How we built a $1M ARR open source SaaS
We’ve reached a significant milestone of $1 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR) with Plausible Analytics, a simple, lightweight, open source and privacy-friendly alternative to Google Analytics.
We’re a completely independent, self-funded and bootstrapped team of four. We’re intentionally small, profitable and sustainable. More than 7,000 paying subscribers trust us, and we’re actively counting stats on more than 50,000 websites with more than a billion monthly page views.
We’ve never paid to advertise for Plausible. Our growth comes organically from word of mouth.
It’s time to reflect on how we got to where we are. This post summarizes how we built a $1M ARR open source SaaS.
- How we got to $1M ARR
- February: Looking for a marketing co-founder ($403 MRR)
- March: Plausible is now a team of two ($433 MRR)
- April: Picking a fight and going viral ($607 MRR)
- May: First mention on a prominent site ($1,055 MRR)
- June: Moving the database to ClickHouse ($1,767 MRR)
- July: Once again on the top of Hacker News ($2,844 MRR)
- August: Product Hunt launch ($4,062 MRR)
- September: Paid out our first salaries ($5,035 MRR)
- October: Changing our open source license ($6,378 MRR)
- December: Open source needs a better funding model ($8,999 MRR)
- January: Finally sustainable ($11,303)
- February: Giving back 5% of our gross revenue ($13,576 MRR)
- March: Scaling our support ($17,550 MRR)
- April: Put your personal spin on the news ($22,290 MRR)
- May: More success with Google-related content ($26,422 MRR)
- June: Robert joins us as the third team member ($29,285 MRR)
- August: Publishing a study on the usage of adblockers ($35,713 MRR)
- October: We’ve made it to $500k ARR ($42,624 MRR)
How we got to $1M ARR
First, a TL;DR summary:
We’ve had a wild, roller-coaster ride. It took us 324 days to reach the first $400 monthly recurring revenue (MRR) after we launched the paid subscriptions SaaS business in May 2019.
Then we got some momentum thanks to a couple of blog posts that got a lot of traffic. It took us nine months to go from $400 to $10,000 MRR. Then it took ten months to get to $500,000 ARR, and now eight months later, we’re at the $1 million ARR milestone.
We’ve open sourced our code, but we’ve also been transparent about our website traffic since the beginning, so looking at our public stats is a great way to get an overview of our journey to date.
December: First line of code
The first line of code for Plausible was written by my co-founder Uku.
Uku is a developer. The marketing head at the company he worked for asked him to integrate Google Analytics into their landing page. Uku’s first thought was, “Ugh. Can we just use something other than Google Analytics?”.
This is how the idea for Plausible was born.
Read more: The analytics tool I want.
January: Public beta launch
We launched the public beta on Indie Hackers. Our marketing in the early days was focused on building in public. The latest updates and milestones were posted on our blog, Indie Hackers and Uku’s Twitter account. All the early users came from these updates.
Indie Hackers is a wonderful, supportive community and a perfect place to start your “build in public” journey. Take a look at our Indie Hackers profile and read from the oldest post first to better understand how we progressed since the beta launch.
We’ve continued to be as transparent as possible to this day. We regularly share our milestones, lessons learned, site traffic and more.
May: Paid subscriptions launched ($64 MRR)
We launched our paid subscription plans. A piece of widespread startup advice is to always charge more. An important consideration for us was that Google Analytics is free of charge, and people are not used to paying for web analytics.
Paid alternatives on the market started at high rates. We wanted to offer fair and affordable prices to incentivize more site owners to ditch Google Analytics. And so we kicked off with a reasonably priced entry point to give owners of smaller sites a chance to de-Google.
We had 60 active beta users at this point, and some decided to stick around and pay for our service too. We ended the month with our first paying subscribers and $64 MRR.
Read more: I’m launching Plausible.
July: First traffic spike ($118 MRR)
We had our first traffic spike by getting more than 2,500 visitors in one day. It was thanks to the “You probably don’t need a single-page application” blog post making it to the front page of Hacker News.
The post was not strictly related to our product and niche, so the immediate benefits were not that obvious, but it was still lovely to get a spike in traffic. This was our first venture into content marketing and going “viral”.
We’re bootstrapped without any advertising budget, so trying to get heard by writing blog posts is the way to go. With content marketing, we get the word out to more people, increase brand awareness, and get links and social media mentions, which eventually results in higher rankings in search results.
Content marketing and Hacker News are essential to our growth even to this day. Most people who hear about Plausible hear about us thanks to some of our blog posts and personal recommendations through social media and niche communities.
September: Embracing the open source world ($178 MRR)
Plausible goes fully open source with the MIT license, and all the code is made publicly available on GitHub. Our repository includes all of the code powering our SaaS with nothing hidden.
We did this to be as transparent as possible and to give people more control over their data. Going open source is a great way to build trust in the privacy-first market that we operate in.
Plausible continues being fully open source software, and we’ve since made it possible for individuals to self-host our analytics on their servers too.
Read more: Plausible is going open-source.
February: Looking for a marketing co-founder ($403 MRR)
After a few months of relatively stagnant growth, Uku announced that he’s “been looking for a partner on Plausible since the very beginning of the project. I’m super happy I’ve found someone whose values are very much aligned with the spirit of what I’m trying to accomplish”.
This other person was me, and I’m a marketer. Uku cold-emailed me after reading a blog post I published about how to degoogle a website. I thought he built a great product with great potential in a market I was familiar with, so I was up for the challenge.
Running, developing and growing a startup in a competitive market such as web analytics is complicated. Uku could now focus entirely on the design and development of the product, while I could take care of the marketing, community management and customer support.
And with the two of us focused on different but equally essential tasks (development and marketing), we could make so much more progress than anyone can do on their own.
March: Plausible is now a team of two ($433 MRR)
I started working with Uku on March 16th, 2020. I remember looking at our stats in the Plausible dashboard; we had 49 visitors in total, and 0 from Google search the day before I joined. I’m a big fan of setting small but realistic goals, so my first tiny goal was to consistently get ten organic visitors from Google search per day.
We may be going against Google Analytics, but Google search is still what most people use to search the web, so we needed to start having a presence in the relevant search result pages for Plausible to grow organically. That was my priority. To achieve this, our first few weeks were spent on:
- Product relaunch (one example being that the early version of Plausible used one first-party cookie)
- New brand positioning (simple, lightweight, open source and privacy-first Google Analytics alternative)
- Streamlining the communication to send a consistent message everywhere (as an example, previously, we used the name Plausible Insights in some places and Plausible Analytics in other places)
- Improving the site structure (we used to have two different sections for content, one titled “journal” and the other “blog”, so we redirected the journal to the blog)
- Adding a lot of new product-related content (each focus area of our positioning got one article, we published a comparison with Google Analytics and much more)
This post has a more detailed overview of this period and my actions.
April: Picking a fight and going viral ($607 MRR)
On April 8th, I published my first Plausible blog post. Our new positioning was based on how different we are compared to Google Analytics, so we decided to pick a fight.
The post went to the top of Hacker News, and it helped us spread the word about Plausible to more people than ever before. I submitted the post myself, didn’t try any tricks to game the system, and we got lucky that so many people found it interesting.
More than 25,000 people visited our site on the day we published the post. We broke all our records in April: most traffic, trials and the biggest MRR increase.
The post that changed our traction was: Why you should stop using Google Analytics on your website.
May: First mention on a prominent site ($1,055 MRR)
May started great as we were featured on OpenSource.com as a transparent and open source alternative to Google Analytics. We got 94 trial signups on May 2nd, which is still our best day for the number of new trials.
This opportunity came as part of our outreach to different influential websites. Most sites ended up ignoring our messages. It isn’t easy to send so many emails and hear nothing back, but this one fabulous mention from a very relevant site was worth all that silence.
We also posted our first tweet on May 18th with the message, “Friends don’t let friends use Google Analytics”.
We have a 30-day free trial, so it took some time to see the results from April’s viral post in our MRR. We doubled our MRR during the month and ended May on $1,055 MRR.
June: Moving the database to ClickHouse ($1,767 MRR)
With all the new trials and customers, and an increase in larger websites trying our service, Plausible became much slower to use. To continue our growth, we needed to improve the underlying technology that we use.
We moved from our PostgreSQL database to ClickHouse to make the app much faster and handle much bigger websites. Moving to ClickHouse was the best technical decision we’ve made, and we’re now able to count more than one billion page views per month while still providing a very fast-loading dashboard.
July: Once again on the top of Hacker News ($2,844 MRR)
We got another Hacker News moment when our post on “how to pay your rent with an open source project” brought us more than 35,000 visitors in a single day. This is a topic that’s dear to our hearts.
We also published an overview of our marketing activities and top referral sources: How we grew our startup from $400 to $2,750 MRR in 135 days without ads.
August: Product Hunt launch ($4,062 MRR)
We launched on Product Hunt. This is typically a big event for startups. Product Hunt was worthwhile, but it’s not our core growth strategy, so it was just another day for us, albeit a bit busier. We didn’t put all of our eggs in this one basket.
Launching on community sites gives your project a spotlight for a day or two, but it’s not a sustainable channel to acquire customers in the long term. It brings that famous spike of hope after which follows the flat line of nope.
We got more than 1,000 visitors and 15 trial signups from Product Hunt on the launch day, but only a few days later, we got fewer than 20 visitors from there. As far as we’re concerned, launches like this are nice, but they don’t mean much for your continued growth. More is needed.
September: Paid out our first salaries ($5,035 MRR)
On September 10th, we paid the first salaries for the two of us. Even though our wages didn’t match what we could command on the job market, we were thrilled to see a green entry on the bank account, paid from our open source project. Pretty wild. It feels great to be able to pay your rent from an open source project.
October: Changing our open source license ($6,378 MRR)
Due to our increased reach, we became aware of the risks associated with a permissive open source license and of the corporations happy to take advantage of this.
We needed to research the different licenses to find the best fit for our needs. I’m pretty new to the world of open source licensing, so I ended up learning about AGPL only a few days before we officially switched. We haven’t had any other issues with this since we made that switch.
Read more: Why we’re changing Plausible to the AGPL license.
December: Open source needs a better funding model ($8,999 MRR)
We shared our lessons learned about running an open source SaaS. One lesson was that donations are not a viable monetization method. We’ve been accepting donations for about six months and had six donations of $5 each. At the same time, our cloud product has grown from $400 to more than $8,500 MRR.
We’d love to see more competitive open source alternatives to the products made by surveillance capitalism. A better monetization method means that more people will be able to focus their time working on projects that they truly believe in. This would make the open source software ecosystem much healthier.
Running a premium managed service in the cloud while keeping the code open for inspection and self-hosting seems to be a better model for some open source projects such as our one.
January: Finally sustainable ($11,303)
$10,000 MRR was a significant milestone. Until this point, between the two of us, we were down more than $50,000 in personal savings since we started working on Plausible. When we reached $10,000 MRR, we could finally cover our costs and slowly start recovering some of the savings lost.
We’re delighted we made it to this point while still being fully open source software. Free and open source software can be sustainable and can pay your rent. Financial sacrifice is not required to work on open source. So many good teams and projects are fighting for the open web, and we hope many of them can succeed too.
Read more: What we learned on our journey to $10,000 MRR.
February: Giving back 5% of our gross revenue ($13,576 MRR)
We decided to start giving back 5% of our gross revenue to environmental causes and open source.
We managed to collect $20,000 in total in the year 2021. At the start of 2022, we donated half of that to the Red Cross for their Ukrainian collection as it was an urgent cause. The rest we donated to the Erlang Ecosystem Foundation, the Sea Shepherd and the Ocean Cleanup.
March: Scaling our support ($17,550 MRR)
With the increase in interest came a rise in the number of emails and questions coming our way. In the first few months working with Plausible, I spent most of my time reaching out to people, while these days, I spend most of my time responding to people trying to contact us.
We think a lot about having a better user experience and being able to grow without needing to grow a customer support team too. We work hard on fixing, automating and eliminating issues that people encounter frequently. This reduces the number of customer support requests we’re getting.
We put a lot of effort into our docs, spend a lot of time on them and keep them up to date, answering any new questions we are getting. It has helped us scale our support to handle thousands of customers and trials without a dedicated support team.
April: Put your personal spin on the news ($22,290 MRR)
Google announced their FLoC initiative which is a topic we have a lot of thoughts about. So we published a blog post on “how to fight back against Google FLoC” to increase awareness.
More than 16,000 people read the post during the month, and we got a lot of attention. This is an example of a different way to approach content marketing. It doesn’t always have to be based on keyword research and what people search for.
If there are some news and happenings that you and your potential audience care about, create a post about it. Don’t just repeat the information everyone else is reporting but put your personal spin and point of view into it. Add something unique, informative and/or entertaining. There’s a lot of interest in this type of content.
May: More success with Google-related content ($26,422 MRR)
Google announced that the AMP pages would no longer get preferential treatment in Google’s search results. This was a significant event for keeping the web as open as possible. Site owners will no longer feel forced to use AMP.
We looked at the topic from our angle in the “Google AMP is dead!” blog post, and it was a hit. More than 35,000 people read the post within a couple of days after publishing.
These posts may be less effective regarding trial signups and conversions than more direct posts related to our product (such as “Why you should stop using Google Analytics on your website”), but they’re still very valuable to us.
They drive direct traffic, boost the brand awareness, provide links and social media mentions and somewhere further down the line, some people may remember that Plausible Analytics brand when they’re looking for a Google Analytics alternative.
June: Robert joins us as the third team member ($29,285 MRR)
Robert joined us part-time while finishing his computer science degree as the third team member. Robert started out by helping us with the technical customer support, while he’s getting familiar with the Plausible code base to help us with development too.
What’s our strategy for hiring new people? How do we know when it’s time to hire? How do we define the skills needed? We follow the Basecamp approach. We wait until it hurts and only hire then.
We struggled to timely cover all the customer support questions, especially the technical ones. Robert has been invaluable in helping us improve this so we can better and faster respond to the more technical questions without slowing down our development.
Google is infamous for not having any customer support, so we’re doing our best to give people that contact us a friendly, timely and helpful response. Everyone does some support at Plausible, and we don’t have any plans to hire dedicated support personnel with this approach.
August: Publishing a study on the usage of adblockers ($35,713 MRR)
Adblockers are a popular topic with site owners. People are curious about how much data they’re missing out on in their analytics from those visitors that block scripts.
We had some interesting data that compared the level of blockage between Google Analytics and Plausible, so we decided to publish a little study with the details in “58% of Hacker News, Reddit and tech-savvy audiences block Google Analytics”.
This post was very related to one of the concerns of our potential audience. We showed how people could uncover more insights by using a different analytics tool. More than 30,000 read the post within the first 24 hours of publishing. In the five days following the post’s publishing, our trial signups increased by more than 100% compared to the previous period.
It’s another example of how content marketing can drive your product’s awareness. Look at the opportunities in something only you have access to, such as in our case, the data we collect on website traffic. Do surveys, publish original studies. It’s a good way to get heard.
October: We’ve made it to $500k ARR ($42,624 MRR)
We’ve made it to $41,600 MRR ($500k ARR). At this stage, we’ve settled into a new way of working. Our startup’s day-to-day life is calmer without too many dramatic changes or significant highlights.
At some point, you find that product-market fit, that stable base where the roadmap becomes clear, and there’s much work to do to maintain it all. There’s a rhythm to things. We grow surely and steadily. But there’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes to make it all run smoothly.
We fix bugs. We engage with our community. We build new features. We respond to people reaching out to us. We work on our infrastructure to handle the increased demand. We think long-term, optimize what needs to be optimized and carefully organize things to stay stable.
January: “Google Analytics violates GDPR” ($55,411 MRR)
We do our best, but sometimes you need to be lucky to be at the right place at the right time. That’s how I would summarize the first half of 2022.
The year 2022 started very strong for us thanks to external circumstances that we don’t have much control over. Austrian Data Protection Authority (DPA) decided that using Google Analytics violates GDPR.
Plausible was well positioned in this market, so immediately after this announcement, we saw an increase in interest in our product and service. It’s exciting times to be a European, privacy-first analytics project. Plausible exclusively uses EU-owned cloud infrastructure, which made us a good fit for those organizations where Google Analytics no longer allowed them to fulfill the legal requirements that apply to them.
February: Cenk joins us as the fourth team member ($62,769 MRR)
We became a team of four, with Cenk joining us to help scale our infrastructure to deal with this increased demand. A lot of our effort is now spent on expanding the traffic capacity that we can handle, improving Plausible’s stability, security, speed and uptime.
February brought us even more great news. The French DPA agreed with the Austrian DPA that Google Analytics is illegal. We saw another immediate spike in interest.
March: Google kills Google Analytics ($71,311 MRR)
It’s not only the news from European data protection authorities that were great for us. Google tried to help push alternative solutions to Google Analytics as well by some moves they were making.
They announced that they will kill Universal Analytics and that there’s no way to import historical stats to their new GA4 version. We’ve experienced an immediate increase in interest in Plausible following this news. March was our best month yet, with $8,247 in net MRR growth.
April: Import from Google Analytics ($76,312 MRR)
We’ve tried our best to seize the opportunities that presented themselves to us. We worked hard to be the well-positioned alternative to Google Analytics both from the privacy and Universal Analytics/GA4 perspectives.
We introduced an import tool that allows people to bring their old Google Analytics stats into Plausible. Google may not want you to import your old stats into their new product, but we’re happy to help facilitate this.
We also have a realtime dashboard and a landing page report which many Google Analytics users are unhappy about with their Google Analytics experience. This has helped make Plausible an excellent alternative to an increasing number of sites unhappy with Google’s approach.
June 2nd: $1M ARR ($83,637 MRR)
The first five months of this year have been incredible for us. On June 2nd, we made it to $83,637 MRR ($1M ARR) thanks to our 7,000+ paying subscribers! We’ve climbed the mountain. We understand we’re in a privileged position and don’t take things we have achieved for granted.
People are always curious about marketing and growth. Our marketing strategy has been remarkably similar throughout all the different milestones. It’s not based on shouting, interrupting or tricking people. It’s a boring strategy and doesn’t feature any exciting growth hacks.
We focus on a small number of things, but we try to do them as best as we can:
- Build a great product that people enjoy using and want to recommend. This is the key, as nothing else would work without a great product.
- We publish content on our blog and social media, communicating what we believe in and stand for. We take a stand and hope it resonates with as many people as possible.
When we reached $500,000 ARR in October 2021, I wrote this for our plans on how to get to $1 million ARR:
We don’t plan to change anything for now. We don’t need to force any growth as we don’t have to answer to any investors, and we don’t need to strive to reach their goals. We will continue to focus on things that have worked well for us and see how it goes. It’s not a guarantee that things will continue working, but we’ll do our best.
The best answer I have for how and when we will reach $1M ARR is simply giving it time and being patient. We will get there naturally and organically by taking it one day at a time and de-Googling one website at a time.
We’re trying to run a calm company without world-dominating growth targets and with the focus on having a great product that helps people solve the issues they have with Google Analytics.
This is how we plan to continue from here on as well. Trying to be as ethical as possible in our marketing and communication is crucial to us, and I hope we can continue growing without using any of the “best marketing practices”:
- We don’t use paid advertising
- We don’t use spy pixels and retargeting
- We don’t use session recordings
- We don’t do popups and other intrusive calls to action
- We don’t pay anyone to promote or recommend us
- We don’t use a chat bot to engage you or convert you
- We don’t participate in any link buying for SEO purposes
In addition to this, we make it very easy to cancel a subscription at any time. No need to contact us. No questions are asked.
We also inform people a few days before their annual subscription is up for renewal to give them a chance to cancel in case they no longer find Plausible useful. There are no surprise fees, and we never charge anyone unexpectedly either.
We’re not interested in venture capitalism, in the chase for the endless hyper-growth, or in building a unicorn. We don’t have any goals about world domination.
We aim to continue building a sustainable business that helps us remain true to our mission of removing Google Analytics from as many websites as possible and bringing privacy-first, open source software to more people.
Thank you for your trust and support!