I’m sure you’ll agree that passion is as important as hard work in most settings. Love what you do, and you’ll do your best work, right? But while passion fuels entrepreneurs, too much of it can backfire, as in the case of Alexander Isora, founder of Unicorn Platform.
Driven by his vision and devotion, Alexander grew his company to more than 27,000 users and $15,000 in monthly recurring revenue. But working so hard for so long almost burned him out. If he wanted his business to survive, he needed to relinquish some responsibility – but how?
From Electrical Engineer to Software Engineer
Alexander, or Alex, is a self-taught developer from Tbilisi, Georgia (on the coast of the Black Sea). While studying electrical engineering at university, he developed an interest in software. “I discovered HTML and CSS in my spare time and decided it would be fun to teach myself how to code. Soon after, I became a freelance programmer. I ended up dropping out of university to launch my career as a developer at a web design agency,” Alex says.
The agency built various web design products, including templates and themes, that made designing websites easy. Alex learned how non-technical people create websites, what tools they use and why, what they value, and what they like and dislike in website creation. All that information inspired a question: What would the perfect website builder look like for early-stage startup founders?
As a startup founder, you must find your audience and validate your ideas as quickly as possible. This early-stage phase usually lasts a year, and during that time, founders need to be able to build webpages quickly and easily (sometimes in just a day). Alex wanted to build a truly simple website tool for this niche.
He says, “My vision was to provide a straightforward way of creating landing pages so that even non-tech-savvy people could build a beautiful website within an hour.” To chase that dream, he quit his job and that’s how Unicorn Platform was born.
Counting on Your Evangelists to Fund Development
After drawing up a business plan, Alex built an MVP (minimum viable product) to validate his idea. It was a simple version of an HTML website generator that produced good-looking landing pages without too many features or settings.
The first paid customers came from Alex’s network in the web design industry. They discovered Alex had built a tool and wanted to use it to create websites for their own clients. “I got very positive feedback from those first users. They asked whether I could take this same approach to create a bigger, more complex website builder. I said okay, but I needed money meantime to pay my bills and eat,” Alex says, laughing.
Alex made that happen by selling 50 lifetime licenses for Unicorn Platform at $180 a piece, crowdfunding close to $10,000. Thanks to Alex’s strong product vision, these customers had essentially invested in Unicorn Platform before it existed. Trusting that Alex would complete the tool, these early customers secured unlimited access to the platform once it was ready.
But Alex initially didn’t know how to program such a complicated tool. At first, he considered hiring developers since he could afford the cost. “But soon, I realized that it’s almost impossible to put your idea into someone else’s head. You need to be able to convey every detail that’s important to you and rely on their interpretation. On top of that, it means managing and motivating others,” the founder says.
Alex wasn’t sure he had enough experience to manage, delegate, and motivate people, so he decided to develop Unicorn Platform himself. Then he could control the result and deliver what he promised to his customers. The founder learned Python and JavaSript by reading books and watching YouTube videos. One year later, Unicorn Platform was ready.
You might wonder why Alex didn’t search for a cofounder to complement his skills. He tried but couldn’t find the right person. Alex says, “It’s hard to go at it alone. You can never relax completely, and you always have to be on the pulse. That might also be because I’m not great at delegating. I’m involved with every part of my business. But I knew that if I met the right person who could share that responsibility with me, I would welcome them with open arms.”
Why Trial and Error Are Key to Your Marketing Strategy
Once Alex finished building Unicorn Platform, he had to learn how to market it. Alex attended mentor sessions and sought advice from marketing experts. He was told the most straightforward strategy was to spend money on Google ads. By calculating customer acquisition cost and lifetime value, he could also measure profitability.
The founder says, “I went home that day, opened my laptop, and checked out Google ads. As soon as I entered my keywords ‘website builder’, you might have guessed that it cost like a million dollars per click. I just didn’t have that kind of money, so I had to figure out ways to market. After doing some online research, I found thousands of free marketing strategies.”
Alex tried almost every free strategy possible, including attending podcasts, giving interviews, sharing social media posts, and writing blog posts. He says, “Every tip I found online I took as an action item for myself. I figured it was worthwhile to try all of them. I had a lot of fun with it, but most things failed. And it wasn’t like I did ten things and each made a small impact that accumulated into something bigger. No, most things brought zero results and a few strategies gave Unicorn Platform a big boost.”
The best channel was Product Hunt. Alex launched Unicorn Platform there after each major update. According to Product Hunt’s rules, if six months have passed and your product has undergone significant updates, you can post it again. So, Alex worked hard to present something new within Unicorn Platform every time. He even created a video series about how to launch on Product Hunt because he was so successful with it.
When Passion Becomes a Burden, It’s Time for Change
Sometimes your biggest advantage is also one of your biggest challenges. For Alex, it’s how much he cares about his product and his customers. “As a founder, I’m passionate about my baby and feel emotionally connected to it. I’m always worried when someone isn’t happy with Unicorn Platform, and I try my best to make it right. I want everyone who comes across my path to have a great experience, even if that means referring them to a different website builder that better suits their needs,” he says.
But the reality is that you can’t care so much for so long. Four years in, Alex was exhausted by maintaining a SaaS in a solo mode. He was worried his waning motivation would bring the business down. Customers loved that he was such an involved founder, and if he pulled back, he risked growth grinding to a halt.
Alex shares, “I was slowly moving towards depression. I’ve been depressed before, so I know how bad the disease is. It was time to make a change – and I saw two solutions. The first was to find a cofounder or partner, but it was even harder than before. I met some interested parties who could take over as Unicorn Platform’s CEO, but they wanted fifty percent of the company, and I just couldn’t offer them that.”
The second solution was to get acquired. This sounded more exciting to Alex, but he had an important stipulation to selling. He didn’t want to get acquired by a huge company like Wix or Squarespace that would struggle to integrate Unicorn Platform into its ecosystem (which is what happened to one of Unicorn Platform’s competitors). Alex worried that a megacorp would ignore his customers and his company would eventually peter out.
“I imagined that the perfect buyer would be someone who owned a company that wasn’t too big, but bigger than mine. That person also had to have the same vision as me, giving people a positive experience on the web through simplicity and beauty. And that’s exactly what happened,” Alex says.
In September 2022, Unicorn Platform got acquired by MarsX for $800,000. MarsX’s founder, John Rush, had built a simple app builder that became very successful. He reached out to Alex, sharing how amazing Unicorn Platform was.
“John said that he wanted my tool and my brain to join his company. It took only two calls and one flight to Istanbul, Turkey to seal the deal. But John finding me was no coincidence. Since starting Unicorn Platform, I’ve been sharing my vision and building my product with full transparency. I was preparing myself for a potential acquisition. John read all my interviews and had become a supporter of Unicorn Platform,” Alex says.
Now, Alex is still the CEO of Unicorn Platform and will be for the foreseeable future. But MarsX took over many routine tasks from Alex, like server maintenance and daily development, which has given the founder space to decompress. Alex can now share responsibility and take (mental) time away from Unicorn Platform.
“I’m now less focused on the actual coding and more on the high-level product vision. My job as CEO is to decide on new features according to the product roadmap and customer feedback. But most importantly, I was able to get that emotional connection back. If Unicorn Platform hadn’t been acquired, I could have been depressed today and completely letting my company and customers down,” the founder says.
To many, selling your company might seem like the end of the story. But to Alex, it was a new beginning. He now has the opportunity to share his vision with an even wider audience with the help of like-minded people and renewed passion.
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