How I got linked to by Tyler Cowen, sold 124 items in three days, and got rejected from Amazon Affiliates

tl;dr The first startup I made for the “12 Startups in 12 Months” challenge unexpectedly got a ton of traffic, it sold a bunch of stuff on Amazon, then it got rejected from the Amazon Affiliate Marketing program.

The Traffic Surge

Last Saturday (June 3rd, ’17) after spending a few nights and weekends building a side project called Marginal Revolution Books I decided I had a Minimum Viable Product on my hands and it was time to validate my idea. I posted a link to my site on the Libertarian subreddit (which got no love), and the Indie Hackers forum.

The next day I woke up to this

While I was sleeping, Tyler Cowen tweeted a link to my startup, with a ringing endorsement! It seems I had “underrated” my site. People really liked it! A few hours later (when does this guy sleep?) Tyler linked to my site from the Marginal Revolution blog itself.

This is the first time one of my projects has gotten traffic, and it was a lot of fun. I acted on the feedback I got from the site’s users and added an email newsletter, a search feature, and a “random month” button. People I had never met were tweeting a link to the site, including one in Greek!

That’s a first!

Screenshots of analytics dashboards

Here’s my google analytics

Here’s the amazon affiliates dashboard (taken the day before they shut me down… more on that later!)

The site never crashed and response time stayed reasonable. I also collected 102 email addresses from the little AJAX form I threw together pre-coffee on Sunday when I woke up and saw the traffic surge. (I think this is what a form made by Jony Ive in 10 minutes would look like, not sure.)

In the end, does it even matter?

On Thursday I received this email

Amazon rejected me! I won’t be getting paid for the traffic I sent their way.

Was my project a success?

After the site was rejected, I complained about my bad luck on the Indie Hackers Forum. The site founder, Courtland Allen himself, analyzed my situation.

[…] Furthermore, you’ve done a few really great things in a very short period of time:

  • Built something useful enough that lots of people derived some value from it, including Tyler Cowen himself.
  • Learned a lesson about having a business model that can stand on its own and can’t simply be shut off by AppAmaGooFaceSoft (as patio11 calls them).
  • Learned a lesson about entering a market where the sales you make are substantial enough to pay the bills.

It takes many people years of hard work and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested to learn those last two lessons, and you just got a crash course in a week or two! […]

Do read the whole thing. The other comments helped me a lot too! Let’s figure out whether building the site was a good use of time. (Spoiler alert: it was.)

Pros

I spent less than a month building the site on nights and weekends. In the process I

  • learned how to use the python scrapy library to spider websites. (Thanks for the pointer Cleeftone!)
  • learned how to extract product info from the Amazon Product API
  • did a bunch of tech stuff I’m experienced at, like building a rails app, hosting, design db schema
  • did some tech stuff I’m not experienced at, like using the bootstrap lib to style a site
  • did business stuff I’ve never done before, like promote a site, respond to user feedback, collect emails for a newsletter
  • built something actual people used and got value from!
  • Learned multiple hard lessons quickly
  • Can now change my twitter description from “wannabe indie hacker” to just “indie hacker”
  • Tyler liked it! yay

Cons

  • Paid $7 to Heroku. That’s almost enough money to buy a beer in SoHo!
  • I’m not getting paid for something I didn’t expect to make any money anyway
  • My career as a affiliate marketing baron is over before it started

What’s next?

I’m going to leave Marginal Revolution Books up and running. It only costs $7/month and people are still using it, why not? I’m so glad that I can give something back to a great community like MR! I will also add features to the site if you ask nicely and I already know how to make them.

As for me, in the last seven days I’ve interacted with some really cool people on twitter, including Tyler Cowen, Courtland Allen, Ryan Hoover (the Product Hunt guy) and a bunch of other cool people. Old friends are coming out of the woodwork and reaching out to have coffee, wanting to brainstorm, etc. I’m very excited about the future!

Watch this blog for an announcement of my second startup in 12 months, coming once I have an MVP built.

 

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Product Idea Generation

I want to build a product

As an aspiring bootstrapped entrepreneur, I need to find product ideas that work for me. That means a product:

  • I can build during nights and weekends
  • that requires very little capital
  • in a market I already understand or can quickly learn about
  • where demand exists

My first undertaking as an entrepreneur has been researching product idea generation. Here is a list of methods I found, along with hyperlinks for more information.

Methods for finding product ideas

Look in the Apple App Store for an App that is widely used & sucks. Then make a version that doesn’t suck. Indie Hackers

Look in the Apple App Store for a successful App, implement non-English language version. (same link as previous method) Indie Hackers

Build Browser Extension for your own use, put in Chrome Web Store, charge $2 for pro version. Indie Hackers

Get emailed a product idea every day. Opps Daily and Nugget

“look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.” Paul Graham

When a popular service like del.icio.us or Google Reader gets shut down, build a replacement service. Example: Pinboard capturing the del.icio.us exodus, and NewsBlur doing the same for Google Reader.

Forget about SAAS recurring revenue, and build a one-time purchase product like a WordPress plugin, Magento add-on, Shopify app, Drupal add-on, Photoshop plugin, or an ebook. Software By Rob and Hacker News

Build an aggregator/scraper of other sites. Indie Hackers

Build cross platform desktop app using Electron, the software Slack uses for their desktop app. Electron and Hacker News

“Fast Follow” an existing SAAS product with an already validated market. Hacker News

“Hipster retro businesses.” Build software for sellers of products like vinyl records, camera film, and magazines.

Next steps

My plan is to find a product idea I can build quickly, since most people don’t succeed on their first try. I will build the product and launch it. That way I can gain experience doing stuff I’ve never done before, like marketing. Hopefully the experience I gain will lead to revenue from a future product.

Do you know any ways to generate product ideas I didn’t mention? Please let me know in the comments!