I first discovered Softr when I was researching software tools for a product idea that I was considering at the time. I was looking for a website builder that would let me build a product comparison site with user reviews. I didn’t want to hire engineers to build the prototype, instead I wanted a “no code” or “low code” solution that would let me get my idea in front of people quickly to validate if it resonated with potential users.
“No code” is a term used to describe software that doesn’t require technical programming skills to use. Squarespace is probably the most well known example of a no code website builder. They’ve been advertising on podcasts for nearly a decade, “easily build a website for your small business using our simple drag and drop interface.”
The challenge with most of these “no code” website builders is that the resulting website has limited functionality. What caught my eye with Softr was that it goes above and beyond a basic static website builder. Softr has pre-programmed “blocks” that let you easily add powerful functionality to your website, such as user accounts and online payments.
Mariam Hakobyan co-founded Softr in 2019, with Artur Mkrtchyan. After years of building software products, the idea for Softr came out of their realization that there are many repetitive components of websites. They set out to answer the question, could this componentization be applied to website builders to enable more powerful websites?
Since launch, their product has resonated with the no code community. They quickly grew to 50k users and their 2.0 launch in June 2021 would go on to win Product Hunt’s “Product of the Year” Golden Kitty award. While she didn’t have the Golden Kitty sitting on the shelf behind her on our video call like a celebrity with an Emmy on a late night talk show, she is very proud of winning the award :) ..as she should be! In January 2022 they announced that they had raised a $13.5M Series A led by Matt Turck and FirstMark Capital.
In our conversation, Mariam talks about:
My questions are in bold; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. Can you give me a quick overview on how Softr got started, where did the idea come from?
Mariam Hakobyan: I always loved building products myself. I'm coming from a tech and product background. Both my co-founder and I have been building software products for decades and more recently had moved into leadership roles. We both realized we were kind of spending more time doing repetitive work around operations, but we love building things and being close to customers.
So at one point we decided that we wanted to start something on our own. Around that time we realized there is a lot of repetition in every other software building process. There are entire teams that just build authentication payments, etc. There is a lot of repetition that doesn't have to be like that.
Plus there are so many people in the world, but it’s essentially only engineers that can build things. In today's world, people are starting to use more and more technology tools and want to build their own.
So we decided why not build a platform where all of these repetitive components are offered as building blocks? People can take all of our pre-built functionality, assemble it together, and have their app up and running real quick. For us it was the natural next step in the evolution of software development. It’s gone from people coding to APIs, toward more microservices, and next phase is abstracting it away to visual building.
With Softr, our product idea was to build an application builder, not a website or landing page builder. We’ve seen lots of website builders. Squarespace has done a great job over the last ten years, but it doesn't go beyond that. You can't really build applications with those products. So we wanted to build a product that helps others build robust applications. That could have taken multiple years with our doors closed, just building, but we didn’t want to do that. We decided that the earliest version of our product, the MVP essentially, could be a really scrappy website builder. But, along with the website builder, we wanted to showcase these Legos, which are the building blocks that people combine for extra functionality.
We could then see if people really like those building blocks, if they make any sense to people. One thing that we did in the first version was to ask people to pay for the product. We believed that the payment would be the ultimate validation.
The second version was more focused on those building blocks and going towards building more powerful applications. Originally, we wanted to build our own platform, with our own database and software, but as we talked to lots of our customers we realized that people already had their own data sources, such as Airtable. They didn’t want to create everything from scratch.
The second version that we released last year in June uses building blocks based on Airtable. Our long term vision is to build a data agnostic platform where people can build applications with building blocks that can connect to any type of data source.
So for your 1.0 launch you mentioned that validation for you would be people paying for the product. Did you see that happening? Was that what gave you the conviction that you were on the right track?
MH: No, not really. We did see interest from Product Hunt makers and the community, of course. We also saw some businesses buying the software to build their marketing sites or landing pages. However, I wouldn't say it was immediately clear that we should continue, especially not having a database on the back end. There was still going to be a lot of discovery of understanding what was required for a web app.
That first launch helped us start building a community. We noticed that there was a group of passionate users who just loved the concept, loved the building experience, and we’ve continued to stay very close to them, by iterating on their feedback. A lot of them did convert to using the web app functionality in our 2.0 launch.
Ahh, so it was more that you saw a community of people forming around your product and the vision you had shared for that product that gave you the conviction to keep going?
When you realized that you had this community growing, how did you invest in it? What I mean is did you create a Slack group or a Reddit community and really focus on creating an epicenter for the community?
MH: From the 1.0 launch we had this small group of passionate users. When we launched in 2021, the “no code” community was just getting started. We noticed there was a small, passionate user group on Twitter and Reddit. They were actively promoting various no code tools, including ours. We started to engage with them on those platforms. But we didn’t really focus on building our own community until April of last year. We’d seen our user base grow from 5k to 50k. We decided to start our own Slack community so people could come together and discuss how they were using our web builder. Today, we have maybe 2k in the Slack community. It's a group of people who are very actively engaged in the community, asking questions, showcasing their builds, and what they launched for the business.
They're becoming the ambassadors and the experts of our product. They know what is best for others in the community.
We’ve built a big following on Twitter, since that’s where a lot of the people who are passionate about no code are. But, Slack has been the main place where our community members are hanging out.
That's impressive user growth, going from 5k to 50k in a year. What has been your acquisition strategy? Has it all been word of mouth from your community?
MH: Yeah, so it's interesting. We’ve spent $0 on marketing. So it really has been true organic growth. The community is where that word of mouth comes from. People share what they’ve built using our product on various social platforms. When people build something with our product on the free version there is a Softr badge at the bottom of the website. So as more and more people build and launch on Product Hunt, more and more people find out about us.
Of course, when it comes to acquiring new users we really focus on making it easy to learn about and use our product. We have really tried to focus on simplicity and really perfecting that. I wouldn't say we have it perfect yet, but we really focus on making it extremely simple but able to produce really powerful results. A good example of this would be adding a membership to your site. In Softr, it is literally just a drag and drop building block. You can then publish your app and now your visitors can start signing up for your application.
What also helps drive the word of mouth of Softr is that we are very close to our customers. We regularly talk to them and really understand what we should build next for them.
That’s super impressive. It's been all word of mouth. Congrats. Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about adding on a community element to their business?
MH: No, I don’t have a bullet point of how to do that. It really depends on what type of product and space you are in. One thing that worked really well for us is that we're building a product that we are using and really passionate about. We're not building some enterprise software for a specific type of purchaser.
We are entrepreneurs building a product for other entrepreneurs. It’s a product that we ourselves are using every day. It made it much easier to find our tribe.
I think the main advice I have is to find your tribe, those early, passionate users who have a specific need and be close to them. We found them on Twitter and Reddit in the early days. They were already using all of these other tools, and eager to help improve them. By engaging with them and learning about the challenges they faces, we were able to build a product that solves their problems.
Looking ahead. Where do you expect Softr to be a year from now?
MH: In the last year or so, we have had quite some growth and some really big product improvements. Essentially we moved from website builder to web app builder. Now it is being used by a lot of businesses, from entrepreneurs to some Fortune 500 companies. For the next year, our main goal is to move from being just a knockout platform to becoming an ecosystem for anyone to build knockout apps. By ecosystem, I mean three things.
First, we want to have a launch template marketplace where essentially we let everyone who is building apps to also enable those apps as templates for other users.
Second, launching a component marketplace that will let everyone build their own components so that we can essentially extend the capability of Softr beyond what we offer.
Third, we really want to evangelize and create a more engaged group of experts and ambassadors around Softr. We want to support them and help them be successful, whether this is them building their own agency, becoming a freelancer and doing client projects, etc..
Another goal we have is that by the end of this year Softr is completely data agnostic so that it can connect to any of your data sources within your organization rather than just Airtable.
I love it. Let’s jump to the quick fire round. What are you most proud of from the past year since you launched 2.0?
MH: I think our Softr team and the community that we have built around Softr. The result of this has been that we were voted one of the products of the year in the Product Hunt Golden Kitty Awards. That award was the result of our community.
What was the most challenging part of the past year?
MH: Being a horizontal platform means there are many types of customers and many types of use cases that could use our product. So really deciding on making sure that we are focusing on the right customers and on the right use cases has been challenging. You need to focus to ensure that your product is simple because as you add more the product really starts becoming more complex and harder to use. We're very mindful of keeping it as simple as it was from day one.
What book do you recommend the most and why?
MH: I recommend Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. I really like that book because I think many of us know that persistence is the key to success. I believe those who become successful are not the ones who are the smartest or who have the best ideas, but are actually the ones who continue to improve and work every day. That book has really played a big role in my career.
What do you know now that you wish you'd known a year ago?
MH: Well, a bit earlier when we started building Softr, as an engineer, I was very focused on product and was best at building a product. I wish I would have known earlier on that building a successful company is not just about building a product, but it involves so many other aspects. The product is of course at the core of it, but just having a perfect product doesn't mean you're going to build a successful company.
What were some of the other aspects that were harder for you?
MH: Of course a big one was distribution, marketing. Being able to essentially let everyone know that you have this product and in some way distribute that to people so they can start using it.
Also learning to launch, talk to customers, and iterate. It’s important to iterate very quickly and no wait for the perfect product.
My last question for you. What's your advice to someone who's thinking about starting a new company in 2022, besides, obviously, using Softr to build their product?
MH: I think the first one is to launch early and often so that you can validate your hypothesis. Nowadays, it is easy to build the first version of your product, spin out a website to test your hypotheses, and understand who your audience is or could be. So my advice is to really just go ahead and launch early. Of course, in today’s world you need a good product and the bar is pretty high. But at the same time, launching early is definitely going to help you head in the right direction. That’s the approach that we took and it’s really helped us out.
That’s great advice. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today!
MH: Thank you so much, Tyler, as well. It was great to chat.
I hope you enjoyed my interview with Mariam and learned a few things. If you did, give it some love on Twitter with a RT or Like. This helps more people discover my newsletter 😊 -Tyler