In October 2022, we wrote a story about Andy Cloke, the founder of Datafetcher, who made $130,000 ARR after just two years of work. His startup idea wasn’t revolutionary – just a simple feature from Google copied to the collaboration app, Airtable.
Andy introduced us to another founder who followed the same blueprint in less time. Julien Nahum created a Notion extension called NotionForms – a tool inspired by Google (Google Forms) repurposed for the relatively new collaboration program. After a year, it nets this young founder and his one employee over $10,000 MRR working less than one hour a day.
How did Julien see results like that after just one year? He says it was good fortune, SEO, and community marketing. Even so, he nearly gave up on the project multiple times as he waited for people to start paying for his hard work.
An Easy-to-Miss Startup Idea
In 2020, while working at AWS in London, Julien discovered the bootstrapped startup community and became obsessed with becoming a solo founder. “I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. It’s the only thing that’s been clear for me,” he says.
That same year, two major events occurred in Julien’s life that caused him to leave AWS and leave England for France. First, his girlfriend found a job in his home city of Paris. Second, AWS moved Julien to a new team, stripping him of a project he’d worked on for over a year. “I needed to hand over the project to another team in the US. As you can guess, I was not super happy about this.”
Julien quit his job, returned to Paris with his girlfriend, and became a full-time bootstrapper. He started several projects at once, heavily inspired by Nomad List founder and influencer, Pieter Levels, who famously built twelve startups in twelve months.
Although Julien doesn’t remember when he started using Notion, it became a central tool for his side projects. He describes the collaboration app as a handy mixture of Google Docs and Google Sheets.
“There are so many different use cases for Notion,” he says. “Small startups use it for everything from their technical roadmap to CRM. You have solopreneurs using it to create content. Notion knows what they’re doing, and it’s growing super fast. They changed a lot in the software industry.”
“If you’re comfortable enough to build a product in a short amount of time, I think it’s much easier to get better feedback and ultimately validate your idea.”
Notion officially released its API for app makers in May of 2021. Julien loved using the platform so much that he wanted to build something within it. He decided he would copy a useful form feature from the cloud collaboration service, Airtable.
“Five years ago, I did an internship at a startup in Paris,” says Julien. “The team used Airtable, a no-code tool to create collaborative databases, to create forms in seconds. These forms would automatically contain one field for each column in the database table. Each form submission automatically moved data to their Airtable database. It’s super useful.”
Julien’s product did the same form-based data transfer but for Notion. He built his MVP in just five days. Some experienced bootstrappers might feel uneasy about building a product before validation, but Julien believes building fast can source better feedback.
“If you’re comfortable enough to build a product in a short amount of time (less than a month maximum), I think it’s much easier to get better feedback and ultimately validate your idea.”
Powerful Community Marketing
Over the next two months, Julien massively grew his user base by marketing NotionForms as a free product online. Most of his early customers came from word of mouth and SEO.
Julien kicked off marketing by posting in the Notion subreddit, r/Notion. His first post didn’t receive much attention (just 26 upvotes) and attracted about 20 free users in that first week. That same post, however, has helped NotionForm’s SEO. Today, Julien says it is in the top five search results when you type the keywords “create a form with Notion.”
The most popular post on Reddit for NotionForms wasn’t even made by Julien, but by a user who posted a video walkthrough of how they were using NotionForms. The video quickly garnered more than 376 upvotes and Julien saw an almost immediate spike in user registrations. “I found that a stranger online was better at marketing my product than I was,” he laughs.
Next, Julien turned to Facebook. When building a now-acquired marketplace startup in college, he’d used Facebook groups to help source sellers. It became responsible for 80 percent of all customer acquisitions for his marketplace.
This time, Julien found a handful of Facebook Groups in his niche, the largest being Notion Made Simple, and began systematically posting about NotionForms. One post received about 111 likes and brought in a few dozen more early users. Not bad for free marketing.
Finally, Julien decided he would double down on growing his Twitter audience for customers.
“The Notion Twitter space is super active,” he says. “People were very excited about NotionForms and were posting about it. There are people with 100,000-plus followers on Twitter specializing in Notion. I tried reaching out to these influencers and giving away my product for free.”
As for SEO, besides his Reddit post, Julien created a couple of lead-generating pages attached to his website. One he is particularly proud of is a list of all the major Notion influencers. Julien also constructed a sturdy backlink profile for NotionForms with one key feature: Whenever people create forms while using the free plan, they have a small “powered by NotionForms” link at the bottom of their form with a backlink back to his page.
The platform soon had over 1,000 customers using its software to make forms – enough to make Julien feel he could safely make them start paying.
The Battle to Switch to Freemium
After reaching 1,000 users, Julien began noticing swaths of “power-users” or people using his product as an integral piece of highly-profitable businesses.
“One NotionForms user is a farmer in Malaysia who manages his entire operation in Notion,” he says. “This guy gave cell phones to his employees to access NotionForms. They use it to keep track of logistical things like how much gas they use. A lot of crypto guys use NotionForms too.”
“To my surprise, he explained that he didn’t even need the Pro features but just wanted to support me because of the quality of the support I provided.”
Julien decided he would try to ease the platform into monetization. For the next few months, he put notices next to new features saying they would no longer be free after a certain date. When he finally flipped the switch to make NotionForms a paid service, he also offered a 40 percent lifetime discount to current users.
On day one, a French photographer who had been using NotionForms since the beginning bought a yearly subscription. “At the time, he was regularly sending me feedback and feature requests on Facebook, so when I saw that he’d subscribed, I sent him a thank you message,” says Julien. “To my surprise, he explained that he didn’t even need the Pro features but just wanted to support me because of the quality of the support I provided. That moved me a lot.”
However, despite a large number of high-value customers, Julien found relatively few were willing to convert to premium plans initially. “I didn’t know if people would buy and I was pretty disappointed with conversions,” he says. “With over one thousand users I had only 15 redemptions of the forty percent off promo code in the first few weeks.”
By the end of July 2021, Julien settled on $15-a-month pricing (he says he halved the price of the most famous form builder). He liked a subscription model rather than a usage-based one because the latter is a pain point for growing companies – if a company’s form gets popular, they’re penalized with higher prices.
Julien’s persistence paid off. In August of 2021 paying customers on NotionForms finally shot up to 30 and then 40. In 2022, Julien increased the price to $19 and launched a $39 enterprise plan with bigger file uploads and more collaboration features. By July 2022, he reached $10,000 in MRR with 20 percent of his revenue coming from enterprise clients.
Adding Features to Keep Customers Happy
When improving NotionForms, Julien’s goal was always to do enough to keep customers happy but keep it growing at a sustainable and relaxed pace. Fortunately, because there were so many form builders out there, he had a lot of features he could emulate.
“Customers who used similar products came with expectations of what others could do. I quickly had a precise idea of all the features I wanted to offer.”
Julien’s system for approving and adding new features mixes market research and instinct. He tries to prioritize the features requested most but also believes it’s important to say no to some requests.
“If the requested feature is too far from my vision for the product, I just ignore it and explain to the requester why I won’t build it. This does not happen often, but I think it’s important to say no. I’m building a generalist product. I want to cover 95 percent of use cases and I know I will never be able to cover 100 percent of them.”
Keeping the One-Hour Workday
While Julien’s business has enjoyed phenomenal growth in just over one year, he is wary about the future of his platform. Though he has established a solid relationship with the Notion team, he is also concerned that the platform could create a competitor to NotionForms and kill his traffic.
Julien hired a full-time software engineer in May of 2022 to increase his pace. “He’s not only working on NotionForms but also other projects with me. We have these in the pipeline because if Notion decides to build a form builder I’m in trouble.”
“The most important thing is to launch fast, get feedback fast, get early users, iterate, and connect to an actual product.”
For all of his success, Julien says that speed has been his greatest ally. That and getting feedback as quickly as possible.
“The most important thing is to launch fast, get feedback fast, get early users, iterate, and connect to an actual product. The hardest thing is to start when you’re not sure what to do and you have many ideas. Once you launch something it’s easy to have many ideas. I’ve also discovered that building in public is super valuable.”
For the near future, Julien is trying his best to scale without building a team by automating as much of his product as he can. Today, he spends less than an hour a day on the project. “I think this is super important for healthy growth with little chance of burnout,” he says.
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