David Park’s remarkable pivot that grew Jenni AI to $150k MRR in 18 months

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David Park is the co-founder of Jenni AI, an AI-supported research tool for students and researchers. After years of stagnation, David led a remarkable pivot that propelled Jenni AI from $2k monthly recurring revenue (MRR) to over $150k within 18 months.

In the process, he battled cancer, and ran 1000s user interviews and 47 sprint cycles to achieve this success. As I spend time understanding his journey founding Jenni AI, I find myself hopelessly in awe of his tenacity, resourcefulness and ambition. In this article, I’ll share his inspiring growth story, and the many smart growth strategies he leveraged to put Jenni AI on a hockey stick trajectory.

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What we will learn

  • David Park’s background and experience before building Jenni AI
  • How David converted Jenni from a serviced based business into a software company
  • The pivot that finally unlocks Jenni AI’s growth after being stuck for 3 years
  • David’s 3-step content creation process that took Jenni AI from 0 to 1 million users
  • What David is experimenting with today as he aims to get Jenni AI to unicorn status

Who is David Park?

David Park is 27 and is the co-founder of Jenni.AI.

David first started the company in 2015 after graduating from with a computer science degree. Back then, the company was called Altum, an AI-powered content marketing agency which aimed to streamline the process of content creation for marketing agencies leveraging GPT2.

Over the next 4 years, David worked tirelessly on Altum, growing Altum to a team of 20 writers delivering over 1 million words for clients per month by 2019. But it wasn’t enough. In an old tweet, David revealed that Altum was generating $7k in monthly recurring revenue (MRR) but was struggling to grow.

He needed to pivot.

So in 2019, David persuaded his college friend, Henry Mao, to co-found Jenni AI with him, effectively pivoting from a serviced-based business into a software-as-a-service (SAAS) company. He started becoming incredibly active on Indie Hackers, engaging with potential Jenni AI users daily. But despite his hustle, the product remained stuck at $2k MRR for 3 years.

David Park Jenni AI founder story
Jenni AI was stuck at $2000 MRR for 3 years (Source: Twitter/X)

But then something changed in the last 2 years. Jenni AI’s revenue grew from $2k MRR to over $150k within 18 months despite being diagnosed with cancer just as Jenni gained traction.

David Park cancer
David Park was receiving cancer treatments when Jenni AI finally gained traction (source: Twitter/X)

It looks like David finally found product-market-fit for Jenni AI and in this article, we will unpack exactly how he did it.


What did he do to break the MRR ceiling?

Being stuck at a low MRR ceiling is many founders’ frustrations. In our last article, Marc Louvion shared his thoughts on the trap of mediocracy, where you’re earning just enough to think your startup is worth pursuing, but not enough for it to be a success, or even sustainable business.

Thankfully David Park has been relatively open about his experience hacking growth and I was able to piece together 5 of his most practical ideas for any founders looking to break past their own revenue ceiling:

  1. Build a sticky product – Contrary to what you hear on Twitter/X, building a good product IS an important first step in your startup. Without that, even if you successfully engineered viral growth you can’t convert (or keep) your customers.
  2. Pivot your target market – Once you’ve fixed your product and it’s still not growing, it may be time to take a deeper look into who’s actually using your product. You might find that growth comes from pivoting your target market entirely.
  3. Build your AI moat – You can still build a successful AI product despite constant scaremongering from the media. OpenAI is a generic solution for a generic market. You win by solution-building.
  4. Leverage creators/micro-influencers – Jenni went from 0 to 1 million users in 9 months via influencer marketing that doesn’t break the bank.
  5. Repurpose – But not the way you’d think. It’s not just about showing up everywhere on multiple platforms. David shared a systematic strategy that iteratively finds the winning content video format and then squeezes every bit of juice out of that winning video.

Let’s dive into each.

1. Build a sticky product

Indie makers are often ridiculed for not spending enough time on marketing. But David Park shows us why focusing on building a good product is just as important.

In an interview with Brian Bourque from Unicorn Growth, David explained what eventually caused Jenni AI to gain traction. And surprise! It wasn’t marketing. At least, not yet.

It was a better product.

David Park Jenni AI how they build
David Park ripped out nearly all of Jenni AI’s functionality. (Source: Interview with Unicorn Growth)

By that point, they had spent 3 years on the SAAS version of Jenni AI and they were still struggling to grow. David needed to understand why. But first, what did their existing customers really value? Why are they using Jenni AI?

To answer that question they started an incredibly painful process of ripping out features.

But strangely, no matter how much they cut, Jenni AI’s conversion rate remained unchanged. (Note: This meant users didn’t care about the sacrificed feature and found the new version equally valuable as before.)

They continued to cut back features until eventually they were left with just a Google auto-complete style function. But ironically, that was when users finally understood what Jenni AI was and fell in love with the product. Jenni AI started growing.

This is also why David Park now advocates for every founder to first look at your product before trying to scale your marketing. There is no point in scaling a poor product.

And sometimes it might require you to rip apart your product to identify your key value proposition.

Don’t scale a bad product. (Source: Interview with Unicorn Growth)

2. Pivot your target market

Most of us interpret the word “pivot” with tweaking your product to better fit your target customer. That was what David did by paring back Jenni AI’s core functionality. But David also pivoted something else – his target market.

You may remember from the intro above that Jenni AI started life as Altum, a B2B content marketing agency. Naturally, when they started offering Jenni AI as a SAAS solution, Jenni AI was originally positioned to help businesses generate AI-powered SEO content.

But David couldn’t get traction. In hindsight, it was clear business owners were not interested in becoming better writers. They just wanted a one-click solution for content generation.

David Park on pivoting Jenni AI (source: David Park’s Twitter/X)

A series of experimentations later, David pivoted from targeting businesses to students. Then they started noticing that even within the students segment there was one specific sub-segment that converted the best.

PhD researchers.

The current version of Jenni AI was born.

Jenni AI’s current landing page is focused on researchers (source: Jenni.ai)

Pivoting the audience can be just as powerful as changing the product. When you’ve exhausted product improvements and can’t surpass an MRR ceiling, analyze if your target users are the right fit.

3. Build your AI moat

“Where’s your moat?”

This is possibly the single most common question any founder building an AI startup is asked today.

But this is also true before the current generative AI hype.

As you can hear In David’s Launch Accelerator demo day pitch in 2021 (minute 3:43), David had to defend against questions on Jenni AI’s lack of moat as AI wrappers gained popularity. Many products today face similar scepticism from investors.

David Park’s Launch Accelerator demo day pitch

As a side note, David did receive the funding from Launch Accelerator, going on to raise at least two more rounds from Antler and Grant AI. Jenni AI’s total external funding was $600k.

Now back to the topic of AI moats.

David’s response to that question is one many founders can steal.

It is to focus on deeply solving a problem.

The key here is to become the unequivocal best solution for a specific user problem. Remember that OpenAI is ultimately a broad model that possesses very broad capabilities. It’s a jack of all trades. In Jenni AI’s example, their moat is to provide the best solution to a narrow niche.

In fact, despite the explosion of OpenAI and the various competitors coming on the market, Jenni AI’s revenue continued to climb. As of November 2023 shortly after the launch of OpenAI GPT store, it hit $200k MRR.

Jenni AI finally hit $200k MRR in November 2023 despite the “lack of moat”

4. Leverage creators/micro-influencers

Once you’ve got your product and your audience nailed, the next part is indeed marketing.

I dug through his old tweets to see if I could find out what his main marketing strategy was for Jenni AI. Thankfully he shared this insightful tweet that helped us understand how Jenni AI went from 0 to 1 million users in 9 months.

David Park shared how he grew Jenni AI from 0 to 1 million users in 9 months (source: Twitter/X)

Use micro-influencers

The reason this works is thanks to TikTok popularizing an algorithm change across multiple social platforms. Instead of recommending popular posts to every social media user (old Instagram algorithm), any post can become viral regardless of the account’s follower count.

Instead of paying ~$2500+ to a large influencer, you could pay ~$250 to someone who is just starting out but getting pushed by the algo

David Park on Twitter/X

Here’s how it works:

  1. Identify micro influencers (or creators) in his niche.
  2. Recruit them to create content for your product.
  3. Post the content on YOUR product’s channel, not the creator’s.

I was curious if Jenni AI is still using micro-influencers today despite their explosive growth so I went to their Instagram and tracked down their current creator’s Instagram profile. As you can see in the screenshot below, the answer is yes.

Jenni AI creator micro influencer
Jenni AI uses micro-influencers for their campaign (source: Instagram)

For you, that means selecting creators based on their ability to generate engaging content. Not the size of their following.

A note on influencers

David also referenced paying $4,000/month for MengMengDuck, a popular creator with 500k followers in the student niche as a way to kickstart the growth of Jenni AI’s social channels. Again, they asked the influencer to post directly on Jenni’s social, which influencers like because they don’t have to clutter their personal page with ads.

5. Repurpose (but not the way you’d think)

Most founders are already familiar with the benefits of repurposing content across platforms.

But in David’s case, he literally created 5 Jenni AI accounts.

Jenni AI Instagram Accounts
David Park created multiple Jenni AI accounts to repurpose content. Source: Instagram

How it works

  1. Use the main account to test videos.
  2. Keep posting until you hit a viral video.
  3. Post the exact same video across the clone accounts.

To take it even further, you can create iterations of the same video (in other words, create a series). Rinse and repeat.

I guess the lesson here is this:

Don’t be afraid of “boring” your audience. The world – or the size of your audience – is likely bigger than you think.

Ideas to replicate David Park’s success

  • Start with your product – Don’t jump the gun on marketing. Viral traction with a leaky bucket is a wasted effort.
  • You can pivot your audience instead of the product – If you’ve tried improving your product (and adding features!), but still can’t break through an MRR ceiling, it is worth looking at your user profiles to see whether you are targeting the audience you think you are.
  • Use creators / micro-influencers – You don’t have to break the bank by hiring expensive influencers. New creators work just as well but make sure they can create engaging content.
  • Test relentlessly – David conducted 1000 user interviews and 47 sprints in the 2 years leading up to their explosive growth. In the case of content creation, test until you find a format that works and don’t be afraid of literally duplicating the winning videos.
  • You can still build a successful AI tool – Don’t get hung up about the scaremongering you hear, “OpenAI’s next update will kill your AI-wrapper startup!” Remember that OpenAI is a generic solution for a generic audience. Focus on becoming the best at solving your user’s problem. That’s your moat.

Conclusion

David Park journey building Jenni AI to a $200k MRR business is a masterclass for indie makers in overcoming stagnation in their startup growth.

He showed us what it takes to build a differentiated AI-based startup in the highly competitive world of generative AI:

A relentless focus on building the best solution for your target market.

What’s next

Looking through his tweets I noticed Jenni AI has started experimenting with free tool marketing, another popular growth hack that has captured the attention of indie makers.

In a future issue, we will review whether this campaign has been a successful experiment for Jenni AI, and also look back on how David Park found Jenni AI’s first 100 paid customers.

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Growth Strategies of Top Indie Makers Delivered to Your Inbox

Each week, we will reverse engineer the growth and distribution strategies used by top indie makers to grow their startups past $100k annual revenue. Subscribe so you don’t miss the latest issues!