I sold Big Timer

Five months ago I sold my countdown timer web app, Big Timer! I never really announced that, so here’s what happened.

Between my job, other side projects and, you know, normal life, Big Timer had become a little much. Monthly users had grown to ~37k. And with that came feature requests and browser support issues I wasn’t too excited about.

As an experiment, I tried a pay-what-you-want model for a while—basically donations—to get myself motivated by money to do more user-centered improvements. I’m still very thankful to everyone who donated! But during those six months (sidenote: It’s still stuck at PayPal. Don’t use PayPal. ) $220.74. Instead of motivating me to make a better product, the small number of donors made me think about how to get more paying users.

Getting more paying users could have meant nagging users more. Or ignoring my biggest growing user segment: students who are not going to spend money. A freemium offering could have worked well. Big Timer only had basic features and nitty gritty detail settings. But for freemium, I’d have to throttle free use and cut off students, or develop big new Pro features. I wasn’t excited to do either.

It’s odd how these things go—I built Big Timer because I wanted an easy-to-use, professional-grade timer for workshops I facilitated. I spent hundreds of evenings making it better and nicer. I started doing it for fun and myself only and I end up with doing something for money and other people. And lost the fun.

Back when I started, I was a designer building corporate startups at BCG Digital Ventures. It was nice to have this small, experimental project in which I could try out the various things we did on our teams, from strategy to branding and engineering. There’s a lot to say against hustle culture—always being at work is not a good life, if you ask me. But this side project motivated me to keep on trying new things, inside and outside my comfort zone.

Two factors were essential for the user growth, by the way:

  1. Years of patience getting to №1 on Google for certain searches.
  2. Covid lockdowns. Because suddenly people shared more links and students wanted timers at home.

Getting more users was exciting! I got lots of positive feedback and it was satisfying to see that my product was surpassing some of the low quality competitors.

At the end of 2020 I started volunteering at ForTomorrow, the climate action non-profit. There’s only so much time I can spend on projects. You can see that in the declining number of blog posts I’ve published. Nonetheless, being in lockdown I started two other digital side projects, which were a distraction from the others too. I spent too much time at my computer—and still not enough for any of the projects! So I figured that Big Timer either had to grow to a real business, or that I had to spend less time with it.

Last fall, somebody approached me and made an offer for the project. We eventually landed on the equivalent of several months of my salary. Although I was skeptical at first, the thought of someone taking over and all that money made me eager to say ‘yes!’

Selling a hobby project for real money sounds fun, right? I didn’t enjoy it. The negotiation and transaction took months. It involved about a hundred emails, three video calls, five banks and some actual paper work. How do I price five years of hobbying? Am I willing to risk my work of love ending up as some domain squatter’s ad wall? What’s my responsibility towards tens of thousands users who appear passionate, but aren’t willing to pay?

When it was done, I didn’t experience the celebratory highlight I always thought such a thing would be. More like, ugh, finally it’s over. And forgot to even share it. I wasn’t sure yet if there was anything to celebrate other than that I received money.

Fast-forward to today—Big Timer’s layout looks wonky. I found out that there are ads on the site. The new owner said he that he wouldn’t do that and make sure the style would remain consistent. Obviously, I could have done better due diligence, but one of the reasons the negotiation took so long was because I wanted proof that he could and would be a good fit for the project.

We never really wrote a contract. What am I going to do in a contractual dispute with a guy on another continent for an amount for which a lawyer would hardly pick up the phone? Now I think I should have followed the advice I read though. To just write down your five bullet points in an email and agree on them. Even if you both know there will be no legal action in case of a breach.

Am I proud of the current situation? I’m not sure. Big Timer is used in education a lot, so I’m a bit sad about the ads. But then again, when real companies are sold, the previous owners also find it hard to see how their creations are treated. Maybe the new owner does manage to get more traffic and do the ads help him making things more professional.

I do know one thing though: my life now is better than before the sale. I stopped one side project, finished another one. The money I made with the sale made it easy to decide what before looked risky. I quit my job at BCGDV and the volunteering project became my job last March. I now do everything design, websites and user experience at ForTomorrow. I love it! Of course, I jumped on the request to include a countdown timer on their site. Big Timer isn’t a time sink anymore. I’m really enjoying that my evenings and weekends now are really free. And I have a lot of unfinished blog posts that I want to get published here!

Here are two more posts I wrote about working on Big Timer as a side project: