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How to bootstrapp a printing and reporting solution to $1M ARR

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Indie Hacker: Dimitri Gielis, APEX R&D, APEX Office Print & AME
Founded: United Codes
ARR: $1M
Sphere of Genius: Persistence

Dimitri Gielis knows about perseverance.

His first indie hacking project, a real estate application, failed miserably. And so did his second, a platform for clinical therapists.

But his tenth idea, a reporting tool for Oracle Application Express (APEX), ended up working.

Between his agency's consulting work and their software, his firm is doing $1M ARR.

Below is my interview with Dimitri about bootstrapping APEX tools, recovering from a €400K loss, and founding his own development agency.

What are some of your projects that failed?

Dimitri: The first app was a platform where people could easily find apartments or homes online.

I typically come up with those products based on my own problems, so the idea came to me when I was searching for a house but I struggled to find the right one online.

Once I built the project, there were a lot of challenges that I didn't anticipate.

The main issue was that my target demographic, home buyers, changed every 6 months.

Home buyers only search for a house search for six months, maybe two years, and then they're gone.

I lost hundreds of thousands of euros getting it off the ground, but my main loss was my time.

For me, my biggest issue was building products for people I didn’t understand.

What other projects did you build before starting United Codes?

Dimitri: My family has long struggled with cancer so I decided to build a healthcare product.

My plan was to build a platform for occupational therapists, because they didn't have a platform specific for their niche the way other doctors do.

It was successful, in a way, but the target group was small and they were really slow in taking up technology.

These doctors, specifically, don't even use technology really to treat their patients. They prefer to actually not use it.

I would guess in total I lost around €250,000 on it.

What led you to building APEX products?

Dimitri: I was using Oracle APEX day in and day out, and every time I went to a customer, they wanted to print or export documents, but that wasn't possible with this technology.

It was a real pain, which our customers had, which I experienced every single time.

At some point after five years, I was really tired of it. So I decided to solve the issue for the both of us.

During the first three to five years of the project, though, nobody believed in it.

They said, “well, it's cool, but you have competition,” even though none of my competitors were any good.

Regardless of the hate, I kept going for three years and then suddenly there was an uptick.

One of the first companies was Marriott hotels and then it was NASA and Harvard University.

We are not a million dollar company, but at this point I felt like we were successful.

The reason I think it worked was because we had built a “building block” others could use and leverage, whereas before, I tried to build an entire platform.

So if I were to tell people, what did I learn?

Start from your own niche where you are really known and then keep moving and start small.

How did you build the APEX suite of products?

Dimitri: I built the APEX suite of products while running my own consultancy. I first earn, and then I invest.

The first product I shipped was APEX Office Print (APEX Office Print is the one that is used by NASA and all those nice companies).

The unexpected benefit of each product I built was that I could then use the products myself in my consultancy - so although it cost me money to build, I could use it straight away from day one and all the customers could give feedback.

The biggest growth the product experienced, though, was when Oracle themselves started to use it.

How have you grown the customer base?

Dimitri: Our own customers, which we had through our consultancy, I met at conferences. Conferences are filled with people who want to learn, and try new things.

If you have to do all the effort yourself, that's harder, but when you have your friends and other people talking about your product or even supporting it, then it gets easier.

These days we spend a huge amount of time supporting our clients. But when we starting out we always thought: how much time do you spend on creating your product? How much time do you spend supporting your product? How much time do you spend promoting it? Or doing some marketing activities?

We had so much passion to build great things and to help people, who were already convinced of our product. So we wanted to improve it. And we were never really money oriented or thinking we want to have the world from day one.

Of course we want to grow and have an impact, but money has never strictly been the only driving factor.

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Have you tried virtual conferences since the pandemic?

Dimitri: Yes. But the benefit of conference has always been in the bar or in the hallway.

I would still get like a hundred people, or even more virtual, attending my talks, but I really like the in-person conference because of everything that's around it.

That's really hard to change with a virtual setting. People try it with a virtual pub or something like that, but still, it's the same.

If there's advice that I would give to people, it's to go to a conference.

Talk about even the smallest thing you discovered and then learn yourself and then talk to people. That has been the best thing for me.

How has the business grown over the years?

Dimitri: Every year since year 3 we have doubled. We have two models, one is cloud and via purchase order. For the cloud, just put the credit card in and things run, but many big companies want a purchase order. And then we have to do some manual work.

We try to automate it a little bit, but to be a vendor at NASA, for example, you have to fill out forms. They let you do the work.

We got also way more known when we announced a free tier. It really helped to let people use the product because it was free forever.

They had no pressure to purchase after a certain number of days.

Instead some of the product's functionality was limited. That really gained us a lot of users.

What is your advice for indie hackers?

Dimitri: Persistence.

You have to keep going and whenever things are not going well, or whenever you have doubts, and if you believe in your idea, be passionate about what you're doing.

Try to see the bigger picture. I really believe that. Try to keep going. That's the only thing, it hasn't always been easy and I had many doubts as well.

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    Me, personally, if I see 2 projects go down in flames that each took me 200K to get going....I wouldn't have the strength to keep going.

    Congrats to Dimitri. When you pushed through that much adversity you deserve the success.

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