Today's interview is with Benjamin Houy, a self-taught developer who is making $12k a month with his startup for French language learners. Read on for his tips on learning to code, how buying a boilerplate helped him and how he chose Ruby on Rails.
Hey, so can you introduce yourself?
I’m Benjamin, a Frenchman living in London and the founder of French Together. French Together started as a blog 10 years ago while I was studying in Germany and became my full-time job over the next few years. When the COVID pandemic struck, I decided to turn my main product (an interactive ebook) into a proper web app. If you always wanted to make a business, you can read more about French Together on the High Signal website for founders.
Learning how to code is something I have always wanted to do. Back when I was a kid, I learned a bit of C++, Python and PHP but never really got deep into it. Somehow, there was always a point when I would lose interest and switch to something else.
When the COVID pandemic hit, I was in a comfortably uncomfortable situation. I had a profitable business and many happy customers but I was also bored and in search of a challenge. French Together was earning enough to pay myself a nice London salary but I wasn’t happy with the product I was selling (an interactive ebook.)
The ebook was made up of dialogues based on high-frequency French vocabulary together with audio recorded by native speakers. Think of it as a French conversation crash course in ebook format. Many students were happily using it but the ebook format meant it was difficult to use because it required downloading a third-party reader app.
I had a high refund rate because many students (particularly elderly customers) were struggling to open it. I was also getting feature requests I really wanted to implement but couldn’t due to the inherent limitations of the EPUB3 format. I had been thinking about learning how to code but it had always felt like an impossible goal. A dream that was never meant to be realized.
Then COVID hit and my SEO traffic started declining. I ignored it at first, telling myself it would get better. Months went by with my traffic declining a little more every month.
After a while, I had to face the inevitable: my traffic wasn’t coming back. What I took for a simple seasonal change was in fact a shift in the market. I found myself backed in a corner with only 2 choices: let the business die, or reinvent it. I went for the latter and decided to finally learn how to code.
How did you learn coding?
So instead of Elixir, I decided to go with Ruby on Rails. Mostly because I had heard it was a great choice for solopreneurs. I started with the Learn Enough Rails course which gave me very solid foundations. Once I was done with Learn Enough, I felt way more confident as a dev but still not confident enough to build my own app so I purchased Hello Rails, a course teaching how to build a Reddit clone. I figured that the focus on building would help me avoid mistakes when building my own app later on.
After both courses, I decided I was finally ready to learn by building and purchased the Jumpstart Rails SaaS template. In retrospect, buying this SaaS template was one of the best decisions I made because it meant I had a blueprint I could follow to build my own app.
This combined with the opinionated nature of Rails meant that finding answers to my questions was pretty straightforward. Don’t get me wrong, building the app wasn’t easy and I sometimes spent days stuck on a problem, but having a blueprint to follow meant finding the solution to problems was considerably easier.
How did you build French Together?
My initial goal was to take all the content and features of the ebook I was selling and put them in a web app. Using a SaaS template means I didn’t need to worry about things like authentication and billing. All I had to do was create a dashboard with links to each lesson. And then add the dialogues, their translation and an audio player.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about the building phase. All I remember was that I would wake up, eat breakfast and build each feature and page, one by one. There were stumbling blocks of course, I sometimes spent days stuck on a particular feature. But overall, building felt easier than learning how to code. It was also my favourite part of the journey because I could finally implement the features I had always wanted to add to the ebook but couldn’t
After 2 months or so, the app was built and I was eager to get feedback so I contacted all the people who had purchased the ebook in the last12 months and offered them free access. I’m not going to enter into more details here since this interview is focused on my coding journey but you can read more about the launch here: https://growwithless.com/may-oct-retrospective/
How has your life changed since learning to code?
Launching the French Together web app had one immediate effect: my income dropped. That’s because I switched from selling an ebook with an optimized and tested marketing funnel to selling a SaaS, something I had never done before. Convincing people to sign up for a free trial also turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated.
After a while though, I got used to SaaS marketing and my income started increasing to the point where I now earn more from the app than I ever did from the ebook. I’m now at roughly $12k MRR and hope to double it within a year.
But my income isn’t the only thing that was impacted. The biggest change is that I now enjoy my work much more than before. I went from being passive and dependent on Epub format specifications to being able to build anything I like.
Before learning how to code, my standard answer to feature requests was “This sounds amazing, I wish I could build it but…”Now that I know how to code, I can add any feature I like and shape the app to be exactly what I want it to be. It’s an amazing feeling and I love working alongside students to make sure French Together is the best French-learning app on the market.
What does a typical day as a software developer look like for you?
I honestly expected to spend much more time coding, haha. Sure, I often spend days or even weeks doing nothing but coding. But that’s fairly rare.On any given month, my time will usually be ⅓ coding, ⅓ marketing, ⅓ other.
I know some indie founders like to dedicate one week to marketing followed by one week for coding but that’s not something I personally do. However, I always make sure to block enough time to get into the flow of coding. This means I will frequently spend several days in a row doing nothing but coding. No customer support, no marketing, just coding. These intense coding sessions are when I make the bulk of my progress and learn the most.
What are your career goals for the future?
I would like to create another app in another niche one day. Maybe a B2B SaaS. French Together is what I have been doing for the past 10 years and I love working on it but I love the idea of trying something different and seeing how it goes. This won’t be before a while though. For now, my main goal is to vastly improve French Together and make it the absolute best French-learning app there is.