Damon Chen: From Engineer to Indie Hacker Making $1,300,000 ARR
How Damon took a risk and persisted through failure to take back control of his life
Today, I want to share an inspiring story of a friend who bootstrapped two online businesses to $1.3M+ ARR by himself.
In 2020, Damon Chen was a Cisco engineer and a parent to a 1-year-old. He spent many late nights building 4 projects that all made $0 before achieving success.
I spoke to Damon about how he:
Got started as an indie hacker
Grew Testimonial to $800K+ ARR
Grew PDF.ai to $500K+ ARR
If you’re working in tech and thinking of starting a side project that could become something more - this post is a must-read for you.
How Damon got started as an indie hacker
Welcome Damon! Let’s start by going back to 2020. You were a self-described “mediocre” engineer at Cisco for 8 years when the pandemic hit.
What happened next?
When COVID hit, I started to work from home with my wife and 1-year-old. I wanted to spend more time with my child, so I asked for 6 months of unpaid leave.
During that time, I worked on 5 side projects. The first was a community (indielog.com) where indie makers could vlog and share their journey.
I then worked on 3 other projects that all failed and made no money.
My 5th project was Testimonial, a platform for business owners to collect video testimonials. It used about 80% of the same code as Indielog. I just added a landing page and Stripe payments before launching it on Product Hunt at the end of my unpaid leave.
Did you decide to go all-in on Testimonial right away?
No. I went back to work and my manager staffed me on a new project. I kept working on Testimonial during the nights and weekends. 4 months later it made $2K MRR.
Now $2K MRR really isn’t much given that I live in the Bay Area. But it was enough traction that I wanted to give it a shot. So I told my wife that I wanted to quit my job.
How did your conversation with your wife go?
Well, quitting my job at Cisco would cut our household income by 50%.
It would add a lot of financial pressure and lead us to dip into our savings.
So my wife and I agreed on some conditions for my entrepreneurial journey. I promised her that I would go back to a tech job if I couldn’t reach $100K ARR in a year. She agreed to cover our mortgage and bills in the meantime.
You also had young children at home. What was a day in your life like growing Testimonial from scratch?
It was a mess in the beginning.
The kids were at home so I had to juggle work and caring for them. Fortunately, they needed naps and went to bed early at night. So my schedule was:
During the day, I took short breaks to do bug fixes and answer support tickets.
At night, I built new features after the kids went to bed.
I even answered support tickets on my phone while at the playground.
Growing Testimonial to $800K ARR
Let’s walk through how you grew Testimonial from $0 to $800K ARR. How did you get to that initial $2,000 MRR or $24K ARR?
When I launched on Product Hunt, I was selling lifetime access for $199. I sold 30 deals and generated $6K in revenue in the first two weeks.
That was a breath of fresh air after making $0 from 4 other projects over 6 months.
I decided to transition to subscription-based pricing shortly afterward. My early customers came from:
Indiehackers community: I had met other indie hackers through indiehackers.com and indielog.com. They were my first few customers.
How did you grow Testimonial after seeing this initial traction?
Well, I’m an engineer who doesn’t know much about marketing or sales. Instead, I focused on product-led growth. Testimonial’s core growth loop is:
Ask customers for testimonials
Show testimonials on “wall of love” landing page with the Testimonial logo
People who visit the “wall of love” sign up for a Testimonial account
The testimonial logo also incentivized people to upgrade to the paid plan to remove it.
What other approaches did you try to grow the product?
Two other initiatives that had an outsized impact on growth:
Affiliate program. My program gives anyone who signs up a paid customer 30% commission every month. The customer also gets 15% off for the first year. This program contributes about 10-15% of our total revenue.
Buying testimonials.io domain. I realized that many people mistakenly visited testimonial.io instead of testimonial.to. So I spent $35,000 to buy the .io domain. I checked the numbers recently and the io domain has brought in $80K in lifetime revenue, so it was worth the investment.
Are you still working on Testimonial by yourself or did you build a team?
I hired my first employee at $400K ARR to help me with marketing. Looking back, I’m proud of scaling this business to mid-six figures all by myself!
Growing PDF.ai to $500K ARR
Speaking of domains, you also started PDF.ai. Can you describe what that does?
PDF.ai came out of Testimonial.
I had no interest in building another AI tool, but many Testimonial customers are e-commerce merchants who wanted to improve their testimonial collection rate. It turns out that many of the merchants’ customers didn’t know how to use their product, which led to negative reviews.
So I decided to explore a chatbot that would let the merchant’s customers interact with their product’s user manuals (these usually came in a PDF format).
What channels did you use to grow PDF.ai to $500K ARR in just a few months?