TLDR; I am closing down my SEO/Website performance tool vitalfrog.com. Sadly I never managed to build it into a business with a working business model. Thanks for everyone supporting it!
While writing this post I am listening to Der Traum ist aus by Ton Steine Scherben on repeat. If you listen to it while reading it will further get you into the mood of the post….
Today I got a message from my domain registrar that I have to renew vitalfrog.com or it will expire on 30.9.2022. This message made me realize it is about a year ago I started off with VitalFrog and that it is finally the time to “officially” close it down. I stopped working on it about 1 1/2 month ago and today I got the courage to admit my defeat and put it onto the graveyard of dead projects. In this post I will walk you through my story with this failed venture, the things I learned along the way and why I think it failed.
How I came to the idea for VitalFrog
In my day job at JustWatch I was working together with our SEO team to move the page to server side rendering as of the looming fear called Core Web Vitals, three new metrics introduced by Google which measure the performance of a website. Within this project the SEO team had to jump through many loops to get the page performant and to finally get the “green url”-checkmark from Google that we need for good Rankings. Everyone was happy after the project was “done” and we went back to developing new features or me on my part nurturing the other parts of the infrastructure. About two month after this success we saw a sudden drop in “green urls” again and came to one devastating conclusion: This Core Webvitals Project will never be fully over and we will always need to have an eye on it going forward.
At that point we figured out that the green urls dropped from within the Google Search console and that has one mayor downside…the results there are off by 27 days. So it takes you another 27 days to recover from such an incident, and this 27 days can be enough for your competitors to get an edge over you. Nothing we wanted ever again.
So the idea for the initial version of VitalFrog came to my mind: A tool that continuously monitors your Core Web Vitals and alerts you if they change into a bad direction.
It was a classical “scratch your own itch” idea.
Mistake 1: VitalFrog was a feature, not a product
Having learned from my past projects I first went out and researched the competition and there definitely was quite some big players already in the space which had Core Web Vital Monitoring as part of their tool. Digging deeper I found that most of those tools where only providing sub-par data on Core Web Vitals and I saw the point of positioning VitalFrog as a specialized solution which actually gives you the best data possible.
I started building out the app and landingpage for VitalFrog, all sure that this time I finally got it right: This idea was small enough to build as solopreneur, solved an actually pressing need which has direct business impact to millions of businesses around the globe and the competing products where all worse than what I could offer.
Especially this focus on doing a single thing and doing it “right” turned out to be Mistake 1 of VitalFrog. This might work for other niches and product but in the SEO space it was just too small of a problem. All the big companies already bought into existing SEO suites which offered a shitty but good enough solution for Core Web Vitals.
This left me with users who did not want to pay the high price tag the big SEO suites have. Both not a good customer segment to build a profitable business with as I never wanted VitalFrog to be the “Cheap Version of XXX”.
Learning 1: Outsourcing what you are bad at actually works
Not seeing the above mistake I went down the rabbit hole of “How do I market this thing?”. And one thing that I am actually quite convinced of is content marketing. I like that it builds up like a flywheel over time, you can have long-form content to educate your users and directly give them benefit before using your tool and for VitalFrog it was the oportunity to position the tool and (maybe at some time incorporated) company as an expert in the Technical SEO space.
Buuut, I did not want to spend my time writing weekly blog posts. So I posted Hiring: Technical SEO Writer into the Hiring section on Indie Hackers and actually three different people reached out to me, despite the low budget I had to offer. Two out of the three did not work out at all as they where really bad in quality but with the third guy I actually was happy enough to give this a longer try.
We started off with two blogposts as test and after them continued as I saw potential in the partnership. He himself then introduced another person who took over the writing: Jeremiah. I wasn’t convinced at first but over the course of the next months Jeremiah really caught up in speed and quality and my need to double check every post went away.
You can check out hist posts, they are still up: www.vitalfrog.com/blog. They are not fully on the expert level I wanted to position VitalFrog at, but hey they where good enough to start off with and he actually managed to get a guest post on oncrawl.com…and the best, I did not have to focus on writing the blog content which I don’t enjoy.
Actually we got the only paying customer of VitalFrog via this avenue, she found an article about optimizing CLS and decided to try out VitalFrog because of it. Would count that as success.
Going forward I would deploy a little different strategy to content marketing and rather go with less but high quality content. This give you less inbound traffic overall as you target less keywords, but this more qualified leads are in my opinion better.
If you take one thing from this article: Outsource what you are not good at. It is magical to have content appear on your blog every week without the need to put in the work yourself.
Mistake 2: Building before talking to customers
Now with the marketing set up and the product MVP build I thought I was ready to get customers onboard. From previous project I know “build it and they will come” does not work, but to be 100% honest I thought the content marketing would be enough…posting a few cool blog posts to HackerNews, a ProductHunt launch and I would be settled.
But here I think a problem of “scratch your own itch” ideas came into play, the amount of people who actually care about Core Web Vitals enough to pay a tool for it…it is small. Most folks on the internet don’t even know what those are about and even if they optimize is, the free tools that Google provides are often already enough. Continuously monitoring is only interesting for companies who depend heavily on SEO and yes you guessed it already…they have the big SEO suits which brings this as good enough build in.
This is something I figured when reaching out to different SEOs (Wallaxy which I got on AppSumo proved to be really valuable for this) most of them have bigger issues than optimizing their core web vitals to max.
If I would have talked to more of my potential future users first, I would have figured earlier this not really is an ongoing problem in most companies and where it is, it is solved by existing players in the market. Talk to your (potential) customers!!!1!1!