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How to launch your web app for free

Steven Rapp
Jun 17, 2024
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Let’s say you’ve got a cool new app or prototype SaaS and you’re ready to get it in front of people. You want to get it out quickly, have it be fully functioning, but don’t want to spend a lot of money. What do you need to get started?

We were in a similar spot with PriceLevel not long ago, and as a first-time founder the decisions of which services to use are more daunting. I’ve purchased plenty of SaaS at my previous companies, but I wasn’t there early enough to pick the foundational services, like cloud hosting, email providers, and payment processors - those were already decided by the time I joined.

And it turns out there are a lot of options when it comes to this sort of software, each with various offerings and price points that aren’t exactly apples to apples. So I donned my frugal founder hat and furiously dove in, analyzing a slew of services to identify how we could launch PriceLevel for $0.

Here’s the result of that research - I hope it’s helpful to other founders or side-project hustlers who are also navigating the space of affordable software in 2024.

Hosting

First things first, you need to deploy your app to make it accessible to folks not on your computer. There’s a wide variety of options, and it used to be that Heroku was the gold standard - but now that their free tier is no longer available, it’s a great time to look at alternatives.

If you’re like me and are coming from companies with established cloud architecture, you’re probably most familiar with Amazon Web Services, Azure, or Google Cloud. But these can be expensive and tedious to manage if you don’t know what you’re doing.

You could always rent a Virtual Private Server from DigitalOcean or a number of other providers, and depending on your software stack that might be the best route. For us, we were looking for something even more turnkey so that we prioritize iterating on our product. Newer options like Render and Railway can let you get started for cheap or free, if you’re willing to stomach some cold-starts when your application isn’t in use.

We ultimately ended up going with Vercel to deploy our app, because they have a solid integration with our software stack (Astro) and it was very quick to set up - just connect your GitHub account and away you go. They offer a free tier that should be more than enough to get started.

Similarly for databases, I didn’t want to spend energy thinking about managing versions and backups, and there are a lot of good options in that space too. I knew we wanted to use Postgres for its flexibility and it matched well for our use case, so we ended up going with Supabase. It’s open-source so we’re not strictly locked in, reasonably priced (including an excellent free tier), and offered additional features that we use like authentication and object storage.

Email Providers

Email delivery is such a commodity and there are so many options that they will often compete over price. Most divide their offerings into Transactional and Marketing.

Transactional Emails

Transactional emails are always triggered by an individual user’s action, such as sending a user an authentication code when they request to login, or sending a receipt for a purchase the user completed. Offerings in this space are interchangeable and easy to switch between, so for us it came down to which service had the most generous free tier and wouldn’t break the bank if we exceeded it. So I made a spreadsheet:

A spreadsheet full of formulas to map out how much each solution would cost at different volume cutoffs. I’m sure we’ve all had to make something like this.
A spreadsheet full of formulas to map out how much each solution would cost at different volume cutoffs. I’m sure we’ve all had to make something like this.

Ultimately we landed on using Brevo simply because we got the largest number of free monthly sends (9,000!) and was sufficiently cheap enough once we went over that threshold - though we’d likely switch to Sendgrid or Resend if the volume was consistently high enough.

Marketing Emails 

Marketing emails are the complement to the set of transactional emails - basically every other email that you send. These are often in the form of product updates, promotional offers, and customer engagement. You may not need this at the start, but once you have users, you’ll want to be able to at least notify them of updates to your app.

Many providers offer both Marketing and Transactional Email plans, so why didn’t we just go with Brevo? Unfortunately their free marketing plan is pretty restrictive, limiting you to 300 email sends per day. If you were to upgrade to their first paid plan, you’d get 5,000 emails for $9 a month, but you’d also have their watermark on the emails - removing that costs another $12 a month, making it even more expensive than their next higher Business plan. It felt like I was being strongly encouraged to upgrade to a higher plan, for I felt were baseline features.

By comparison, Sendgrid offers 6,000 emails to 2,000 contacts for free every month. No daily restrictions, no watermark, no problem.

Payment Processor

Of course, your side project is going to be a smashing success, and people will be begging you to take their money, right?. Well, maybe not at first, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared, so it pays to have a plan when it comes to processing payments.

I'm contractually obligated to include this meme.
I'm contractually obligated to include this meme.

The market has a clear leader in Stripe - and it’s what we ended up going with. There are no upfront costs, and while the transaction fees are high, their developer and user experience is top-notch. Plus they can take care of handling state sales tax, which is apparently a thing for SaaS and something we didn’t want to become an expert in just yet.

Analytics

There are a lot of options in the user analytics space: Google Analytics is a leader in web traffic analytics, FullStory and LogRocket are popular session replay tools, A/B testing is handled by Split and Statsig - the list goes on. Many companies handle multiple areas too, like Amplitude, but each has their own configuration of which features they offer - often the solution is a patchwork approach of multiple products.

What drew us to PostHog, aside from their pervasive use of incredibly cute hedgehog illustrations, was their offering covers all of the above and more, with a generous free tier, usage-based pricing, and tight spending controls to ensure we don’t overpay. Plus, they have a startup program that provides $50,000 in credits. The UX is not as refined as some of the other tools mentioned, but the value is hard to beat. 

Get started today

Hopefully this research can help you build, deploy, and support your application with little to no cost. The most important thing you can do when building something new is to launch early and launch often. Use these tools to start for free and when you’re ready to move onto paid or custom plans, compare your pricing to make sure you’re getting the best deal you can! 

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