Marc Köhlbrugge- The Indie Hacker Who Kept Creating For Over A Decade

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If you are a founder or indie hacker you have probably heard of Marc Köhlbrugge, or at least the company he founded way back in 2009- BetaList.

In this article, we will learn what it is like to stay in the game of building startups for over a decade. From getting free PR to your startup and clever monetization strategies, there’s a lot we can learn from Marc’s journey bootstrapping his portfolio of startups.

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What we will learn

  • How he tricked TechCrunch into writing about his startup
  • What to do when one of your post goes viral
  • How to leverage FOMO to create a successful community
  • Clever ways to run a paid tier for your product without extra features
  • Why you should validate distribution before you build

Stick to the end to get the five action items for you to implement in your startup today.

Let’s get right in.


Who is Marc Köhlbrugge?

Marc is likely a familiar name if you follow the indie hacking space. He’s the founder of BetaList, a well-known platform for discovering and featuring up-and-coming startups, WIP (a community platform) and Startup Jobs.

His background

Marc Köhlbrugge started indie hacking back in 2005. His first project was a group university project called Open Margin, a social platform that turned books into micro-communities. Despite the team’s best efforts, they struggled to get beta users to try their product.

Out of frustration, Marc created BetaList – a startup discovery directory. He thought if he could at least find people who are generally predisposed to trying new things through Beta List, he could sneakily direct these beta testers to Open Margin.

This roundabout plan worked.

After setting up a simple landing page for BetaList on Tumblr featuring a handful of startups including Open Margin, he sent a quick pitch to TechCrunch with the hope of getting PR coverage.

Marc Kohlbrugge Betalist founding story TechCrunch

To his surprise, he received a reply from the editor immediately. Then the next morning, BetaList was featured on TechCrunch. (Although he did find hundreds of beta testers for Open Margin via BetaList, BetaList was so successful it became Marc’s main focus and Open Margin’s was eventually shut down.)

It took just one weekend for BetaList to go from a Tumblr page to the front page of TechCrunch, becoming THE startup directory to go to. It was used by many startups we now recognize, like Pinterest, IFTTT, FAB and Mailbox (acquired by DropBox) to launch their products.

Pinterest launched on BetaList
Pinterest launched on Beta List

Over the following decade, Marc continued to create dozens of projects across domain investing, Web3 experiments and more. His other well-known projects are WIP (a community platform), Startup Jobs and Room AI (and AI interior design tool).

From what I gather, his collection of startups generates over $100,000 in annual revenue as he continues to build projects following his curiosity for more than a decade.


5 strategies Marc Köhlbrugge used to grow BetaList and his startup community

This is a high level overview:

  1. The secret ingredient to a successful community – is to implement a carrot (dopamine) and stick (FOMO) approach in your community. The community exploded when he implemented an accountability bot to help members share their progress daily. People started offering to financially contribute to keep the community alive.
  2. How to monetize your free product without building more – It can be hard to get your users to pay for the same features you currently offer for free. We will see how Marc managed to charge users for BetaList and WIP without building more features.
  3. Validate your distribution channel early – OpenMargin, his university project ultimately failed because Amazon controlled the market. Don’t forget to validate if any gatekeepers can put a stop to your idea before you start.
  4. It takes one story-worthy bold bet – BetaList’s first big break came from a TechCrunch article. It was Marc’s ingenuity that turned that big break into several others, attracting some of the most promising startups of the time (like Pinterest) to his website.
  5. Nothing lasts forever – Competitors emerge and customer preferences do change over time. Marc’s decade-long experience shows you what it takes to keep shipping year after year.

Now let’s go into each in detail.

1. The secret ingredient to a successful community

One of Marc Köhlbrugge’s main start-ups is WIP (“work in progress”), a community mastermind for founders to share ideas and feedback. It started as a simple Telegram chat in 2017, off the back of a suggestion made by Pieter Levels, another successful bootstrapped founder.

By all accounts the launch was successful. Dozens of people signed up on launch day. But it wasn’t until Marc introduced a Telegram bot designed to help people share their daily progress that members finally understood the value of this community.

The chat delivers immediate value to new members and once you see others completing todo’s using the bot you’re inclined to give it a try yourself and pretty soon you’re hooked.

Marc Köhlbrugge – Hackernoon

Let’s understand why.

The FOMO and dopamine effect

Running a successful community is hard. Most group chats and communities tend to lose momentum and fizzle out over time. You need a way to keep your members engaged and develop a habit of checking in to the community daily.

One way to engineer this is to develop a carrot-and-stick approach: Help members get an immediate sense of achievement and dopamine hit every time they check in to the community and a fear of missing out (FOMO) when they don’t.

Let’s look at how WIP implemented this:

WIP startup community
Notice the streaks (bottom left) and checklists (bottom right)

Members used WIP as public to-do lists, checking off what they are working on every day and competing with other members on the “Streaks” leaderboard.

Is your community something people want?

But how do you know whether a community you are building is something people are willing to pay for? Two signs to look out for based on Marc’s experience building WIP:

  1. Members asked to financially contribute – WIP was a free community. At some point, early members started to ask whether they could financially contribute to ensure he kept the community alive. It started as a $150 per year patronage which turned into a $20/month membership fee.
  2. Word-of-mouth referrals – Even without actively promoting WIP, the community grew via word-of-mouth referrals. Existing members started inviting others they thought would benefit from and contribute to the community. This helped WIP grow without Marc’s active promotion.
WIP invite list

In short, a community is most valuable when members feel a pull to check in regularly. Think about how you might engineer the same experience for your community. When members start to recruit others or ask to pay to ensure you stick around and keep it alive, you know you’ve been successful at building a useful community.

2. How to monetize your free product without building more

Many products in today’s startup ecosystem start with free – a free tier, a free lead magnet or a free consultation. But if you only have a product offering, it is easy to think you need to build something more substantial to monetize.

But Marc’s story shows you that sometimes you can get a segment of customers to pay for what you already offer for free.

Beta List’s a queue jump system

Betalist only features a handful of new products every day. Because of this, they operate a waiting list with a queue of products waiting to be featured next.

As BetaList grew in popularity, some founders started asking Marc for a queue jump. In order to cut down the number of requests he started charging $15 to get to the front of the queue, then it was $24, $29… eventually you could pay up to $199 to get your startup featured within the next 24 hours.

Betalist queue jump pricing

WIP special badge system

WIP, his startup community, also started as a free offering. A created a $150 patronage badge that gave paying members additional perks, like a special badge on their profile, a bit like the Twitter Blue tick.

Since 2022, the membership is invite-only, and paying members get a certain number of invites they can dish out to non-members. I submitted my application to join yesterday and am #1799 in the queue, which means they get ~100 new members every month.

Marc Kohlbrugge WIP is free to join

All that is to say, you don’t always have to develop a completely new product for your paying customers. The strategies above allowed Marc to drive significant revenue from free products without limiting wider access or distribution for anyone.

For any free offering, brainstorm ideas for premium features or perks a subsection may be willing to pay for. You may find creative ways to monetize your most engaged users.

3. Sometimes it’s about distribution and the market

Marc’s first-ever startup that helped authors spin up micro-communities around their writing and ideas ultimately failed. In an interview with Failury, he shared the difficulty he faced building Open Margin:

A lot of things went very well. We talked to the team at Oprah’s book club to see if we could partner somehow. Which would have been huge. Samsung proposed a deal where we’d be the default e-reader app on the first Galaxy Note. But ultimately, we were too early.

Marc Köhlbrugge

Open Margin was created in 2009, at a time when most publishers were still scared of publishing ebooks for fear of piracy, and the small market was dominated by Amazon which made it impossible for newcomers to innovate in the market.

Only small indie publishers were willing to talk to them and they never managed to find a way to distribute their product at scale. Eventually, their second round of subsidies dried up, and they shut down the business to move on to other things.

The lesson here is this: sometimes it is worthwhile validating your distribution channels early. Do a quick check to see if there are any key distribution channels or gatekeepers that could stop the adoption of your product right from the start.

If so, determine if they are incentivized to support you or obstruct your growth.

4. It takes one story-worthy bold bet

On a positive note, let’s look at something that went very well for Marc.

Remember how Marc got his first big break with BetaList? It was a weekend project he put together quickly on Tumblr, with nothing more than a few articles highlighting startups in beta. That weekend, he shared BetaList with a journalist at TechCrunch.

Marc Kohlbrugge Beta List Techcrunch viral
BetaList went viral on TechCrunch

That article drove thousands of visits to his website overnight.

But wait, it gets better.

Turning one successful PR campaign into multiple

Not long after that initial buzz, he wrote an article on Medium sharing how he successfully got PR coverage for BetaList. He titled it “How I Tricked TechCrunch Into Writing About My Startup”.

Marc Kohlbrugge Beta List Techcrunch (2)

Ironically, this second article that talked about his initial success gained 60K views and drove even more visits than the original TechCrunch article. It led to another wave of sign-ups to BetaList when it was republished on Business Insider and various other news sites.

He then leveraged that to talk about the success of this second article on Twitter.

Yes, it’s becoming a bit meta but you get the point.

Of course, you can never foresee which one of your efforts will pay off. But when something pops, however small, share your wins. Think creatively about how you might capitalize on that gain to further benefit your startup.

5. Nothing lasts forever

Many bootstrapped founders dream of finding that one product that can be “made once and sold forever”. Marc’s 13+ years of experience shows us that this is unlikely going to be the case.

Consumer preferences evolve

Inevitably, interest and demand from customers change. This is both a blessing and a threat, depending on where you stand! As we have seen in our previous deep dives like this one about Tim Bennetto, even “saturated markets” can present opportunities as customers’ needs change.

Competitors emerge

As the industry expands, competitors emerge. In 2013, four years after BetaList started, Product Hunt launched its first MVP.

Nowadays, the creator economy and the indie hacking approach have become mainstream, leading to many more communities popping up to serve the same target market as Marc’s WIP.

Today, BetaList and WIP generate less profit than they used to as Marc devotes more energy towards his new ventures, such as RoomAI (an AI-powered interior design startup) and Handle Horse (an unused Twitter handle monitoring tool).

Marc Kohlbrugge new startup RoomAI

Although you can’t predict the success or failure of any startup you launch, you CAN get better at entrepreneurship by repetition.

For example, Marc latest launch has no landing page, no logo, and no branding. Just a screenshot and a Stripe link.

Juicy ideas to replicate success

Here are the main ideas from Marc Köhlbrugge’s bootstrapped journey you can implement in your startup today:

  1. Find the carrot and sticks for your community – Every successful community is based on members actively contributing. Give them reasons to do so, whether it is to receive a dopamine hit when they log in or FOMO when they don’t.
  2. You don’t always have to build more for your paying customers – Sometimes it can be as simple as monetizing the speed of access to your product or an elevated status.
  3. A tightly controlled market could kill your startup because it launches – Validate your distribution channel and the market before you start building.
  4. When you get your big break, talk about it – People like to feel inspired by other people’s wins. Let that fuel further visibility to your startup.
  5. There is no such thing as passive MRR (monthly recurring revenue) for life – It takes effort to keep your startup alive. Your revenue composition from your portfolio of startups reflects where your attention is.

What’s next

In a future issue, we will look at a seasonal startup that is making $75,000 just over Christmas.

If you haven’t already, sign up to get notified when a new issue of Juicy Ideas drop!

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!