“It’s a tough road, and I faced a lot of judgement for being on a less traditional path”
Interview with Amy Sitwala, co-founder of ProfitKit.
“I knew I wanted to start my own business when I was 17 — at this point, everyone in my family was self-employed. My parents were dentists that ran their own clinics, my uncle managed his car repair shop, and my brother had just started trading stock options out of his room.
I’d like to think that everyone in my family is free-spirited and maybe a bit stubborn. All of them wanted the freedom to create their own schedule and work on their own terms. I remember my dad repeatedly urging my brother and me to “Never work for anyone else” — mainly because in working for someone else, we’d be working towards someone else’s goals, not our own. My environment, mixed with my love for creative pursuits (art + writing) when I was in high school fueled my entrepreneurial itch. I always felt happiest when creating (finishing an artwork or wrapping up another chapter of a story). As the years went on, I fell in love with programming for this exact reason. Programming to me, was the ultimate form of creation, mixed with an added element of being able to help people.
So it’s no surprise that I ended up working in tech. Before going full-time on ProfitKit, I worked as an associate software engineer at Morningstar, an independent investment research firm. I specifically worked on the Notes, Notifications, and Alerts team for Morningstar Direct Cloud — an online platform that helps professionals in the financial services industry make more informed investment decisions. I’m grateful for my time at Morningstar because one of the core values was “Entrepreneurial Spirit.” At times, my close-knit team felt like a small start-up just grinding away and trying to make big things happen. After work hours, I’d typically spend a few hours on personal or freelance projects. I’d also go through courses on Udemy and ACloudGuru. The long-term goal was to start my own software product, but at the time, I definitely didn’t have the skills to do so. I saw these projects as a way to develop those skills and apply the knowledge I had learned through the courses.
I always felt happiest when creating…
My co-founder Matt and I got the idea for ProfitKit while working on our last long-term freelance project — a custom workout program site founded by 2 personal trainers. The site had 2 subscription plans: a monthly and a yearly plan. While working on this project, we decided to use the payment processor Stripe to code up the subscription logic. We had previously worked with Stripe’s API (its set of programming instructions) a bit, but with this project, we were able to deep dive into multiple subscription workflows (creating a subscription, creating a customer, updating a subscription, cancelling a subscription, etc.).
Around this time, we had purchased 30x500, an entrepreneurship course by Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman. The course led you through how to craft and research business ideas. It advocated working on an idea where you were familiar with the audience.
Matt and I took our combined web app development experience and reflected on pains that businesses and new founders commonly faced. One major issue we had seen with our last freelance project was subscription management: our clients were first time founders that were missing important subscription dates like trial expirations and cancellations. Essentially, they were missing opportunities to convert users and reactivate churned customers.
We took this initial idea and for a few months, we used Amy and Alex’s technique of “Sales Safari” to see if there was some demand for it — basically we visited a number of sites (Reddit, Indie Hackers, etc.) and looked for specific keywords (“Stripe subscriptions”, “subscription issues”, etc.) in forum threads and posts. We tried to see which pains businesses faced and what solutions they were looking for. It seemed like many founders were also having trouble staying on top of their customers’ subscriptions. They wanted an intuitive way to see their customers’ subscription activity on a day-by-day basis.
This research fueled the development of one of our unique core features, the subscription activity calendar. In total, we spent about 2 months coding up a prototype of ProfitKit. Then we did a beta launch on Indie Hackers in November 2018. ProfitKit was met with a positive response, and the community on Indie Hackers gave us several suggestions on how to improve the product.
I quit my full-time job right around this time because it made sense to me. My team had completed all outstanding large tasks, so I figured I would be leaving at a good time. Matt was also transitioning from contract work to a full-time job, and given the initial response we received for ProfitKit, I thought it’d be wise to have at least one of us full-time on it.
The most exciting part has been helping others and getting to learn from them as well.
The most exciting part has been helping others and getting to learn from them as well.
Freelancing made me realize how much I enjoy helping others. It’s fun to bring someone else’s vision to life in a website and tell their story. The challenge with freelancing though is that you’re pretty much restricted to helping 1 person at a time. This is one of the reasons I eventually decided on a product-based business rather than a service-based business. With a SaaS (software-as-a-service), your time isn’t linear to the value you provide people.
To me, it’s super cool to see how we’re helping our customers in so many different ways. For some people, it’s being able to see a breakdown of their metrics (which saves them time from calculating and verifying these numbers on their own) and for others, it’s quickly visualizing their forecasted cash flows (which helps them understand how much money is coming into the business over the next few days, months, or year).
I think in a lot of ways, I enjoy building software that automates necessary but tedious tasks. That way, I can help others save time and effort so they can focus on bringing their creative visions to life. I also have to say that one of the most exciting aspects of working on this business is getting to learn from the people that we’ve helped. Most of our customers are 1,2…100 steps ahead of us in terms of running their business. Hearing about what’s worked well for them helps us fill in the gaps and identify what processes we need to work on.
When Covid-19 blew up at the end of March, I was seriously concerned about growth and churn, especially because we had been working hard to improve the platform and put the word out there. We had been doing well since our re-launch in January 2020, and I was worried that our efforts would be in vain.
In April, we began reaching out to all our customers to let them know that they could pause their subscriptions for 2 months. Surprisingly, no one took us up on this offer. We didn’t see any negative effects from Covid until May. At this point, we suddenly experienced increased delinquencies, or failed payments (fortunately, those customers promptly updated their credit cards) and had our 1st cancellation.
When a user cancels, we have a pop-up that asks for feedback on why they cancelled and what we could do better. This user responded, “Business is a lot smaller due to Covid.” Despite our repeated efforts to offer the platform free for 2 months and a discounted rate after, this user still churned.
We ran a few small marketing campaigns in June, but they didn’t bring in as much traffic as we would have liked. I think several businesses are cost-averse during this time and are only paying for essential services. Our strategy during this time has been to 1. Be there for our customers and offer them trial extensions, discounts, or paused billing if needed and 2. Double down on platform quality so we’re seen as more necessary.
We’re using this time to improve our platform based on what users have said in the past. We’re working on highly requested features that should hopefully improve conversions in the future. We’re also improving our SEO and rethinking our positioning to fit with companies’ shifting values in the wake of Covid-19. For instance, companies may care more about automation these days because they may not have as many hands on deck as before.
I believe that if you can make it through all the challenges that come with being an entrepreneur, you can make it through almost everything.
I say this to a lot of founders — I believe that if you can make it through all the challenges that come with being an entrepreneur, you can make it through almost everything, mainly because of all the mental strength that is required along the way. In the past year and a half since I started my business, I’ve experienced:
- experienced a 6 month-long unexpected medical condition, which required me to undergo 4 different surgeries. Part of my savings went to medical costs, and I had to work while lying on my side for several month
- acted as a mediator in a long-running familial divorce
- had friends and extended family tell me that I was wasting my time and how I should be working for Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc.
- had people tell me exactly why my business would fail and why no one would use it
- had people stop listening halfway while I was telling them about my business (even though they brought it up and asked so many hard-hitting questions in the first place)
…and a lot more.
It’s a tough road, and I faced a lot of judgement for being on a less traditional path. There were many many days where I felt like giving up. But I didn’t because logically (based on our numbers, customer engagement, and feedback), I knew there was some potential and value in what we were doing. The most important values you can have in this field are resilience and self-love. No matter how many things kick you down, get back up, even if it takes time. Don’t let other people bring you down — everyone’s definition of success is so different. And lastly, always remember to take time for yourself and prioritize your happiness. Your work doesn’t completely define you.”