Community, Maker Resources

Ben Tossell: making his mark on the maker world

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Most people in the maker community have heard of Ben Tossell. With more than thirty products made, some solo, some in collaboration with other makers, and a deep involvement in the makers space, it is hard to miss him. Having worked at Product Hunt before pursuing his own venture, he as many insights to share when it comes to building and monetizing products.

Originally from Cardiff, a port city on the south coast of Wales in the United Kingdom, Ben moved to London right after finishing his studies. Not many people know this, but he joined a small startup of three people as their sales lead. The app allowed users to order food and drinks before they got to the cafe. “I was knocking on doors trying to sell this app to pubs, bar and cafes. Not one sale in six weeks. So they fired me. I am grateful for this experience because it made me realize fairly early I did not want to be a sales person.”

This first experience did not deter him from seeking more involvement in the startup scene. After a few interviews, he ended up joining a social media agency and helping with Twitter and Facebook ads. The agency had a fun startup culture – the beer fridge, the food, the ping pong tables – and Ben spent just over a year working there until it was acquired.

Becoming a maker

Around 2013, Ben discovered Product Hunt, when it was still a very basic version of the platform we know today. A whole new ecosystem was growing around Product Hunt, including many Slack channels where makers would exchange ideas and collaborate. At this point, Ben had not built nor launched any product yet, but he emailed Eric Willis, the creator of Maker Hunt, and offered to help with anything. Eric let him in.

So Ben got to work and tried to make himself as useful as possible. He was not sure yet how exactly he was going to benefit from his involvement in the maker community, but he felt like there was a massive opportunity for people willing to seize it. Beside personally welcoming any maker when they joined, he would turn the Slack channel’s AMAs into full-length blog posts and post them on Medium. This allowed him to get in touch with many makers and better understand their needs.

When Bram Kanstein launched Startup Stash, Ben thought: “Well, I could do this.” At the time, there was not any curated directory of marketing resources, so he decided to build it. He collated more than 250 links into a Google Spreadsheet, and convinced Mubashar Iqbal to turn the list into a functional website. When they launched Marketing Stack in July 2015, it ended up becoming the 20th most upvoted product of all time. Ben was now officially a maker.

Joining Product Hunt

Around that time, Eric Torenberg, the first employee of Product Hunt, reached out to Ben and asked if he could help with community management. Product Hunt were creating several Slack channels to bring makers closer together. Ben had been helping with those channels for a couple of months when a notification popped up on his screen: “Ryan Hoover follows you back.”

Ryan asked if they could have a quick chat. It turned out that both Eric and Bram had recommended Ben as a potential hire without consulting each other – which probably sent a great signal to Ryan.

Ben was hired to become the person running everything on the European side. As nobody at Product Hunt’s headquarters would be awake when makers started posting products, Ben would have to manage the front page. “It was quite nerve-racking at first,” he says with a smile. “And it did not help that I was in a Starbucks with a very spotty Internet connection the first time Ryan remotely walked me through all of the tools to manage the page. But the site did not blow up when I took over, so I guess it was fine.”

The two following years at Product Hunt were intense. Ben became the go-to person for launches. He would wake up at 8am every day, and would usually work until 11pm. Working long hours as a remote employee felt draining at times, but he still somehow found time to dedicate to his own projects.

Working on side projects

While working at Product Hunt, Ben built many no-code products. The Product Hunt homepage was a constant source of inspiration, with new tools launched every day that would spark exciting ideas in his mind and allow him to build products without code. One area he became passionate about was designing chatbots. “It was really fun. I even created a chatbot for Casey Neistat and we discussed building an official one. But it didn’t go through as it was when Casey stopped vlogging for a while.”

It was around that time chatbots became popular. “There were Facebook bots, Telegram bots, Slack bots,” recalls Ben. “I thought, shouldn’t there be a place to find these? Like an App Store for bots.” So he got to work, and manually curated 700 bots in a Google Spreadsheet. He again managed to enlist the help of Mubashar Iqbal and Seth Louey to build the website. They had not even launched yet that someone contacted Ben, offering to acquire it. “We couldn’t agree on a figure, and I was very excited about this project, so I decided to launch it anyway.”

They timed the launch with F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference. The website, called Botlist, was an instant hit. “Millions of page views. We got featured in Techcrunch and VentureBeat. Every article talking about bots would link to it.”

Not all side projects were this strategic. Remote Stories, which Ben created with Julie Delanoy and Ayrton De Craene, is a humble project allowing remote workers to anonymously share their thoughts and experiences. Julie and Ayrton are still working on it, and have recently announced a re-launch. Another one, called Day Dot, which offered to build MVPs with no code, saw a thousand people sign up but nobody willing to actually pay for the service. Yet another time, Ben decided to launch 10 startups in 24 hours just to prove it was possible.

The birth of NewCo and MakerPad

When Product Hunt was acquired by AngelList in December 2016, Ben got to spend more time with a few colleagues in London, where there was a small AngelList office. “It was nice to get to see people in person and have that interaction.” But he felt like he needed to do something different.

He started brainstorming. “I wanted to work on something I could do from anywhere in the world, something where timezones wouldn’t matter. I wanted to build something scalable, in the sense that I wouldn’t be trading my time for money. So I thought: what can I do? I knew how to build stuff without any code.”

Following the example of EggHead and GoRails, Ben decided to record screencasts. “That seemed easy enough. Record your screen, upload it, and if it’s useful, people will pay for it. I could just record myself building these no-code products.”

He emailed the people who signed up for Day Dot. “I told them, I’ll upload a new tutorial every week, here is a link where you can sign up and pay – it was $49.99 per month – and… 15 people paid! I thought, shit, this may work!”

So Ben got to work. He built a website in Webflow, created a few tutorials, and uploaded them. More people signed up, and the product was starting to make money. It was not too much work either: recording each tutorial only required a couple of hours every week. But after a few months, he started running out of ideas. “I was creating variations of the same products using the same tools. Creating about fifty tutorials a year suddenly felt unsustainable.” Today, NewCo is a platform where makers can connect and test their products. “If I’m being honest, I’m still trying to figure out where this is going. It’s exciting to try new things to make it a useful destination.”

His latest creation is called MakerPad, a full-service firm for startups, and it is already generating $3k in monthly recurring revenue. “If you don’t have a VC firm behind you, you don’t have access to these tools, services and connections to grow your company. We offer check-ins and we help clients with certain things such as cold emails, closing their first sale, or scaling their existing product.”

But how doesn’t it feel like trading his time for money? “I try to regularly reassess how I see things. I love having a deep relationship with founders and working with them closely. While it is currently based on me selling my time, I see MakerPad turning into a platform, where we have a number of operators that help clients with requests each week. Like a managed marketplace for startup services. MakerPad is the high touch stuff and newCo is the community before it. Maybe some people will graduate from NewCo to MakerPad.”

Joining Earnest Capital

Ben has done so much it is not hard to imagine he has lots of other ideas and will create many more products. “I know all of these products can give the impression that I’m doing lots of different things, and some people think I may lose interests in my products. But the benefits of building stuff and getting it out there outweigh those fears. Plus, they all work towards a shared goal of helping founders.”

This is why the recent announcement that he was joining Earnest Capital to run the platform makes a lot of sense. “There is a huge gap between VC-backed companies and figuring out how to survive as an indie maker. Working with Earnest and being able to provide capital to these makers is the most exciting opportunity I could be working on.”

What about his current projects? “NewCo and MakerPad still live on,” he replies. “There are lots of crossovers with what I plan for the Earnest platform, so the learnings will help that direction. Over the next twelve months, I want to build an invaluable platform for our founders and LPs that they can’t get anywhere else. I’m excited to work with and help founders grow.”

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