Meet Danielle Johnson, the co-founder of Leave Me Alone, a web app that empowers users to take control of their inbox and unsubscribe from unwanted emails. With over 2 million emails unsubscribed so far, Leave Me Alone hit a major milestone last December, with $10k monthly turnover and half of it being MRR (monthly recurring revenue). As a sailing nomad who travels the world with her life partner and co-founder, Danielle has built her product without external funding. In this interview, discover how she managed to build such a successful company independently while sailing the open seas.
Can you tell us a bit about your background: where do you come from, what kind of family were you born in, what did you want to become when you were a child, what were you doing before being an entrepreneur?
Hi! I’m Danielle, I’m a digital nomad and bootstrapped founder. I’m originally from the UK but for the past 6 years I’ve been traveling full-time with my best friend and partner-in-crime, James. I studied Computer Science at University and learned how to code but didn’t get into web development until my first job as a graduate. I quickly fell in love with building web apps - the speed of web development is faster than traditional software engineering and I enjoy seeing the outcome of my work almost instantly. The technologies also change rapidly and there is always something new to learn or play around with!
I worked for a Tech Startup in the UK for a while but I quickly realized I wasn’t very happy and I didn’t want to be part of the “rat-race”. James and I sold all of our belongings and booked a one-way ticket to Bangkok to begin a one year backpacking trip. About 6 months in we decided we didn’t want to return to the UK and we picked up a freelance job to keep traveling for longer, and that turned into a 6 year nomad journey!
You’ve worked at startups, for the UK Government, and as a freelancer. Today you’re an independent entrepreneur. Have these experiences helped you with your founder’s journey?
Absolutely! Even though my time as a full-time location-dependent employee was short I feel like I got enough experience to know I didn’t fit into that life. The UK government is an amazing place to work with plenty of benefits and opportunities, but it’s also full of red-tape, protocol, bureaucracy, and control. I’m not productive sitting in an office 9-5 and it felt like I was wasting my creative energy. I left the easy civil service to work long and hard hours at a Tech Startup. This was better and more fun but I was craving more freedom and I didn’t want to work for someone else, towards someone else’s dream.
These experiences laid the foundation for my indie founder journey and I think it made it easier to celebrate the small wins. The goal was never to replace my full-time job salary, I just wanted enough money to keep on traveling and exploring the world - and I knew that if I ran out of money I didn’t really like the alternative (of working full-time again).
Before Leave Me Alone, you had other products and startups. I remember when you joined Women Make, you had just released UptimeBar, a macOs menu bar app. You built a number of other apps before Leave Me Alone, the “real success”. How does it feel looking back?
Yes, that’s right! It feels surreal looking back at the journey and incredible to see how far we’ve come. I feel very lucky to have found traction with Leave Me Alone and be able to work on something I love and make money from it. I think it’s important to have a few apps in the graveyard before finding something that sticks, it makes the success of one after many “failures” more real.
From your open report, it looks like you reached half your $10k MRR goal (currently at $5k monthly recurring revenues, and $10k monthly turnover). How long did it take you and how much longer do you think you’ll need to reach this milestone?
It took 2 ½ years of building Leave Me Alone in the evenings and on the weekends between freelance client projects before we finally started to see the revenue chart go up. We launched the first version in January 2019 and made around $500 a month for the first couple of years selling “passes” to unsubscribe from emails. The biggest thing holding us back in the early days was that we were reliant on one-time payments and didn’t have anything worth paying monthly for. We worked hard, improved the product, and worked towards our grand plan of helping people clean their inbox and keeping it clean!
In April 2021 we launched Rollups and introduced monthly payment plans. Immediately people started signing up and over the next 2 years we kept adding more value to the plans, such as Inbox Shield and various other inbox management features, and people kept upgrading to them!
Hopefully it won’t take us another 4 years to reach our $10k MRR goal but we are also very happy with slow and steady growth. 2023 has been difficult for many SaaS companies so far and like most of the industry we’re seeing a slow down in growth, but hopefully it’ll pick up again soon and we’ll be back on track and closer to $10K by the end of the year!
What are your biggest acquisition channels? I discovered Tik Tok is a big one, and I must say I was not expecting it. How did that happen?
Twitter is by-far our biggest acquisition channel. Years of sharing our progress, milestones, and hard-times has gathered a large following of people interested in our journey. I really enjoy building in public and although many people are choosing to stop showing their Startup stats we will continue to be an Open Startup as it’s a big part of being open and transparent for Leave Me Alone.
TikTok is very unexpected! Last year we saw a huge spike in traffic and by asking some of our new customers found out that a creator made this TikTok video mentioning Leave Me Alone. We got 3,000+ new sign ups and made $3000 in just 2 days! There have been several TikTok videos like this one in November and this one in December last year that mention Leave Me Alone, so I’ve created a profile and we hope to start posting some videos and working with some creators this year.
You’ve also been a digital nomad for years, and more recently you bought a boat, turning you into a sailing nomad. How do you deal with the boat life, which I imagine takes quite some time and energy?
Yes! Buying a boat was actually one of our goals on our Open Startup page and it was super fun to track our progress with a boat-o-meter. Boat life comes with unique challenges, but from a work perspective it's quite similar to land life!
Most of the time we are anchored or docked in a bay near land so we use local SIM cards for WiFi on the boat. Sometimes there’s no signal so we hoist the hotspot up the mast and that usually does the trick! We have space for us both to work on our laptops inside the boat, and although it’s not the most ergonomic, it’s perfect for us.
The hardest part about living on a boat is the amount of time and planning that boat life requires. We are at the whim of the weather and the safety of us and the boat comes first. This means that if the weather changes then we have to move the boat, even if we were in the middle of work or a meeting etc.
It’s 100% completely worth it though. I am happiest by the ocean and the freedom of being able to sail anywhere is incredible.
Question from the community: How do you work in the constrained space of a boat? I guess you don't have a dual monitor and a comfortable desk chair :D
Haha no monitor or office chair, but I'd been remote working for 6 years from cafes etc before boat life so already used to different environments. And since I don't sit in the same place for 8 hours a day 5 days a week it's not a problem...
I actually get less neck/back pain now than when I worked in an office. I think the key is working in different places so you're not doing the same posture/movements all the time. And then obviously work less.
You hired your 1st employees last year, a marketing manager and a customer support person. How did you decide which roles to hire for and has it been effective so far?
Hiring for these roles felt like the next logical step for us once we were making enough money to afford it. Neither of us enjoys doing marketing, and we’re quite bad at it, so hiring someone to help us improve our SEO and write content for our blog was a no-brainer.
The customer support specialist role has been an even better investment and something we should have done a long time ago! This role takes almost all of the day-to-day customer support burden off me and James and means that we’re only required to intervene in complex queries. This also sets us up for the future when we’ll be doing more sailing and we know someone is there to respond to customer support if we’re unreachable!
What is an important lesson you learned while building Leave Me Alone?
I think I’m still learning this one but I would say don’t be too reactive to changes or dips in new customer sign ups and MRR. It’s natural for a business to see fluctuations in numbers, especially when there’s economic pressures (like the looming recession at the moment). As a small indie bootstrapped business we don’t have the resources to analyze the market and figure out how to keep the most customers, or A/B test discounts, or spend more on marketing to certain channels.
On the flip-side we also don’t have high outgoings and costs that we need to cut back on or employees to lay off. We’ll keep a close eye on our charts, but a few months hovering at the same number doesn't mean the end of the world, and when you look at the biggest picture in a year's time it won’t even be noticeable.
You recently launched a new by-product, Ellie, which took off. How do you balance time between both projects?
It has been a little challenging! Our main focus is still Leave Me Alone and we’re working towards some big improvements but since the service is complex and the code-base vast it takes longer to ship updates to our customers.
It’s faster to make changes to Ellie since it’s a new product and the code-base is quite small. This means that we’ve been able to make several improvements and release new versions in a short amount of time - we recently upgraded Ellie to the new OpenAI API which gives a 10x speed increase to the reply writing speed!
Your co-founder, James, is also your (love) partner. How does this affect your life, both personally and professionally?
We’ve been working and traveling together for years. I would say that being in a relationship has affected our work and personal lives positively! We are able to share all aspects of our lives with each other, and although this won't work for every couple, it’s great for us. The most important part is that we both work in the same field and we’re both able to work remotely, that we work on the same product is an added bonus to me. I think I’d find it very difficult to balance our lives if we were being pulled in different directions and building a business together means our professional goals are aligned.
What are your main goals for 2023?
We have one huge goal, and that is to cross the Atlantic Ocean on our 36ft sailboat! Business wise we hope to continue growing slowly, helping people control their inboxes, and delighting customers :)
Any advice for women starting a business?
Join Women Make! Having a friendly and safe female-focused environment to share milestones with, ask advice, and get support is so helpful. It can be super scary to open up about what you’re working on but the right community can help make a huge difference and give you the encouragement to continue pushing and find success.
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