In a recent blog post (https://allisonseboldt.com/september-2020/), Allison Seboldt, Founder of Fantasy Congress, pondered whether right now was the time to put a pause on her plans for the expansion of the product.
During this conversation, Rob and Allison will chat about some of the elements that go into what that decision means, what steps to take to let things run on autopilot, and what comes next.
Allison is a self taught developer and bootstrapping enthusiast. After working as a web developer for four years, she quit corporate life to pursue her passion project. Fantasy Congress is an online game that puts a fantasy sports spin on politics. Players draft members of Congress for their team and earn points based on legislative actions like votes, sponsoring bills, and debating on the chamber floor.
Fantasy Congress is intended to be a fun way to connect with friends while also helping people stay engaged and informed in the political process.
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Hitting the Pause Button On Your SaaS with Allison Seboldt
Rob Walling: [00:00:00] And we're live. Welcome to this week's MicroConf On Air. I'm your host, Rob walling, every Wednesday, 1:00 PM. Eastern 10:00 AM. Pacific. We live stream. For 30 minutes and we covered topics related to building and growing ambitious SaaS startups that bring us freedom and purpose and allow us to value and maintain healthy relationships.
We believe that showing up every day, shipping that next feature, next piece of marketing copy or closing your next sale is a way to build a sustainable company. We don't ask for permission to start companies. We build and ship real products. So the real customers pay us real money. Welcome to MicroConf On Air.
You may be able to hear my dog in the background. This is live streaming in a pandemic. I have a couple of children at home, as well as a Sharpie who is steadfastly guarding the front door. Today. We are talking about hitting the pause button on your SaaS. It's a, an interesting topic. And a new one that I don't think I've covered before, where they're on this, this show or on other podcasts that I've done.
I am pretty excited to dive into this. My guest today is Allison Seboldt. Of Fantasy Congress. She's the founder of Fantasy Congress @ fantasycongress.com. Allison is a self taught developer and a bootstrapping enthusiast. After working as a web developer for four years, she quit corporate life to pursue her passion project, which is Fantasy Congress.
Fantasy Congress is an online game that puts a fantasy sports spin on politics. Players draft members of U.S. Congress. I love this for their team and earn points based on legislative activities, actions like votes, sponsoring bills and debating on the chamber floor. Fantasy Congress is intended to be a fun way to connect with friends while also helping people stay engaged and informed in the political process.
So again, we're going to be talking today a little bit about, building and loans and putting Fantasy Congress on pause for the moment.
We're going to dive in. So Allison, welcome to the show.
Allison Seboldt: [00:01:54] Hey Rob.
Thanks for having me.
Rob Walling: [00:01:56] Absolutely. we were just chatting before we hopped on that. I got we're. We're just, what a five hour drive away from each other here in the Midwest. And while I got six inches of snow yesterday, you didn't get any over in Chicago. Is that right?
Allison Seboldt: [00:02:10] No, but yeah, last year for Halloween, we got three inches.
So I'm very familiar with this experience of October snow.
Rob Walling: [00:02:19] Yeah. Yeah, no doubt. Cool. let's dive into this cause I'm pretty, pretty intrigued by your story. it's an interesting, you launched into, a, B2C play, And you people can follow along on your blog, actually.
What is the URL of where you're blogging?
Allison Seboldt: [00:02:36] AllisonSeboldt.com. Okay.
Rob Walling: [00:02:38] And it's S-E-B-O-L-D-T. And I read it several of your updates and watched you watched your progression, but yeah, really, you've, as a developer, you're obviously, really leaned into this world of indie hacking.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey from teaching yourself to code? So we'll go from, Hey, you already know the code, but deciding, Hey, I am going to build Fantasy Congress and I'm going to go all in on this. You want to talk us through how you made that decision?
Allison Seboldt: [00:03:04] Yeah. I was teaching myself to code around like 2012, 2013, and in 2014, that's when I got my first job.
And 2014 is actually when I came up with the idea of Fantasy Congress. So I came up with it. Originally, when I first thought of it, I was like, Oh, that would be like such an interesting side project to put on my portfolio, but I got a job and then I got busy and didn't really think about it. I was still obsessed with the idea though.
I just, I couldn't get it out of my head. And I was working in the field for awhile. I tried starting it as a side project a couple of times, and it just didn't really work for me. coding all day or working 40 hours a week and then commuting and coming home. I just wanted to rest, I didn't want to continue coding and fantasy congress was a kind of labor, intense, sensitive side project.
So it didn't really work for me. I was still obsessed with the idea though. And in 2017 I was thinking about, Oh, what I want to do next in my career. And I decided to save up money and just. Quit my job and dive into it. So beginning of 2018, I just dove head first into it.
Total newbie had never started a business before, had never done anything like this before. And it was just like, Hey, I'll sink or swim. Let's see what happens.
Rob Walling: [00:04:23] And here we are two and a half years later. Yeah. That's a that's interesting. So you didn't want to do it on the side. Cause that's obviously the path a lot of people take because they do have the day job and they want infinite runway in essence, which is what a day job gets you.
Was it the desire to not do it on the side? Was it that you were tired in the evenings, you felt like your focus was split. what went into that decision to truly quit your job? Because some, while some people do that, it's obviously not the most common thing you hear developers do.
Allison Seboldt: [00:04:52] Yeah, they were two pieces to that. So when I was trying, so I did try to start it as a side project a couple of times, and I didn't have the time management skills I think I have now. So it just felt too big, I wasn't, I never felt like I was making progress on it. I would come home and just dread, Oh, I have to do more work.
So it was more just, I think I have a certain amount of coding hours in me per day, and like doing a side project while also having a full time job it was too much for me to handle today. Now I think I might have a little bit, I have better time management skills, honestly, like being an entrepreneur has taught me time management skills.
So I think I would probably. It would probably be easier for me now, but at the time then it didn't really work for me. and then the other thing too, I wasn't really happy in my current job. So I was Oh, what do I do next? Do I go get another job? I don't know what if I don't vibe with that team.
I just, the entire time, for the full four years I was working in the industry. I just, I was obsessing over this idea and I was like, Oh, I, I've tried to start this side project and it's not working. I feel like the only way it would ever actually happen is if I worked on it full time.
So I just, I decided I was at this crossroads and I was going to go for it.
Rob Walling: [00:06:13] Yeah. And that's, and it's a luxury to be able to do that. a lot of people, it's hard for them to save up enough money to be able to, to do that. congratulations for being able to pull that together.
I'm curious, I've never heard of, when I see the idea for this. It's a no brainer. It's of course that should exist. Does it exist beyond that? Did it exist before you built fancy Congress or did you truly innovate in this space?
Allison Seboldt: [00:06:39] no, I did exist previously. there's been a few different iterations of it.
The most popular one was in 2006. It ran from 2006 to the end of 2007, I believe. and it was started by some college kids in California. And they, it, it's funny, I've talked to the previous founders a little bit and they said, it got, it picked up steam. They moved to DC to work on it, but it wasn't profitable.
And I believe they sold it to Politico in 2008 and political kind of turned it into some other game. and then they pursued something else. And then there's been other people who have started similar side projects or done similar things on the internet, but none of it's ever. Really taken off. I feel like no one seems to have treated like a business.
From my perspective, when I was thinking about starting this as a side project, obviously I Googled, okay, this has to exist already. Surely somebody else has done this. And I did find these previous versions, but nobody was charging for it. Nobody seemed to be like making money off of it. They all seem to be just side projects.
Like I did this thing and I put it up online or in the case of the college kids in 2006, they were primarily trying to make money off of ad revenue, which didn't work out. So my thinking was, if I treated this more like a business, more Draft Kings fan duel. Maybe not like betting on it, those are definitely businesses.
So if I focused more on, can I get people to pay for this? Maybe it would be more sustainable and grow and become this thing that I think is a really big thing that I think it could be.
Rob Walling: [00:08:12] and is that the revenue model? Do you charge like a monthly or an annual subscription fee?
Allison Seboldt: [00:08:17] Yeah. So right now I have two audience.
so there's recreational players and then there's educators. Cause I learned in the process of making this, that civics educators find this very useful tool. so for the recreational players, they pay a monthly subscription fee and then the educators pay a flat yearly fee.
Rob Walling: [00:08:36] Got it. And what's the range of those fees?
Just to give folks on it,
Allison Seboldt: [00:08:40] the recreational players right now, it's $19 a month. And then that's so you sign up and that allows you to create leagues and then you can invite anybody to play in your league for free. And then, for the educators, it's $149 for a year, and you can create as many leagues and add as many students as you need to.
Rob Walling: [00:08:59] Got it. And is that similar to pricing of a fantasy football? App like a FanDuel or whatever. I don't really watch sports. So I don't know much about sports betting thing or fantasy or what,
Allison Seboldt: [00:09:12] it, it's like kind of both. So that's how most fantasy sports apps make their money is based off of, vetting.
So I, I haven't done those myself. Honestly, I think it's usually a, you sign up for free and then you add your account and put money into it. Or you pay you like pay to enter a league. And if you win, you get like a prize or whatever, and they take a percentage of that money or something like that.
Rob Walling: [00:09:37] I see
Allison Seboldt: [00:09:37] there, most of them are not paid to play, I'll say right.
Rob Walling: [00:09:41] That's what I was thinking. most, there really isn't B to C SaaS. It's arguable. If there are any B2C SaaS apps that are at, at scale. Oh, and cause they just tend to use the Fremont some model like that. It's either going to advertising or it's monetizing something. That's not the people because consumers are just did you consider it a model like that, more like the fantasy football model where people do, contribute and then take you take a cut.
Allison Seboldt: [00:10:06] so initially I'll say in, when I first quit my in 2018, I was thinking, originally that version two, that was my MVP.
That was based off of the midterm elections in 2018. And I was thinking, okay, so it'll be freemium because I didn't know any better. I thought anything, I thought every app had to be freemium, honestly. And I was thinking he had to be freemium and then I'll make money. I'll try to follow this fantasy sports style.
like people can win money off of it or whatever. And I consulted some lawyers and the lawyers were like, you definitely cannot do that. Do not do that unless you have a lot of money to spend on. Yeah. Licenses and legal fees and whatnot. And I was like, okay, I won't do that then. so I, then I thought like I do the normal freemium approach, which is where you can sign up for free.
And then if you want extra features, you'll pay for them. there'll be like a special, better account that you can sign up for an upgrade. I never got to that point, obviously, because freemium is. It's so hard just to ship something, especially like the very first time you're shipping, something like this.
And so I never got to that point to create extra features. but yeah, so I did explore the, the fantasy more traditional fantasy sports style aspect of it and walk away from it quickly.
Rob Walling: [00:11:25] Yeah. And that makes sense. And there are a lot of businesses that work at scale. Or that work with a lot of funding or that work with, again at scale with a million users that just aren't, they don't make sense when you have a hundred or 500 users and you either have to monetize them differently or the, or they just don't work.
there are even eBay doesn't work with 500 people using it. You need. Millions of people, you need the network effect. Facebook doesn't work with 500 people unless it's a really tight knit group. It's only at Harvard or whatever. and obviously, fantasy sports, a fantasy sports site with only a few hundred people on it is probably more, it's probably a, a much more challenging thing to run, but it sounds like that there was an inflection point as you were building this where you became aware of.
the worth of Fantasy Congress for educators. And you specifically said like civics instructors, how did you, how did you find that out first off? And I guess perhaps, secondly, is it co university or is it a more high school level folks?
Allison Seboldt: [00:12:24] I's more high school focused.
Although I have, I've had professors from West point reach out to me. I've had a few different, college professors reach out to me. So there's interest there as well. Yeah. So what happened in 2018 was I was trying to build this freemium app and I think got to the beginning of the fall. And I was obviously nowhere I wasn't in any position to start charging for upgraded features.
so I was kinda like, Oh, I don't know. I'm just going to try to ride this out and then figure it out after that. And I had always thought educators might be interested in Fantasy Congress. I just didn't know how to begin reaching them. I thought that they would need like all kinds of crazy extra features.
So what happened was they actually found me. Which is crazy because I maybe did 50 yellers worth of Reddit ads. And that was all the marketing that I did for Fantasy Congress in 2018. But somehow they found me and labor day weekend, it got shared on a. Facebook group of 4,500 AP government teachers.
And they just went crazy for it. they all signed up at once that too use day after labor day, they were all trying to get their students onto the app. And I had this like really janky draft, like live draft app that I had written with WebSockets I'd never used WebSockets before. So like, all of these classes were trying to draft at once and they were crashing my app.
so I just shut everything down, sent everybody an email. And I was like, Whoa, I don't know where you all came from, but you all found me and we just need to take a breather here. so I found out they all came from this Facebook group and I just that Tuesday after I shut everything down so that everybody in email is we're having issues.
We'll figure it out. I was just okay, this seems like an opportunity. I need to ask for money here because these people seem really motivated. Maybe like educators could be part of, I could pivot to focusing on educators. If they'll pay me, I will pivot to them. So I started asking for money and they paid and I was like, okay, this seems viable.
I think I just, I think I just validated.
Rob Walling: [00:14:36] Yeah. That's a cool story. And it's one of those that, I often talk about the success involves hard work, luck and skill in varying combinations, depending on your story, and it's obviously we're putting in hard work to build this and you had built up the skills of being a developer, and then you started building up the ability to ship product and everything.
And you got a little lucky with someone posting to a Facebook group, someone discovers you based on $50 of ads or maybe it was something entirely. Maybe they just Googled you and found you. So then that leads to now you have these two different, customer segments. You have the consumers that you mentioned earlier in 19 bucks a month, then you have the educators 149 a year.
at brings us to last month where you posted a blog post and you said you hit a thousand dollars in revenue, just over a thousand dollars and 550 of that was recurring revenue. but at the end of the post, you said Fantasy Congress is still my passion, but it's time for a break. I'm curious what you mean by a break?
Like what does a break mean to you and why did you come to that decision?
Allison Seboldt: [00:15:40] Yeah. So to me, a break means I've been grinding on this full time and just, it's been my one and only, so to me a break means I'm just going to like probably, I don't have any features planned to ship out in the next two weeks.
Usually it's Oh, I know exactly what I need to do today. I know exactly what I need to do tomorrow. It's work, and I'm just right now, I'm just taking a step back to assess and reflect on. What, where, where should I send my energy next? I came to that decision because, so I was doing like contracting work to support myself.
And that ended in June. And I thought, Hey, I don't have anything lined up. I have some savings built up. I this environment that we're in right now with all the educators moving online and the political environment and the election coming up, it really seems like Fantasy Congress could really take off this year.
So I'm just, what if I, take some time to just focus hard and completely on fantasy Congress go full time on that. I set a goal to reach ramen profitability by the end of October. And last month, even though I made, almost 1200 in revenue, just in last month, when I was looking about how I made that revenue, I didn't feel like I could replicate it and let alone like double or triple it, in October.
So it was Hey, I'm not going to reach my goal. So it let's just take a step back and reassess what happened and then, pick it up in a couple of weeks or a month and then go in a new direction.
Rob Walling: [00:17:12] Got it. Yeah. Working for something, working on something for two and a half years and not having the traction you want is hard.
And I feel like a break. I feel like that could reenergize you given how much passion you've had for this thing over two and a half years, do you feel like that's what it's going to give you? If you take a step back for a month or two that you'll come back, re-energized or do you think it will offer new ideas that you come up with while you're having that downtime?
What do you hope to get out of that break?
Allison Seboldt: [00:17:44] this is just like something that I've always done. Anytime. I started to feel burnt out or stressed out about something and not to say I was like, totally burnt out on fantasy Congress. when you go really hard and you have a goal in mind and you don't reach it, like that's a bit defeating.
So any time I've set a big goal for myself and been a little disappointed that I don't meet it. I always just take a break. This is just something, when I was teaching myself to code and trying to get a job, I like did this too. And I always felt like my biggest breakthroughs came when I was taking those breaks.
It was not actually giving up or whatever, but just like throwing up my hands and just like not thinking about it and pouting, and just walking away. And then, I'd be washing the dishes or something then like a big breakthrough would come to me. So it's more just about.
Letting my brain decompress and. Just giving myself time to reflect too. I think sometimes I get to do into my coding bubble and I'm just so focused on shipping features or whatever. And in the past like week or two, I've been doing just this reflection and not. Actively, it's always on my mind, your business is always like in the back of your mind, you're always thinking about it, but not actively like sitting down with a pencil and paper and like trying to figure out problems.
And I've just been reflecting. It's Oh, I should probably reach out and talk to my current customers and get some feedback from them. So sometimes when you're too deep in the weeds, it's hard to see the obvious stuff. So it's kinda just like pulling back and taking a break and.
Looking at the big picture, I guess that's how I look at it.
Rob Walling: [00:19:18] Yeah. I think that's good advice. And I see, I think that's something I do well in the short term. Like during a day I find myself fatigued. I walk away, I do the dishes. I make lunch. I walk the dog. I'm really bad at it, in a way that you're doing it, where I, if I'm grinding on something and I'm not making progress for weeks or months for that matter.
I need to get better. And I think if you're watching this or listening to it, like it's something to be aware of in yourself is taking a week off two weeks off, three weeks off, maybe it's completely from work. Or maybe it's just from that task. Or maybe it's that project. If you have the luxury to do it.
And if you're an entrepreneur, you may or may not depending on the situation you're in, but I think that's good advice. We do have a question from the audience, Paul, actually we have a couple of questions. So Pablo asks, did you ever evaluate selling it as a. as part of a path forward,
Allison Seboldt: [00:20:08] that's something that I would be open to eventually in the future, but I wouldn't want to sell it right now.
I haven't, I don't know if anyone would want to buy it as is right now. I feel like I haven't figured out any of the obvious problems that. Someone who's looking to buy a business would be looking for. I haven't been approached by anybody, but again too, this is my passion, this is my baby.
So I wouldn't want to sell it unless I feel like it's in a really good place.
Rob Walling: [00:20:37] Very good. And then Pablo asked another question. He said, when you were finding, contracting assignments, how did those potential customers or potential clients react to you having a startup on this side? Or did you not, or did you not tell them that you were running fantasy Congress when you signed up to do contract work for them?
Allison Seboldt: [00:20:59] It was a huge benefit to me. People loved hearing about it. Honestly, I feel like half the jobs I got was just because I'm the fantasy Congress girl. Like it was you hear about that and like people remember you, first of all, because that's very unique and silly and, people, and then you have this work out there that you can show people like, Hey, And a lot of people we're hiring to are business owners, so business owners are more likely to trust other business owners.
I feel, yeah, when you're doing, I don't know if it's so much, in the corporate world. So if I was trying to go back and get like a full time job, I think people might be a little wary because it's like, Oh, is she going to quit the job? in six months, if this takes off, but with contract work, people were like, Oh, I know how long I have you and you know how to ship.
It seems to be a huge benefit. people really, it really resonated with people.
Rob Walling: [00:21:48] I remember in my early days of, as I switched away from a, it was, I guess I had been a contractor, then it took a salary job and I was switching back to contracting. This is 17 years ago. I launched a couple of things on that, a couple of small side projects and the fact that they were out in the world and that they were.
being used and that they did have some small amount of revenue and that they were in production, just all these things really did impress people a lot more than I felt like it should. It was like this wasn't actually, at least my stuff was stuff I built in. I've spent three weeks in coated at nights and weekends and stuff, fantasy Congress, two and a half years.
that's another story. I, man, when I look at fantasy Congress, I see. Such opportunity with like just the social media, like the Facebook group posts you talked about is exactly how I think this, the virality of this, the viral potential with these rabid fans, is how I feel like, like the way this has to be grown.
when you watch, like Fandel only advertises on TV because now they have buckets of money. Most of it, venture capital, I'm guessing they're not. Profitable. Yeah. But even if they are it's because they've hit scale in those early days, all these fantasy league folks, they go after, content marketing.
They do, they could do PR it's something that's so many, a B to B SaaS founders can't do because we run boring businesses. Who, what PR outlet, what news org or magazine or anything wants to write about a new email service provider, none of them, however you were just recently covered, or by you.
fantasy Congress would just recently covered it in roll call.com, which is a new site for, U S government, stuff. Did that, did you seek that out or did they just discover it and decide to write about you.
Allison Seboldt: [00:23:34] This is funny. so in July, my big thing was my big focus was pressed because I agree like people always tell me, Oh, this has such a chance to go viral.
What I've learned though, from a little bit of research is that virality is actually depreciative. So we think. The vitality is this thing where, I post something, then all my friends see it, and then they post it and it grows and grows. But actually in reality, when they've studied virality, it's more somebody with a gigantic audience shares it.
And then like from that gigantic audience, it like putters out, So like people retweet it and people retweet, it becomes less and less. I do think it has a good chance to go viral. in July I focused on press. I was like soliciting a bunch of reporters. I didn't get anything.
I got a little bit of feedback. Oh, this could be super interesting. And then nothing ever came of it. this reporter for roll call was actually one of the people that I solicited. And so none of that took off in July. Oh, I'll go back and visit that some other time. it's something I'll go for some other time.
I'm focused on some other stuff. and then, so right after I put up my September blog post, which was like last week or whatever, this reporter reached out to me on Twitter, which is where I initially DMD him. And he was like, Hey, I was just about to reach out to you. But I saw that previously, you had reached out to me crazy.
Let's do it. So he, I don't know how he heard about it eventually, but. Yeah, it was so funny. It was me reaching. I did reach out to him. It didn't do anything, but then at some point he came across it. So at least I was targeting the right people. Yeah,
Rob Walling: [00:25:07] that's right. And that's the thing. I like your point about virality.
When I was saying by reality, I don't mean Oh, for every person that signs up to more, are gonna sign up for it. That's truly a viral loop. And so I was misusing the word, but when I think about it, I think politics. Is a space that a lot of people don't care about, but the few people that do or the S I say few, the tens of millions, but it's, whatever it is, 10% of the population, or some number that people that are really into it, they're really into it.
It's like sports. It's like Dungeons and dragons. It's like punk music, it's they're rabid fans. And I like my inclination. When I look at this, I know you're on a break now. I don't want to put a bunch of thoughts in your head that this works or doesn't work based on really inexpensive marketing, right?
Because your lifetime value and your monthly costs or monthly fees and all that are just too low to do a lot of extensive advertising. I think of influencers, I don't know if you've heard of Justin Robert Young, but he runs politics, politics.com. And he's just pennant. He's like a blogger podcaster.
And he talks about politics and he also talks about technology and all this other stuff, but I don't know how many folks like him are out there, but he's doing like nonstop daily, political podcasts and blog posts right now about the upcoming election. So influencers like him or what you're talking about with that amplification.
And it's how do you get. How do you get on their radar? How do you get fantasy Congress on their radar as well as. the PR angle, I think you were on the right track with that. I know it didn't work out in July, but who has the audience that cares about this kind of stuff, And it's the press it's folks like Justin Robert Young, even a little, obviously the Facebook groups that are already built, cause you building it one at a time with ads or, you trying to pick off one at a time with customers.
I think. Is a pretty long road with an app like this, given the little price point, but finding the people who do already have aggregated those people in one place, less than then, but you don't, you know this already because you're reaching out to journalists. I know that's a hard way they go and it's it.
It's a lot of reaching out and a lot of rejection and stuff, but, I do wish you the best of luck with it as you, take your break recharge and, figure out where to take it next. We are actually at time. So I really appreciate you taking the time to hang out with me for 30 minutes today. Folks want to reach out to you on Twitter.
They can see your handle on the screen. There you're @ allison_seboldt , and of course at @fantasycong on Twitter and it's fantasycongress.com. Thanks again for joining me today.
Allison Seboldt: [00:27:36] Yep. Thank you, Rob.
Rob Walling: [00:27:39] All right. And thank you for joining us for yet. Another episode of MicroConf on air sometime produced the standard and I'll go out and figure out how many episodes is this?
What do we think? 40 50 doing them first, daily, and then biweekly. And now weekly, we have some exciting coming up around SaaS podcast. We will be a. Lisa more information about that in the next couple of weeks, but stay tuned to the MicroConf Twitter account and our email list. Thanks as always to Haight and Stripe for being our headline partners for the year.
And we're out. I'll see you here again next week. Same time, same place.
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