading this, well done.

    • vinrob92 487 days ago


      • corobo 488 days ago

        If you're including my comment in that please be aware I put in "Not rejecting the concept, honestly curious" sincerely.

        At the time of comment I'd read the title and "Two months ago" in the article's first sentence. If anything my comment was technically off topic.

      • DoreenMichele 487 days ago

        Really nice to see this.

        I have been doing piece work for the last few years rather than hourly work. I typically get paid by the page or by the word. I am more comfortable with that than with charging by the hour. For one thing, it gives me a clear means to improve my hourly rate without wondering if I am a con artist bilking people: just get better and faster. Their price remains the same. My de facto hourly wage goes up.

        I have been asked to submit a bid to a local organization that needs help with their websites. I am thinking of charging a monthly retainer for being the admin and a per page fee for creating new content as needed.

        I wasn't sure if that made sense. I haven't seen it done that way before. But that is very in line with what you are describing.

        Now, I just need more customers willing to pay me X amount for a page of content for their site. And to define the scope of what constitutes a page of content.

        • HeyLaughingBoy 487 days ago

          That makes sense to me and it's in line with the web devs who advertise basic sites like "3 pages for $xxx."

          I'm one of those who prefers fixed price bids to hourly/daily. I like to be able to say "I will do X and it will cost you $Y." I lose my shirt occasionally but that gives me more incentive to improve my quoting skills :-)

        • corobo 488 days ago

          Does 2 months actually count as $x/month? Not rejecting the concept, honestly curious. I'd imagine that figure would not be used if you were to sell the business or look for investment for example

          • vinrob92 488 days ago

            OP here.

            100% agree with you, it is a new concept. The $15k figure is what we made so far in February. It still has to be fully proven. Right now our best clients are startups that require a lot of graphic design work mostly for their Instagram and Facebook pages (banners, infographics) but I am expecting a higher churn for clients that only need some landing pages or some logos. We are happy to work for everyone right now though!

            • mamon 488 days ago

              Serious institutions, like banks or VCs usually want your financial history for at least a year back, so no, two months won't cut it.

              • everdev 488 days ago

                You typically sell at a multiple of the last 2-3 years average revenue.

                • pc86 487 days ago

                  You could write a book filled the caveats you should have on such a generalized statement as this, and 2-3x revenue is certainly the exception rather than the rule. Plenty of business sell for a year's gross revenue or less.

                  • fnayr 487 days ago

                    Typical for what? SaaS websites?

                    Websites monetizing with ads generally sell for only around 12 months revenue, and apps generally sell for around 6 months, because of the volatility in users/downloads and uncertainty in the markets.

                    Regardless, the poster you replied to was making the point (I think) that it's a little early to say you're making 'X-monthly' revenue when you're basing it on 1 or 2 months (which even the OP agreed with).

                  • probablynot 487 days ago

                    In six months OP will likely have exhausted their reservoir of friends willing to subscribe to their startup, then the hard part starts.

                  • bulgor 487 days ago

                    Not sure about the quality I can expect here. Most of these services use cheap laour. I’ve enjoyed using a more high-end service thats focussing on [1] User Interface and UX design with senior level designers.

                    [1] http://fairpixels.pro

                    • meteor333 487 days ago

                      I'm genuinely curious on how people find new customers or get people on your website? Is it based on referrals, advertising? I've struggled with outreach and getting first 100-1,000 on simply on the website, let alone signing up. Are there any good resources on this?

                      • vinrob92 487 days ago

                        We are just making what people want and mostly it goes from word of mouth. We are also limiting our services. We know that people love the type of illustrations we do (for blog posts/landing pages), love the type of landing pages we do, and also love the logos. We do not try to do 1000 things well, but rather 15-20 things really well and know our customers really well.

                        I only reach our customers via a few channels and mostly do content marketing but most of it is word of mouth.

                        We have not yet any referral or affiliate system in place but we are building one for our v3 which should come end of this month.

                        • meteor333 487 days ago

                          thanks that's helpful. How many users/customers did you before you did any content marketing? How much do you currently spend on advertising?

                          • vinrob92 487 days ago

                            We do not spend any money on advertising. We only do direct sales and content marketing.

                            We had our first 10 subscribers with direct sales.

                        • giarc 487 days ago

                          It likely doesn't take much. I listened to a podcast with a similar company and started to research them as I was in need of work.

                          I guess the hard part would be to get on podcasts with a sizeable audience.

                          I've found that in my startup, even though it's small, it can be easy to get free marketing. I think many people assume that journalists have a backlog of articles and they ignore their emails with suggestions. And perhaps that's true for big ones. We got free press simply by searching the archives or a few local papers, finding a journalist that had written a similar article and reaching out through social media. They are paid to create content, therefore if you get in touch with easy to create content (you are happy to help write/edit, make yourself available at a moments notice) getting an article written about you isn't tough.

                        • maxxxxx 488 days ago

                          How can this be so cheap reasonably? If I understand correctly I can have a full time designer for $279/month. Maybe a lot of subscribers use only a small part of what they could be using but it seems to me this can easily be abused.

                          • pc86 487 days ago

                            Nothing on the site indicates that you get a full-time designer and the fact you believe so is part of the marketing behind it, I believe.

                            You get unlimited requests. But if they're busy, they're busy. It might be 5 days before they get your request completed, and that's iteration one. And nothing's saying they'll work on multiple requests simultaneously, although they might.

                            Services like this farm out 99% of the work to virtual assistants in the Philippines, Vietnam, etc.

                            • maxxxxx 487 days ago

                              I guess it's the usual problem with "unlimited". When you push it to its limits it falls apart. If they have a lot of demanding customers they either have to slow down response time or reduce quality of the work. This could be a problem for a customer who relies on certain turnaround times.

                              • pc86 487 days ago

                                If a customer needs same-day turnarounds day in and day out they're getting a hell of a lot more than $280/mo in value out of the service, I would imagine. Maybe not enough for a full-time designer but certainly more than $280/mo.

                            • vinrob92 488 days ago

                              OP here. I am in Asia and work with the best designers here (a lot of designers have worked previously with top UI teams at leading startups in Asia and even two unicorns). They handle 3 to 4 clients per month and we make only a small margin. We do not intend Manypixels to be a huge business, but rather something small and if possible allowing us to have a good lifestyle while making designers and clients happy.

                              • phkahler 488 days ago

                                Your labor costs are very low. Are your clients local, or are you bringing in a lot of business due to a price differential between where you are and more expensive places? If it's the later then it won't work for readers in the more expensive places.

                                • vinrob92 487 days ago

                                  Most of our clients are located in the US, Europe, and Australia. Our team is based in a few different cities in Asia (and I am too, actually I am replying to all people on the chat of our website in a taxi in Yogyakarta, Indonesia). We pay our designers actually very high rates compared to what they earn as freelance designers and have set up great processes in place to ensure quality consistency and speedy ETA.

                                • maxxxxx 487 days ago

                                  Cool. I didn't want to criticize you but just wanted to figure out how such a thing can work and learn from it. Thanks!

                                  • vinrob92 487 days ago

                                    No problem! We should actually articulate better on our homepage our process and why we are able to still deliver high quality work at relatively affordable prices.

                              • stevenwoo 487 days ago

                                There's a /r/startups subreddit (reddit.com) you may want to submit this to for more coverage, though a link requires mod approval there.

                                • neil_s 487 days ago

                                  The website (ManyPixels) seems pretty incomplete: I can't seem to enlarge the portfolio, there are repeated strings in a bunch of places, and the FAQs refer to other parts of the site without actually linking there. Currently resorting to finding your work on Dribbble.

                                  • moduspwnens14 487 days ago

                                    Oh man I was looking for something like this. I have a personal project I wanted to make actually look professional but as a freelancer it's tough to justify big bucks for something like that. But this might work!

                                    • vinrob92 487 days ago

                                      Feel free to try, we have a 10 days, 100% money back guarantee anyway!

                                    • afeezaziz 487 days ago

                                      This is amazing. I mean the service. Count me as your customer

                                      • vinrob92 487 days ago

                                        Thanks for the love! We love you too so here is a 20% forever discount code on all subscriptions (only 10 available): 915Z6X1

                                        • xweb 487 days ago

                                          @vinrob92 - This is great of you to put this discount code here. I am strongly tempted, but it is unclear on the website what the value proposition of the "premium" service is. Looking side by side, it just appears to add "logo, branding, and illustrations" to the basic plan. But wouldn't that fall under "graphic design" in the basic plan? Can you explain here what "premium" means in your service offering?

                                          • skellera 487 days ago


                                            Thank you. This was just what I was looking for.

                                        • fredgrott 488 days ago

                                          This is helpful as I just started bootstrapping services in that exact area..very helpful guide into scaling it that way..thanks for posting it

                                          • pouta 488 days ago

                                            Thank you for this article Robin!

                                            • acidburnNSA 488 days ago

                                              > It does not matter. Just keep launching as fast as you can and see what works. Just think of it as throwing spaghettis on the wall and see what sticks.

                                              I get that you can't do what you love and expect to make money. But this feels like it's gone too far. It seems like true greatness and satisfaction requires just a little bit of intent above just making easy money. I guess if easy money is your only goal this would be satisfying.

                                              • dang 487 days ago

                                                This comment breaks the HN guideline which asks:

                                                "Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize."

                                                We have this rule because when people don't do this, it leads to shallower, more predictable discussion. It does take a bit of conscious readjustment to run one's posts through at least one pass of this process, but if you do you'll soon notice how much better they become, and/or possibly also fewer. Either way, signal/noise goes up.


                                                • justherefortart 488 days ago

                                                  Money is freedom. You can do a lot more projects that tickle your "true greatness and satisfaction" when you're not worrying where your next check is coming in.

                                                  • double0jimb0 488 days ago

                                                    How upset would you be if “Money is freedom” isn’t true?

                                                    I think your setting yourself up for some disappointment with that one.

                                                    • withdavidli 487 days ago

                                                      When a person has a large quantity of money, they have the luxury to disregard money as a factor in their decision making.

                                                      That’s how I think OP is interpreting it, not as money is a panacea for a fulling life. But money enables you pursue many things that a person with little money can.

                                                      • intrasight 487 days ago

                                                        I know people with a large quantity of money who sit at home letting their teeth rot. I know people with limited means that are out every day living life to its fullest. We all have to "disregard money as a factor in our decision making" when it comes to happiness.

                                                        • gehwartzen 487 days ago

                                                          The point is that a person without money doesn’t have the luxury of sitting at home letting their teeth rot out while the person with money can, if they choose to, go out and live life to the fullest.

                                                          Money doesn’t help you make the best life choices but it expands the spectrum of possible life choices.

                                                        • groby_b 487 days ago

                                                          > When a person has a large quantity of money, they have the luxury to disregard money as a factor in their decision making.

                                                          That quantity is large enough that getting there changes you. Choose wisely.

                                                          • frgtpsswrdlame 487 days ago

                                                            Very few people, even among the rich have "enough" money that they disregard money as a factor in their decision making. To a certain extent they actually consider it more because they are trying to figure out how to preserve what they have.

                                                            • cortesoft 487 days ago

                                                              In my experience, that isn't completely true. Sure, as you get more financial committments, you start needing the money more.

                                                              However, having extra money makes so many things less stressful. When I was younger and poorer, car trouble was a huge stress. Did I have enough money to fix it? What was I going to cut out? Would I wreck the car, costing me more money, if I keep driving it?

                                                              Now, I just take the car to the shop and don't even think about it. Hungry and see a good restaurant? Just go. Get in a minor accident, or get a parking ticket? No big deal, doesn't ruin the day.

                                                              I mean, money certainly is still a factor in decisions, but there are a LOT of decisions that cost a small enough amount of money that you don't worry about it. Everyone has a level where, if things are cheaper than that, they don't worry about it; as you get more money, more and more things fall into that category.

                                                              • frgtpsswrdlame 487 days ago

                                                                Well sure, I think there's some figure about how increasing income up to $70k makes you happier and then it doesn't anymore, that seems about right in that it's mainly about being securely 'not poor'. Moving beyond that and in to the extreme wealth zone many are concerned about making their good fortune last, watching the markets everyday, that sort of thing.

                                                        • rm_-rf_slash 488 days ago

                                                          It’s all relative. No amount of wealth can buy time or immortality, but having very little money means less choice in where you live, how you get from place to place, how you eat, how you dress, the medicines and treatments you receive when you are sick (if at all), and so on.

                                                          Moderate wealth certainly means more freedom than little to no wealth.

                                                          Edit: I just recalled a quora question a while back when somebody asked about the drawbacks of being a billionaire compared to a millionaire. One perspective was that while a millionaire could go for a Sunday drive in a nice car with the spouse and kids at the drop of a hat, a billionaire may have to schedule their transportation around security parameters and travel with bodyguards because their wealth can make them a target. So in some ways, too much money can make life less free.

                                                          • justherefortart 488 days ago

                                                            Why would I be upset that "you're" opinion differs?

                                                            I'm referring to a lifetime of what I've seen, perhaps your life experience is different.

                                                          • intrasight 487 days ago

                                                            If you believe this to generally be true, then I warrant that you don't know enough people with "money".

                                                            • AFNobody 487 days ago

                                                              I think you are confusing people who want to be free from working from someone they don't like with people who have an unhealthy relationship with money and/or life in general.

                                                              Freedom from financial worry and working for people you would avoid except for money is the sort of freedom most people don't have.

                                                              And while you might argue I don't know enough people with "money", I can assure you that isn't true. Its unfortunate some people with serious financial resources have an unhealthy relationship with money/life but that is far from everyone.

                                                              • dev1n 487 days ago

                                                                there's a massive difference between freedom money and burdensome money. Mindset around the value of money also plays a huge role.

                                                            • jadc 488 days ago

                                                              Not really. The author is advocating to not be too attached from an ego perspective to an idea and trying different things to see what actually works. That's different from saying you can't do what you love and expect to make money.

                                                              • lj3 487 days ago

                                                                Running a business is a skill. How do you learn skills? By failing over and over until you get it right.

                                                                • mathgeek 488 days ago

                                                                  > I get that you can't do what you love and expect to make money.

                                                                  While not everyone gets to work on what they love, you can also take the mindset of finding something that you can love to work on.

                                                                  • HeyLaughingBoy 487 days ago

                                                                    I don't get this.

                                                                    Why does everything need to be "True greatness and satisfaction?" Why can't it simply about just paying the bills?

                                                                  • ataturk 487 days ago

                                                                    These indie hacker things are total bullshit. "I made $15K/mo your life sucks!" Yeah, you made $30K total, then the thing flopped. Let's be real. There's no magic money tree just like there is no winning in Vegas, not really.

                                                                    The only software guy I know who made it big created a fairly important tool that a lot of companies rely on. He only made it big because he sold it to his former employer after that employer encouraged him to spin off a company in the first place. Insider connections. Noodle on that.