The SaaS Company That Accidentally Grew to 800,000 Users

January 25, 2021

AJ first conceived the idea for Carrd in 2015. He originally meant it to be a portfolio piece that would complement the freelance work he’d already done building themes and template designs, but the world had other plans.

He launched the one-page site builder to his existing fan base in 2016 via Twitter and Product Hunt. Today, Carrd has more than 800,000 users and has been used to build more than 1.2 million sites.

Despite this clear success, AJ didn’t start thinking of himself as a founder until four years after his launch. And even now, he considers himself to be an accidental founder.

On a recent episode of the OV BUILD podcast, host and OpenView Partner Blake Bartlett had the chance to talk with AJ and hear more about his story. What’s especially interesting is that while AJ is honest about being pretty unintentional about many of the decisions that ultimately led to Carrd’s success, a lot of his accidental strategy aligns with some of the most important core aspects of product led growth.

Listen to the episode below, or scroll down to read the rest of this story.

Combine a great idea with some viral growth

Before launching Carrd, AJ had built a strong following for his site template designs and themes for platforms like WordPress. He had also developed skills with back-end code, databases, and interface design.

Unlike the “reluctant founder” (someone who has a pain point, can’t find a solution, and decides—often in exasperation—to build it themselves), AJ wasn’t wrangling any particular problem. Initially, he thought about Carrd as a side project that would showcase his skills to prospective employers.

The tipping point came with his Product Hunt launch. He already had an existing “starter following” from back in his theme days, and the viral growth from Product Hunt pushed the project into overdrive. Even now, AJ’s recipe for awareness and distribution is very organic, very product led. He hasn’t really done any marketing, relying instead on word of mouth and low-key viral elements within the experience like the branded URL and a “Made with Carrd” link that appears in each free website footer.

Carrd on Product Hunt

Overall, he doesn’t recommend that others try to replicate his non-strategy, but it worked well for Carrd.

Keep it simple: Embrace constraints that inspire creativity

Something else that worked well for Carrd was having to exist within a strict set of constraints. From day one, AJ knew that he wanted the project to be a one-man show. He realized this was a tradeoff because it meant he wouldn’t be building something on the scale of a Wix or Squarespace.

To keep the scope manageable, he had to pare it down and keep it simple. “What you don’t build is as important as what you do build,” AJ says. “If you set your sights too high, you’ll create all kinds of problems that are too complex for one person to manage.” In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Putting constraints around what he could and couldn’t build turned out to be a positive thing for both AJ and the product. Not only did it make it possible for him to keep working on the project, it actually suited Carrd’s ultimate audience who were looking for a simple solution, not something with every imaginable bell and whistle.

“What you don’t build is as important as what you do build.”

An example of how his self-imposed scope constraints worked in AJ’s favor was the switch from a blank canvas experience to a pick-a-template experience. In an early alpha of Carrd, the experience opened with a blank canvas that gave the user a lot of freedom in terms of design. “People would look at it and get intimidated,” AJ recalls. “They didn’t realize what they could do—it was too much all at once.”

To fix the experience, AJ redesigned the user flow to open with choosing an existing template. “This turned out to be one of the best decisions I made,” AJ says. “The templates put up some guardrails that funnel users in the right direction. Once they are in the product, they get comfortable quickly and are able to spread their wings and see what they can do.”

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. She’s also the mother of innovation. In AJ’s case, the necessity of keeping things simple—for him and for his users—helped him innovate to a more approachable user experience that drove higher engagement right out of the gate.

Remove friction from the user experience

In addition to keeping things simple, AJ employed another powerful strategy: removing friction for new users. For AJ, this was less of a strategic move than a common sense one inspired by his desire to avoid an experience that he found personally frustrating.

“Removing all friction for new users is something that came from my own experience trying out different products,” AJ explains. “When I’m looking at a new product and don’t know if I’m ultimately going to use it, I like to see it in action first. Usually, I look for a video or some other content to view before I commit to providing my email in exchange for access. For Carrd, I figured why not kill two birds with one stone. So, I skipped the extensive marketing and video production (which would have cost me time and money), and instead designed the experience so that users could jump right in and almost try the product accidentally.”

The result is an experience that requires no account setup, email, or credit card. New users just drop directly into the builder and can begin playing around immediately. If they like what they create, they can publish it—which is still a free option unless they opt for the upgrade features.

By removing all gates and limitations, AJ delivers value almost immediately, which is one of the key tenets of any PLG strategy. In fact, he’s able to deliver value before even asking for anything in return.

Evolve your product with care

Today, Carrd is a simple, responsive, one-page site builder that is serving the myriad needs of a very wide range of people. “I originally thought that Carrd would mostly be used for profile sites and maybe small landing pages,” AJ says. “But as soon as it launched, users took it and ran. Since then, I’ve been seeing a whole bunch of use cases I’d never anticipated.”

As users find new things to build with Carrd—presentations, wedding invites, homework assignments, D&D character sheets, and so on—AJ finds that he’s often asked to continue developing his product to meet new needs.

On one hand, getting feedback from such a diverse and creative audience is really helpful. As Jeff Bezos said in Amazon’s 2016 letter to shareholders, “There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied.”

On the other hand, it’s important to maintain strong boundaries and a clear vision for what you’re creating. AJ listens to his users, but he has also learned how to say no.

“If five or 10 people ask me for a feature, I can extrapolate from there to assume that many more people are looking for the same thing,” AJ says. “At that point, I’ll consider the request to see if there’s a way I can implement it within the existing context of Carrd. Sometimes, I can’t because what they’re asking for would either drag Carrd too far in an off-track direction or require too many resources to accomplish.”

When AJ determines that a certain feature isn’t a fit for Carrd, he has no problem referring users to a competing product that’s already set up to handle the perceived need.

However, there are always exceptions to the rule. While AJ is firm about retaining editorial content control over Carrd’s features, he acknowledges that it’s really important to always keep an open mind. “There are so many things that have come out of Carrd that I never thought of,” he says. “One very important addition that was the result of a user request is Carrd’s sections feature. People were asking for the ability to set up a small, secondary page to use as a contact page or something else. This diverges slightly from the one-page website vision, but it wasn’t that difficult for me to do, and it has been incredibly successful. It has exponentially expanded the list of things people can do with the platform, and I would have missed that huge opportunity if I didn’t listen to my users.”

Advice for future accidental founders

AJ has traveled an unconventional road as a founder, but that hasn’t kept him from achieving success far beyond what he originally had in mind when Carrd was just an opportunity to do something different and maybe catch the attention of future employers. At this point in his journey, AJ has two well-balanced pieces of advice for other accidental founders: stay humble and acknowledge your success.

“Don’t get high on your own supply or start thinking of yourself as some kind or product guru,” AJ cautions. “I’m still learning every day, and I’m still surprised everyday by things I didn’t expect. Sure, I’ve gotten better by virtue of necessity. I have a pretty elaborate payment platform and hundreds of thousands of users, but I stay grounded by reminding myself that all of this was something of an accident.”

Balancing out his modesty, AJ advises other accidental founders to pay attention to the signs that their side hustle is evolving into a full-blown business. “That moment can creep up on you,” AJ says. “It’s kind of like accumulating debt, but in a good way. You’re seeing incremental growth, and then before you know it you have 800,000 users and you’re wondering how that happened.”

“Don’t get high on your own supply or start thinking of yourself as some kind or product guru.”

For AJ, one of the key signals it was time to acknowledge Carrd as an actual business was realizing he was spending a good chunk of each day handling support, content moderation, server maintenance, and other operational tasks. “When I realized I was working multiple jobs, I knew it was more than just a side job,” he says. “If it were a side project, I could work on it for a bit and then put it away. But that wasn’t the case. I had paying customers depending on me.” At that stage, AJ brought on a business partner to handle operations so he could focus on product development.

“It’s easy for someone like myself, who fell into this by accident and didn’t take it seriously in the beginning, to downplay the growth you’re experiencing,” AJ says. “But doing that can cause your product to suffer, which can keep you from delivering for your customers. And, ultimately, you’ll suffer personally because you’ll regret not taking the opportunity seriously. You’ll realize too late that maybe there was something there, and now you’ve squandered it because you waited too long to act on it and put the resources in place to support your user base properly.”

There are 800,000+ people who are glad that AJ decided to take his side hustle seriously and grow it—albeit accidentally—into the platform it is today.

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Jamie is a writer, mom, and nature lover based in Ipswich, MA.