Steve Ridout Indie web developer and creator of Readlang

3 Years as a One Man Startup

January 4, 2016

I’ve spent most of the past 3 years creating one language learning web-app, Readlang.

Readlang
Readlang browser extension in action
Learn about Readlang

I wrote about my struggle to get this off the ground almost two years ago and was thrilled with the response on Hacker News and elsewhere. I’ve been meaning to write a followup for a long time, but would always convince myself to wait…

Just a couple more tweaks and usage will explode. *Then* I'll have something to write about!

Well here I am, three years later. Usage didn’t explode, but grew in fits and starts. I’ve worked hard for 3 years and am still making less than minimum wage. But that’s not as bad as it might sound.

Money

To survive as a bootstrapper, revenue is essential. But it’s often taboo, despite being very useful information. The problem is that if you report a low revenue, you may not be taken seriously. If you earn a lot, people listen but it invites competition and jealousy. I’m still on the low side, so here we go…

  year 1 year 2 year 3
unique visitors 16,000 44,000 146,000
signups 2,800 9,300 36,800
upgrades   130 640
revenue $700 $4,100 $16,500
expenses $500 $1000 $2000
profits $200 $3000 $14,500

(Note: all numbers are very approximate, and in USD)

Profit of ~ $14,500 in year 3 is roughly equivalent to £9,700 GBP. I’d earn more working 28 hours a week at minimum wage. I worked a lot more than that, and as an experienced software developer have paid a high opportunity cost.

Will I continue with Readlang?

I regularly question my decision to continue pouring so much time into Readlang. I wonder about the lucrative life of a contractor, or the cushy job of software developer at a large tech company. I wonder if I’m hurting my chances of future employment by working so long on my own.

On the other hand, profits have grown 480% over the past year. If this continues, the future looks good. In year 4 (next year) I would make a typical UK software developer salary, and in year 5 I’d get financially rewarded for the risk I’ve taken compared to being employed. That’s still two years away. Is it realistic to expect this trend to continue? I don’t know, but I’m making a bet that while I continue to work on it, the answer is yes.

There are easier ways of making a living. But I’m proud of what I’m making, and it seems to genuinely help people to learn languages. Here’s a sample of quotes I’ve received by email just within the past month:

Readlang helped me improve my German by leaps and bounds.

En primeras palabras quiero decir, que me gusta muchísimo tu pagina. Es de verdad grande trabajo." Spanish isn't great? Read this quote on Readlang

My German tutor recommends you over sites like LingQ. And your library content is definitely more interesting and higher quality.

Thanks for making such an amazing service

I'm a big fan of Readlang, just found it last month after getting tired of LingQ. I'm quite impressed with what you've built and the new features you are adding. Really like the speaking mode.

I'm in a polyglot group, and we all try different language tools constantly (Memrise, Anki, FluentU, etc), but I think Readlang has been the "stickiest" for the majority of us.

On top of that, quotes like this have appeared in public, again just within the past month:

This simple tool has changed the way I learn languages forever

Alex Rawlings

ReadLang is a truly wonderful, clean, well-designed, product that will speed up your reading practice allowing you to access and enjoy native content on your favourite topics.

Marta Krzemińska, Lingualift

WONDERFUL extension, awesome site, and a shockingly high quality free experience. Couldn't recommend this more.

Ivy Ziedrich, Chrome Web Store Review

Readlang is ramen profitable, helping more people every day, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Of course I’m continuing.

Follow my progress

I plan to write more about creating Readlang. If you’d like to ask a question, suggest a topic, or hear updates, please find me on twitter @Steve_Ridout.

UPDATE