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Changing the Game in Web Analytics with Marko Saric

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Carolyn Young is a business writer who focuses on entrepreneurial concepts and the business formation. She has over 25 years of experience in business roles, and has authored several entrepreneurship textbooks.

Changing the Game in Web Analytics with Marko Saric

Dive into the digital world with Marko Saric, the visionary co-founder of Plausible Analytics. This interview unveils the story behind the platform that’s redefining web analytics. Plausible.io is a privacy-focused, open-source alternative to traditional web analytics platforms like Google Analytics.

Discover how this open-source, GDPR-friendly platform is carving a niche in a Google-dominated landscape. Expect a blend of tech innovation, entrepreneurial wisdom, and a glimpse into the future of internet privacy, all wrapped up in a conversation with one of the industry’s leading disruptors.

Marko Saric

The Creation of Plausible

SBS – How did you create Plausible? Can you explain its focus on privacy and simplicity? 

Marko – Plausible just had its fifth-anniversary last month (January). In the startup world, that’s pretty long. If you look at all the projects that start, maybe a single-digit percent of them make it to year five.

My co-founder, Uku, is the developer, and I’m the marketer. This project started when Uku, on his own, started coding in 2018. He started building an alternative to Google Analytics, which he thought was a good idea. Even now, there’s a growing trend for other options, with privacy and the introduction of GDPR, which increased awareness about the negative aspects of surveillance, capitalism, and what Google is doing.

A year into it, Uki had the product ready but wasn’t sure about how to market it and communicate about it. Then, I joined in 2020. We took it one day at a time, and here we are five years later. We have almost 13,000 active paying subscribers and a team of eight, and it’s all self-funded to this day. We haven’t taken any venture capital. We have very strong principles behind how we do things, and the best way to achieve and keep those principles is to have full control and not look for any funds. Investors reach out to us via email all the time, and we ignore them. For the first two years, we were just living off our savings. It was not that easy. We strived to become financially sustainable at some point. Now that we are, we can hire people and pay them competitive salaries, and it becomes easier. It was all about control for us because we’re an open-source and privacy-first company.

I worked for a venture funding company before this, and if it goes well, they’re happy, but if things don’t go well, at some point, you will have these people at your back, and they’ll be trying to change what you do and how you do it, and you won’t have much to say. You may get venture funds if you think your startup will go very well. But if at some point there are issues, things stagnate, or there are conflicts, then you don’t have complete control to make the decisions the way you want, and then you end up having to pivot or switch. In my previous company, our whole positioning had to change because the venture firm wasn’t satisfied with the growth. With Plausible, we didn’t want to be part of that world. I have nothing against it, but we just wanted to do it our way. 

Unique Selling Proposition

SBS – What makes Plausible stand out in a market that Google Analytics highly dominates?

Marko – Many marketers and business owners have experience with Google Analytics; some like it, some hate it, and some are indifferent about it. I used it for 15 years or so through several projects, both for myself and the companies I’ve worked at.

If you look at some of those websites that measure what technologies other websites use, more than 80% use Google Analytics. It’s run by Google, one of the largest companies in the world. They have the history and the legacy of doing this, and they have lots of funds and people behind it.

We’re the opposite. We’re a small team of eight. We are a self-funded open-source business, which is another big difference in how we operate compared to them. We’re also privacy-first, which is another big difference.

Most of our users come from Google Analytics, and one of the things they tell us is that they love how easy and intuitive it is to use Plausible compared to Google Analytics. Many people hate Google Analytics because they find it difficult to use and don’t understand what these reports are. There are hundreds of options on the left-hand side, and then there are submenus and many different metrics. It does too much for many people. There’s a whole industry of training courses and experts that explain how to use Google Analytics.

Our idea was to do a one-page analytics dashboard that you can understand within a few seconds even if you don’t have the training course experience or haven’t finished a Ph.D. in Google Analytics. That’s the whole idea of Plausible, and that’s what makes it grow.

The fact that we didn’t have any investors meant that we had no funds, so we couldn’t just go and turn on Google or Facebook ads and spend thousands of dollars every day. We had to grow organically, so we had to build a product that people like, and then when people come to us and like what we do, they tell their friends and colleagues. That’s how we grow, even to this day. 

First Challenges and Finding First Customers

SBS – What challenges have you faced in the first stages of building a product? Was it difficult to find first customers in the beginning?

Marko – I joined during COVID in March 2020. There was a lockdown, and we couldn’t get out much, so I spoke with my co-founder daily. When I joined, Plausible was one year in the business, and we were only at $403 MRR (monthly recurring revenue). I think we had about 50 paying subscribers. You can see that it has been a whole year of working, building a product, developing it, and getting it out there to people, and we were only able to get to $400 in monthly revenue. It started very slowly.

One thing we had working against us was that Google Analytics is free. I’ve used it for 15 years and never paid a single dollar. Imagine that we come and say, “We do less than Google Analytics because we’re focused on privacy, so you cannot get all the crazy data you can get there, but then you also have to pay for it because we don’t monetize the data we collect in any way.” We had to charge a fair price to be sustainable, be able to work on the product, and pay our bills. 

That has been a big challenge, but this mindset shift helped us. Back then, nobody paid for email, but now you have many paid email providers (like Hey.com and Proton Mail). I pay for my personal email as well, and I’ve been doing it for years. There’s been this whole shift of people understanding that when something is free, you might be the product of it. People are now more willing to pay for a service they have more control over or if they like some aspects more than a free product made by one of those giants like Google.

SBS – How much time did it pass until you started charging? Did you charge for it from the beginning?

Marko – In the first three months, we did a free beta.

I’m not sure how familiar you are with it, but there’s a building public movement, the indie hacking movement. Indiehackers.com is a website and a community where people work together on their startups and products and publicly discuss them as they build them.

My co-founder posted about what he was coding and about the decisions he was making. In these first three months, he offered free beta and got 20–30 people to join through this indie hacking community because he was building in public posting.

If you go to Indie Hackers, you can find our profile, go back to day one, and follow the journey. You can also do it here on our blog. One of the first things I did after joining was to publish blog posts. I published the first one after a month or so. A few days later, I published a study on what we achieved by publishing that first blog post, and I shared how many visitors we got, the traffic sources we got visitors from, what happened in terms of sign-ups, etc.

We continued this building public movement for a while, sharing everything we do, the things we achieve, and the lessons we learned. The word got out slowly, and we started making progress and gained momentum. In the first two years or so, I published how much of our own money we had to lose because we were paying our own bills from savings.

There are quite a few challenges early on, but if you can get through it somehow with luck, force, will, or whatever, it gets easier later. It’s the hardest in that first year or two where nothing is really happening, growth is very slow, and you have to believe in what you’re doing and have passion that drives you — and, obviously, some luck.

Data Privacy and Compliance

SBS – How do you ensure data privacy and compliance with regulations like GDPR?

Marko – Data privacy is one of the pillars we focus on. Being privacy-friendly and being lightweight are big things for us. We’re way more lightweight. So, if you care about the speed of your website, if you install Plausible compared to Google Analytics, you will achieve a much faster result. It’s also about being easy to use.

To ensure privacy, we made Plausible Analytics cookieless. We don’t use any cookies or any type of long-term identifiers to track the visitors. That’s unlike Google Analytics, which uses cookies. Plus, it has many other ways to identify people and returning visitors over a longer time, and so on.

Speaking of growth, one of the things that helped us was that many European Union countries banned Google Analytics in 2023. Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, and a few other EU countries now consider Google Analytics illegal. They made it illegal because Google is sending the data of your visitors to servers in the US or servers owned by an American company.

At Plausible, we use all European servers owned by European companies located in the EU. We started riding the privacy wave on day one and continued to ride with it. Now, when people care more about being compliant with GDPR, they look for Google Analytics alternatives, and that’s how some find us.

Plausible is for Everyone

SBS – What kind of businesses benefit the most from using Plausible?

Marko – We’re open to everyone. Early on, in 2019 and 2020, our users were mainly personal bloggers and developers with personal websites. Then, we slowly started getting companies and data analysts on board.

If you look at our website and how we communicate, we don’t try to segment our users. If you have issues with your current analytics provider (mostly Google Analytics), we show how we solve some of those issues. Whether you’re a one-person blog or a 1,000-person corporation with a huge team of analysts, if that message resonates and our software solves some important issues for you, we’re welcoming you. We make it simple to use, our hands are open, and we welcome anyone who needs that product. Many startups only cater to a particular audience, but we have customers from every group and try to keep our minds open. In that sense, we also don’t try to fool anyone.

The Influence of Open Souce Development

SBS – How does open source development influence Plausible’s business model and community engagement?

Marko – Open-source is one thing that we are that Google is not. You can go on GitHub; our developers improve the product daily. All the code is there; you can see what we changed yesterday and what we did five years ago. The whole historical progress is there. Everything is done in public, even from that perspective. We even have a little product for self-hosting users. Say that you don’t want a SaaS product that you must pay for or for any other reason. You can install our products on your servers and manage them completely by yourself. A part of our open source is that you can control your experience a bit more with Plausible than you can with other SaaS products (such as Google Analytics) or other non-open source products because they don’t give you the freedom to pick and choose.

It’s the first time I’ve been involved in an open-source project. I’m familiar with open source as a user (I used WordPress, Firefox, Linux, etc.), but I didn’t know it as a builder or a part of the company that is open source. Many of the lessons I’ve learned over the last few years were related to open source. I’ve shared many of them on our blog.

There’s also this thing called a permissive license. That’s the default license you get when you join GitHub and start a new project. Everyone picks that license because they don’t know what it is. Newbies like me just pick that because that’s the default option. However, it turns out that that license is so permissive that within three months or so of us having that first viral blog post, we started seeing that companies way larger than us took our code and turned it into a competing competitor and a proprietary competitor — completely locked and not open source. We wondered how it was possible and legal, but it was because of the permissive license. As newbies with open source, there are many things you’ll have to learn. We ended up switching to something that’s called AGPL, which is a little bit more restrictive in that sense. For example, it says that you can take our code but cannot use it to create a proprietary, and you must keep it open source. That helped us because those companies didn’t want to keep their improvements to our code open source.

Open source is also growing just like privacy is growing. Many open-source projects are doing very well, and transparency helps from a privacy perspective because we can say, “This is what we do, this is what we promise, and this is how it works.” If you know how to read the code, you can just go to GitHub and verify that our words match what we’re doing in the product. 

Transparency helps build the trust needed in the privacy-first world where people use your product on their website, and there might be legal things involved, such as GDPR.

Success Stories

SBS – Can you share some examples of success stories from companies that greatly benefited when they switched to using Plausible?

Marko – We have a few of them highlighted on our site. We haven’t focused on case studies, but some examples are on the site. We also don’t have any sales processes or salespeople, so everything is self-serve. You come to us rather than we try to sell to you. Those pillars that I mentioned earlier are at our core.

One thing that happens very often is that people come to us and say they installed Plausible and removed Google Analytics, and now their legal team has allowed them to say they no longer need that cookie consent form that most websites have. Legal teams are involved in companies deciding what you can and cannot use, what you need consent for, and what you don’t. By law, you must make accepting or rejecting cookies very easy. You need to have one button for accepting and one for rejecting. So, when you make that clear and easy, many people take the reject option because they don’t want to be tracked. As a marketer or a business owner, you suddenly are missing a large chunk of traffic (up to 90%). But if you switch to Plausible, where you don’t need that cookie contract, you can finally see the bigger picture. That helped our users to see exactly what’s going on and make informed decisions about their business. 

The Evolution of Customer Acquisition Strategies

SBS – If you don’t use sales tactics or have a salesperson, how did your customer acquisition strategies change over the years?

Marko – When I joined in 2020, I looked for the last week’s traffic. We had one organic visitor from Google the day before I joined. I had to create the demand somehow. As I mentioned, we didn’t have investors, so we couldn’t just turn on the ads and start paying Google and Facebook to do the marketing work. That was not an option, so I started doing content marketing instead. The first part was creating good content and publishing it on our blog. It was never commercial. It never said Plausible is the best in the world.

One good example is the first blog post about why you should stop using Google Analytics on your website. I listed many reasons. It was not salesy, but more like what I learned as a marketer, as a part of other startups in the past. I would publish posts like that. I would come up with posts that are educational, informative, and not salesy at all. It mentioned Plausible only at the very end after I mentioned some other alternatives before us. After I published that type of content, I reached out to people I thought might be interested. I would go to social media, like Twitter, and post about it. I would also share it with niche communities where this message might resonate. I mentioned Indie Hackers before, but there are also things like hackernews.com. I also searched for people who talked about analytics in the recent past (about alternatives to Google Analytics or issues with Google Analytics), and I contacted them via email or the contact form they have on their website. I’d tell them I had read the post and show them what we had come up with as it addresses some of their points. There was a lot of manual labor in the first year or so. I would say 80% of my time was spent publishing this content and reaching out to people who may find it interesting. When we got the traction, so many people were coming to us that I didn’t have time to reach out. If you look at the first year, I published about twice per week. Those articles were always 1,000+ words, not salesy, trying to be educational, informative, and have a point of view. In the last three years, I probably published 10% of what I published in the first year because it became more difficult. In the first days, nobody emailed us asking for anything because we didn’t have users. I switched from 80% outreach to 80% dealing with people who reach out to us, but it stayed that way since then. There were many unsuccessful stories in that outreach process, especially with emails I sent to bloggers and other website owners. Maybe one out of ten would ever even acknowledge me.

New Plausible Features

SBS – Do you have some upcoming features for Plausible that you would like to share?

Marko – Now that we have so many developers, text developers’ features come out all the time, so I still have to write the announcements and explain to people how this is used and post them on social media and so on.

For example, yesterday, we announced an easy way to exclude your own traffic from the stats. Before, you had to do some hacks to do it, and now you insert your IP address and click on a button. The day before that, we announced the support for custom properties. Custom dimensions are a big thing in Google Analytics. They allow you to send the custom data alongside page use, and then you can create your custom metrics. Now we have full support for that. Plus, we allow you to dig very deep into segmenting your audience using multiple custom dimensions.

As for anything else that we’re working on right now, I don’t know when it will be ready. There is no point in promising anything about that. Many people are contacting us asking when some features will be ready, and we say we never promise any dates because we prefer to underpromise and overdeliver. In sales, it’s normal that salespeople say they’ll deliver a feature in the next quarter if you sign a contract to be their customer. We tell people that if what we have today does not satisfy their needs, maybe it’s a good idea just to wait a bit until we release something new that they may like. We ask them to check again before they decide.

One of our big feature requests right now is Google Analytics 4. Google Analytics introduced GA4 last year. We have an import of the data from the old version, the GA3. You can import your old data, but we don’t have an import of the GA4 data, and if you join us today, there will be a three- or four-month gap in your data before you start using Plausible. That’s one of the top feature requests, and we could easily go and say, “Don’t worry, sign up. We will launch this next week,” but we try not to make that kind of promise because you never know if the development will be good enough. When we test it internally, we want to take a longer time. Again, we’re in control, and we can take our time to make something right and then present it to people who ask about it. We can then tell them they have everything they need, and they can make their decisions completely.

Advice for Entrepreneurs in Data Analytics

SBS – What advice would you give entrepreneurs starting in your field?

Marko – Our journey shows that some things are possible even though they may not be the default way of doing things. For example, the fact that we decided not to take any investments is like a statement because most startups out there are funded by VCs or whoever.

When people start, they spend a lot of time creating presentations and reaching out to investors, trying to get them on board to begin working on the project. Even if you want investors, it’s a good idea to start working on it and release it to the people because if you make some momentum and people start liking it, you’ll have investors reach out to you. Even to this day, even if on our homepage it says we’re not looking for investors, we get emails from investors trying to invest in us — pretty much daily. If you build something, investors will come to you, so you don’t need to spend so much time trying to get them. Just focus on building what you have in mind, improving that, and speaking to people to see how it resonates. Investors will come on their own. That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned. Investors just come. Even when you say you don’t want them, they still try.

The Impact of AI on Web Analytics

SBS – How do you think the future of web analytics will look in a few years? Do you believe that AI is affecting it a lot?

Marko – It’s a good question. I’m in the middle of it, so I have no idea what will happen because what has happened recently is a pretty dramatic change compared to how it was only a couple of years ago. Now, you have no cookie options. That was not normal before. I have no idea what will happen in the next five years or so. I know that Google is introducing AI or machine learning to predict why GA4 is blocked. They hope to predict it based on some other data points they have. Google has moved in that direction because of the lack of data.

From our perspective, we currently have no plans for anything with AI. I know that’s the buzzword right now. It’s deservedly a buzzword because it’s a handy tool, AI. But I don’t know if AI can affect anything at this stage. Machine learning and trying to get some insights out of the data is something, but I’m not sure if there will be something like a ChatGPT bot for that. I’m curious. I’m into it, and I still read our emails, so we listen to see what people want. So far, there has not even been one request for us to introduce an AI tool. AI is going to be there, and it’s going to be used a lot. I don’t know how or whether it will be a big part of the analytics web space. I guess we will be there to see it unless it comes and overrules us all.


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Changing the Game in Web Analytics with Marko Saric