DocsAutomator turns 1: 20 key learnings

Published on: 2024-02-01

In case you don't know what DocsAutomator is:

One year ago today, February 1st 2023, I launched DocsAutomator after 4-5 weeks of 6am coding sessions. Exhausted and with low expectations, I pushed to production not knowing if anyone will even notice. It proofed to be the single best thing I've ever done in my professional life. DocsAutomator today has 2000 users, 150 customers, 10-20% MoM growth and provides an income for myself.

Anyone who's been part of the journey — my wife, friends & family, early adopters, long-standing customers, industry partners: Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Now to my key learnings. I write these for anyone who's starting out on their journey to build something new and most of them don't only apply to software (as a service). I write them without any fluff and they represent what has worked for me. They are in no particular order. Apply them to your own projects and, most importantly, don't let anyone stop you from achieving your goals and dreams.

1. Clear direction

DocsAutomator has worked out well because I had a clear direction BEFORE I started. In the beginning, my goal was to build the easiest & most flexible automating solution of turning Airtable data into documents (PDF, Google Docs, ...) using Google Docs. I didn't want to do anything else than that. Today, DocsAutomator is more than that, has a slightly broader direction, but that initial specificity was very important. It built that necessary, initial momentum.

2. Scratch your own itch

DocsAutomator as an idea was born from me having to automate documents for clients. I knew the issue, I even had potential customers for it already. I'm a huge fan of scratching your own itch. It gives you a headstart.

3. Solve an existing problem

I'm a big fan of solving existing problems. Before DocsAutomator, the last startup I founded was a Kombucha brewery (ROY Kombucha). I love Kombucha and the company is still around and growing, but not having a clear problem to solve was an issue for me. Potentially it's just the way I'm wired, but it helps tremendously to know exactly what the problem is you're solving. In the case of DocsAutomator: Companies have data in a data storage and want to create beautiful documents out of that data (to produce invoices, reports, ...).

4. Follow some core hypotheses

Having one or multiple core hypotheses is a tremendous driver when things don't go your way, you have doubts or get challenged. In the case of DocsAutomator, my core hypothesis is that Google Docs is the most convenient platform for users to create document templates. Another hypothesis is that No-Code will be huge and hence that's the industry I focus on. Going back to the previous example of Kombucha, my core hypothesis there was that fermented foods & beverages will see wide adoption (they don't until now...). Having that deep, fundamental belief gives direction & energy.

5. It doesn't matter whether it has been done already

"But that has already been done" is a big reason for people not to start a project, launch an app or start a company. I argue that in most cases it doesn't matter. It might have been done in some way, but it hasn't been done in YOUR WAY. That's what matters. As long as you have something unique to offer, something that only you can bring to the table, it's worthing doing it. In my case, it's the expertise that I have from having been a consultant. It's the support I give to clients, not only helping them with my product, but helping them holistically with their automation stack. It's the core hypotheses from number 4. Document automation has been done many times, but it hasn't been done the way I wanted it to be done.

6. It's hard, lonely and still very rewarding

Yes, everything that has been said about how hard & lonely it is is true. Especially in the beginning when there is little to no feedback. The loneliness of solopreneurship is cured by positive customer feedback (see point 10). It's also cured by connecting online to communities you care about and feel close to. In my case, the no-code, Airtable and indie hacking community. (see point 17)

7. Don't do too many things at once.

Focus is a ridicously strong force. So far, I couldn't afford to focus on DocsAutomator. I've been doing client work for the last 12 months, but without it, DocsAutomator would've grown a lot faster. I'm not a huge advocat for wearing too many hats at once. I don't like the "build 12 startups in 12 months trend" and feel that by doing that none is given a chance of success. It's not how my brain works. I rather stand for one, really great things instead of 10 mediocre things.

8. AI makes it less hard & less lonely

In the beginning, I always joked with my wife that I'm actually not a solo founder. I have a co-founder by the name "ChatGPT"! And it's actually true. ChatGPT with its infinite patience has helped me a lot in the beginning, not only with coding, but being able to push through when I got stucked no matter the area. Thanks to AI, we live in the best time for starting something new by yourself.

9. Secret for a happy life? Low expectations

Charlie Munger RIP. When I launched the platform as well as when I launch a new feature or integration, I try to have low expecations. It helps a lot. Doesn't mean I don't care, but I don't automatically assume things will do well or not well. I just sit back and observe. I said "I try to...", hinting at the fact that I regularly fail at this, thinking that something I put a lot of time in MUST do well. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

10. Money is nice, changing your customer's lives is amazing

I love getting those Stripe notifications and am definitely addicted to them. But nothing beats the feeling when customers reach out and tells you that your work changes their lives. It sounds cheesy to say, but that's literally how it is. This is connected to the next point.

11. Speak to your customers. Be available for your customers.

It's definitely not a secret that you should speak to your customers to listen and learn. And I confirm that it's 100% true. At DocsAutomator, I'm availabe to customers through chat on the website and in the web app. This is a double-edged sword in that customer messages easily pull you out of a state of focus. But I still think it's worth it to help customers fast. Many SaaS founders handle this very differently though and wouldn't make themselves available via chat. In the beginning though, it's gold because you get the opportunity to learn a lot.

12. Action > plan. Continue doing, continue building

When in doubt, bias towards action. Especially if you feel you're missing or loosing momentum, do instead of plan. Build that feature, reach out to customers, continue moving.

13. Build with tailwinds

It makes sense why so many jump on trends and hypes: They give you free tailwinds. For DocsAutomator those are No-Code in general and the tools DocsAutomator integrates with: Airtable, Glide and more coming soon. All of these tools have existing communities that push the product forward.

14. Build with what you know

This is mostly a technical point. In the last years, it felt like a new Javascript framework was being launched every week. There's a constant flow of new, (potentially) better ways of doing things. While I advocate for learning constantly, stick to what you know as long as it gets the job done. A few milliseconds of performance don't matter on the road to a 6-digit MRR.

15. Build for quality

In times of AI, humans will come to value quality > quantity again. This relates to point 7 (don't do too many things at once).

16. Block out the noise. Find that flow state.

The first version of DocsAutomator was built in 6am sessions. From 6-9am, I coded like a madman before doing client work. During those hours, I didn't check emails or social media. I can't recommend this way of working highly enough. It doesn't have to be early mornings, it can be late nights, train or plane rides — whatever puts you in that flow state.

17. Connect to your industry, go to conferences & events. Partner with others.

As described in point 6, connecting with industry and partners is an antidote to loneliness. Find your tribe and go to conferences in person. I went to No-Code Summit in Paris in October 2023 and made friends and valuable connections. It reminded me what industry I'm in and where I belong.

18. Celebrate your wins, study your losses

Something I'll always be guilty off is not celebrating my wins. You've achieved a goal? Celebrate. A customer said how much they love your product? Celebrate. Again and again, make time to celebrate those wins along the way. Those (sometimes small) wins is what it's really about.

19. Take walks in nature, meditate and have a social life

I'm guilty of forgetting that I'm a human being, not a cybord in front of a screen. I need clean air, time to digest and have social connections. Neglecting these areas has always led to burnout for me. I'm trying to get better at it.

20. Document your journey

I wish I would have done this more until now. I'm a huge fan of documenting the journey with the hope that it helps at least one person achieving their goals and dreams. I haven't done it enough in 2023, but in 2024 I'm trying to get a lot better at it. As a side effect, this might lead to new connections and is a great form of marketing.