Note: You can read the archived comments at the Hacker News thread.

I launched my design ebook for startup founders on March 20th, 2012. On May 25, I broke $30,000 in sales volume. Here’s what I learned.

Research customers.

6 months ago, the idea of writing a book was inconceivable. I’ve never wanted to write a book. I didn’t think I had anything to say.

When I started—with research—what would become my next project, I was surprised. Not surprised at myself, that I had discovered some new ambition, but surprised at what people needed and how well I could meet that need. Me, a designer, not a writer.

See, by beginning my project with research rather than an idea, I found an opportunity. It wasn’t an opportunity I could have imagined nor one for which I would have intentionally searched. It was an opportunity that already existed out there—on the web, in tweets, on blogs, and appearing in the frustrations of certain people. (The audience I researched was programmers who are bootstrapping software businesses.)

The primary reason for the success of this eBook is that the idea came from my customers, not from me.

My business is succeeding because it began with an understanding of customers. This understanding includes not just what they need, but also more important insights: what they buy, what they value, how they communicate, and where they hang out.

You think you already know these things about your own customers, but you don’t. Your assumptions are wrong.

My first business was based on such assumptions, and it crashed and burned in silence. Don’t make the same mistake. Research first.

Price by value.

I set a price for my ebook that some consider too high. Their opinion demonstrates that these people are not really in the audience for my book.

My audience is composed of professionals—they’re good at what they do and they are paid well for it. While many in my audience can’t afford to hire a designer outright to work on their bootstrapped side projects, they are comfortable paying for products and services as part of doing business. They donate time and money to open source projects and they enjoy supporting products they like. For them, it doesn’t matter that much if the eBook costs $12 or $39. All that matters is that it helps them to build a more viable business.

Read my guest blog post on A Smart Bear about my value pricing strategy for a more detailed rationale.

The numbers prove my strategy worked well enough. Here are the details:

The number you really want: $30,286. That’s total sales volume (revenue) as of 5/25/12. I pay 3.6-3.7% per transaction in credit card processing fees. Other costs total $79/mo. Transfers are still pending in in Stripe, but closest approximation of profit is $29,008.

~2 Month Totals, 3/20/12 – 5/25/12:
66 days
12,319 unique visitors
809 transactions
6.57% conversion rate
$30,286 revenue
$2.46 revenue per unique visitor

1 Month Totals, 3/20/12 – 4/19/12:
30 Days
8073 unique visitors
643 transactions
7.96% conversion rate
$23,817 revenue
$2.95 revenue per unique visitor

First 48 hours:
2 Days
3527 unique visitors
242 transactions
6.8% conversion rate
$8,753 revenue
$2.48 revenue per unique visitor

3/22/12, 3rd day after launch:
1 Day
401 unique visitors
31 transactions
7.8% conversion rate
$1,144 revenue
$2.85 revenue per unique visitor

3/27/12, One week after launch, I sent an email newsletter:
1 Day
376 unique visitors*
36 transactions
9.6% conversion rate
$1,269 revenue
$3.38 revenue per unique visitor

*Includes some organic/direct traffic.

Total Newsletter Statistics:
2,415 Recipients
52.7% Open Rate
287 People who clicked
333 Total Clicks
11.9% CTR (unique)

(Sorry I don’t have the 1-day newsletter stats for 3/27/12.)

4/3/12, Guest post on A Smart Bear:
1 Day
730 unique visitors
27 transactions
3.7% conversion rate
$1,033 revenue
$1.41 revenue per unique visitor

4/26/12, “Dear Python, Why Are You So Ugly?” blog mention:
1 Day
1150 unique visitors
12 transactions
1% conversion rate
$468 revenue
$0.40 revenue per unique visitor

Say sorry.

The power of an apology or the cost of a mistake?

I made an honest mistake after launch. The coupon I had promised everyone on my mailing list expired before I said it would.

I reactivated the coupon, extended the expiration by an extra week, and sent an email to the list apologizing. This apology email drove about $1,200 in sales. Other newsletters have not converted quite so well.

Would I have earned more sales if I hadn’t made that mistake? Did the apology completely close the gap? I have no way of knowing. Regardless of speculation, the apology email made an impact.

Later on, my payment system had an issue where credit cards were being declined for no reason. A couple of customers were very kind to notify me, and I got in touch with the support teams for those third-party systems and they fixed the issue quickly.

Rather than leave it there, I sorted through the logs to find about 10 people who had been declined when trying to purchase. I wrote a personal email to each of them, and included a $5 discount coupon as an apology. A few of them had already purchased after the error was fixed, so I refunded them $5 instead.

These apologies have led to customer relationships and great feedback, and I know that several of these customers recommended my book to others just because of this experience. Apologizing and fixing the problem was not only the right thing to do, but it drove more sales by word of mouth.

So, what now?

The last couple of months have been strange because I have no idea how to run a profitable business. I’m making it up as I go.

I’ve completely skipped marketing practices like SEO and A/B testing. Many people claim these techniques are essential to running a business, but the truth is they are long-term strategies for optimizing something that already works. SEO and multivariate testing can’t do much if people don’t want your product. This time out, I learned to focus on getting the product right before I worried about following every best practice. I can always work on that stuff later.

Next, the revised edition of the eBook is in the works. I have dozens of lengthy feedback emails and even full copies of the ebook annotated by customers to inform the revisions.

After that, I’ll start researching the next project. I have an awesome customer base to learn from, and they’re already asking for more.

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