Today, Rob flies solo to talk about 7 different things that he has learned in his 20 years of entrepreneurship. He also offers some feedback about what he is seeing in the startup communities today, advice on how to deal with competition, marketing tips, and how to build a team of developers.
The finer points of the episode:
- 2:35 – Be careful about over-generalizing from one win
- 3:33 – The three things you need in order to succeed in building a startup
- 8:10 – How to handle feedback you get on your product
- 12:48 – Rob’s personal experience and opinion on dealing with competition in the startup space
- 15:35 – Why word-of-mouth is not the right answer for where your leads are coming from
- 18:40 – The real reason why some startups are “transparent”
- 21:05 – Advice on how to build a team of developers
Items mentioned in this episode:
Welcome to this week’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us. As always I’m your host, Rob Walling. Every week on this show I get on the mic, I often have a guest or sometimes do an entire round table of guests. Today, I’m flying solo and I do this two, maybe three times a year when I either have trouble finding a guest or I find that I have stuff on my mind that I’ve been thinking about and developing a framework for, and I just want to get it out there in a way that I don’t have time to spend four, six, eight hours trying to blog post.
I think it’s more substantive and perhaps will reach more people in a deep fashion than posting it into Twitter. Today’s episode is going to be walking through seven different, I would almost call them advice but it’s more like these are things that I’ve learned in my 20 years of entrepreneurship and some things that are going on in the world today that I feel like I have commentary on.
When I say in the world, I don’t mean COVID-19. I mean more in our startup communities. I’m going to be talking about advice and feedback, a little bit about how to give a little bit, a little bit about taking it, and we’re going to be talking about competition and some specific experiences I’ve had around it. Talk a little bit about some marketing stuff and it’s not going to be high-level, this is how you market. It’s just some specific advice and mistakes. I think antipatterns in ways that I think people have been thinking about marketing as well as managing developers.
This all revolves around sometimes just one, but often it’s 5, 10, 20 conversations that I’ve had with colleagues, founders, or aspiring founders. When I start hearing the same thing over and over and I realize that I’m thinking about this in a different way than perhaps the early stage founder or just someone who hasn’t been in our space for a long time. I just like to bring these things up and talk them through.
One thing I want to say before I start is that it’s such a trip. Probably once a month I get an email that says, “I’ve been listening to your podcast for years and I had bought Start Small, Stay Small years ago. I had no idea that you were the same Rob.” Every couple of months, I’m going to say that I wrote Start Small, Stay Small. If you’ve read the book, thanks. I appreciate it, but just to clear the air so that you know that I’m one the same. I wanted to do that.
Let’s dive in. I have three things that I wanted to say about advice and feedback. The first one is something that I think has always happened, but it definitely has gotten more and more prevalent in the startup space. The more people that are just online and doing social stuff trying to build personal brands. I just want to ask if you are a founder who has had some modicum of success, please be really careful about overgeneralizing from one win.
I think of it the first time you launch a product and you have some success, suddenly you feel like you know exactly how to launch a product and that your experience applies to every product everywhere for all eternity. I’ve seen folks grow an app to 10,000, 30,000, 50,000 a month with no employees and they typically admit that they got pretty lucky. They found a niche that happened to grow, they rode a wave, or maybe they didn’t. Maybe they really just worked hard and it took them five, six, seven years to get there.
But then, going out and giving advice on this is how to start a startup and this is how everyone should do it is really dangerous. I had this mental model and I brought it up in the podcast in the past about the three things that you need to succeed in (let’s say) building a startup. One is hard work, the second is luck, and the third is skill.
You might have these in varying degrees. If you have tremendous skill in marketing, or tremendous skill in building an audience or building a network, or tremendous skill on choosing niches and building a great product, you may need less luck and I personally always think you should put hard work in because that’s the one you control the easiest in the short term is to work hard. I don’t mean 90-hour weeks, of course. If you listen to this podcast, you know that my entire entrepreneurial career, I’ve worked 40 hours a week or less except for some very short stints where I did work 60 hours a week for 6 weeks at a time, 8 weeks at a time to get some hard stuff done.
Hard work and focus (I think) is table stakes in my opinion, although if you are really lucky, I do know a founder who happened to be at the right place at the right time and just stumbled into a hobby, became something that was really popular. He got really lucky and sold the company for tens of millions of dollars. He didn’t actually work that hard. Self admittedly, he never really worked that hard but he did have the skill to build a team and he did really get lucky in the right place at the right time so it’s totally possible.
Then of course, there are folks who don’t get lucky at all. They just put tons of hard work and they build skills, and it takes them five or ten years to get where someone who got lucky maybe would have gotten to in one year. Those three things I think make up the building blocks, but to build a SaaS app or any company to $3000, $4000, $5000, $6000 is hard. Typically, you need to put in some hard work. Typically, you probably need a little bit of luck although not at that scale. I do think that to get to tens of millions or hundreds of millions, that you do need all these things to fall into place.
Oftentimes, after your first one, you just don’t know. You don’t know what made it work. You think you do, but after your second one, your third one, your fourth one, you start to see the patterns. I’ve grown seven businesses to at least six figures in revenue. Seven six-figured businesses I’ve created in the past of about 15 years. Actually, some of those weren’t six; they were at least six. There are few that are seven figures. Seven six- and seven-figured businesses is probably a better way to put it.
After the first one, I really did think that I’d do it all and it’s such a natural thing to want to go out and tell everyone about. When I did the second one, I realized nope. The things that I thought made it successful, some of them were right but about half of them were wrong, and when I go back and read writings that I did 10 years ago, it’s a little painful for me. I think most folks are not doing this intentionally. I think it’s a natural human desire to want to teach and I think it’s a natural human desire to want to talk about how you have the right answers.
Just consider this, most people giving advice are doing it to build a personal brand so they can sell you a book, or a course, or they’re even some investors who do that, and a lot of Silicon Valley folks like the venture capitalist would blog in order to get followers and then people will say they know what they’re doing. But really consider a question that I often ask myself when I see a new expert or a new name come on the scene. I typically ask myself have they done it at least twice? Obviously there are exemptions.
Jeff Bezos has not built two Amazons. The Collison brothers, actually I think they did have a startup before Stripe that was successful. Most founders I know really who know their stuff, they have done multiple. I look at Eaton Shaw, Jason Cohen, David Cancel, Dan Martell, people who have done it two, three, four, five times and there’s definitely a learned experience and definitely a different communication of their learnings as they get further along.
That’s the big question I ask myself. If someone is giving advice, I think, have they done it at least twice or three times that they can start seeing patterns. I also ask, are they giving advice on something that they really are expert in? Because again if you grow an app to $30,000 a month then you’re working on your own, that is so different than building a team, building a startup, and knowing how to build a team culture, knowing how to hire people, knowing how to cross a million dollars in ARR, knowing how to cross $2, $3, $4 million. It becomes such a different experience.
As I’ve watched founders who I’ve invested in or I’ve worked with or just known through MicroConf in this podcast. Each step you’re learning a lot and overtime I think that you’re really building that corpus and that wisdom so to speak so that you can share with others. I’ll stop there on the advice and I want to switch to this topic of feedback.
What I mean here is if you’re building a product, you’re trying to build something that people want, maybe you do have product/market fit, and things are growing. There’s always going to be someone who wants to give you feedback about your product, who doesn’t tend to know what they’re talking about but thinks they do. It’s often hard to tell. So, the thing that I have started doing because when we were growing Drip and frankly every business I’ve ever grown has this whether it’s a MicroConf, TinySeed, Drip, HitTail, or stuff that I grew before, someone wants to give you feedback.
In the early days when someone gave me feedback, I thought they must be an expert because I don’t give feedback to someone unless I feel like I really know what I’m talking about. Other people don’t necessarily have that bar. I would get an email when we were running Drip and we’re literally doing millions of dollars in revenue. Someone would say you really need to change this font color, change this button, or this tab in the interface. Just these really small things that are nitpicks and frankly are not going to change the business. They’re not going to change the business. The UX was really good and really solid. Could you find one pixel out of place? Of course you could. Does that change the business? Should we be focused on that?
It comes from people who I think are not entrepreneurs. They’re not founders. They’re not thinking about the business. They’re thinking about their particular expertise. That’s where it has gotten to a point where I really need someone to have some type of credentials before I listen to them and I don’t mean academic credentials, but when someone emails me out of the blue, if it’s Eaton Shaw, Ruben Gomez, Brennan Dunn, or Jordan Gal in the email and saying, “Hey, there’s something in your product I think you should fix,” I’m going to listen to it because they’re a founder. They are product-focused people who know how to build a good product and their feedback is very likely coming from a place of I’m trying to help you build a better product versus feedback coming from someone I don’t know and when I go to look at them, either they are not a UX designer at all and they just have an opinion or they are a developer and designer and they’re trying to sell me their services.
I just don’t know their motivation and frankly making changes that random people on the internet suggest about your writing, your product, your podcast, your blog, or your conference, it’s dangerous. Now taking it in aggregate, of course, is great. If you fear the same thing from all the people especially if you have thousands of customers, when you start hearing the same thing you have to look for patterns, yes you should do that. I’m not saying don’t listen to anyone. I’m saying be wary of the individual who feels like they are so confident in their advice, but how do you know if they know anything? And oftentimes they don’t.
This is different than someone coming in your app and saying, “Hey, I’m confused by this. I’m confused by this onboarding. I don’t know what to do here.” That’s bad. You don’t want people to be confused. It’s different than someone sending you a screencast and saying, “You really need to change this,” because it’s always like that’s your opinion. That’s your opinion and one person has said this and since I have 3000 customers, I’m going to go with my opinion on this one and not chase down a rabbit hole. That’s number two. That’s be wary of product feedback from people without credentials.
Third thing is something that Sarah Hatter said. Sarah Hatter runs CoSupport and she said on a MicroConf talk once and it resonated with me, was years ago, probably five or six years ago now, and keeping on the topic of advice and feedback, this is the last piece of this. She said, “Don’t take business advice from people who have crappy personal lives.” Let that sink in. A lot of people who give business advice have crappy personal lives. Oftentimes you don’t know, but if you do know, it’s a really interesting thing to think about how someone treats people and I’ve added this to the end.
“Don’t take business advice from people who have crappy personal lives,” and my addition is, “or who treat people in a way you don’t want to treat people.” The reason I’ve added that is because from what I’ve seen, you can be successful in business and treat people right or you can be successful in business and treat people like […].
If you don’t want to do the latter, then don’t take advice from people who do because I do think that it’s a contributing factor to their success. If you try to replicate their success with their advice, but you treat people right, you treat them fairly and you’re nice to them, I think there’s just a disconnect there. I’m not sure that advice is going to translate into what you think it’s going to do.
Let’s move on from advice and feedback to talk about competition. This is an interesting one. Again, this is one that has happened to me several times. I think three maybe more and it’s happened over the course of 15 years. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 20 although I was a consultant early on and really started building products 2003, 2004 and started. I think about 15-17 years is really my entrepreneurial career, but I’ve had three people say almost this exact sentence to me over the course of this time and I want you to hear it.
The sentence is, “There’s plenty of room in the market for all of us.” The first time I heard it, it was from someone who had essentially seen that I was having success in a space and proceeded to copy what I was doing in a way that was really obviously a copy. As we talked about it, the person said, “There’s plenty of market for all of us,” with a smile and a pat on the back because they didn’t want to make an enemy.
The first time I was like, “Oh yeah. No, that’s a really good point,” then I watched him replicate pieces of our positioning, a bunch of features, start to try to take our customers, and just on and on. The second time I heard it, I knew what it was. It was years later and I knew exactly it was someone trying not to make me mad and trying to be friendly with a competitor but that they were going to screw me again. They’re going to backstab me, but I didn’t say anything. The third time I called someone on it and I said, “I’m not sure that that’s the case,” and it really put this person on their heels because they didn’t expect that. But it’s just a fascinating sentiment.
I do believe that markets are big and the free market is fine, but don’t sit there and look me in the eye and tell me that we’re buds, that we’re friends, right before you stab me in the back. If you feel like you have this conversation and someone ever tells you, “Hey, there’s plenty of market for both of us,” just expect them to start drafting off you if they’re not already. What will be interesting is that you’ll be able to tell their next three moves by looking at the last three moves that you made. It becomes painfully, painfully obvious with folks like this who are copying you.
I’m not saying don’t worry about competition. I do think that you should focus on your customers and your audience, but I do think that competition, especially people like this who try to act like that they’re not competing with you but they are effectively ripping off what you’re doing, sometimes even the same naming, I do think it’s something that can be upsetting, to be honest. Frankly, when I talk to people who do have competition who are basically copying them—you’re the innovator, you spend time to do it, you prove it out, and then someone just starts copying it piece by piece—it’s frustrating on a personal level.
There’s something about it as a maker having someone replicate it and typically they claim that it’s their own and claim that they came up with it. That’s the frustrating part. Just be wary of that when you’re in a space and someone tells you that there’s plenty of market for all of us.
Next, I want to talk a little bit about marketing. I have two thoughts here. I’ve heard entrepreneurs who launch a business, business growing relatively well, and when I ask them where your leads or where you’re new customers are coming from, they say word-of-mouth. When I dig into that, the real answer is I don’t know where they’re coming from. So if you don’t know, don’t say word-of-mouth. Say you don’t know or find out because I think it’s really dangerous not to know where your customers are coming from.
I bought a business at one point where the founder told me that customers come from word-of-mouth. I said, “Why is that?” and she said, “It keeps going up to the right. It’s growing slowly,” but in Google it just says direct traffic and it turns out it’s not word-of-mouth. There were a number of factors. I’m going to point to a number of things that would be really hard to track.
You can go on podcast and mention the URL. You can talk from the stage. Someone could read about it in a book. They could read about it in a newspaper or magazine. They can have their referral being cleared out when they click through. They can be on a different device than when they originally heard about it. It could be a returning visit. There are just all these things that can lead to you not knowing where they’re coming from and you’re not going to be able to attribute 100%. You can’t do it.
But having an idea and frankly asking customers tends to be the best way. Asking where they first heard about you or where they heard about you right before they signed up for first touch and last touch attribution, and then of course looking at Google Analytics or whatever analytics you use, these are all good approaches. But the right answer to where my customers are coming from is almost never word-of-mouth.
Word-of-mouth is a component. I remember with Drip, word-of-mouth as far as we could measure it was 15%, 20%, 25% depending on how you measure it. Word-of-mouth is when someone else mentions me on a podcast or is that podcast marketing, it’d be that kind of stuff. But it was somewhere in the teens to the twenties of growth and that’s great.
Once you get to the seven figures of revenue, you build this thing that Jason Lemkin calls a mini brand, were not a brand like Coca-Cola or Chevrolet, but you are a small brand in a small niche and the conversation goes from marketing automation to Infusionsoft and Ontraport. When we started Drip, that’s what it was. Infusionsoft and Ontraport, and I wanted to be the third. I wanted it to be Infusionsoft, Ontraport, and Drip. Then quickly, Ontraport went on its way out it seemed then it was Infusionsoft, ActiveCampaign, and Drip, and those were the three.
We built this mini brand and yes, did we have word-of-mouth? Absolutely. Did we have a mini brand? Absolutely. But I knew that 30% of our new users came from integrations. I knew that X% came from organic search traffic. I knew that X% come from the podcasts that I was on. You can always pinpoint it but while you can build good word-of-mouth, it’s often less than you think it is. Just be wary.
If you don’t know where your customers are coming from, that’s something you’ll see me push my table on often. Where they’re coming from, how you can find more of them, because if you don’t know where they’re coming from, it’s just people referring to one another, your growth will always be capped. It will be capped at the rate that people will tell one another about them. This is different from affiliate marketing. I’m not going down that whole thing. I don’t consider that word-of-mouth because it tends to be very intentional when that works.
The second thing about marketing and then I’ll move on to managing developers. My second thought here is (and this may be obvious to you) to some folks whom I’ve talked to, it’s not, so I’ll just say it and move on. It’s not that big of a deal. Transparency in the startup space is mostly about marketing. Most transparency, I’d say 90% maybe 95%, is just spreading the word so that people will talk about them and that’s okay. Marketing is fine, but I don’t have a problem with marketing. I have a problem with disingenuous marketing in all honesty.
When a big name, huge affiliate marketer, blogger, podcaster that we all know always says yes, I have affiliate commissions but doesn’t talk about how most of the products that he promotes, he gets shares in the company. He has an ownership stake in the company, but you never hear him disclose that. That to me is disingenuous and I don’t like that kind of stuff.
I feel the same way about transparency and I don’t know that people realize that again, I would say 9 out of 10, or 19 out of 20 folks doing transparency are doing it to spread the word for marketing or to brag. I think there’s a lot of bragging about how much money I made, look at me, or frankly to get attention for a personal brand so they can sell you something like a course.
Again, I don’t think this is bad on its own. Just think about this the next time you see a company being transparent with all the good things that happen to them. It can be a range of things. It’s whether having all your revenue dashboard public or whether it’s publishing all your salaries or your internal thought processes or income, whatever. There’s a bunch of ways to be transparent. You just really think about why this person is doing it. Are they doing it to help you or are they doing it to draw attention to themselves?
As savvy consumers of a lot of things in 2020, I do think we need to be aware of whose advertising to us, whose marketing to us, what the messages are, and what the thoughts are behind it. Whether it’s Apple putting a billboard up or whether it’s a commercial, you got to teach your kids how to interpret commercials and say, “Wow, the toys aren’t actually going to be that fun. It looks fun because the kids on there are making it look fun but really once you get it home, it’s going to be kind of boring.” Same thing with transparency. Just know the thought process behind it and be aware of that.
Again, I’m not saying no one should be transparent. I’m not saying it’s a terrible thing and I’m not saying that marketing is bad. To be really clear, just know what’s going on behind a lot of the transparency that you see.
Last topic for today, it’s on managing developers and this one comes from I think only two conversations maybe three that I’ve had during my career and it’s typically what it’s always been when I worked at a larger organization. My advice is don’t try to quantify software development. Software development is a craft. Software development is not manufacturing.
The difference is building really good software, you need crafts people and you can’t do this by building an assembly line. You can build […] software by building an assembly line. You can build a car on a manufacturing line, but it’s much harder to build an amazingly intricate piece of art or a piece of furniture on an assembly line. That takes a craftsperson. There’s just a certain element of creativity and craft that you need and software development can be either.
It can be manufacturing, but good software development is a craft and what I’ve seen manufacturing lines at big companies of 20, 30, 40 developers and they want to quantify stuff like lines of code written, bugs fixed, that’s when you go down this line of (a) building crappy software, and (b) all your good developers are going to leave.
This really comes up when I’m talking to someone who has never written code or who has actually just wasn’t a developer. They were managers and they could quantify at a high level the support team, it’s ticket resolved and time to answer the ticket and the happiness of the customer. They can look at sales and they can say leads talk to, close time, and how much money they brought in. Then they will look at the development and they will say I want to do the same thing there.
I always told them that doesn’t work. There’s no number. There’s no set of numbers. No, we can look at some OKRs and KPIs, two acronyms that I despise and hopefully I never have to use them at another company again, but we can put some things down and we’re shipping features. What’s our velocity? There are ways to quantify this.
There are agile development and sprints, and all this stuff. Yes, it’s cool. It’s good and we can have estimates and try to hit them. Yes, I believe all that. But to purely try to quantify things like I’ve seen people try to do, it doesn’t work in a way that you wanted to, and it backfires, and you’re going to lose your best developers. If you want to build A+ or A software, you need really good developers and you need to treat it like a craft.
If you want to build C- or D+ software, then that’s fine treat it like manufacturing. It really is this thought of how we can not treat every department as if it were an MBA, that we got a degree and we think we can middle manage all the departments because software development is not the same as customer support.
Those are my thoughts for today. You might think of them as if I was blogging. That would have been the last six months of blog posts and instead of condensed them into audio format, hopefully, you get some nuggets of wisdom out of these thoughts that I’ve been having over the past several months.
I’ll be back next Tuesday morning with another episode of Startups for the Rest of Us. As always, if you have thoughts or feedback, you can head up to startupsfortherestofus.com. Post a comment on each episode. I read all the comments or you can tweet me at @robwalling. Thank you for listening this week. I’ll see you next time.
10 years to the day….Startups For The Rest Of Us was born. In this episode Rob reflects back on he and Mike Taber starting the podcast all those years ago and the journey its been. This episode includes a 5 minute play of the very first episode of the podcast.
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In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob reflects back on his goals of 2019 and shares some lessons that are broadly applicable to founders/entrepreneurs. He also shares how he “unplugged” from the internet/devices while on a recent vacation with his family and the benefits he experienced.
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Hey, welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us. I’m your host, Rob Walling. This is episode 478 and I’m going to fly solo today. Here I sit, just a couple of days after the New Year. I just had a ton of reflection, it’s really interesting.
I’m going to cover a couple of things today. I want to talk a little bit about unplugging, based on recent experience that I had going to the Dominican Republic with my family. It was my first time there. I unplugged, we unplugged for half of the trip. It was four days with no wifi and no Internet at all. I want to talk a little bit about that experience and the impact that it had on me, something that I want to make a habit of in this coming year.
I also want to revisit my 2019 goals. I know often around this time of the year, Mike and I revisit our prior year goals and we look ahead at the next year’s. I’m not going to do something nearly so formal, but I did want to talk through quickly, some of the goals that I had set for 2019. I have some other reflections on 2019, some lessons that I learned, that I think are pretty broadly applicable to founders and people doing hard things, ambitious folks trying to build something that is difficult.
If nothing else, I hope that you leave this episode with a sense that we’re all going through the same thing, we all experience these same thoughts, and experiences are very similar ones as we do these. It’s this feeling of, “Wow, I’m not moving fast as I want,” or, “I’m not very good at this,” or, “This is scary and I don’t really want to do this anymore. How am I going to fix this?” that type of thing. As I reflected back on stuff that’s happened over the past 12 months, it has been an absolute whirlwind. I want to talk through some of that today.
To start, over Christmas and New Years, I spent eight days in the Dominican Republic with my family. As I said, I had bever been, my kids had never been, but Sherry had, either spoken in an event or been in a retreat there earlier last year. She booked eight days for us and the later half of that was completely off the grid.
It was scary at first. I will admit. It’s weird, I’m not on Twitter and Facebook all the time, and I’m not in Slack all the time. I don’t need that constant dopamine rush of an app giving me feedback. It’s just not how I’m built. I shouldn’t say that’s not how I’m built because I have been there at times, but I’ve been very deliberate about not allowing myself to fall into that trap. Yet, I found myself frequently thinking of something, wanting to just know the answer right then, and wanting to Google it. Realizing, “Oh, I want to listen to that book,” going to Audible and not being able to download it. It was this slow grind on me, this realization of how reliant I am on external inputs.
I’ve always consumed a lot of media, typically reading books, listening to books, listening to podcasts. I do that because it gives me new ideas and fresh perspectives that allows me to view my day-to-day job in a different way, but it also allows me to come on this show and not say the same things over and over, to have an evolving perspective.
What I also realized is if anything, I consume a bit too much. Even though I feel I have a pretty good balance of consumption in production, in producing things, podcasts, conferences, accelerator or whatever, I realized during this four-day Internet fast that my mind wandered in glorious ways. I got so deep into topics that I just wouldn’t have stumbled upon, how I not had this time.
This wasn’t a retreat. I’d like to take a retreat once a year, maybe twice a year if I really need it. Typically, it’s a once a year cadence where I ask questions, then I sit down and write stuff. This was and that. I was with the family, I was not asking specific questions, I was really casually moving from one topic to the next, and it led to some real ground breaking insights, to some problems, or just issues that MicroConf expansion over the next 12-18 months, has a lot of logistics and a lot of things that we’re thinking about. How can we do this well? How can we make this better? I just had a lot of thoughts on it that didn’t have the space to come out in my day-to-day and creative ideas bring seemingly from nowhere, but they weren’t from nowhere. It’s all the thinking, the note taking, and just the 10,000 hours of going through this process. I think it was a real reminder for me to do this more often.
As I said, I only want to do a retreat every year or so. I actually think I want to do this off the grid thing quarterly. I feel like I could do it once a month, in all honesty. It was calming and soothing to just go away, turn off the Internet, and think about things. You can tell it rock my world, so that’s something that I want to try to do in 2020, is do this off the grid.
Bill Gates used to call it “think weeks” and I think he only did it once a year, but I wouldn’t necessarily go out with the intent of reading a bunch of books and synthesizing information. It really is, what are the broader issues at hand that I want to think about, but it’s also just let your mind wander almost in a meditative state, let the issues show themselves, let the thought show themselves, and let these creative insights come. That was a bigger realization for me.
If you already do that, I’m impressed. If you have never done this, obviously, it’s easier said than done given how busy all of our schedules are. It was pretty eye-opening to me, it is something that I believe is a practice that I am lacking in and I want to do better. That was unplugging.
Second topic I want to cover are goals that I had set for 2019. Really, I had four goals that I had set about. The first was exercise two or three times a week. I mostly achieved that. I was way ahead of it for a while. Once winter came, travel got in the way. I have absolutely fallen off the wagon. I feel that’s mostly a thumbs up-ish for me and it’s something that I need to keep doing especially as I get older. My birthday was just five day ago, so I’m another year older and I need to keep thinking about it.
I hate exercise. I just don’t want it. I never liked it. I was always an athlete in highschool and college, so I didn’t need to exercise, because that’s just what I did. It was built into this routine of, you go in your practice for two hours and you’re in this amazing shape, but that where I’m at. I have to set this goal for myself, otherwise, I don’t do it. That was number one.
Second one was to continue pushing TinySeed forward. It was to get the first batch chosen. It was to get the first batch to have a noticeable impact on their growth and not just me, obviously, but the program itself, the mentors. To make TinySeed essentially the preeminent accelerator for bootstrapper and for folks who don’t want to shoot the moon and who want to build this ambitious yet sane stuff for startups. I feel like that is on, or ahead of schedule with everything that I had envisioned and spoken with my co-founder, Einar. That feels like a win to me.
At this point, things are continuing to roll and frankly accelerating, both with TinySeed and the applications for batch two. We had a lot more folks with revenue, we had a lot more folks with tractions in the second application process. With MicroConf expansion, the way the podcast has continued, even though Mike has taken a step back, a lot of things are hitting on all cylinders. It hasn’t been easy and I’ll get into that a little later in this episode, but in taking stock on what happened in 2019, I’m pinching myself a little bit.
It’s interesting. I got an email last night actually and it was from Squarespace. It said, “Hey, your website, tinyseed.com is about to renew on the annual plan.” I emailed Einar and I said, “It was only a year ago that we started our first application process and that we had a website.” Before that, we did a landing page or something for a couple of months prior, but that’s it. It feels like it’s been two or three years based on how fast things have moved and how ambitious we’ve been with it, but how things have come together.
Not everything comes together, that’s for sure, but there was so much work to be done when this Squarespace site went live and we started taking applications. It’s that sense of we didn’t have a bunch of systems in place. We didn’t have much of employees. We didn’t have a bunch of funding. It was the two of us and we are raising enough money to trying to do the first batch. We didn’t have an amazing application process. It was a Google form that fed into a Google Sheet, that when people ask, “Hey, I’d love to get a confirmation email.” I sat and thought, am I going to write some code to make it to this? Am I going to have to go back and hack PHP, or learn Ruby to make it do this?
Of course, I remembered Zapier monitoring Google Doc and say, “That was it, it was just gum and bailing wire, and you’re just trying to keep it together,” but the outward appearance was not that. The fact that I was sifting through 880 something rows in a Google Sheet, trying to sort things, interview people, and doing 70 something calls, it’s the image of that duck that’s on the water. From above, it looks calm, but underneath you’re just paddling like crazy. This is as much as startup is as anything I’ve ever done in terms of the uncertainty and just the scrappiness that you have to do.
In that startup life, I used to work with a guy who would say, “In startup world, a week is a month, a month is a quarter, a quarter is like a year, because you’re moving so fast.” That’s been a big reflection of me. I think something I’m pleased about with 2019 is, I don’t work a ton of hours. I don’t work 50-hour weeks. I work normal work weeks. I take time off to reflect, and I feel like that.
My advice to you if you’re not already thinking this way is that’s how you play long ball. That’s how you do this for 15 or 20 years because being an entrepreneur is very, very hard. As we know, it’s extremely stressful. If you work this 50–60 hour weeks, you can do it for a short period of time, but over time, it degrades your ability to produce. Anyway, that’s the reflection on TinySeed. I’m going to talk a little bit more about MicroConf in the podcast in a couple of minutes.
My third goal was to not not freak out when the stock market crashed in 2019. That just didn’t it happen. That was more of a prediction than anything. I’m not sure if that was actually a goal.
The last goal that I completely failed on was to write, or re-write a book. That one has been on my list for years and it’s always been a Plan B, that if I have time, I really want to re-write Start Small, Stay Small. I still get a lot of emails about it. It’s still 90% applicable, but it’s dated. Some of the links don’t work and there’s just certain tactics that don’t work. I’m at the point where I kind of throw my hands up, like is this something I think I can pull off in the next year? I just don’t know. I need to get more thoughts to doing that.
The interesting thing for me is my day-to-day work, not my personal life, but work life has really come down to three things: MicroConf, this podcast, and TinySeed. I’ve already talked a bit about TinySeed and what we did last year. A question I get (actually often) is, “How do you get so much done or how do you run all three of these things? They seemed very time consuming.” It’s often hard. I’ll answer, “Well, I have a Trello board and I have a process, all these and all that,” and that’s part of it, being efficient, being fast with email, and delegating all these stuff.
I think the biggest thing that has saved me hundreds of hours, if not thousands, is this division of responsibilities to extremely capable people. It didn’t happen by accident, but it’s something that I’ve learned over the years. Some people get here really quickly. Some people immediately think, “I need senior project thinkers who can get things done.”
I started with a very limited budget because I was a bootstrapper, with basically no budget and a salary for my day job. I went for a work week route in 2007 and started hiring VAs, which are very task-based people. You need heavy process. That worked for that stage, so I hung on to that stage too long, that stage of task-based people.
That was really right before Drip and it wasn’t until Drip where I realized, “Wow, hiring project people, where they can handle an entire project, even if they need some training, they’re more expensive than task based, but they’re such a step-up in terms of how much you can delegate, much you can give and expect results.”
I think the next step up is a product person. Someone who isn’t just working on a project and managing that in timelines and dates because you can find a lot of project managers, but how many product people can you find? By product, I don’t mean software, I mean a podcast, if you think about it, is a product. A producer could produce it in a way that’s really at a high level. That’s better than someone who, you’re just like, “Okay, these are the dates and these are the timelines of the podcast. This is who needs to be on.”I was actually thinking about how do I make this better, how do I think ahead and add things to this.
The same thing with your software product that you’re managing. Obviously, it’s a product. The same thing with MicroConf. That’s a product if you think about it. It’s a bunch of different smaller events. Now, it’s online stuff. It’s the state of indie SaaS report and the live video stream that’s going to come along with it, the Slack channel and all of that. It’s all really product-based thinking.
While I could sit down with someone and outline, “Hey, week-to-week, month-to-month, this is what needs to happen and someone could logistically do it.” How do you find someone who’s one layer above that? As a product thinker, something with TinySeed as an accelerator. It’s a bit of a luxury, but it’s a realization I’ve had that there is no chance that MicroConf, TinySeed, and the podcast could all exist at the level that it does, without many product-based thinkers.
That started off as Einar and myself, and then Tracy joined the team to be thinking about TinySeed. It’s not just how do we run TinySeed, but it’s how do we make it better constantly and new suggestions of how do we improve this process. I talked about our application process for batch one, that was bailing wire and duct tape. When the second one came around, Tracy evaluated all these tools, just went off, and made recommendations to us. Basically made a decision to make this thing better and more manageable. It is, it’s better. We look at it as v2.0 of our whole process.
As we expand, because we’re going to fund more companies with this second batch than we did in the first, obviously, batch three, four, five will expand from there. These things have to get better. I think that the scrappiness of that initial one of just getting it done is what a lot of us founders are really good at. How can you find a person if you’re not good, I’m not great at, then putting that into writing, communicating a process, and improving upon that process constantly iterating, that’s not my strong suit. But that’s okay because you can find people, you can hire people, you can work with people who can help you with that. That’s where you’re really going to level up, is where you figure out your strengths. You double down on those and how do you backfill against your weaknesses.
Speaking of the podcast, I have to admit, I haven’t talked about this on the show. With episode 448, when Mike and I had a really intense conversation about him stepping back, focusing on Bluetick, and whether or not he should, that whole thing (again, if you haven’t listened to that) is one of the best episodes of this entire (almost) 500 episode run, in my opinion.
I was kind of scared after that because how do you take something that has been running for close to 10 years with two people, has a very defined format, we have not iterated very much on the format, and how do you reinvent it in a way that hopefully: (a) isn’t the worst, (b) isn’t just as good but is actually better, how do you do that? That’s a task that I was faced with back in that May–June time frame. It’s close to seven months now.
I’ve done some experiments. I’ve tried different show formats, Q&A with different people. Obviously, have been doing interviews but trying to do interviews in a different way than everyone else does, hot seats, there are some solo episodes like this, but there was a lot of uncertainty there for me. I certainly felt more trepidation and angst about keeping it going and I how I would do that. I was also highly motivated.
There’s this interesting thing growing up. It was not an option for me and my siblings to quit things. I don’t want to sound like the old guy who walked uphill both ways in the snow, which I did not do (I rode a bus to school), but being in school, I was one of the scholar athletes where I got straight As and also played two sports. It was just a given, that I got on the bus at 7:30 and my parents pick me up after football practice at 7:00 or 7:30. It was just 12-hour days and I never once thought this is hard, I shouldn’t do this. It was just, this is what we do as scholar athletes or as entrepreneurs. We do the hard things. I think it’s almost easier when you don’t question them. There was, of course, a certain point you can drive yourself to depression, there’s health issues, there’s a bunch of stuff.
When Mike took a step back, I never once thought, “Well, I guess we should shut the show down. I guess we should end the podcast,” because it’s just not an option to quit. Again, there are exceptions. It’s an option to quit if your startup isn’t working, you’re going bankrupt. There are things, there are ways, but in these scenarios where it’s not everything falling off a cliff, but it’s like this is hard, or this is a mental challenge, or a physical challenge, for that matter, which is what it was growing up in highschool and college. It was hard workouts, it was staying up then to try to finish homework, it was being tired a lot, that kind of stuff. Again, it’s just wasn’t an option not to do it. I think that’s a skill. That skill of hard work and the ability to not just question things, I think has served me well.
The feedback I’ve gotten on the new podcast format has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve loved the constructive feedback I have received and I’m making tweaks to the show format, the week-to-week stuff. I plan on once again continue to double down on the show in 2020. My love that I have, the freedom to experiment with things, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I love that I have the time to do it.
I know I have a limited time, given everything else, but it is in line with MicroConf and even with TinySeed, the ability to do TinySeed Tales. I wanted to do TinySeed Tales for five years, that high level of NPR production. Didn’t have the time, didn’t have the budget, and this moment is essentially was an excuse for me to do that. We are certainly looking at a season two of TinySeed Tales. Plan to keep doing that based on the feedback I received.
One more reflection on 2019 I wanted to share with you before I wrap is once again that reinforcement, that running something on autopilot or doing something for the second, third, fourth, fifth time is not that hard. But launching new things is extremely time consuming in way more than you think it’s going to be. This is the reason why I always advise people who say, “Hey, I’m going to try to launch or grow two pruducts at the same time, even two info products,” to don’t do that. Grow one, get it to a plateau, auto-pilot it as much as you can, and focus on the other, because launching two things is time consuming, it’s mentally taxing.
With MicroConf, we’ve done 19 of them, our 20th, and our 21st are here in a couple of months. We’re pretty good at them at this point. Obviously, we can always improve, but it’s not a decision point of everything of what should the format be? What should the meals be? What should the schedule be? Really, it’s a known quantity. Even if we revamp it and tweak it each year, that’s a known quantity. It isn’t as time-consuming as something that you think is going to be pretty quick. Like the example that I’m experiencing, that I just spent five hours yesterday working on, is a state of independent SaaS survey and report. I literally thought that I could hire a designer, hire a statistician, then draft a survey, and hand most of it off to be done. That has not been the case.
We are literally hundreds, hundreds of person hours into this, including the designer statistician and my time. It has been so much more of my time than I estimated or anticipated. It’s worth it. Like the results, I’m starting to see we have versions of the report now that we’re tweaking and it’s absolutely worth every minute and every dollar that we’re spending on it. But it is that reminder to me that everything is new, everything is a decision, and everything has to be thought through from square one, about how we word things, the look, the feel, how we analyze, and what assumptions we’re making. It’s just that everything is new.
That’s the same thing when you’re building a product. You don’t know what features to build next, what customer to listen to, and everything is new. You don’t know if your pricing is off, you don’t know if your messaging is off, you don’t know if your positioning is off, you don’t know if your brand is off, or all of those things is on and only one os off. It’s just so hard, there’s so many variables, so many decisions to make. This is why launching new things is time consuming, it’s mentally taxing, and it really takes a founder mentality to do it.
You can’t hand off a task that requires a founder to a project person, or oftentimes, even a really good product person has a tough time doing something from scratch. There’s this very unique skill set that takes something from zero to one, in that sense, from zero to existence. It’s really hard. I do believe it’s something that we get better at the more you do. I also think that it’s one of the hardest things that I’ve done over and over.
There’s this old marketing adage, you launch a new product to an existing audience or existing products to a new audience, but never do both at once. That means a new product to a new audience. Frankly, at some point in your career, you have to, because nobody starts out without an audience or a product and that is the hardest part. As you’re grinding it out, as you’re struggling through these decisions, the uncertainty of what you’re doing, rethinking your pricing and thinking, “Wow, everyone else has this figured out, why don’t I know what to do? Why don’t I know the right answer?” The answer is, no one else really does either.
In closing, I’m not sure if there has been a year in recent memory that I have looked forward to more than 2020. For me, personally, it’s a lot of friends. I’m enjoying the podcast, loving, doubling down on that. I’m loving the way that TinySeed is expanding and I’m super stoked, honestly, about MicroConf in the expansion. It’s just everything that I’ve been working on for 15 years has come together in a way that I don’t think I could have imagined. It makes the hard days and the set backs so much easier to fight through when you have the winds along the way and when you have good people, talented people that you really enjoy working with, and that essentially you’re constantly collaborating with to make whatever it is that you’re working on better.
With that, I’ll wrap up this episode, I wish you a prosperous, a successful, and a happy 2020. Thank you so much for being a listener of Startups for the Rest of Us for all these years. In a couple of months, we’re going to be at our 500th episode, 10 years, and it comes even before that point. It’s just a pleasure to be able to get on the mic and talk to you every week.
Thank you so much for listening. Thank you for all your support, your feedback, and your comments. I’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob talks with Jordan Gal of CartHook about his big move to stop his free trials, move to demos, and increase his prices.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Bootstrapped Web Podcast
- CartHook Pricing Change Blog Post
- Lincoln Murphy blog post about Qualification
Rob: Welcome to this week’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us. I’m your host, Rob Walling. Each week on this show, we cover topics related to building and growing ambitious yet sustainable startups.
This week’s guest is Jordan Gal. You may know him from BootstrappedWeb. Also, the founder of CartHook. In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, I talk with Jordan about what I’ve seen as one of the gutsiest price increases and sales process changes by going up market that I’ve ever seen. The quote that I’m using in the title is, “We went from hundreds of free trials to a few dozen on purpose.” This is Startups for the Rest of Us episode 476.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome in building, launching, and growing startups, whether you’ve built your fifth startup or you’re thinking about your first. I’m Rob and today with Jordan Gal, we’re here to share experiences to help you avoid the mistakes we’ve made.
It’s a great conversation today. In fact, often times I say we have many different episode formats. This one is less of an interview and it’s more of me and just letting Jordan go on this topic. He thought about it so deeply with his team. It was their realization of, “Our churn is way too high and we’re just running on this treadmill that is getting faster and faster, and the business doesn’t feel healthy. How do we fix that? It’s not one tactic. It’s not changing, making people email to cancel you. It’s not moving to annual plans. It’s not the little tactics. How do we revamp our entire sales, onboarding, pricing process, and go up market to change the nature of our business?” That’s what we’ll talk about today.
You can tell during the interview that I’m obviously impacted by it. I was impacted from the outside. I’m an angel investor in CartHook. CartHook has raised a small amount of money. It’s still very much in that bootstrap indie-funded mindset. Jordan is super capital efficient. He’s not on the constant churn to raise that Series A to Series B and go there. He hasn’t raised that institutional money that forces him to go after that. He’s very much like a Brennan Dunn […] with the RightMessage.
A lot of the other companies we hear about that are in our MicroConf community, they’re in the Startups for the Rest of Us community, they’ve raised a small amount of money to hit that escape velocity. They’re not looking to unicorn or bust. They’re not looking to be that one billion dollar company, necessarily. Jordan’s in that camp. I love the way he’s meticulous. He really thinks these decisions through. I really enjoyed the conversation today.
To set the stage, if you haven’t heard of Jordan, years ago he ran an ecommerce company, ecommerce business. If I recall, it was with his brother. Maybe his dad. It was like a family member. They sold that. He had a small exit there. Then, he wanted to start a SaaS or a software tools for ecommerce. He wound up starting CartHook. Originally, it was just cart abandonment emails and they’ve since stopped doing that.
They eventually got to the point where CartHook essentially replaces the checkout on Shopify. The headline of CartHook is “Maximize Conversion Rate and Grow Average Order Value Today.” They have a real competitive advantage that’s very much differentiated from a lot of the other products in the ecom space, and he’s got a lot of traction.
As we talked about during the interview, they’re doing several million dollars in ARR, which is a big deal. They’re in the 25-30 employee range. He’s really just been grinding it out for years to get there.
What I like about this conversation is I was getting investor updates and then I saw a blog post where Jordan was talking about increasing prices. That’s always such a dicey proposition. I then started chatting about it. I asked him what the thought process was and how they’ve gotten blowback. They basically led to the conversation that we have here on the podcast today.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the interview with Jordan Gal. Jordan, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Jordan: Rob, thanks very much for having me on.
Rob: It’s great to chat again. There’s a lot that we’re going to dig into today. It’s been a fascinating journey. From the outside, I have an inside seat as an investor in CartHook. I’ve watched this transformation that you’ve taken over the past year or so. I’m really fascinated to begin with that.
The nugget for this episode actually came when I saw you raised prices. You did it so well, you did it so elegantly with (I believe) almost no pushback. I read a blog post, it was a blog post that you put on the CartHook blog, and I was like, “Man, I really want to get you on the show to just talk about what the thought process was there.” There was so much more to it. It wasn’t just a price increase. There’s this whole story that were going to dig into today. You want to kick people off with letting us know where we’re headed today?
Jordan: This is a topic I’m excited to talk about, something that I’m proud of. The best way to get started is to give some context around what these decisions are, what they entail, and why we got to a point of wanting to take these bigger actions.
What I need to do is to ask everyone to go back with me for about a year. The history of our checkout product, 2017, is when we came out with it. It was very difficult, technically. It was just one challenge after another. Then, we released a version two where we made a lot of big fixes. That’s when we start to hit traction.
2018 was our big year of growth, where we 3X revenue and got to multiple millions in ARR. That was this wild ride. It was fun. I look back on that year very fondly. That’s how I always want to feel.
The holidays in ecommerce are always big, obviously. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and then the holidays. The end of 2018 for us was gangbusters. Then, January–February 2019 comes around. We start to be able to catch our breath, really look at the company, and analyze how things are going. There was one number that stood out that was a problem. It was an obvious problem and something that could not be ignored. That was churn.
In January–February 2019, we’re cruising at 12%-14% monthly churn. Ecommerce itself has high churn. There’s a reason Shopify does not disclose their churn rate because it’s much higher than other software companies. It’s partly the nature of ecommerce, the nature of the market, whatever else. Still, 12%-14% monthly is unsustainable.
On first glance, it looks like the company’s a washing machine. It’s just bringing people in, spitting them out, and that’s not going to work out for the long-term. When we started to really analyze it more deeply, what we realized is that the situation was not nearly as bad as 12%-14% looked. What was happening was that we were attracting a top tier of merchants that really fit with our product. What they were selling, the way the company was set up in terms of the number of people, how technically savvy they were, all these characteristics from revenue point of view, cultural point of view, product point of view, and so on. We really lined up with this nicely. Those customers were sticking around for the longer-term.
The issue was that we were also attracting this lower-end merchant that did not fit with our business. It didn’t fit with the software, sophistication level required, pricing, all that. That large chunk was not staying. Those customers were coming in, doing a free trial, either leaving before the free trial ended, or paying once or twice, then leaving after that. There was a real bifurcation in these two populations.
The challenge was, how do we improve the health of our business, overall? We had a few goals. Why don’t I list out a few of the goals that we came up with when we start to tackle this? We wanted to do things like take more control of our business. A lot of it felt like we were not in control. We just had a ton of word of mouth. It was just a bunch of incoming demand. That did not feel like we were really controlling who was walking into the system. We obviously needed to reduce churn significantly.
At the same time, we also wanted to increase our pricing to align with the value we provide. We hadn’t changed our pricing since we launched and we were significantly better than we had launched. Overall, the saying that we came up with was “fewer, more qualified merchants.” That was our goal. To work with fewer merchants that were much better fit and much bigger overall. Those were the goals.
The way we did it was changing two big things. We changed our pricing and we changed our process. You started off this conversation talking about a pricing change. From the outside, it really looks like a pricing change. In reality, it’s more of a process change like a sales process, like how we bring people onboard. The pricing change served that larger process change.
Rob: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I have a couple of questions for you. You used this phrase, “To take control of our business.” You touched on that a little bit, but is it that you’re controlling who comes through the gate such that you only deal with customers that you deemed are nice or that are qualified? Or is it taking control? Are there any other aspects to that?
Jordan: There are a lot of different aspects to it. What’s happened over the past years as I have gone further away from the frontlines and from the customer interactions, is I have become shielded from the kinetic activity, actually talking and rubbing up against customers on a daily basis. I don’t feel that nearly as much as when I started to.
The anecdote I give was I had a conversation with our support team. I asked them, “What percentage of your work is for people who are in trial that won’t convert or people that have converted but are only going to stick around for a month or two?” They looked at me and said, “Probably 80%.” To me that sounded horrible. I’m setting up my employees to run on a treadmill at a very high rate of speed and looking at them saying, “How do we increase the speed?” That’s not a recipe for a happy employee.
What I mean by taking control over our business, it wasn’t just like this external-facing, “We only want to work with big merchants.” It was also, “This feels like a mess internally.” We’re doing an enormous amount of work for people that don’t fit. The reason we’re doing it is because they just walked in the door on their own and create a free trial. All of a sudden, we are forced to engage with them. It’s definitely unexpected that one of the biggest problems in our business is how to limit the number of people using the product. That’s not what I expected. I expected, how do I beg people to use our product and make them successful with it? That was a reality.
Rob: Yeah. You’re in a unique position, for sure, to be able to do this. There is no model for this. I’ve heard of apps going up market or changing. Drip went from generally as […] to focus on ecommerce. Obviously, that drove some people away in terms of that pivot or that focusing. There’s a model for that.
While you are going up market, you did it in a different way. You didn’t just raised prices. As you said, pricing is one piece of it. That’s where Ifind this whole decision and process super gutsy. It feels risky to me hearing about it. Did it feel that risky to you upfront? Were you just like, “No, I know this is going to work”? Or were you like, “Oh my gosh, this could completely tank a lot of things”?
Jordan: There was definitely a lot of fear. We’ll get into a bit of the math around what helped me overcome the fear was just being very objective in the math and saying, “No. This isn’t going to work out. Even if it’s not very successful, it’s still going to work out on the math and finances.” All of this comes back to the finances. If we had raised $8 million in a Series A, we would be trying to gather as much of the market as possible. That’s not what we’re doing. We raised a little bit of money. We want a healthy, profitable company.
If you want healthy and profitable, then you need to live within your means. The reality of our situation, just taking on as many customers as possible, was not leading to that outcome. It had churn way too high. The amount of work that was happening internally was too high for customers that didn’t make sense. That’s what helped us come to the conclusion of, “Okay, I’m going to take a risk, and we’re going to gather the forces. Let’s get into what we did.”
Rob: Jordan, I want to interrupt you real quickly. When you say it wasn’t working for you, I know that CartHook is doing several million in ARR. It was working to a certain extent, but was it really the churn? That double digit churn that wasn’t working for you?
Jordan: Yes. It’s all relative. Yes, I really shouldn’t be complaining. It is working to a degree because the revenue is where it is and all these. That’s from the outside perspective. From the inside perspective, sitting in my shoes, I have to acknowledge what’s good and what’s bad. Just because I can say we’re at several million in ARR does not mean everything is good. I was fine with that. A lot of this role is holding two things in your head at the same time that are completely in conflict with one another. That’s just the way it is.
The truth is, it wasn’t working for us in a sense that I didn’t like the way the future looked. There’s a straightforward formula that everyone can Google. I don’t remember exactly what it is. It basically tells you what your maximum revenue is. Given your growth and your churn, this is the maximum that you will reach. It will not go beyond that because that’s how math works. You will get to a point where a 12% of your revenue equals the amount of growth your getting, and then you’ll stay there forever, mathematically.
I looked at that and that wasn’t that far off on the horizon based on where we were currently. We still had room. We still had another 100+ MRR to get to that point but I felt that we need to move on this now before we hit that and then all of a sudden everything hits a wall. That’s what led into it.
Now, let’s get to the first big part of the decision. The first big part of the decision was on July 1st, 2019. We are doing two big things. We are shutting down the ability to create a self-serve free trial and we are changing pricing. Two massive things at the same time. A lot of complexity came out of that because when you do that, you don’t want to just do it quietly and not say anything. You do have to acknowledge it with your existing customers because they’re going to ask, “Hey. I noticed you changed your pricing. Does that mean that my price is going to change?” There’s a lot of communication with the existing customer base that went along with the changes that were intended for the non-existing customer base.
Rob: Yeah. I find that’s a good moment where, certainly, if you are going to raise prices on your existing customers, whether you grandfather them 6 months or 12 months or whether you don’t—there’s a whole conversation; we’ll probably going to get into around that—or if you’re not going to raise on them at all, it’s still a good time to get in touch. If you’re not going to raise on them right now or in the future, then you’ll let them know that. “Hey folks, we just raised the prices. We’re not going to do that for you. We’re going to grandfather you for now.” It’s a nice way.
If you aren’t going to grandfather them, it’s a perfect time to get in touch and say, “Hey, by the way, we’re going to grandfather you for a certain amount of time, but then change it up later and here’s why,” and give the whole defense or the reasoning behind it.
Jordan: That’s right. Now, for our situation, we did want to raise prices on existing customers. That’s a complicated thing because people are not used to that.
Rob: Yeah. I was going to ask. There is obviously a debate in the SaaS space. Every founder has their own opinions about it. It’s like, “I heard people say…” You know I’m not a fan of absolutes, right? So I hate it when you say, “You should always grandfather. You should never grandfather. You should blah-blah-blah.” I don’t think that’s the correct way to think about pretty much any of this.
I think there’s something in between and there’s a spectrum. I’ve often thought, “Hey. There are reasons to not grandfather, especially if you can communicate those reasons well in a letter, a blog post, or an email to your audience. If it makes sense to them and if it’s the right thing for your business, then these are the times when I would think about doing it.
I know that had been a hard decision. Grandfather for a period of time is what you ended up doing. Talk me through that.
Jordan: Yes, it was a hard decision and an easy decision at the same time. The math of it was very straightforward, that we would be foolish not to change pricing on existing customers. Here’s why. When we started the business, we didn’t have a full understanding of exactly how our business work from a financial metrics point of view. We thought we were on the software business, where we license our software to people to pay a monthly subscription fee to have access to the software. It’s a traditional SaaS.
The reason we thought that was because that’s what we had in our hands at that time. “Here’s the software. You can use it.” What we didn’t realize was the significance of the payment processing that we would be doing. We do significant payment processing. Hundreds of millions of dollars annually. We did not factor that into the business model. That resulted in our very heavily underutilizing our GMV (Gross Merchandise Value), the total amount of money being processed into our system. We were not monetizing our GMV.
If you look at, for example, Shopify, at scale, they make 50% of their money, $400 million annually around monetizing their GMV. That’s somewhere around $28 billion worth of GMV in total. They’re out over a basis a point. Over 1% of their GMV turns into revenue for them. $400 milion on $20 billion is 1.2 or so basis points.
We were well below that. Our pricing was 0.1%, a tenth of a percent. Shopify was making 10X what we were making on a monetizing GMV perspective. We didn’t realize that when we first started the business. Where we ended up was grandfathering pricing for existing customers on the subscription fee. If you pay $100 a month, $300 a month, $400 a month, or whatever that is, that will stay that way forever. On the GMV that you’re processing through our system, we move it up from 0.1% to our new pricing of 0.5%. It is a 5X but still very much in line with our competition, with Shopify, and with the market overall.
What we had to back it up was our software had just gotten so much better. It’s tough to describe how much better—how bad it was to begin with and how much better it is now. What we did is we put ourselves in their shoes and we said, “If I were a merchant and I had been with CartHook for a year, I had been around when it sucked, now it’s better and I’m happier, but I stuck with you guys this way, how would we want to be treated in that situation?”
What we decided to do was write that blog post that you alluded to earlier, that we should link up, because that was a very complicated blog post to write, and then make a promise that we thought was fair. That promise was, this is the new pricing for everybody, for new merchants. You will be grandfathered into your subscription price forever but your transaction fees will go up. However, we will let you go through the entire holiday, Black Friday season of 2019, and the price increase will only go into effect in January of 2020.
Basically saying, we’re not going to be bastards and raise the prices right before the holidays to maximize the amount of money we can make off you and you have no choice because you’re already using the system. We said, “No. We’re going to forego that revenue because that’s the right thing to do. But we will be raising it after the holiday’s over in January.” That makes sense?
Rob: Absolutely does. The thing I’m fascinated to hear is how did it go over? How many positive, negative comments? What was your sense of what your customer base responded with?
Jordan: The truth is we’re in the middle of it now. We’re halfway through. We sent out an initial email in July. Two weeks ago, we sent out another email. What we sent in July along with the blog post was, “Between now and January 2020, we have six months to earn that price increase in your eyes. Here’s what we’re planning on adding to the product and this is part of the justification of the price going up.”
What we’ve been very conscious of internally and from a product and prioritization point of view is that’s coming due. We will need to send an email to all those existing customers telling them that the price is going up next month and, “This is what we promised you and this is what we’ve accomplished.” We have an internal list of, “These are the things that are worth noting in that email that we can say these are significant improvements and significant additions that helped to justify the price increase.”
When we first sent it out in July, we heard nothing. Just no negative reactions. A few emails about clarification, a few questions, and then all good. That tells me that it went over pretty well and that a lot of people didn’t read it. That’s the reality of it.
Now, things are ramping up. We communicated again two weeks ago saying, “Hey, just as a reminder. In January 2020, your pricing is going to change. We will get back in touch in December before that happens to make sure that you are fully aware.” That communication started to cause a little bit more of a pushback. A lot of it was our fault because we communicated what the pricing change was. What we really should have done is personalize it.
“Last month, you did X and paid Y. In January, if you do the same X, then your pricing will be Z.” We should have laid that out more specifically and we didn’t. Because we didn’t, people started doing math themselves. If you do the math emotionally, you’ll get the wrong answer. We had a lot of emails back and forth just clarifying, “Look, it’s not going up 10X. Here’s the change for you.”
On the positive side, what it has also done is it has armed us with a bargaining chip with larger merchants. If you’re a large merchant and you’re processing $2 million a month in our system, and you don’t want to go from 0.1% to 0.5%, then let’s have a conversation to make sure you don’t go all the way up to 0.5%. Let’s set something up that makes sense, maybe get you in a 12 month contract. Let’s partner on this and do it the right way.
It has helped us get a lot of our larger merchants talking about pricing and moving toward annual contracts in order to lock down a predictable cost for them as opposed to something that’s variable.
Rob: There’s a number of things that I won’t even pull out of that because it’s the right way to think about it. It’s very smart, but one of the things you said was, “Let’s think about it from their perspective.” I imagined that that sentence, that phrase was uttered many, many times in your office when you were trying to make this decision. You thought it through. You and your team thought it through to the extent of some people could say if they were your customer, it would be a little outrageous. I could come out and say, “You 5X-ed my pricing. Even though technically I know I’m still grandfathered in the monthly, but 0.1 to 0.5 is a 5X. I’m going to come on and be outraged.” The fact that people didn’t do that indicates that you had (a) a case. You had justification. And (b) you communicated that in a way that made people feel comfortable. You weren’t screwing them.
Jordan: Yeah. It was not abstract. It was very real. It was, “How is […] from Native Deodorant going to react to this exact email that we’re about to send?” We’ve gotten to know these people over time. We worked for them in a long time. How is this specific person at this company going to take this? Are they going to go write to the Facebook page? Are they going to email us? Are they going to ask us for clarification? Are they going to want to get on the call?
Everything in that communication was based around real reactions. It was a lot of, “We’re here to talk about this. Here’s a Calend.ly link to set up a call with somebody if you want to talk about it.” It was thought through that way.
Rob: That’s the power of being a founder or a CEO who’s in touch with your customer base. Even at several million ARR and at 25-30 employees, you still know a bunch of customers by name. Not only do you know them by name, you know how they’re probably going to react to an email. You think it through deep. The best founders, best CEO that I see doing this, doing hard things and not pissing their customer base off, are the ones who are in touch with them. That’s a big key to this.
Jordan: Yeah and that’s gotten harder. I would say that it shifted away from my responsibility being super aware with these specific merchants, their personalities and relationships, and more just understanding that that’s important. And then, looking at my success team and saying, “Okay. Let’s think about these people. What’s your opinion on how’s this person is going to react?” Just knowing that that is a key thing to keep in mind is now more important than actually knowing and understanding the relationships themselves.
The conversations we’re having internally here is I’m asking my leadership, the people who are in these communications, in these difficult email threads of, “Does this make sense?” “Should I leave?” “You guys are being greedy.” These really difficult email conversations. What I have to do is I have to ask them to put two hats on. “Here’s your empathy hat for when you’re talking to people and we wanted the right thing by them.”
Then, I’m also going to ask you to switch hats, come to the conference room with me, and look at the spreadsheet that says, “When we make these changes, if 30% of our customers leave, and that still results to adding $100,000 to MRR, can you acknowledge that? Do you think 30% of our customers are really going to leave?” The answer is no. Can you carry both those things at the same time? Can you be very empathetic to people and make sure we’re doing right by them?
At the same time, acknowledging if someone leaves, we have to be able to accept that because the math will work out for us. That sets us up to be a healthier company, hire the people we need, and then get a bigger office that we need. We have to have that as part of the goal. It’s not just about what the customers want. It’s also about our business. It’s both together.
Rob: And that makes a lot of sense. That’s a big reason that you did have success with this. What’s next?
Jordan: That’s really the pricing change. Our existing customers, we had to communicate with them. That’s not done, but it’s going in the right direction. Now, the bigger change is the process. Making the switch from self-serve free trials to an application process with demos was the harder call. That was the scarier thing because we started getting good, we started getting to the hundreds of free trials every month. Then, you’re taking that flow of potential revenue and you literally just shut it down 100%. We took a faucet that was all the way opened and we closed it all the way. Now, people could not create a free trial unless we sent them a link to create a free trial. We shut the faucet all the way down.
We went from hundreds of free trials a month to a few dozen. That’s where it got scary because if you think about the nature of churn, it carries on for a few months. If we have this messy washing machine of merchants that don’t fit and only pay for one or two or three months, then they leave, when you shut down free trials, you are now going to hurt yourself both ways. You’re not going to be getting new customers and the customers from the past 90 days are still going to be churning.
It was like, “Alright guys, our revenue is about to go down. Everyone be okay with it. We’re going to keep calm. We’ve had this amazing run of growth. Everything’s going up. Now, we are purposely just going to chop off 10%-50% of our revenue over a 90 day span and we’re just going to be okay with that.” That expectation setting was super important so nobody freak out because I saw what was going to happen. We’re going to go from a few hundred to a few dozen and then the churn is going to continue on.
Rob: That’s really important to point out that, (a) you called that out to your team in advance, but (b) most people who have never run an app, where you have big waves of customers coming in and a lot of trials, if you shut that off, it’s exactly what you said. It’s like this huge wave. The churn is going to crash but it never crashes because your trials bolster it. It just keeps going up, and up, and up. But the moment I’ve had a couple apps where we had hiccups, whether it was suddenly Google downgraded us, the ads stopped working, whatever it is, our trials plummeted.
It wasn’t just, “Oh. We didn’t grow that month because we didn’t have as many trials.” It is devastating because oftentimes, your first 60 or first 90 day churn is way, way higher than your 90 day to infinity day churn. That’s the part that just crashes. If you don’t keep that constant influx top of funnel, it can be devastating. Like you said, 10%-15%, 20%-30%, I’ve seen with smaller apps. It’s painful if you’re not aware, if you don’t look at the math in advance.
Jordan: Yes. This […] back to what you’ve mentioned a few minutes ago, where I should be happy because things are going well. I knew internally that this is what was happening, that the trials were just keeping it afloat. The trial’s just kept overwhelming the churn. If anything happened at all to the trials coming in, then we’ll be exposed. Making this move was like, “Let’s do that on our terms instead of someone else’s terms.”
It’s also why we did it in the middle of the year, July 1st, literally right in the middle of the year, well in advance of the holidays so that we would have our act together now. That’s what happened. We completely stopped free trials and the churn kept going for 90 days. That hurt, but the benefits were amazing and immediate.
July 1st comes in and we just shut it down. You can’t see a free trial on our site. It’s apply for a demo. That terminology was super important to me. It was not “request” a demo, it was “apply.” It was a position of power. This is really good. You’ve heard about it. You’ve heard about the success people have with it. If you want it, you need to apply. We soft pedaled it on the site.
We’re not like, “Apply here to see if you’re good enough for us.” That sucks. That’s not good positioning. It was really, “Apply to see if we’re a fit.” People are like, “That’s […]. You’re basically just saying that we’re not good enough if you only want to work with successful merchants. We’re up and coming. You don’t want to work with us because we’re not big enough. That’s not cool.” In reality, it was much closer to, “Let’s make sure we’re a fit.” Think about all the things we’ve been talking about. It’s not just, “Do you make enough money?”
I read Lincoln Murphy’s blog post about qualification. He had a great write-up about the different types of qualification, where it’s strategic, cultural, financial, all these different things that are in line. We have some merchants that makes $1,000,000 a month, but we absolutely cannot stand working with them. That has now become a factor in the qualification.
Now, we have an actual pipeline. That sales process that was happening inside the product and a few interactions with support is now happening with people, with an application that people fill out, then every morning the success team comes in and either denies or accepts the application. Right now, we’re denying roughly 50% of the applications. We’re just saying, “It does not make sense for you to work with us. Here’s a link to our competitor that might make more sense for you.” We literally linked to the competitor in that rejection email.
Rob: That’s crazy. It’s such an unorthodox approach. It’s the Velvet Rope Policy. It’s just letting in exactly who you want. As we’ve said, it’s a luxury. Most apps needs all the trials they can get. You hit a certain point where that made sense, but I do think that more companies should think about doing this once they hit that point.
Jordan: When I spoke to other founders about this, I got the sense that people were like, “Can you do that? Is that okay?” To me it felt like, “That’s what I think we should do. It felt very strange to be like a slave to the fact that people want to use it, therefore we have no choice but to let them. What? That doesn’t make sense.”
Rob: I’ll tell you what, it’s way better to do it upfront than to let people in. Whether it’s just people aren’t qualified or they’re the toxic types of customers that you can identify pretty early on that you’re like, “Oh boy. This person’s never going to be happy with anything. They’re just going to rag on my staff the whole time. They’re going to Twitter the moment we don’t answer their email in four minutes.” If you can get them upfront, identify them that way, and not have to fire customers who’ve been with you for two or three months who are a pain in the ass (which all of us have to do, it sucks), for that alone, this is pretty valuable.
Jordan: Yes. We call them category four. We have category one, the best of the best direct-to-consumer brands that we recognize. We’d love to work with them, absolutely get them in, let’s give them the white-glove treatment. We have a category two that are a good fit. We have category three that are not quite there yet, it’s on the bubble. It’s the success team’s call whether or not they should come in or not. And we have category four that are jerks. It doesn’t matter how much revenue they make. If they’re just going to make us miserable, they just don’t get in.
Rob: Yeah. Isn’t that a hurricane category one?
Jordan: Yes. Think about what this has done internally. A few things that it has done. First is establish an actual sales pipeline that we can optimize. What we did there is first, we took a stab at what we think the pipeline actually looks like. Think about the different stages. We get a demo whether they get approved. They get the link to set-up a time to talk. Then, they get the link to sign up after that. Then, they create a free trial. Then, they’re launched and have a processed revenue. And then, they’re into the conversion piece of it.
Before, we didn’t have those steps. It was just a free trial and then hope the product does its job. Now, what we did is we set up the pipeline and those steps. We have in HubSpot, but I got a good recommendation from someone (I can’t remember exactly who) to put it up on the wall. I’ve got a bunch of index cards, we’ve got a bunch of markers, and we’ve got these tacky stuff that sticks to the wall. We created the categories as columns on our wall. Each prospect got an index card with their name on it and we would physically move the index card from stage to stage. It was just mimicking HubSpot. You would move in the HubSpot, you’d go to the wall, and you’d move it from one column to the next.
What that did is it showed the entire company in visual, physical format, what was happening with our sales pipeline, instead of just, “I don’t know. We have a few hundred trials.” The second thing it did is it was a dead obvious way to see where the friction was. The friction is the columns that have the most people, pretty simple. What it tells us is that stage in the pipeline is where we have a lot of friction, and that’s where we need to get the communications and marketing teams to create content.
Now, what does the success team need in order to help merchants get from that column to the next column and then start creating content, videos, support docs, to help people through that, so that the success team could provide those and the merchants can also get on their own?
We did it for three months or so. We’ve since taken it down. It’s no longer useful as it was in the beginning. At first, we made the switch. It just had this amazing impact. I have a bell on my desk. When someone became a paying customer, I would hit the bell. It was like this visceral experience for people. We’re not a company that just answers emails. We’re doing something specific. We’re finding people, identifying who the right people are, moving through this pipeline, and getting them to success.
Rob: I love that idea, the visual nature of it. Just seeing cards, it must be obvious visually and just be an amazing queue for you guys. That’s really cool.
Jordan: Yeah. They were just a very large vertical stack of prospects that didn’t go from, let’s say, approved but didn’t schedule the actual appointment to do the demo. Okay, we need to be better at that. An obvious one was also like they’ve created a trial, but they’re not processing revenue yet. They need to get over the hump of actually using the product.
One thing I did mentioned earlier on the pricing is that not only did we remove self-served free trials but we removed free trials entirely. We asked for the first $500 upfront at the time of sign-up that we have a 30-day money back guarantee instead of the free trial. It’s all toward the same type of positioning of, “Let’s make sure that you’re a good fit. Once we know that you’re a good fit, then you commit to us. We’re committing to you. You commit to us. Let’s do this together.”
Rob: Yeah. When you look at large, enterprise companies, let’s say HubSpot or Salesforce or something, they get a bad rap for being enterprises. They’re a pain in the ass to deal with, they’re too expensive, and their sales process sucks. You’re moving somewhere between self-serve and what they do. It sounds like there is less friction. Is your pricing public on your website?
Jordan: Yes, it is.
Rob: So the pricing’s public, that’s a difference. They tend to hide it behind a thing, then it’s a negotiation, blah-blah-blah. The difference is there. You put up the velvet rope. You’ve gone upmarket. They’re typically not free trials with these really expensive enterprise plans. It typically all annual. I don’t think you’re there yet, but my guess is you’ll be moving there because there’s a lot of reasons to do that. Both predictability with the merchant but also predictability for you. You are taking that step towards the upmarket playbook, right?
Jordan: Yeah. The results, if you think about internally, going from hundreds of free trials to a few dozen, what we’ve been able to do is give love to the right merchants. We’ve told our support team, “Guys, we’re no longer doing things. It’s not about crushing tickets. You could take your time. You can spend 45 minutes on an email as long as on the other end the person goes, ‘Wow. That was everything I needed and you took your time. I feel great about it.’”
The fewer, more qualified merchants is the theme. We’re much common internally. Our support staff finish things up by 11, then they’re doing support docs, they’re helping testing on the product team, and everyone’s happier. People who are jerks, no one feels the need to like, “Hey, I guess I can’t turn down money because it’s not my business.” Now, they’re empowered. If this person sucks, tell them to get lost. People are more empowered. They’re happier. Our monthly churn went from 12%. It continued on for those few months. Five or so months later, we’re at 5% monthly churn.
Rob: Oh, man. Wow. That’s crazy. That’s such a testament. On the podcast and in the whole MicroConf community, what’s funny is before we started talking about this, let’s say in 2010, there wasn’t just this common knowledge on a lot of things that we talked about. Lower price products have higher churn. The customers are more of a pain in the ass. We all know that now. You know that if you’re selling a $10 product, everybody’s price sensitive. Your churn is through the roof. They want all the features. It’s just known now.
Then, there’s the next step up of $50 price point average revenue per customer or $100 average revenue per customer. You guys were at such a high volume that even those numbers didn’t make sense anymore. It just didn’t make sense to service them because they were such a small portion. They were huge portion in your customer base, in your trial base, very small portion of your actual revenue. Now, we can only bother or we should only focus on $500 to $2000 a month average revenue per user.
That’s the step. It’s obviously very deliberate and I’m just struck by the impact. It’s not one thing. It rippled through the entire business in mostly positive ways, it sounds like. The fact that you support people now have the ticket, the ticket volume is whatever it is, a tenth of what it used to be, is just phenomenal.
Jordan: Yeah. The way we look at it is that we really made a healthier company. The growth in 2019 was nothing nearly 3X of the previous year. But now, we’re in a position to grow in a much healthier way.
Going back to the faucet analogy, now that we’ve tightened it up all the way, fully controlled everything, now that we have our systems in place, we understand who the right matches are, the systems are better, the people are happier, now we can start to open up a little bit on our terms, and grow faster but in our way. An example is when someone’s a category three, they’re qualified but they’re not one or two, we send them a recorded version of the demo. Now, we can open that growth back up, but on our terms and under control. If we don’t like the way that’s going, we’re just going to shut that back down.
Rob: We talked a lot about the positives. Was there a major negative repercussions to this?
Jordan: Just finances.
Rob: That’s short-term.
Jordan: Yeah. The short-term financial hit that hurt is just a stressful thing. We did that with what I felt was enough money in the bank, that we wouldn’t get to the point where I felt like I have to go raise more money. I wanted to get through this in a way that we come out to the other side.
Really, if you think about all the way back, the decision to increase prices on existing customers and that kicking in January, what we really needed to do was just get through this six month period. The increased pricing on that GMV that is coming on the door already is going to overwhelm all of the negative impact of it. Then, we’ll be in a position where we are much more profitable and much happier at the same time. Just six months of pain but all towards putting ourselves to a good spot in 2020.
Rob: Yeah, and that’s playing long ball. You have a long-term mindset. You’re not churning and burning, “Oh, how can I maximize revenue now to raise the next round? Or have an exit?” or whatever it is. You’re thinking, “If I’m going to run this company for years, what is the healthiest company? What company do we all want to work for? What’s best really for the customers that are the best fit? What’s best?” The six months of pain, I’m sure, has sucked but you’re basically coming out on the other side of that. I hope January is truly an amazing month for you.
Jordan: Yeah. Thank you, man. I appreciate the ability to talk through the whole thing. I’m actually writing a blog post about this. I’ll let you know when that’s out.
Rob: Sounds cool.
Jordan: I know it’s all unique to each individual business, but the big lesson I hope people get from it is that you don’t have to play by what you think are established rules. You should do what you think is best for your business.
Rob: Love it. We will link up the price increase blog post that you talked about. I have that link right here. I googled Lincoln Murphy’s blog post about qualification and hopefully it’s the same one. We will also link that up. If you get your post published before this goes live, we can throw that in there as well.
If folks want to keep up with what you’re up to, they can go to @jordangal on Twitter and carthook.com is your app. Any other places they should keep their eye on?
Jordan: Yeah. I also do a podcast with my good friend, Brian Castle, called BootstrappedWeb. Those are the three places: Twitter, CartHook, and BootstrappedWeb.
Rob: Sounds great. Thanks again for coming on.
Jordan: My pleasure. Thank you.
Rob: Thanks again to Jordan for coming on the show. Also, I should call out episode 452 of this podcast. Just a few months ago, Jordan came on and answered listener questions with me. If you’re interested to hear more of his thought process, go back and listen to 452. You can hear his take on several listeners questions.
If you have a question for me or a future guest, leave me a voicemail at (888) 801-9690 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. As you know, our theme music is an excerpt from a song by MoOt. It’s called We’re Outta Control. It’s used under Creative Commons. You can subscribe to us in any pod catcher. Just search for “startups” and visit startupsfortherestofus.com if you want to see a transcript of each episode as well, to see show notes, and comments by other loyal Startups for the Rest of Us listeners. Leave a comment of your own if you want to give a thumbs up, your thoughts, constructive criticism, whatever it might be on any of the shows. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of US, Rob interview Laura Roeder, Founder and CEO of MeetEdgar. They talk about her fast success with growing MeetEdgar, dealing with platform risks, and the humbling experience with her second venture.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, I talked with Laura Roeder about here uncanny ability to power through roadblocks. This is Startups for the Rest of Us Episode 451.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob and today with Laura Roeder, I’m here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made.
On this show, we talk about building startups in an organic, sustainable fashion that allows you to build a better life for yourself. Every once in a while, we’ll sit down with an experienced, knowledgeable, founder who has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, and we learn from that founder. We learn from their experience of growing their startup, of facing the roadblocks and turning them into speedbumps. Today is no exception.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Laura Roeder since she started Edgar several years ago. That’s at meetedgar.com. It’s social media management software. Laura grew Edgar to seven figures of annual revenue within the first 12 months. It was one of the fastest bootstrap SaaS growth trajectories I had ever heard of.
But in 2017, 2018, Facebook and Twitter, some of the underlying platforms that Edgar relies on really started to pull some shenanigans with their APIs. Edgar ran into some pretty intense turbulence. We dig into that. I had not heard her talk about this experience on a podcast before. Frankly, I wanted to hear what it was like in the inside and how that felt. She talks about the ups and downs of it in a very honest, raw, and transparent way. I really appreciate that about the interview today.
The other thing we dig into is she went and started another SaaS app, raised an angel round, and rented some pretty major roadblocks with that early on. It’s fascinating to hear, essentially a third time founder, looking around and realizing, “Wow, this may not work like my other companies did. This may not go as well as my prior startups.” You can hear her thought process in what it was like to experience that in today’s interview. With that, let’s dive in.
Laura, thank you so much for joining me on the show today.
Laura: Thank you. I’m excited to be here even though we’re going to talk about some tough topics. I’m a little nervous.
Rob: I know. We were talking before we got on this call that just like entrepreneurship, is about bumps and bruises; sometimes it’s a speedbump, sometimes it’s a roadblock, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. You’ve certainly had your share with the past few years.
Laura: Yes. I’ve had speedbumps and roadblocks.
Rob: Yeah, that’s tough. I wanted to start by talking a little bit about Edgar, which is frankly, a widely successful app. I remember that when you launched, I believe, you made it to seven figures within 12 months of launch. It was ridiculous in a great way. I don’t know that I had ever seen a bootstrapped SaaS app hit that level of success that quickly. What do you attribute much of that to?
Laura: So much of it is just right place, right time, right brand. When we launched, we were really innovative in the market. Social media, scheduling tools, had been created, but they were literally just like, “Type your tweet in this tool and then hit send.” That was kind of all they did. The innovations that we created within the Edgar when we launched, it was just very noteworthy, like, “Wow, this is a tool that can do a lot more than any of the other tools can.”
Rob: Yup. That makes sense. You had this amazing success early on. You say, “Right place at the right time,” but I remember you also had worked your ass off to build an audience in that space. You would set yourself up for success. You weren’t just blindly going in and doing this. I think there’s a little bit of nature and some nurture in that one. Two factors came in—multiple factors. I think the thing that I want to chat with you today about is over the years that you’ve been running Edgar, there have been just crazy API changes and partner changes—Facebook and Twitter. I don’t know if other APIs have changed as well. I got the impression from the outside that has to be tough on your business. Has it? Talk me through that.
Laura: Yeah, 2018 has been our toughest year at MeetEdgar. We’ve got hit with a lot of changes at once. Some of them were in 2017 as well. The biggest one was Twitter not allowing repeating content. A big angle of what we do differently at Edgar is we allow you to keep a library of your content that gets repurposed. That’s a big reason why a lot of people use Edgar. All of a sudden, Twitter came out with this rule that said, “If you have the exact same tweet, if you sent it out more than once, that is against our terms of service.” There was no nuance to this rule. If you send out something that says, “Good morning.” Then you sent out something else that’s just says, “Good morning,” four years later, that’s technically against their terms of service.
Things like these are especially frustrating when you’re a tool. Obviously, people aren’t getting their accounts shutdown for sending out “Good morning” twice within 10 years. But as a tool, you have to make sure that you are in 100% compliance with the APIs, with the policies, and the terms of service because we’re putting our customers at risk if we’re not following Twitter’s terms. It would really suck for someone to sign up for Edgar, the tool is doing something knowingly against Twitter’s terms and conditions, well, now we’ve put our customers at risk for getting their accounts shut down.
There have been many tools out there that did that especially for Instagram. There used to be a lot of tools that went against Instagram’s terms and they all got shut down. No big surprise there. We did talk about, “How do we want to handle this. Is there anyway that we want to try to fudge this?” We’re like, “No, we can’t put our customers accounts at risk.” We are going to stop repeating content on Twitter. That was the biggest one.
Around the same time, Facebook stopped the ability for third party tools to post to Facebook personal profiles so you can still post to Facebook pages and groups but not personal profiles. We just got our access cutoff to Facebook groups for a while just from bad luck. All the social media tools are doing a lot more invitations and manual approvals, and that kind of thing as opposed to just open API. We just hit some bad luck for we got stuck in the approval queue. They didn’t have any problem with what we’re doing or anything like that, we just got to the bottom of the list somehow. It ended up being two or three months where our customers couldn’t post to their Facebook groups where a lot of our competitors didn’t have any downtime or had a week of downtime for groups.
Rob: Wow. That is brutal. What a tough space. Take me to that moment. Let’s start with the Twitter stuff because that, I imagine, was just like a punch in the stomach when you read that. That moment where you read the email or whatever it is from Twitter—the press release—what were you thinking?
Laura: You know, I’m such an optimist. I actually didn’t even realized how bad it would be. Because I was thinking, okay, the good part about this is that all the tools are in the same boat. We’re not going to be able to repeat content on Twitter, but no one else either. It’s not like they have nowhere to go. It’s not like our customers can leave us and choose a different tool. I’m like, “This is really frustrating, but maybe it won’t be that bad.”
It did help that I understood why Twitter was doing this. Obviously, why Twitter’s doing this is to prevent spam. They don’t want people setting up Twitter bot accounts repeating the same message over and over. It’s just frustrating that they did it in such a way where they made this just extremely broad stroke that in addition to eliminating spam, is also eliminating just some really standard usage of the tool.
Rob: Yeah, the collateral damage of the Google, Facebook, Twitter, when they change their APIs or change policies, I don’t think that they fully understand what they’re about to destroy. Oftentimes, they are doing it, I think, in a way to take out spam or for the better of their platform or for the better of the internet. I think internally they do believe that. It’s kind of like, “Are you questioning that?” Totally. Maybe not. Are they just doing it to grab more market shares? Is that what you think for their clients? That could be, I guess, a negative motivation.
Laura: Yeah. I think in this case, Twitter was, I do think that they were just trying to cut down on spam. They just didn’t think of it much beyond that. That was kind of it. I don’t think they’ve given out much thought since. It wasn’t something that they announced very widely. I find that most small businesses still don’t know about this, which makes it even more frustrating for us because it kind of makes it seem like we’re the ones enforcing this rule because people have never even heard of this Twitter rule. They try to use our tool, we say, “You can’t use it that way on Twitter.” It can be a frustrating experience for the end user.
Rob: Yeah, I’d imagine. You just talked about three kinds of breakages of your built-on platforms, these platforms can make a change and can really have a serious impact on your business. Of those three kind of, I would say, semi-catastrophic events, did you see an increase in churn? Did you see reduction in topline revenue? How did it impact your company?
Laura: Yes. We saw just a certain percentage of our customer base. Here’s what we discovered. I thought, when they made this announcement, some people are going to leave because some people are going to say, “Well, I use you guys for Twitter. I’m repeating on Twitter and I can’t do that anymore.” What I didn’t anticipate was that a certain percentage of our customers were just like, “This was the only thing I used you for.” I didn’t realize that a percentage of our customers were, “I used you guys for repeating on Twitter. You don’t do that anymore. I’m out. I’m not going to another tool. I’m just not going to use Twitter anymore.” That’s actually a big thing that we heard. There are other social platforms out there like, “This doesn’t go with my strategy. Maybe I’ll post to Twitter manually every so often but I’m out.” That was a surprise.
I thought, “We’ll have an announcement. It’ll change then we’ll see who leaves.” The first month we had to make the change, people left, and it feels like, “Okay. You never want customers leaving, but this feels manageable.” The nature of our tool, like I said, you have a library that at some point, if you’re only sending things once, obviously, that library is going to run out similar to the way Buffer is. It’s like a one time queue. When you get to the bottom of the queue, it’s gone. For Twitter, our tool became that way.
The thing is people load a lot of content into our tool. People had sometimes content for a month, three months, or six months, before their Twitter content ran out. The good part was we had an extra four months or whatever it was, obviously, a revenue from them. But that part, it just kept going. We’re like, “Okay. The people who don’t like the Twitter changes left.” Every month, more and more people would figure it out because obviously people don’t read every message that you send. People will just be like, “What happened? I’m not sending out content anymore on Twitter. Is the tool broken? What’s wrong?” We’re like, “Oh, no. You’re not sending out content anymore on Twitter because you used up all your content. You need to create new content now.” They’re like, “That sucks. I’m leaving.”
Rob: Geez. That was such a big selling point of Edgar above other tools. As you said, like Buffer, you create a content, you schedule it, and you post it and such. I can imagine that hit really hard. Churn went up, which obviously means you’re growth either stalls or flatline, whatever that does.
Laura: Declines, yeah. For us, we had a decline in our user base. It ended up with these three changes together. We lost a significant amount of our customer base; maybe we lost a quarter or a third of our customer base.
Rob: Oh my god.
Laura: It was really big. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s only external things. We made mistakes, we could have responded faster and better. The positive thing is that it forced us to innovate. One example of that, now we have a feature we call autovariations where you put in your blog post and we automatically pull five poll quotes from that post to serve as your status updates. That’s just one way to paste it in the URL and get five status updates to Twitter and all the other social networks, but we didn’t have that ready when Twitter shut down. We didn’t introduce that until nine months later, something like that.
You have to roll with the times when these things happen. But yeah, it was a significant loss for us. We had to make some layoffs in our company which we never had to do before, but we did remain profitable and survived through the whole thing which I’m really proud of.
Rob: Yeah. I would be as well. Honestly, it could’ve been business ending to lose 25% or 30%, whatever the number of customers would end a lot of companies. In fact, the interesting thing is, I don’t hear many bootstrapper who have to do layoffs because it tends to be this very slow growth over time. You build up as higher as your revenue. With SaaS, unless you have an odd event like this, almost like a black swan thing that comes and gets you, your growth is just going to keep steady or whatever. I think you’re in a unique situation that you had to deal with. Have you ever had to lay people off before?
Laura: No. I’ve let people go, but I had never had to do layoffs before. I’m very thankful that we had a really great team backing us up especially our head of finance, Tanya Crino. She was very cautious about seeing this coming. Like I said, we saw the initial way, but then we kept having more and more customer loss. If you Google, “How to do layoffs?” The first thing you see is only do one round. Whatever happens only do one round. Tanya and Sara Park—who’s our head of operations at that time and is now the president of the company—they were really looking at, “What do we need to do so that we can only do one round and so that we can offer some kind of severance?” We were able to offer two months severance to every person who was laid off and help them find other positions at companies we were friends with and things like that.
Another thing that was so fascinating from the layoffs is we have full financial transparency within our company. We don’t share individual salaries, but we share everything else. We do financial reviews with the whole company every month. Everyone can look through all of our expenses and income. People saw the writing on the wall, you know what I mean? These are obviously, very intelligent people working at MeetEdgar. You can’t say, “Hey, we might have layoff soon. Don’t worry. We’ll let you know.” You can’t really say that until it’s a done deal. But people are smart. They see us losing customer base. They’re like, “Okay. This is a bootstrap company. It has to remain profitable.” The only way that’s going to happen is lowering expenses. We found that while, of course, it is a terrible, heartbreaking, and incredibly stressful thing to be laid off from a job, we also were able to maintain positive relationships with everyone who was laid off. Everyone understood that it was something that needed to happen for the company to survive.
Rob: Yeah, which is a big deal. It shows that you handled it with care, thought, and deliberate action. It’s impressive. It’s easy to flab that, I think. It’s easy to accidentally screw that up.
Laura: Yeah, it is. Especially because it’s often something you haven’t done before. We were able to do it in just one go. We didn’t have to do anymore after that. It was hard because the way that you do it in just one go is you have to make deeper cuts than you think you need to. When you first look at this problem, obviously, you’re hoping to just let one or two people go. We had some people that were laid off and then some people, just because it was just a tumultuous time at the company, some people ended up leaving on their own kind of before or after, just along with the tide. I think we had eight people that left. The other, maybe, six layoffs and two people leaving, or something like that.
Rob: Yeah. How big of a morale blow is that to the rest of the team? Do you feel like they recovered quickly or were they pretty devastated?
Laura: It’s interesting because I think it was kind of an emotional rollercoaster for everyone. It’s devastating, and at the same time this means, “Oh, the company’s going to make it.” They have the same numbers. They’re like, “Oh, this is the choice that the company needs to make in order for me to still have a job and the company to still survive.” Obviously, it’s always really hard when that happens, but we were really focused on rebuilding with the team that remained.
Rob: Yeah. I think I’ve been at companies, either worked for them or had colleagues at companies who’ve been laid off, and I think such a big piece of the reaction and the morale comes down to the trust of the leadership. Do they trust the CEO? Do they trust you, Laura, when you’re saying, “This is why. This is what we’ve done. Now, we’re going to move forward and we’re going to survive.” Do they think that somehow you manufactured it? Or made it up? That you haven’t cut deep enough or that you cut too deep or whatever. That’s when there’s this big toxicity comes about. It’s definitely going to be an emotional rollercoaster if they recovered. It shows that you had a good relationship with your team.
Laura: Yeah, I think so. We were able to still have a few people in each department. It didn’t feel like, “And I’m the only engineer now. This is not going to work out.” I think it felt to people like, “Okay, I can see how the company can continue to survive and grow with the team we have left.” Luckily, it wasn’t so dire that it felt ridiculous.
Rob: Yeah. Was that in 2018?
Laura: Yes. In early 2018, yes, that we made the layoffs.
Rob: Okay. You were still acting CEO at that point?
Laura: Yes, although I was actually on maternity leave. Now, I’m remembering the timing. I guess my daughter had just been born when we actually did the actual cut. We have been doing the math and planning up to that. I was actually technically on maternity leave when we had to do the layoffs. I just hopped on and wrote everyone personal emails because the actual conversation happened with our hiring manager anyway. There was only one person who’s a leadership level that we had to layoff, so I had a conversation with them. Weirdly, I didn’t do a lot of the actual conversations.
Rob: Sure. That’s still baller for having a baby and two days later, being involved. It’s tough when the timing works at that way.
Laura: It’s not ideal.
Rob: Yeah, not at all. It’s got to be stressful. Did it take a toll on you personally? Like your psyche and such?
Laura: It was a relief because it made it clear that the company was going to make it. I don’t mean to say that disrespectfully to anyone who’s listening who is working on ur team. It was a very hard decision, but the day that it actually happened, it was a relief to get it over with, get it done, and be like, “Okay. Now, I can move forward.”
Rob: Yeah. Some time after this, you decided to start another company called Ropig. When was that? That was probably mid-2018, I’m guessing.
Laura: I’ve never put the timelines of these things side by side in this way. I think there’s sort of separate compartments in my head, but now that we’re going to put them side by side, that sounds crazy. It’s a lot of tumultuous things happened all in the same year. Ropig launched in March 2018.
Rob: Got it, okay. Launched, meaning, the website went live, product was live, people could use it?
Laura: Launched, meaning the product started taking customers. We’ve actually been working on it for about a year prior to that.
Rob: Okay. You were doing both of these then?
Rob: You were working on both. Ropig was alert management for dev teams. Is that right?
Laura: Yes, exactly.
Rob: Obviously, the punchline—the jump to it—is that you decided to shut it down pretty quickly after launching. Let’s talk through that a bit. I know that you actually raised funds for this. Was that a first? Had you raised an angel round before?
Laura: That was a first. I had never raised money before Ropig.
Rob: Okay. How did you go about that? Did you have a network of people? Did you have to go to […] road and hit the angle groups?
Laura: We raised money in January of 2018. My daughter was born in June of 2018. I was being visibly pregnant when we were raising money. I was like, “I’m pregnant. I don’t want to travel. I don’t want to do it.” I decided that I’m going to get this done my way. By this point, I’ve been an entrepreneur for, I guess, 11 or 12 years now. I’ve built up a pretty strong network. I felt pretty confident that I can raise a small round with my own network. I’m like, “I’m not going to travel. I’m not going to go to San Francisco. I am just going to ask people that I know if they would like to invest in my company.” I looked up the numbers in preparing for this.
I think I contacted about 300 people. These were all people that I have personal relationships with. Some were just acquaintances, but people that I actually knew, not professional investors, people that are either just entrepreneurs, or people who work in tech, or people that maybe did some investing on the side. 300 people just got emailed or texted or Facebook messaged or whatever by me saying, “Here’s what I’m doing. Do you want to invest?”
Rob: Right. You ended up raising $320,000 on a safe? The audience knows, you emailed me. You and I actually had an email thread about Ropig. The only reason that I didn’t invest was because, well, I guess there were two, one was because your pre revenue. I don’t, in general, tend to invest in pre revenue companies just because there’s so much risk. But the second was that it was such a new space. I have confidence in you as the founder that you’re going to execute on it but my gut said it was going to be this very long, very arduous, very painful journey. You would get there eventually, but you didn’t have an audience in the space. I didn’t feel like you had […]. That’s what you and I talked about it in the email. Was that on your radar? Obviously, I must not have been the only person that mentioned that.
Laura: Yeah. A big advantage that I had in MeetEdgar is it’s a social media tool. I had already been in the social media space for years prior doing courses and consulting. I’d already built an audience in that space. With Ropig, the tool was systems admin, people, and developers. It’s not me. I’m not a developer. I’m not in that space. I’m not in that world. Not only do I have no lists built up but I can’t speak at that conference. I can’t go to those meetups. It’s not my thing, it’s not my langauge.
I do think that a big reason why Ropig didn’t work out is that I underestimated how much value I had and continue to give to Edgar in that way. Because with Ropig, I just thought, “Okay, I know I can’t do that but I can just hire people who can,” which is totally a viable strategy and a lot of people do that, but I didn’t raised enough money to do that. The problem was the strategy that I had in my head was really a much better fit for a company that was going to raise a lot of money. Even though I was raising this $300K—that ended up being $320K—I did not want to raise more money after that. I did not want to do big fundraising, I did not want to do VC, I did not want to do any of it. In retrospect, the game plan that Ropig needed to succeed was just not a match for only having a small amount of fundraising.
Rob: Yeah. You didn’t want to do the Series A, the shuffle, and you kind of just want to do this single seed round. I think call-in from customer.io calls it’s fundstrapping, is raising this single round to hit escape velocity. That makes sense. That actually fits my perspective of who you are as an entrepreneur. You are much more a bootstrapper than someone who raises. But raising that one round, really these days, it’s not against bootstrapping ethos anymore. You know what I mean? In some spaces like this one, the alert management tool. It competed with PagerDuty. Is that a good comparison? It’s a very crowded space with a lot of funding in it. It’s competitive. You’re going to need some superpower to get in there. You were saying that you didn’t raised enough money to hire someone to be an influencer. Is that what you were saying?
Laura: Yeah. That’s part of it. I just didn’t raised enough money for any of it. You mentioned that it’s a very competitive space, but it’s also a really expensive tool to build. My husband Chris is a developer. He’s the cofounder of the tool. He also, for MeetEdgar, built the initial version of the tool. He could not build alone, Ropig. It’s not a tool that you can just sit-down-in-your-free time-in-some-weekends-build. We had already spent, we decided to invest our own money, $500,000 of our own money into this project.
By the time we raised the money, we already had a fulltime team of developers just to get the initial product out. It’s alert management. You can’t be like, “It’ll probably work sometimes. It will get most of your alerts.” It’s just not the type of thing that you can have sort of shoddy, half-baked. Also, a lot of the advice is like, “Just ship people a minimum version.” No one really wants a minimum to manage some of their alerts. It just doesn’t make sense. You can’t really just test out some sort of halfway done thing. Like all the advice, “Pretend you have software, but then just do it yourself behind the scenes.”
Rob: You can’t do that with this. This breaks a lot of those rules. One of the reasons is because it’s so competitive in the market. It’s fair. It’s somewhat mature, I would say. An MVP in this market, very very different than an MVP in whatever—the VR space or something that’s still a nascent market. That makes a lot of sense.
Laura: Yeah. I think, that was another thing I underestimated because when we launched MeetEdgar, we had funded competitors. HootSuite had raised a ton of money. We’ve still been able to be a successful company in spite of that. I think I was kind of, “Oh, funded competitors. I can do that. I’ve done that before.” But MeetEdgar is also something that Chris could build on his own. The first version, he just built on his own in his spare time. If we don’t send out a tweet, it’s okay. No one’s business falls apart. It’s just a very different space.
Basically, what happened is once we raised that $320K, so we raised the money in January, we had our launch in March. The launch was just like a dud. We put it out there. We opened the doors and not a single person paid for it. Some people had free accounts, but not a single human paid for it which is a very bad outcome—in case anyone’s unclear—not what you’re looking for a launch. We’re going to have to make some big changes if this is going to work.
Rob: How does that feel? You’re a successful founder. You’re a serial entrepreneur. You’ve built up wildly successful online training course and business around training folks for social media. Then you launch MeetEdgar to one of the bootstrapping Cinderella stories, in my opinion, of getting some figures in a year, and then you launch this third app. At this point, you know what you’re doing. How did that feel when it just went completely sideways?
Laura: I was just like, “We picked the wrong market.” That was something we had been worried about when we were developing it. Basically, the whole idea with Ropig is that there are a lot of smaller companies like us with MeetEdgar where we were using PagerDuty but it really wasn’t designed for us at all. Then we saw a lot of other smaller companies on our space that just didn’t use an alert management tool and sort of dug through the logs manually when they had time.
If you look at the Ropig website or look, I don’t know if it’ll be up when people are listening to this, but we had a whole page. The whole point with the page, it said on the headline, “Why would I need an alert management tool?” I look at that now and I’m like, “Duh!” The fact that I had to build that page should have been a really bad sign. Why would I need an alert management tool? Why are you looking in this website. You’re clearly not going to find anything.
I think it’s possible. Obviously, there’s companies that have done it to introduce people to a new idea, a new concept. Again, maybe none would fit with bootstrapping. A fit with bootstrapping is, “You’re already using a competitor, let me show you how we do something different that makes us so much better fit for you.” I think this hurdle of, “You don’t think you need an alert management tool, but we’re going to show you why we do.” It was a failed experiment.
Rob: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That’s the thing with mature markets. You know that PagerDuty wants to expand that market, so they’re probably already putting a bunch of time, effort, and money into trying to convert everyone they can away from digging through logs. I’m just imagining, there is only so much blood that you can squeeze out of that turnip. They’ve already done most of that, probably.
Laura: Again. It’s just expensive. PagerDuty is geared more towards enterprise. Maybe there’s a spot in the market here. Maybe if we have spent another year going to every meetup around the world, and tweaking our product to get a better product market fit, maybe it could’ve happened. It was like that small fundraised combined with a dud launch was like, “This is bad.” Because all of our financial projections were like, “We’re going to be at 1 million revenue in the first year because that’s what happened with Edgar. Isn’t that how all businesses go?”
Rob: Yeah, oh man. You launched in March. You basically stopped operations a couple months later. It was a very quick decision that this wasn’t going to work.
Laura: Yeah. In May, we hadn’t told our investors we are shutting down. Basically, what happened is we launched. It kept going badly obviously because no major changes happened. Again, this coincides with my maternity leave because my daughter was born in June. My cofounder was my husband, also a parent to this baby who’s going to be born. It is not a time where we’re like, “We’re going to work 80-hour weeks now to try to make this work by ourselves.” All the factors in this equation do not add up. I’m just going to shut the machine down so that we can take our expenses to zero. Like I said, we had full time developers on the team. Some of them we were able to move back to Edgar.
It’s funny, you asked me if I’ve done layoffs, I was like, “No, but actually I had.” It’s funny because I didn’t even think of that that was a layoff. It was only one person because the other two we could move over to Edgar. Anyway, I actually had done layoff before. We let the development team go. We shutdown the tools. We kicked off our free users so our costs for running the tool would go to zero. I’m just like, “I’m going to take a few months of maternity leave. Then I’m just going to figure out what to do when I come back.” I don’t know what to do with this. I know we need to stop hemorrhaging money for our no customers and no time to work on this. I’m just going to stop it.
Rob: Put the breaks on. 2018 was not a good year for you. It was great because you had a baby but all the other stuff it sounds like, “Oh, good Lord.” Then you go on maternity leave, you must have been thinking about it for solid two months stressing about it, I imagined. Was it pretty stressful?
Laura: It was stressful. This is what’s interesting about the fundraising. If I hadn’t raised money, it would not have been stressful. For me, that was the element that made it stressful because I was so worried about letting other people down. When you raise money, you paint this picture of how successful it’s going to be which obviously, you believe, especially because all of my investors were friends. I had this dream of writing huge checks to my friends. What would be more fun than that?
If I didn’t have investors, I think, I would have been just like, “This sucks. I don’t want to do this. I’m just shutting it down.” After the launch that didn’t go well, I realized that I just did not have the same passion for this product. This product was much more, “Okay, we see a problem and we think we have the solution for that problem. Maybe there could be a business here.” Our audience with MeetEdgar, “I love entrepreneurs. I love entrepreneurs. That is my world. I love listening to podcasts like this one. I talk about entrepreneurs. I love reading books about it.” That’s our customers that we support at MeetEdgar, so I can live in that world. I have no interest in living in systems administration world. It’s just really not interesting to me at all. If I didn’t have the investors I think I would’ve just been like, “Yeah, this is really not for me.” But because I had the investors, I felt this pressure, “How can I make this work? I need to make this work?”
Rob: Yeah, I totally get that. Had you burned through all of the investor money by that point? Or there’s just some left?
Laura: That was the good news. We had not burned through much of it at all. The launch, we didn’t do paid advertising or anything. The only cost that we had incurred was just paying the developers for that few more months. When we put the breaks on everything, we had the 75% of the investors’ money still in the bank.
Rob: Yeah, okay. That’s a good thing then. How did you finally make the decision? Obviously, you shut it down. I’m assuming you returned the money to investors. How did you come to that? Was it really just like, “It’s going to take too long. I’m not interested in this space.” Talking to system administrators don’t have the influence, was it just all those factors that eventually led to that?
Laura: Yes. I was thinking, “What’s going to happen with this? How can I make it work?” Any path to make it work clearly involved raising more money—a lot more money. At this point, you can’t just keep hitting people up for another $200K or $300K. I would really need to do institutional fundraising. I had got a glimpse of institutional fundraising doing my friends and family fundraising. By the way, not family in my case, just friends. I don’t have any family with money. Friends and friends fundraising. There’s no rich uncle, unfortunately. I wish.
I had met with some institutional people in Austin and San Francisco, had phone calls. I think as bootstrappers, we have this really negative view of institutional money. It was all true with the conversations that I had. Every horrible stereotype I had about traditional VC was just 100% confirmed. They would ask me how big the business was going to be. They were not interested unless it was an ubersize situation. They were not interested in anything less than like, “I’m going to keep raising money, as much money as I possibly can, as fast as I possibly can.” That was the path that they wanted to see. They’re not interested in profitability, just interested in growth. Because I have seen that little glimpse, I was like, “No, this is not for me. No way.”
The thing that finally convinced me to make the decision, I was talking to a friend of mine, and I’m like, “I really think it’s going to be really hard. I don’t know what to do, but I have this duty to my investors.” He said, “You have a fiduciary responsibility to your investors, to return as much of their money as possible. Knowing everything that you know, if you were an investor, would you ask to just get your money back and get out? Or would you want to continue?” I said, “If I were an investor and I knew everything that I know from the inside, I would want to get out.” I would say, “Thanks, give me my money back. I don’t think this is going to work. I’m out.'” That conversation just absolved me of all of my guilt and stress because it made me see that shutting down was being responsible to my investors.
Rob: Yeah. It’s crazy how a conversation or a single question can get your whole mindset to shift and make a decision. It sounds like you knew the right answer too, but you’re burdened by this other piece, and it was the fact that you felt an obligation to your investors. Suddenly it was, “Wait, the obligation actually goes better.” You actually serve them better if you make the decision you already know you want to make.
Rob: That’s fascinating. That’s a good friend. He’s a good friend to keep around. He’s a keeper.
Laura: He is. It was November—I looked up the timeline—it was November 9th that I sent the email to investors saying, “I decided to shutdown and here’s why. You will be getting 75% of your money back.” That felt really good too.
Rob: How did the investors react? Were they supportive? These are folks that you knew, they were at least acquaintances or friends, was there any negative reaction to it or was it mostly like, “Sorry, this sucks. Thanks for the money,” type of thing?
Laura: It was very positive. People said, “It’s very unusual to be able to make this call and return the money. I really respect you doing that instead of just trying to burden through every last dollar.” People were very kind and very supportive which I’m very grateful for.
Rob: Yeah, that’s cool. I’ve found that with angels—angels are investing their own money—they just tend to be more relaxed. I’ve done about dozens of angel investments. I’m nowhere near the VC level institutional money manager in terms of how they view these stuff. I think it’s an interesting callback because you were saying the VC stuff you heard about is true, like the stereotypes you’ve heard are true. That’s why I believe that this world needs funds like Indie.vc and TinySeed to be that in between where we can write checks.
Now, maybe we could’ve written a check as much as you needed. You really did need a legit Series A to compete in the space, but there is an option for people to take money where it doesn’t come with that same stereotypical stigma of, “No, you have to be $100 million. How are you going to get there in three years or less? How are you going to hire 20 people a month?” All this stuff. You and I both know that we can build businesses and help those eyerollable constraints that venture capitalists are going to put on it.
Laura: Yeah. All the investors knew what they were in for. I hadn’t tricked anyone into thinking this was a get-rich-quick scheme. Anyone can afford to lose the money. It was just one of those lessons of always how important it is to be in integrity. I felt like I’ve been in integrity throughout the whole process. I’m still in integrity when I ended the process.
Rob: Yeah, for sure. Laura, we’ve covered quite a bit in this interview. I really appreciate you taking this walkdown bad memory lane of 2018. The positive end of the story is Edgar is doing really well after all the tumult that you went through with it.
Laura: Yeah. We are growing again. We’ve had growth every month in 2019 which has felt amazing. It’s just so good for the team after having such a hard time for such a longtime. I mentioned that it has forced us to be more innovative. I feel like it’s made me a new entrepreneur because I had never been through anything really hard before as an entrepreneur in retrospect. I thought I had, I had little ups and downs, but I had never had, “Okay, we have to do layoffs. We’ve lost a huge amount of our customer base. I’m shutting down this other company,” all happening at the same time.
It’s true that it makes you a lot smarter because you no longer have these false assumption that everything would always go up. You know that if you’re in this for the long haul, you’ll have ups and downs, and that’s okay. It’s not a disaster when something goes wrong. It doesn’t mean that nothing will ever get better and that your company is over forever. I’m really glad that I’ve had this experience of proving that to myself.
Rob: You took several things that looked like absolute roadblocks and turn them into speedbumps that you drove over and to come out to the other side of that successful with the company that’s continuing to grow after all these years. It’s quite a testament to your chops as a founder.
Laura: Thank you.
Rob: Well, we’re going to wrap up today. If folks want to catch up with you, I see your website at lauraroeder.com. Obviously, if folks are looking to manage their social media, they can go to meetedgar.com to see what you’re up to there.
Laura: Yes. I’ll do a MeetEdgar plug. They can enter the coupon code PODCAST and get a free month of Edgar.
Rob: That sounds great. Thanks again, Laura. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Laura: Thank you.
Rob: I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Laura Roeder. I was truly impressed and impacted by her ability to turn roadblocks into speedbumps, and just her fortitude and perseverance in getting through hard things. These are hard things that we face as founders. She really stepped up, made it happened, kept her company alive, and made hard decisions about the next companies. Really impressive.
With that, we’ll wrap for the day. If you have a question for this show, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or email us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt. It’s used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about the current status of Bluetick. They discuss the Google approval process, external/internal motivations, current roadblocks, and Mike’s future with Bluetick.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: Mike, which program do Jedi use to open their PDF files?
Mike: I don’t know what.
Rob: Adobe Wan Kenobi.
Mike: Oh God.
Rob: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Mike and I talk about Bluetick, where he’s at, and maybe where he’s headed. This is Startups for the Rest of Us Episode 448.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products, whether you’ve build your first one or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. To where this week, sir?
Mike: I strained my back somehow about a week or so ago, so sleeping the past five or six days has been rather rough. It’s on the left side. When I try to sleep, it gets really, really tight throughout the course of the night and it wakes me up. It’s been rough getting any kind of measurably good sleep for pretty much the entire week.
Rob: That’s a bummer. How did you strained up?
Mike: I have no idea. I think I was just alive and that was it.
Rob: Just. I was just old and I moved.
Mike: That’s a good way to put it. The thing is, I just woke up and it was like that. It got progressively worse over the course of two or three days or something like that. It was bad for about four or five and then it slowly gotten better over the last two or three.
Rob: Strained back is no good and no sleep is no good. You’re going back to your pre-CPAP machine days aren’t you?
Mike: Yeah, pretty much.
Rob: We’ll get into some of that more in this episode. We’re going to talk about, as I said in the intro, what’s going on with Bluetick and you and such. Before that, we have some good comments on recent episodes. In Episode 444, you and I went off on Gmail desktop clients. Carl posted a comment saying, “I switched everyone over to Mailbird last month,” everyone at his company. “We switched away from Office 365, Dropbox, and GoDaddy’s email service, and switched to G Suite Solutions. I needed to find an alternative to Outlook and I found Mailbird. It works great, love the Google integrations. My only complaint, one of my coworker’s complaints is that capability of right-clicking to create new folders does not exist. Not a deal breaker, just a complaint.”
What was the one I was using? I don’t remember now. It was Mailplane, like an airplane. When I right click, I often do right-click, paste as text or paste and match style or whatever, because I’ll be copying something that’s all weirdly formatted and I want it to go in the format of the email. In Mailplane, that’s disabled. Not a deal breaker, but I have to flip over into Atom, your […] text editor, I paste it in there then I Shift Command-A Command-C and then go back and paste it in. It’s this extra step that when you’re in a Chrome browser, you can right click, paste the match style, and then it’ll just go in. How about you? Are you still using the desktop Windows client you were using?
Mike: Yeah, I use it on occasion. I flip-flop back and forth between them because it’s an IMAP client and it’s got all that stuff. It’s nice to be able to use one or the other when I need it. The one that I did find with it was that I use the labels feature. I will take things and put them into, I refer to more folders than anything else, but in Gmail it uses labels for that. The one thing I find is that, if I go to use the shortcuts to move it into a folder or apply a label to it, some of my labels, depending on the folder, overlap.
For example I’ll have a customers label but there’s a customers label underneath a couple of different products. When I started typing it out, it doesn’t show me which customers label it is because it basically drops everything before the slash. I have no idea which customers label it actually is because it just doesn’t show me. I still use it on occasion but once I get into those use cases, it becomes a barrier for me. It makes it more difficult. I don’t know why they don’t show the whole thing, but whatever.
Rob: It’s weird. When we bring these things up, it’s like, “That’s kind of a nitpick. Right click, paste and match style, is that really that big of a deal? Is it the labeling?” It can be. It can become that. For me, it’s not that big of a deal, but label stuff, that gets in the way of your workflow and it can get in the way of the perfect solution unless you get used to the new way they do it.
Mike: Like I said, I flip-flop back and forth between them a little bit. I did notice when I was using it that I could shut it down and I would just have Gmail closed, but I’ve noticed that recently I’ve been having Gmail open again. With that, I know that I’m actually just going to close that tab entirely right this second because I forget to do that. Email can be distracting and disruptive. That’s a problem that I’ve uncovered with my workflow, is that when that is open, I tend to get pulled back into my email quite a bit. When that happens, I’m not as productive.
Rob: For sure. Another comment on Episode 447. Paul Mendoza was commenting on the Google verification stuff that you’ve been struggling with for several weeks. He says, “I’ve been dealing with Google verification stuff for months, you can see my day-by-day interactions with Google here. We just got a response from the security vendors, but our app still isn’t approved but I’m sending them emails almost everyday.” He has a URL. You can come to 447 if you want to check that Google verification status. He feels your pain, apparently. It’s not just something that you have manufactured in order to create drama and good radio on the podcast as you’ve been known to do. You haven’t been on […].
Rob: We got another couple of comments, because 447 we started diving in, we typically do our chit chat at the top end of the episode. When we talked about the Google stuff, we wound up spending 18 minutes just talking about that because I was asking questions and going through it. We’ve got some compliments like, “Do more of that. You guys aren’t digging into Bluetick enough,” was the comments, “or your own projects enough.” Part of the impetus for today’s episode was comments we’ve received but also, I think it’s been something that’s been on our minds for a while.
We have always liked doing updates, sharing what we’re up to, and what we’re working on, but it can be hard when it’s not good news. It’s hard to show up week after week and try to have an update of what you did in the past week if you didn’t get anything done or if things are going backwards. I think we tend to do update episodes every few months and I feel like this one today is really just a conversation about where you are, where Bluetick is, how you’re thinking about things, and try to find out more about what’s going on and even to give advice.
We talked for a while before this episode started and you’re bringing up things that I was telling you how I would approach them. We haven’t necessarily always been a ‘big advice for each other’ podcast. It’s a lot more answering listener questions. I think that can be helpful today, too, for you to hear how I would think of approaching different problems or how I have approached them in the past because I’ve done some of this stuff as well.
Mike: Do you want to relabel this as Mike’s therapy session?
Rob: Yeah, it’s going to be 50 minutes and I’m going to bill you […].
Mike: That’s actually cheaper.
Rob: Cheaper than you thought it would be.
Mike: Cheaper than a regular therapy session with […].
Rob: Indeed. Bluetick today, you’ve been working on it for two or three years, and it’s still not supporting you full time.
Mike: I went back and I started looking at my funnel metrics and stuff where I started tracking some of that stuff. I’ve got data in here from November of 2017 and that’s when I started tracking the numbers that I have here. I think that was shortly before I flipped the switch and said, “I’m just going to start billing people. If you’re not ready, then you can either cancel or that’s the end of the free trial or whatever that we have for you.” Obviously, my memory is kind of fuzzy as to exactly what state those things were at at the time so I don’t remember whether it was November of that year or what have you.
Rob: Was that November 2017?
Mike: Yes, November 2017. The reality is it’s not nearly where I would think that it should be if things were going well, the product had product market fit, and I was actively growing it. It’s just not. It’s not enough to support me full time. I don’t necessarily need it to, but at the same time if it’s going for an extended period of time and it’s not making enough money to do that, then why continue?
Rob: Yeah. It’s a waste of time and effort, opportunity cost, could you be working on something else that would be dramatically more lucrative whether that something else is a different product, or whether that something else is consulting, or heaven forbid a salary job? Not that you’re going to go do that, but you have skills. You’re a developer. You can write code. That’s a very valuable skill. To be wasting, I don’t mean wasting time on a day-to-day basis, but having 18 months, you’ve been charging for it, and to be only ramen profitable and not full time income is a struggle. It’s not just that you don’t have full time income but it’s not headed in the right direction anymore. You basically peaked at some point last year in terms of MRR.
Mike: Yeah and it’s more floundering than anything else. It’s not on a tailspin and I’m not bleeding out customers every single week or anything like that. It’s not tanking quickly, but it’s certainly not growing quickly, either. It’s really just meandering; go up on some months and then go down on some months. I have some customers who’ve been around since the very beginning and there are customers who will stick around for three to six months and then that’s it. I don’t feel like I’ve delve into the numbers of how long people have stuck around for and what the amount of revenue that I’ve gotten from each customer is enough, I just haven’t. It’s because I’ve spent a lot of my time on other things.
I feel like I have a hard time prioritizing where I should spend some of that time. Objectively, I think it’s like, “You should spend all of that time on marketing activities, analyzing what your current customers are doing, and who you should be targeting as those customers. One thing I struggle with is the fact that Bluetick has a very good use case for cold email and I don’t want those customers. I have a hard time justifying adding a lot more customers on there that are using the tool for that.
Rob: Is it an ethical thing? You just don’t like cold email?
Mike: Yeah, mostly.
Rob: Or a moral thing? Wait, what ethical is this? External and moral is internal. You’re internal code is like, “Meh. Not a fan of it.” Is that the idea?
Mike: The problem is that it depends on the customer. There are some customers that I’ll talk to, I’ll do a demo for somebody and I hear what they’re doing and they’re doing cold email. I’m like, “It’s not just a great tool that you have, but it’s also a great service. You’re doing great things with it and you are trying to make the world a better place,” versus some of the people just doing the cold email. They’re really bad at it and they’re doing things that are shady or scammy. I’m like, “Yeah. I don’t want those as customers,” but at the same time the tool works exactly the same for both of them.
How do I filter one out versus the other without having a conversation with every single one of them and how do you do that in the marketing that you put out such that you are catering specifically to a type of person who has a certain mindset?
Rob: I hear you. There are ways around it. You have options. You could, on your homepage, just be like the best tool for warm email interactions and then you could put in the FAQ, “This is not for cold email.” You could put it in your terms of service, “This is not for cold email.” You can have flags if people go in it, you see patterns of people doing cold email type things that you flag and you say, “Hey, this isn’t for cold email.”
We had to do this with Drip. People can’t use Drip for cold email. We had to build things and communicate that along the way. It was a pain. It was a lot of work and some people got really pissed off. Some people came in, signed up, uploaded their cold list and started emailing. Our system would automatically block them or they’d get enough complaints that are email spam. Dude would block them. That’s what you have to do if you really don’t want to do it.
The struggle is, with Drip, it will get you blacklisted. So, it’s a big problem for the business itself. With Bluetick, it’s not because they’re using their own inbox. You’re not going to get Bluetick itself, your IP doesn’t get blasted. You have to decide, “Hey, if ethically or morally or whatever, I only want to service certain type customer,” then you can do that. Just make it clear upfront.
It sounds to me like is it an excuse? If you accepted all the cold email, would Bluetick be where you want it to be? Or if you just focus on the warm email use case and ignore the cold email, would Bluetick be where you want it to be?
Mike: I don’t want to say it’s an unfair question, I think the question is a little bit off because it’s more a matter of holding me back from doing the marketing which would acquire those types of customers. It’s not about accepting them as customers or trying to turn them away or whatever. It’s more about holding me back from doing the marketing. I think it’s a very valid question about is that an excuse? I have a whole load of things I’ve looked at and thought about that comes to mind is, […] every single one of them is like, “Is that just an excuse?”
If you looked back at the stuff I did with AutoShark and then with Bluetick, I’ll […] frankly a lot of excuses along the way with AutoShark. If you think about objectively the stuff I’m going through with Google right now, there’s a huge question mark of this $15,000–$75,000 for a security audit. I’m apparently at the end point with Google where all I need to do is get this security audit and get a letter of—I forget what it is—authentication or something, this audit letter that I have to send into Google that says, “Yes, Bluetick is all up to snuff and we don’t have to worry too much about security vulnerabilities for the product,” but at the same time, is that another excuse?
If the products were much further along or had more customers and was making a substantial amount of revenue, would $15,000–$75,000 matter? The answer is no, it wouldn’t. The problem is I can’t point at Google and say they’re killing my business when the reality is the business isn’t making enough money. Really, that’s just the driver that says, “Here’s a hard line that you can’t cross unless the business is making enough.” If the business was making enough, that wouldn’t matter. The actual amount of whatever that is going to come out to would make no difference or whatsoever. So, is that an excuse?
I was saying in a way it kind of is, but at the same time I could almost point at anything that I’ve come across and say, “Is this an excuse?” Anything that comes up on the business as to why something is not working, you could ask that question and I think it’s a valid question to ask. I don’t have a good answer for some of those things. I just don’t.
Rob: That’s the thing. The cold email versus warm email thing, you don’t want to market it because people are using it for cold email. There are solutions to that. If I were in your shoes, I would decide, am I willing to let people do ethical cold email and warm email? If the answer is yes, then that would be on the website. That would be in my onboarding. I would mention that in every demo. I would probably do demo only for now in your shoes because you don’t have such an influx of trials. I’m guessing that you can’t do some type of demo with everyone at a minimum of screencast, 15 minutes of screencast that seriously talks about, “Look, we only do ethical cold email.” Just make that part of the whole deal. If that’s your hard line, then take the hard line and then move forward. That’s one option.
Second option is to not take the hard line and just say, “Hey, this is legal and it’s not going to hurt my IPs so I’m okay with people doing that.” That’s the second option.
Third option, shut the product down. It’s to realize, “Boy, I really built a product that people are going to misuse,” and the nuclear option would be to shut it down. Now that’s tough. I don’t know if I can come up with an easy fourth option. I feel like the ethical cold and warm is a perfectly viable non-nuclear option, and again, to just communicate that in every onboarding sequence.
Some people will sneak through, unfortunately. The good news is, it won’t get you on a blacklist like it did with Drip where we get on the blacklist and it’s like this, “Oh, […],” moment where a bunch of us were running around trying to figure out how to ban this customer and this and that. You’ll just have to have a conversation with that customer and say, “Look, by our judgment or by my judgment, you’ve gone over the line. I need you to migrate away or I need you to improve your things.” You can get a conversation with them where they say, “How do I improve my cold email?” You say, “Here’s a good example of a super ethical one. You only hit them four times over the course of a month, not 17 like you’re doing,” and blah, blah, blah.
All of this is work. It all takes work and that’s a crappy part. It’s the same thing with the Google approval, I think, that it totally gets in your head it seems like and it becomes this road block where really, it should be a speed bump that you look at your options. I say should. You’re going to encounter these over and over. I feel like if you look at the mess of speed bumps rather than roadblocks, knowing that there’s almost without exception, there’s always a way around it.
There are a few exceptions that are not. You can get sued into oblivion. You can get seriously injured. There are these extreme things where you can’t work or where your business is completely decimated because the whole platform just blocks your IP. There are certain exceptions but I don’t see that. Aside from Google disapproving you here in the next week or two, everything else you’ve mentioned to me is a speed bump, but I feel like it impacts you more than that.
Mike: That’s absolutely true. As you were talking through that and shifting the marketing to saying much more of it is ethical cold email and warm email, I actually got excited. I was like, “That’s exactly it.” I think that there are other ways to force that as well. I was talking to Josh from Referral Rock. He said that one of the things that they had done early on was that they charged a setup fee and that works really well for them. I was thinking about doing that as well and trying to figure out how can that work in there. That fits in really well with the idea of pitching it more towards the ethical cold email and warm email for people and then forcing people to do a demo.
That’s part of what the setup fee would be and making sure that they’re doing things the right way, that they’re not just spamming a ton of people just because they have the technical capabilities to. Honestly, that would make me feel a whole heck of a lot better about it. I was actually trying to figure out, “How can I justify this setup fee and how can I do that stuff?” I think that it falls directly in line with that. It makes total sense as to how that could happen now whereas before, I struggled a little bit with how do I present it or pitch it or make sure that people are doing the right things and everything is going well for them. I’ll say it’s like software augmented by services to some extent.
Rob: Absolutely. I feel like that’s one issue but it’s not as if we can now, “Alright and that’s the whole session, Mike, you’re all good,” because there are some deeper issues going on. It seems to me like the two biggest issues that I see with Bluetick and what you’ve been up to, number one, I don’t understand how Bluetick is any different than any of the other tools. I don’t think you’re differentiated. You can convince me otherwise but I don’t feel like there’s anything Bluetick can do that three or four other tools can’t do. That’s a problem because you’re picking up crumbs at that point.
The second thing that feeds into that is you have struggled to ship things. Whether it’s health issues, the distraction from the Google approval, I know you’ve had sleep issues for a long time. You talked at the last podcast about how you had a five- or six-hour workday. Two hours of it was with calls, then your kids were going to get home, and you’ve spent an hour on the Google thing. Your workday was just poof. Gone. You’re not shipping new features. You’re not shipping marketing.
When you look at the people who are making progress in these early stages, they’re shipping something every week. You look at Derrick Reimer. Even though he shut Level down, he was shipping features, he was shipping emails, he was shipping blog post. You look at Peter Suhm, who is the founder of Branch, which is a TinySeed company, was just announced today, he’s doing the same thing. He releases a blog post almost every week and he ships new features to Branch almost every week. You’ve struggled with that going way back.
I think that’s where we talked a little bit offline before this. You have reasons but you were saying to yourself like, “Are they reasons or are they excuses?” The health issues, there’s testosterone levels a few years back, there’s CPAP, there’s all that stuff. It impacts your motivation and that means that you haven’t shipped enough stuff fast enough to differentiate Bluetick and everyone else that you’re competing against is moving, I would say faster than you. You never catch up. Again, my impression is they are better tools, they just have more features, and they do more. So, how can you possibly grow an app that isn’t differentiated in any way?
Mike: A lot of them have definitely caught up in terms of the features. Some of them even started out further along than I was at the early stages. My difference in feature was intended to be the fact that Bluetick does not miss emails, whereas I know that people who were using the Gmail API, those types of customers tend to miss emails here and there. I feel like a lot of those problems have tended to go away. I don’t know whether that’s because the Gmail API has just gotten better in terms of what data that they’ve been sending or the frequency, but I don’t hear about those problems nearly as much as I used to.
Maybe the tools have just gotten better and they’ve fixed those problems. I don’t really know the answer to that because I don’t use those tools on a regular basis. But the fact is you’re right. I’m not shipping things nearly as much as I could or should be. There are certain things where I’ve gone through and I’ve reengineered something or changed how something works, and I’ve got all these data that is going through the system. I’m terrified in some cases of breaking stuff.
I’ve been going back-and-forth recently with one of the vendors who supplies the component that I use for synchronizing with IMAP. They won’t give me access to the stuff where I know for a fact it breaks and I can’t test it. I can’t put an automated test in place and they won’t give me a way to do it. I’m just like, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here,” other than switching to some other component which again is non-trivial work. Is that an excuse?
Rob: It’s a problem but you’re going to encounter a problem almost everyday as an entrepreneur. If they become, they should be speed bumps. You could mock up an interface of some kind. Again, we had a bunch of APIs that we interfaced with Drip and we couldn’t hit the production or staging APIs so when our unit has ran, they would hit a mocked up interface. There’s a better word for it, but you know what I’m talking about.
You could feasibly break things but that’s what integration testing is for, and then you just have a checklist of like, “These are the five things that I’m always worried about breaking because I can’t test them well.” Those are in a Google Doc or a Trello board or whatever. Every time you do a big push or everytime you modify that code, you test those things. That’s how I would think about it. Again, it’s not perfect but it makes it into a speed bump. It makes it into a bump in the road rather than an actual road block.
Mike: The specific issue with that piece of it and the problem that I have with that, there are certain things that come up on occasion and I literally can’t do that because they’ve marked the class that I need to use as internal and sealed and there’s no interface for it. I literally cannot do it. The only way that I found to get around it is to create a constructor that uses the internal private constructor for it and basically fake the data, but I’m looking at obfuscated code at that point and I don’t know what the hell half of it does. I think all of this particular example is kind of immaterial, I agree it should be more of a speed bump than a road block. Going down the rest of that specific example is more of going down the rabbit hole more than anything else because it’s not the only thing.
Rob: The thing is, when these things come up, it’s not going to be perfect. I know that sounds silly to say, but you’re an engineer, you’re left brained, and you want every I to be dotted, every T to be crossed, every edge and corner case to be handled. Mike, your software is going to break sometimes. There is […] software that is doing seven, eight, nine figures a month and the stuff breaks. You can build a company with software that isn’t 100%. My guess is your software is going to be pretty dang good because you’re a developer and because you’ve been doing this most of your life, but at a certain point, you can’t let perfect get in the way of good and in the way of shipping.
Mike: And I do. I absolutely let that get in the way. I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to just let it go. There are some things where I can just say, “Oh, we’ll just do this. Yes, […], go ahead.” Then there are other things where I’m like, “No, it has to be right.” For whatever reason, I fixate on those things.
Rob: That’s the problem. If you can’t identify when you’re fixating, then tell yourself stop and approach this from a different mindset. What would XYZ person do? How should I think about this differently is probably a better question that when you find yourself fixating to stop yourself and have the introspection to say, “What is the hack to get the solution? What is the 95% solution to this? What are the three or four options I have?” We’ve talked about a few topics here and then each one, you see, I’m just breaking them down into what are your choices here?
You’re choices with this API or whatever or it’s the component that you don’t have internal access to and it’s sealed and whatever, Mike, here are your options. You can completely shut your entire company down. Honestly, let’s look at them. You could shut the company down because of that. You could build a solution that is 80/20 or 95/5, however you want to phrase it. That’s like the one I said earlier which has been attacked together. It’s not going to catch everything and you have a checklist, and that’s probably good enough for now. Or you can spend a lot of time fixating on it. You can fight with the guy over email, you can try to reverse engineer it.
Mike: I can replace the component.
Rob: That’s great, you could feasibly do that. You could rewrite the whole thing yourself.
Mike: No, I wouldn’t do that. I would find a different vendor where I can rip that out and replace it with something else, that’s what I would do. I would absolutely not going down that road.
Rob: But that is an option. What’s funny is you could replace it with a different one. You’re going to spend time reworking your code or you could just rewrite the whole component yourself. It’s ridiculous but it is an option. Those are your five or six options. When you look at them, some of them seem like the dumbest thing ever like shutting your business down or writing the component yourself; don’t do those. It’s obvious, those are dumb. But the other three, if we look at them, black and white mindset and try to think about them. Which of those gets you to full-time income? Which of those gets you to $10,000? Yeah, there’s a little bit of risk with the one I’m suggesting, but that turns it into a speed bump rather than a road block.
Mike: One of the challenges I run into with this is that I don’t really have a mastermind group anymore where I can bounce ideas off of people and they call me out on a weekly basis that says, “Hey, you’re not working on this,” or, “You said that you’re going to have this done. You’ve been working on this for three weeks. This should’ve been done a long time ago.” I don’t have that external forcing function anymore. I think that’s been a big challenge for me.
Rob: Yeah. You’ve talked about in the past. You’ve told me that you feel like you’re more extrinsically motivated, that having someone who’s keeping you accountable is the way you work best versus being intrinsically motivated. And that’s fine. There are successful entrepreneurs on both sides of that. This is not something that precludes you from being one. You lost your mastermind or it broke up how long ago?
Mike: A little over a year and then I started a new one but we’ve only met I think three times total.
Rob: In a year?
Mike: It was over the course of three months or so and then we haven’t had a call on five or six months, I think.
Rob: For all intents you’re not really part of a mastermind at this point. You ended a year ago. Now, didn’t your revenue peak around that time?
Mike: Yeah, it did.
Mike: I know.
Rob: A correlation?
Mike: Correlation, causation. That’s a valid point too. That’s an excuse.
Rob: Don’t say it. You’re going to say, “It’s hard to find a mastermind and it’s hard to be part of one.” I would say, “All right, Mike, you have choices. Shut your company down, number one. Number two, don’t be an entrepreneur anymore. It is a choice. Number three, email Ken of MastermindJam—mastermindjam.com—and try to hook with a mastermind. Four, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t do a mastermind and expect your future results to be the same as they have been,” is probably what I would say.
Mike: Some of these things like the other thing that it could potentially be solved by us having a cofounder. I have talked to you about this before. I’m not opposed to having a cofounder or having somebody else who works in the business with me, but at the same time it’s a question of finding the right person and all that other stuff. But again, is that an excuse? Is that what I really want? The answer is I don’t know. Is that an excuse? Probably. Is it what I really want? I don’t know. I’ve gone out in that road before and I think things worked out fantastically with you, with Microconf, the podcast, and everything else, but my past experiences have not been all sunshine and rainbows.
Rob: That’s a tougher one because finding a cofounder is hard. You can’t rush that. That’s not an easy thing to do. I do think it could be a fit for you given that you would work better with someone pushing you on and you’re feeling accountable to that.
Mike: I totally agree with that. But most of the people that I know of, that I know well enough to say, “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind going into business with them at all,” most of them have their own things going on. It’s hard to find somebody who is in that same position because I’ve got Bluetick that is substantially far along at this point. One thing that I’ve run into when you have employees or contractors or whatever, is I feel like they’re not just motivated, but they’re way less critical of the boss’ performance or decisions and things like that because they’re like, “Oh, well. That person is the person in charge. I don’t want to challenge them as hard as I probably could or would if I truly believed in this other direction versus the one that they’ve chosen or decided to go in.”
Rob: Yeah, but that’s just a minor speed bump. I’ve worked with contractors and employees and I’ve had cofounders. It’s just something you get over. I think the deeper issue comes back to the two things that I said, number one, Bluetick is not differentiated. Number two, it’s because you’re not shipping enough. It sounds like you struggle with indecision quite a bit where you’ve ruminated on a question for a long time, for days or weeks, and sometimes just can’t break out of that to make the decision to move forward. So, you get stalled.
And then the motivation thing. You told me offline that you were bored, you weren’t motivated. At times you know what you should do, “I should go build this feature,” but you’re not motivated to do it. Is that right? Talk about that. Is it a health thing? I guess you don’t know. If you knew you would fix it, right? You don’t know if it’s lack of sleep. You don’t know if it’s low testosterone. You don’t know if you just don’t want to do the idea. Do you have any thoughts or even more background for people?
Mike: My doctor took me off of my testosterone and it wasn’t because it was too high, it was because one of my other blood tests came back, it’s too high. He was like, “This is way outside of the normal range so I’m going to take you off with testosterone for four weeks to see how that plays out.” I was about a week-and-a-half into it and I was like, “I have to take some of it right now.” The downsides or drawbacks of having it, having low testosterone is you get depressed, you have a hard time focusing, you can’t get things done, you can’t really think straight. That was happening to such a severe degree, I was like, “I have to take it today just to put myself at least a little bit back on track.”
I’m going to call him and try and see if we can cut this whole thing short because it is extremely detrimental to me right now but I don’t have any answers, I wish I did. There’s a lot of things where I’m just like, “This is boring to me.” Some of it has to do with the work that needs to get done. Again, is that an excuse? Is that just a reason that I’m using to justify not feeling bad about getting the work done? I get that, as an entrepreneur, not everything is always going to be fine. You’re not always going to enjoy everything.
There are some things that you like to do versus there are things that you need to do. If you can outsource those things that need to be done that you don’t like doing, great. I don’t feel like I’ve been in a position where I can outsource everything that I hate doing because there’s financial research and things like that.
Rob: You’ll never be able to do that. Even when HitTail and Drip were growing like crazy, I still came in and did a bunch of crap that I didn’t want to do. With TinySeed, I have more resources than I’ve ever had and there’s still crap that I’m dealing with that I don’t want to do. But (a) I tried to minimize it, and (b) I tried not to let it clog the top of my to do list. When it’s sitting in that Trello board I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I do not want to look at health care plans and setting up a 401(k) for us.” But it’s like, “I’m going to power through it, suck it up, and get it done. Then I’m going to come out the other side and reward myself by doing something super fun, make it some swag or something.” I don’t know. You can’t avoid that. You can’t avoid it entirely. You can minimize it.
We’re building businesses that we want to be a part of, that we want to run. We’re building it for our lifestyles. That’s great, but that doesn’t mean that 100% of the time, it’s like a trip to Disneyland. I know you know that. I’m being a little facetious, but that’s the thing I think you’ve struggled with a lot. There’s this indecision piece. You’ve expressed to me like, “I’m not motivated to do this thing.” Whatever it is, I know that’s what has to get done. I think you’ve got to figure that out because without that, you can’t move forward. You have to be motivated some days even through the struggles.
We have a mutual friend who runs a SaaS app, who has pretty major health issues. He struggles, he works four hours a day, and it’s tough for him to travel. There’s a lot of stuff that it’s just hard. It’s hard for him, but he runs a successful SaaS app, lives off, and has a few employees. He shows up everyday. In those four hours, I bet he’s pretty damn effective by the fact that his SaaS app still grows.
Mike: I haven’t found a system, I guess, that works for me in terms of preventing me from wasting time on the stuff that I don’t want to do or procrastinating to get those things done. I don’t want to stay here and say, “Oh, well. I just need to find the right system,” because I don’t think that’s the right way to go, either, or the answer to it. I do feel maybe I just need to experiment more and say, “Okay, try this for a week or try that for a week,” and be very deliberate about trying to get things done and shipping things, as you said, versus just showing up to work every day and a lot of motion without forward progress. I feel like I’m thrashing a lot. I don’t have an answer to that. Maybe the problem is that I’ve thought about what the answer to that is without actually doing anything to try and figure it out.
Rob: Yeah, not taking action. I think effectiveness is what you’re summarizing. Thrashing is the opposite of being effective. If this founder we’re talking about works four hours a day but gets a full day’s work done, he’s highly effective. Some people can work 10 hours. If they’re not effective, their business doesn’t move forward. We’ve talked about this in the past. The 80-hour-a-week startup people, I think, are probably not effective. That’s the reason they work 80 hours.
There’s a few exceptions but there’s a lot of younger folks. I used to work longer hours when I was younger too. It’s just not picking the right stuff to work on and then not focusing on that stuff, not wandering off to answer email, jump on Twitter, go to Reddit, really focusing. I think you can get a full day’s work done in 4–6 hours. Your full day’s work would have been 10 years ago, I believe, with the personal growth, experience, and stuff that a person can be more effective with less time.
There’s a couple things that I’ll throw out. One is that I feel like you should consider whether you want to keep doing this, to continue doing Bluetick, whether you want to continue being an entrepreneur. Here’s the thing. If you’re working in a contract job or if you were working a salary job, a lot of these issues go away because daily you would do a daily standup, or weekly, or whatever. You would have accountability. That external motivation would be there for you to ship stuff. That would make a lot of these go away. That’s a pretty nuclear option. In the interest of time, we probably shouldn’t go down that today. I do think it’s something for you to take a step back and just think about longer term.
Mike: Counterargument to that would be if I worked, did the right thing, and got Bluetick to a point where I was able to hire people to put on a team, that exact same result would come out of it.
Rob: Yeah, okay. That’s fine. That’s fine but you’ve got to get there. At the rate you’re going, you’re not going to get there.
Rob: I don’t disagree with you, Mike. This is Startups for the Rest of Us. The whole point is that we want to help people start businesses that give them personal freedom. The whole point of this podcast and everything we do is to feel free, to do what you want to do, and work on which you want to do. That would be my answer as well. It’s just, you have to figure out how to get there because you’re not making progress there now.
The second thing I would think about which is a less nuclear option, if we’re talking about options, it’s to go one step further than our mastermind and to find someone who would do a daily standup with you. Every morning, five minute phone call or five minute Slack. They keep you accountable. You subscribe to that. When you say, “These are the things I did yesterday. This is what I’m going to do today.” The next day, you come and you do the walk of shame if you didn’t get that done. You celebrate if you did and that extrinsic motivation is something that you think will help to do that.
What do you think about that is that, does it not matter? Because you’re so tired you can’t get anything done? Is the extrinsic motivation enough if someone was breathing down your neck? Would that be enough? Or do you think no? “I’m still too damn tired. I just have health issues and I shouldn’t do this.”
Mike: I would certainly try it. I would say, it’s pretty immature for me to say that it would or wouldn’t work. I suspect that it would. I seriously contemplated trying to find a way to get a one-on-one business coach or something like that, somebody who’s going to hold me accountable. You’re right. A five minute thing like that on a daily basis could be plenty. I don’t know. Without trying it, I can’t say for sure one way or the other. My inclination is to say, “Yes, that would work,” but it would also need to be somebody who is, I don’t want to say willing to yell at me because I don’t want to be inundated with thousands of emails saying, “Hey, I’ll yell at you.”
Rob: Sure because you don’t need yelling. You do need positive and negative encouragement and feedback.
Mike: I think that’s certainly worth exploring. I would say, it goes further than my thoughts about having a business coach who holds me accountable on a weekly basis because I think a daily basis would probably be better. That’s mainly because I feel like I could waste a lot of time during a whole week whereas from a day-to-day, I can’t. I don’t want to say the stakes are higher but the deadlines are sure. I’ve always found myself to be somebody who works extremely well with tight deadlines and time pressure.
Rob: Yeah, external motivation.
Mike: Yes. When I was doing consulting, the […] gets subcontracting through, they’ve held me in with a bunch of stuff. I stopped consulting from them probably a year-and-a-half or two years ago, but every single time I get an email from them it’s because something’s on fire. They want me to deal with it. I actually got to a point where from one customer to the next, every single one, everything was on fire and burning to the ground. They needed somebody to go in and fix it. I was their person because I was really good at it. I just got burned out with the travel. That was what the problem was. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy doing those things but I got burned out with the travel. The customers tended to be the same from one to the next. And the problem was repetitive. It got to a point where the problem was the same thing over and over. Then, I just got bored.
Rob: Yeah. Consulting is like a hamster wheel. You want to own something. You want an equity in something that has a longer lasting thing than just […] per hour.
Rob: Yeah, that desire.
Mike: Right. That was a big reason for me leaving and decided to do Bluetick instead because I wanted something that was going to need much more of that Rob’s flywheel as opposed to the hamster wheel.
Rob: Yeah. Obviously, we can’t solve stuff like these in a day. You and I talked about you taking some time to think about this, three weeks, four weeks where you think about both of what we’ve talked about today, some stuff we talked about offline, but really, do soul searching and figure out. I think there’s big questions here. It’s like, Mike, do you want to do this and do you want to do it bad enough that you’re willing to change? What you’re doing now isn’t working so you have to change it. Are you going to be willing and able to start looking at every problem as a speedbump rather than a roadblock?
Is this the right fit for you? Whether it’s this being entrepreneurship, Bluetick, it’s just those two. Does Bluetick have the potential? If you feel like you’re gaining your momentum and motivation to take a hard look and say, “How long will it take to get Bluetick to a point where it is differentiated?” My assessment is that, until you’re differentiated enough that you’re like, “Nope, we do this and no one else does,” or “We do this better than all these other tools.” Until you get to that point, you just don’t win many sales.
Mike: I totally agree with all that. I don’t even have to think too long about that one aspect of those. Do I still want to be an entrepreneur? For me, the answer is absolutely yes. The question for Bluetick is what does that look like moving forward? The reality is, the situation is I’ve got basically a seven month deadline at this point. I think you said there were some questions about how that shakes out with Google. I kind of know the answers to some extent. I still don’t have all the information, but I’ve gone past the last stage of Google’s verification with the exception of the security audit. That’s all that needs to be done. That’s the piece where I don’t know how much that’s going to cost. I don’t know what they have to go through or what other things I’m going to have to change. I’m still waiting to find out what that’s going to cost.
Then, I have to make a judgment called the end of it to say if it’s $15,000 and I’m going to make that $15,000 back in a reasonable time frame, not a big deal. Even if it was $75,000 or $100,000. If I were going to be able to make that back within three or four months, it’s not a big deal. If I’m in a revenue standpoint where it’s not going to happen in six months, eight months, ten months, then, no. I can’t justify even continuing with the product to that point. I don’t know what the price tag on it is right now. It’s a question of how far can I get in the next six to seven months to the point where I know how much revenue I’m going to be making three or four months down the road to be able to justify putting the cash out for that security audit.
Rob: You understand that while the security audit is one thing like we’ve talked about today, there are bigger issues. It’s shipping. Let’s say you pass the security audit and you pay for it. Bluetick is still not growing. Bluetick is still not differentiated right now. The reason again, going back, is you haven’t been motivated, or you’ve been bored with it, or there’s been health issues. There’s been all these things along the way. If that doesn’t change, it doesn’t matter what happens with the Google audit.
Rob: We talked about you taking some time to think about it and actually stepping back from the podcast here for about three or four weeks. Give you some clarity.
Rob: Some time alone. I know, give you a chance to maybe find clarity. These are hard decisions. This is retreat level kind of stuff where it’s a lot of thinking.
Mike: Yeah. The weird thing is these aren’t nothing we’ve really talked about. So far, things I haven’t thought about or considered over the past couple of years, it’ s just like I haven’t really taken the time to step back, objectively look at things, and take a hard look. I mean, if I do look at stuff and how things have gone, one constant that has been throughout the whole thing is me. Is it me? That’s a hard thing to say and the hard thing to admit to as well.
The question, can things change? Or will they change? Or do I want them to? I think that I want to. It’s just a question of how is that going to happen? How do I make sure that I don’t go through this process and come out of it and say, “Yeah, I’m motivated. I’m amped up. Let’s do this,” then put in time and effort for six months, then fall back into the same patterns again, I’ll say? That could happen. I don’t know but I need to step back.
Rob: That’s for sure. You know, Mike, I’ve always respected your technical chops, your intelligence, your writing, and you just have a lot of positive qualities. You’ve accomplished stuff in your life but you’ve definitely gotten in your own way. You’ve gotten in your own way more than I think you want to or should have. I think if you can start thinking about it, in terms of, how do I not do in the next six months what has happened in the past six months? We’ll see.
I’m going to be holding down the fort here for a few weeks. It’ll be good to hear from you. I’m sure people will be waiting with bated breath. We’ll have an episode, I don’t know, will it be 452 or 453? It’s the return of Mike. We get to hear from you, what you’ve been thinking about, and stuff.
Mike: Yeah, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. I got to talk to my doctor and go back on a testosterone because it’s just, my God.
Rob: It’s kind of […].
Mike: It really is. You wouldn’t think that that does it. It was like, “Oh, that can’t possibly be that bad.”
Rob: I would totally think, any chemical in our body, when it gets that out a whack, it has these negative impacts that can be pretty brutal.
Rob: Well, thanks for delving into this today. I know this is not easy stuff to talk about. I appreciate your openness, honesty, and willing to delve into it. I’m sure the listeners do, too. This has over and over been voiced. This is like one of the favorite aspects of our show is when we do these things. We talk pretty open and raw about what’s going on.
Mike: Yup. I guess with that, why don’t you take us out then?
Rob: Yeah. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt. It’s used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and I’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about what KPI’s to look at when launching, key metrics you should track, and what they should be.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about SaaS KPIs that you should focus on from day one. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 434.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: And I’m Rob.
Mike: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week Rob?
Rob: Well, I got my tan on in Mexico. I mentioned that last episode. We got out of Minneapolis for about eight days and it was good. It was interesting that that my two boys got so much sun the first day. They got a little sunburn, but it wasn’t bad. They then the next two days had fevers and it was almost like they had sunstroke, because we have been out in the sun so little since whatever, October.
It was a trip. I was like, did they get vitamin D overload? What was the deal? But they both got sick. It was Mexico. Several of us had stomach issues, but the boys didn’t and they had this different reaction to things. They were all hot and they were tired with headaches. It was definitely like sunstroke attributes.
Mike: Interesting. I wonder if it’s just a byproduct of living in California first of all.
Rob: What do you mean living in California?
Mike: Well, because you live in California and then you moved to Minneapolis. Suddenly you’re not getting any sun and then you go back. It’s almost like dying of starvation or thirst, you suddenly get it, and then you get sick because of it.
Rob: Totally. The thing was, my boys tan really well. Before we went to Mexico, they looked grey. They looked like this really odd grey color, because again no sun exposure because it’s so cold. It’s super sunny here in Minneapolis, but it’s just so cold. You don’t go out without coverage. Your face is typically the only thing showing. If you’re going to be out for an extended time, you have gloves on, you have stuff over your arm. It was a fun trip overall and I’d recommend it.
We actually went to this smaller town called Sayulita. It’s about 45 minutes north of Port of Aorta. I know you mentioned you’ve never been to Mexico. For your first trip, maybe do go to Cancun or Port of Aorta. Those places are fine, we’ve gone there. Once you go there once, it’s super touristy, it’s packed with people and you’re not among the locals. You’re just a bunch of other vacationers. You’re hanging out with other tourists.
Whereas Sayulita is small and it’s 45 minutes north. It was a much better experience. It felt slightly more authentic and we still had access to what we needed in terms of food and such, but it did feel just like a better experience. Folks listening, if you haven’t checked it out, I recommend it. How about you, what’s going on?
Mike: I’m in the process of going through the scholarship applications that came in.
Rob: For MicroConf, right?
Mike: Yes, for MicroConf. I really think that if I were going to make any predictions right now, that this would probably be the single biggest mistake that I will make for the entire year. I forgot to include the email address field until basically like 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through it and I didn’t notice it until then.
Rob: You have a scholarship application like a Google form or Typekit, you send an email to the MicroConf list, you send people to come apply for scholarships, they give all this information, and you have no email address form?
Rob: That’s nuts. There’s no way to map since it’s third party. I was trying to get you the link back because when they click through the Drip email, there’s going to be their subscriber ID and the URL, but there’s no way to go back and try to get that matched up or anything.
Mike: No, not from a Google Form. The thing is, it’s not even that I actually forgot it, it’s that it disappeared because I copied the application form from last year. I don’t know what happened. I must’ve clicked something and accidentally deleted it or something, I don’t know. I didn’t notice until well into it and I was just like, “Oh my God.” I’m in the process right now of going through and trying to figure out how to reach each of these people. The nice thing is, because it’s an application, it asks for a lot of information.
Most of the ones that are missing, I have at least Twitter account information for it. I can send them a message and try and get in touch with them through that. Then other ones I’ve been able to map back to some of the different email lists that we have. The one really helpful piece of information is that I ask where they heard about it from and if they say email list, then I can go look at the email at list.
If they say that they heard from a certain person, I think there was only one, possibly two that I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to get that information. But I think for the most part, I’m going to be able to clear it out. It’s just going to take time and effort though. That’s the part that sucks.
Rob: That’s the thing. These are those fixable problems that are a ton of ground work to get done. It’s like, “I could have saved myself hours taking through this thing if I’d remembered to put the email address.” I have done this plus way worse. These are things that happen as you’re moving fast and doing a bunch of stuff. That’s brutal.
Mike: Oh well, I got to do what I got to do, though.
Rob: Yeah. My guess is you will never ever again forget to put an email address on a form like this.
Mike: Like I said, I don’t think I forgot. I think it’s accidentally deleted.
Rob: It deleted itself, yeah. From my end speaking of applications, the TinySeed application process ran for a month from mid-January to mid-February. I guess around four weeks. We got just under 900 applicants. It was a lot more than I thought. I was ambitious in hoping we’d get 400. I had heard through the GreatFind that a lot of more well-known accelerators get 500 to 700 depending on location. I’m sure Y Combinator gets more than that I’d imagine. It’s a big number and it’s what I’m very happy with.
It also creates what we call a good problem to have. The good problem is we have a lot of applicants. The bad problem is, I’ve been sifting through almost 900 applicants for the past two weeks. It’s just a lot of work. I’m not complaining obviously because this is what I would want to be doing, but it’s definitely going to be a process to get through all these. I already started having conversations with founders as I mentioned a few weeks ago. It’s going well.
Mike: Awesome. The only other thing on my side is that I’ve got an upcoming webinar that I’m going to be doing for hr.com which is kind of, I don’t know, you look at those 2-letter domain names and you’re like, “Wow,” it’s nice that I was able to finagle that. I’ll be doing a webinar for them on personalized email strategies to drive traffic, engage leads, close deals, and more. That will be on April 29th and I’ll link it up in the show notes in case anybody’s interested.
Obviously because it’s for them, their audience tends to be people who are reaching out to HR professionals in that particular space. They have a couple of different audiences, but one of them is the HR reps themselves, and then the other one is people and vendors who are trying to get in touch with HR people. This is basically aimed at those people who are trying to get in touch with the HR reps. It’s more of a general presentation that I’m putting together for them. It could very well be applicable to people who are listening.
Rob: We will link that up in the show notes.
Mike: I know I did the intro today, but what are we talking about?
Rob: Actually, we designed the entire outline around a listener question. I’ll play the voicemail in a second, but it’s about what are the key performance indicators or KPIs. By the way, I hate that term. I feel like it’s such an MBI, I hate it. It’s a shorthand that everyone understands. What are the numbers, the metrics that you should be tracking when launching and growing a SaaS app. Let’s dive into the voicemail here.
Adam: Hey Rob and Mike, I’m Adam Hawkins. Thanks for running the show, it’s been awesome. I’ve learned a lot from you over the past few episodes and I appreciate that both of you mention metrics and discuss these app businesses. One of you mentioned that you needed to have X thousand visitors on your landing page to pull your funnel in a previous episode. That really got me thinking of a fellow bootstrapper. Here’s my question, what are the KPIs and target values in launching in SaaS? I’m kind of thinking something along the lines of numbers that will keep me on track in launching my own SaaS. That’s all for me. Thanks guys and keep up the good work.
Rob: The first thing I want to say about this is, when we make statements like you need X thousand people to hit your landing page to validate or whatever. Often that’s a rule of thumb and it’s something to start from, but please don’t take that as gospel. I think in the past we’ve said you need 30 people, or you should talk to 30 people and have them say yes to your product, and consider that validated.
With Drip, I only did 10. It just depends. It’s all a spectrum. It’s like a risk tolerance. These numbers are not set in stone. None of this stuff is set in stone. With that said, there are rules of thumb. From doing this for 15 years, you start to see patterns and you know that a metric is out of whack if, let’s say I have a SaaS app that’s $50 Bucks a month, I ask for a credit card upfront, and my trial to pay is 10%. I know that is way too low and we have a major problem in our funnel.
That’s what we’re going to talk through today. These loose ranges when I see an app performing at 40% versus 60%, how we think about that, and how it indicates where you might have an issue in your funnel. It really helps you figure out what to focus on, because at any given time, you’re going to have one or more things that are just going sideways with your business. It’s just the nature of doing startups. You’re always that duck on the pond where above the water, you look like you’re just gracefully moving along, and under the water you’re just paddling like crazy to stay afloat. Your numbers are sideways and you got to figure out what do you focus on.
That’s really the point of this episode. It’s to try to give you some guidance so that you’re thinking about it as someone with a background. Even if this is your first time that you’re kind of taking the wisdom and the rules of thumb from us. Basically, folks who have seen these SaaS apps, seen a lot of numbers, know what a healthy SaaS business looks like, and know where to focus on to help improve them.
Mike: Yeah. As you said, these are guidelines and general patterns. It doesn’t necessarily mean that if you are in this range, then things are going great. I think one of the big drawbacks of using this information as gospel is the fact that you never really know whether or not you have room for improvement or how much will you have room for improvement. If you have this general range, let’s say it’s between 2% and 4% for any given number, and let’s say you’re smack in the middle at 3%, that seems reasonable.
There’s probably other areas in your business that you should be focusing on, but is it possible that that number could be 6% or 8% depending on your type of business or the vertical that you are in. The answer is absolutely yes, it could be that high, but you don’t really know unless you are directly comparing yourself against other businesses that are similar to yours.
Again, these are general guidelines. They are helpful in terms of determining whether or not you should continue to focus on that area. Maybe you should, but chances are good that if you’re in the general ballpark, I’ll say that there’s other things you should be going to look at before you come back and try to optimize and double down on whatever that particular thing is to improve it.
Rob: That’s the thing, if you’ve ever gotten a piece of mail from your city water quality control board, they’ll show you all the lead and this and that, and then they’ll show you the acceptable ranges, because without the acceptable ranges, you have no idea what the numbers mean. It’s like one part per million of lead. Does that mean anything to you? It doesn’t to me, so then you want to see the acceptable range, or if you get a blood test, Mike. I know you’ve never had any test on you.
Mike: Of course not.
Rob: I’m curious. You’ve talked about it on the show, that’s why I’m bringing it up. I get a blood test every few years or whatever. There’s all these numbers that mean nothing without that guideline on the right that this is the normal range. That’s really what this is trying to do. I don’t want to over couch this and say, “These numbers? We’re just going to ballpark them and it don’t really mean anything.” They do mean things, but there’s always the caveats of, if you’re selling a $19 a month SaaS—I will try to call those out as we go through because I’ve sold $19 a month SaaSes—and then if you have one that’s $500 a month, the numbers are going to be different. We’ll try to talk through those differences as we go.
Mike: We’ve talked about KPIs and various metrics in a few other episodes. The first one was episode 112 where we talked about the startup metrics for Pirates and that’s based on AAARR. Is that what it is? I forgot.
Rob: Yes, something like that. It’s either AARRR or AAARR, I forget which it is.
Mike: I think it’s AARRR. There’s another one, Episode 187 where there is a whole slide deck that we went through from Andrea’s Cleaner. That slide deck is around 150 pages or so. It’s really in-depth. There’s a lot of good information in there. It specifically talks about the fact that your KPIs are going to change over time and very early on, there are going to be data points that you’re looking at. You have to be really careful about how you interpret them because the numbers are probably going to be much smaller, and your product market fit isn’t quite right yet.
There’s a lot of caveats to those very early numbers. We will call them out as well, but that’s something really important to keep in mind when you’re trying to figure out whether or not you should optimize something more or move on to something else. The third episode is Episode 231 with Ruben Gamez where you and him at the very end of the episode started talking about some of these general ranges that we’ll rehash in this episode.
Rob: I’ll be interested to see how close the ranges are. We literally did it off the cuff in that episode, and I’m kind of getting into it off the cuff again today. I’m hoping that the ranges are pretty close. What I’d like to do is start at the top of the funnel. Going from unique visits to your site and just go all the way down the funnel. Visits-to-trial, trial-to-paid, turn, blah-blah-blah, and go down the line.
So, starting at the top of the funnel with unique visitors. This is an interesting one because I don’t think there is a KPI for this. You want the most unique visitors you can get that are targeted at your website in any given month. I have had software products that get literally 1500 unique visitors a month that sold upwards of $4000 or $5000 a month in software. Now, it was not SaaS, it was a $300 one time purchase. The traffic was targeted, it was in a pretty tight niche, and it obviously converted quite well.
Whereas most SaaS apps I know, you’re going to be priced between let’s say $20 and $100 a month for your starting tier if you’re doing self-service. You really want to start getting into that 5000-10,000 uniques a month to try to start scaling it up. The challenge here is, if we’re talking about day one and you’ve just launched, unique visitors doesn’t have much meaning yet. What you really want to do is you’re still trying to validate your product, you’re trying to find product market fit, driving more traffic, trying to split test, and look at these aggregate numbers isn’t helpful yet.
In the early days, you should probably couch all of these metrics with that. In the early days, your numbers are going to be so small. When you have 10-20 customers and one of them turns, that doesn’t really mean you have 5% or 10% churn rate. It does technically, but it’s meaningless because you don’t have enough numbers to accurately measure things. I think that is another thing. Early day KPIs are different than later day KPIs. Early day KPIs are really how many people am I talking to? Do I think we have product market fit? Is churn going down? These are marketing resonating.
There’s a lot more qualitative questions that I ask in the early days than in the later days. You’re looking at more quantitative, because you’re just past that point. It’s hard to say for everyone, but I feel like when you hit about somewhere between 5000-15,000 MRR, that’s where I start to shift into that. You probably have 100-200 customers. That’s where you can start having numbers that are more easily measurable and you can start seeing trends instead of seeing these very spiky results because the numbers are small.
Mike: I think one of the interesting things about the number of unique visitors is that, as you said, all those not edge cases but those different factors that play into it like price point, how long it’s been around, do you have product market fit, all that kind of stuff. One of the really challenging things when you’re that early on is that a link on Hacker News, for example, can drive traffic through the roof and it is untargeted traffic. It’s good to get it and it’s nice to see that there are more eyeballs coming to your site, but what it does is it really heavily skews your metrics, because those people aren’t necessarily there as interested people, they’re there because you got a PR bump and that really seriously starts skewing your metrics.
You really have to be careful when you’re looking at everything else just because if you’re only averaging let’s say 3000 views a month, and then suddenly you get an incoming link and you end up getting 5000 over the course of a couple days, that 5000 is going to overshadow your typical 3000. And because it’s untargeted, your visitors trial and your trial-to-paid, all those numbers completely gets out of whack because of that. It skews them. It makes it a little bit more challenging to figure out what is my actual visitor-to-trial rate. You have to look at that and say, “Well, how well targeted was that traffic? Do I apply a percentage to that?” Well yes, 5000 people, but maybe only 0.5% or 1% of them were actually targeted then you multiply out from there and figure out what your actual visitor trial rate would be.
Rob: Yeah. The nice part about all these metrics but specifically visitor trial is, the more visits you get and the more trials you get, just that the further along you get, it does standardize. I used to be able to look in Google analytics or whatever dashboard I was running and just instantly know if it was a good number. My range for this is for SaaS, I want to specifically say that. For info products or for onetime purchases, you can get dramatically higher numbers, but people signing up for SaaS apps with a credit card upfront, I want to be between 0.5% and 2%.
The difference there could be a lot of things. It can definitely be your messaging and your marketing. It can be the quality of your traffic. It can also be your price point and that’s a big one. If I had an app that was $10-$20 a month for the lowest pricing tier, I would want to be closer to that 1.5% and 2% number of unique visitors translating into trials with a credit card on file. If I’m selling something that’s $50-$100 a month as the lowest tier, I’m going to be looking between 0.5% and 1%, 1% would be a pretty nice number to get on that.
Something else to think about is this is for one funnel. That’s like the visitors and turning into trial. You can also have a longer funnel that visitors turning into email subscribers and then you know how many email subscribers, over time, turn into trials. You can look at that number. If you have a good converting landing page, let’s say you’re sending either ad traffic or SEO traffic, and you’re trying to squeeze for an email address, and your offering something of value to folks with download in exchange for that email, I want the range to be between about 15% and 25% of people entering their email address on the landing page. I’ve had upwards of between 40% and 50% for certain calls-to-action with the really targeted traffic, but that’s pretty exceptional. If I’m below 15% I’m a little concerned and if I’m below 10% then I’m doing something wrong. The traffics mismatch or the call-to-action isn’t very good. If you’re going to do that, it’s a longer funnel, it’s a longer journey, but you need to then look at your email numbers in aggregate and see how many of these are turning into trials over time.
That’s where you need a good system with good tracking like Drip or I believe ActiveCampaign could do this. I’m not sure that Mailchimp, I haven’t used it in so long, I’m not sure that it’s easy to do that with Mailchimp. If you are going to go that route, you’re going to want to dial in the analytics at least to the point where you can have a relatively good insight into how many new subscribers are converting into trials. One other thing, if you’re not asking for credit card upfront and your unique visitor-to-trial rate is 5%, I’d say 5%-15%, but 5% is actually too low. I think I’d want to be more in probably 10%-20% range is where I feel comfortable. This one I have done very little because I tend to ask for credit card upfront. I have done tests with it and such, but I’ve talked to a bunch founders who run credit card free trials and that does tend to be the range.
Number three, the next KPI is of course trial-to-paid conversion. If I’m asking for a credit card upfront, I want between 40% and 60%. If I’m at 39%, I know that I have a problem. If I’m at 58%, I know that I’m doing quite well. I mean that’s really towards the top range. There was a time when Drip bumped above 60% at different times, then you know you’re kind of killing it and your onboarding is doing really well. When I took over HitTail, I acquired that in 2011, it was credit card upfront and the trial-to-paid was 15%, and so you know that there’s a major problem in onboarding. That was one of the first things that I cleaned up.
That’s why these ranges are fairly important is that you know you’re so out of whack there that if you fix that, you’re going to be going to be in a better position. If you’re not asking for credit card upfront, trial-to-paid, I would want to that one between let’s say 5% and 15% is probably a relatively decent mark. I mean I would want to be between 8% and 15% myself, but you’re just kind of a lot lower when you’re not asking for credit card, that’s kind of the nature of the beast.
Mike: One of the things that I think is probably the most challenging with trying to find out or to track some of this information is that when you’re very early on, these numbers are very misleading when one person cancels. If you’ve got 10 customers or 20 customers, having one or two customers cancel is a huge deal. One or two people who come through the funnel that don’t convert, let’s say you’ve got four of them through and not one of them converts, that’s 0%. Even having a couple after that, it doesn’t really put the number back to really where it should.
You have to eyeball those things and try to capture as much information from people who are leaving or not following through with the trial to figure out what it is that drove them away. Why did they not actually decide to follow through and sign-up for the service or continue using it. Use that information to try and figure out what it is that you’re supposed to do because the numbers are not going to be enough, especially early on.
Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t track those numbers, just that they’re going to be misleading early on. Over time, it will get better, but those first few that come through, first 100-200 that come through, is going to be hard. You have to talk to people to figure out what the reasons are for them to move in one direction or the other.
Rob: Exactly. The numbers aren’t going to tell you the whole story. Especially in the early days. That’s something you got to dig into. The fourth KPI we’re going to talk about is churn. I’ve seen people look at churn as a blanket number. It really obfuscates what’s going on underneath. If you go to Amazon and you see that the average rating for something is 2.5 stars, but there’s actually 101 stars and 105 stars, I guess that would actually average to 3%, but you get the idea. 100 0 stars and a and 100 5 stars in average is 2.5%.
If you just have the 2.5%, it looks like a crappy product, but as it turns out with five and zero, the zeros are probably either misunderstanding, or there’s something wrong, there’s more information under that data. Churn I feel is the same way. If you look at your churn across your entire customer base, you’re missing some information. What I’ve typically seen the most success with is to look at your first 60-day of churn, and then your post 60-day churn, and separate those numbers out.
Sometime it’s up to 90 days, but really, a lot of people do an extended trial where they might enter their credit card. When the trial expires, they pay one month. They never get set up. They never get onboard and then they churn, but really what they did is they were kind of like a trial that didn’t convert to paid. I started seeing these patterns, it was before HitTail, but when I got into HitTail and really dig into the numbers, it was a huge difference. Literally in the first 60 days, especially if you’re asking for credit card upfront, but it can happen both ways, you might see churn upwards and a per cohort of between 20% and 40%.
It can be a huge number of people that are canceling there and 40% I start to feel uncomfortable, 20% I actually don’t feel terrible about that for 60 days. Then post 60 days, you want to get your churn obviously as low as possible, but I feel most comfortable in let’s say for lower priced products that are not enterprise, not annual contracts, I think between 5% and 8%. If you’re at 9% or 10%, it’s pretty brutal, 8% is about the top in where I feel comfortable. Realistically, if you’re a big SaaS app, I think WP engine probably has negative churn at this point.
I remember Jason saying in the early days, they had 2% churn. I’ve had apps that have 2% to 3% churn in that post 60-day, post 90-day mark. That’s where you want to get to. The problem is, the lower your price point, the higher your churn tends to be. That’s why a lot of folks go up market, a lot of SaaS apps do. If you can, you want to get to net negative churn where you do churn out 2%, 3%, 4% but just the growth in your existing customer base of people upgrading actually wipes out the churn. It’s a crazy thing. I’ve seen it firsthand. It just catapults your growth. Those are my loose numbers that I keep in mind when I’m looking at churn rates.
When I see someone come through with a 12% monthly churn rate, I think that’s the first thing I would attack. If I see someone come through with a 3% churn rate, I think that’s amazing. I believe you have a product market fit depending on how many people you’re putting through your funnel. Let’s look at your other metrics to figure out where we should focus position not be on churn, if your number is that low.
Mike: One thing that we should probably drill into a little bit is the idea of that negative churn, because I think that some people might get confused about that. It’s not that you’re gaining more users than you have actually signed up. Although in some cases that may actually be true, because if somebody comes in and then they invite somebody else on their team, initially they sign up with one account and then they may fall into a different tier. That’s part of where that negative churn comes from because people are essentially upgrading to a higher tier paid accounts.
Whether they’re adding users, or going to a new pricing tier, each of those things can qualify. A question for you Rob, because I’m actually not sure about this, does it qualify if they upgrade from a monthly plan to an annual plan? I don’t think that it does.
Rob: No, it doesn’t. The annual plan should be divided by 12 and added to your MRR anyways. It’s not net revenue. It really is actual MRR that I’m looking at. I’m glad you brought this up because I should have couched this when I was talking about churn and the churn you should focus on is revenue churn, not user churn or customer churn. Revenue churn is when you look at, we started the month with $100,000 in MRR and we lost $10,000 in MRR, so that’s a 10% revenue churn.
First is we started the month with 1000 customers who are paying, 1000 credit cards on file, no matter how many users are within each account. We started with 1000 customers paying us and we ended the month with 900. That’s 10% user churn or customer churn. I’ve always looked at both. By far, the most important is revenue churn. I don’t think you could have negative customer churn, because you can’t add more customers than you signed up, but you can have a net negative revenue churn. That’s where you only lose a small amount of revenue from people canceling, but the rest of your customer base is either so large or they naturally move up tiers and pay you more for stuff.
Drip is a great example of this. As people’s lists grew, they naturally moved up in tiers automatically. There was just a natural movement towards paying more to your ESP. Those are the kinds of businesses that can have negative churn. Slack probably has a negative churn rate, because teams do tend to grow. Yeah, companies go out of business, there are layoffs now, but there are layoffs from time to time in your customer base.
In general, teams that sign up Slack and start paying, I’m guessing these are startups that are adding more and more people and Slack charges $6 or $8 a month per person. I would guess with the stickiness of Slack, they’re kind of gross churn is very low. I bet their net churn including expansion revenue is what it’s called, as people expand and hire tiers is quite substantial. That’s the holy grail of SaaS.
I know people say, recurring revenue is the holy grail of software, and that’s why SaaS is such a big thing. Net negative churn is the holy grail of SaaS if you want to get into it, because that just snowballs and it means that if you do nothing, your company grows. It’s crazy to even think about it when you actually look at charts, and you look at how the numbers work out, you look at graphs of it, once you hit net negative churn, you don’t need to do much. I shouldn’t say you don’t need to do much, but you need to do a lot less to grow a lot faster is what happens.
Mike: Is that where the passive income comes in?
Rob: Passive income, money wisely. Let’s run through the last few pretty quickly. The fifth thing is MRR and that’s just your monthly recurring revenue. As we said earlier, it can get tricky if you have annual plans, you’re supposed to technically divide by 12 that annual plan and then add it onto your MRR. Hopefully you have a software that can do that like Baremetrics or ProfitWell. MRR was the number that I tracked religiously. Every night I would get an email after billing ran and it would tell me what MRR was, what the daily billing was, and all that stuff.
It’s kind of a no brainer when you think all of us track it and it’s something that talks about the health of your business. The other one is MRR growth. I always looked at this as dollar rather than percentage. A lot of people talk percentages, but it’s like when you’re at $1000 MRR, or you’re at $100,000 MRR, the percentages obfuscate so much stuff. Truly, how many dollars did you add and you want to look at not just net add, but you want to look at how many did you lose to churn, how many did you add from new customers, and how much did you add from expansion revenue. Seeing those three different numbers and then the net. There’s four different numbers that you can get into and a lot of people who are really into their SaaS numbers know these numbers cold and know where they want to be with them.
The last one is ARPU, average revenue per user. I like to call this ARPC, which is average revenue per customer, because frankly when I’m charging people money, I think of them as customers, not users. Like Drip, one account might have 20 users in it, but to me that’s a single customer. It’s apples to apples, but it’s just a terminology thing. Average revenue per user, average revenue per customer.
Frankly, if your average revenue per user is $10 or $20 a month, you have a nice little business. You can grow that to something, but the odds of you growing that to a multimillion dollar business are very low. I’ve seen businesses with very low churn, good trial-to-paid, and average revenue per customer of $10 or $15 a month. I think that’s going to be a great 30K MRR business. That’s not a bad business to have, but you’re going to struggle to get past that 30K or 50K mark. If you want to build something into a 7-figure business, not across the board, not unequivocally but in general, you need that average revenue per customer to be upwards of that $40, $50, $60 and up price point.
You want to be in triple digits. You want to get there eventually. You don’t have to be there on day one, but aspiring to get into that $100 to $500 per month, per customer. That’s where you can scale, it’s so much easier to scale a business into that seven- and eight-figure range. Because you have the money to acquire customers, the payback is fairly quick. If most people are paying you $200 a month, you can spend quite a bit on ads and salespeople. Frankly, churn will be lower. It’s always counter intuitive to say this, but lower priced products, lower ARPCs tend to lead to higher churn.
Mike: Something we didn’t talk about when we were talking about the revenue churn between the first 60 days and then post 60 days was that, if you do any sort of a pricing change that can have a massive impact on what your revenue churn looks like. If you raise prices, let’s say by 50%, make things simple. If you raise prices by 100%, you double your prices. If you lose less than half your customers, then technically you’re coming out ahead because you’re making more money. In theory, your infrastructure costs have probably gone down. The obvious downside of that is, potentially losing customers after that first month or after you initially make that change, assuming you didn’t grandfather them. At least be a little cautious of or cognizant of, because that that can seriously change some of those numbers.
It’s not something you have to worry about, as you’re launching, but down the road when you are calculating these numbers and try to figure out how to grow the company, those are things that you should at least bear in mind when you’re trying to figure out if you’re running into financial issues and you need to be able to make more money. You can just do some calculations and say, “Well, if I raised by 10%, this is how much we could get, and how many of those customers are we going to lose the because of us raising those prices.”
The other thing that I was thinking about was that, all of this information sounds great to be looking at, but how do you actually go about tracking it? There’s a lot of different tools out there that you can use. Sunrise KPI for example is one. We can look this up in the show notes. CYFE is another one. Honestly, the simplest thing to do, instead of going in and trying to figure out a bunch of different tools and things to integrate, you can just use a spreadsheet. Whether it’s a Google doc or Excel spreadsheet, it doesn’t really matter. Throw your information in there, maybe update it. You can do it as much as once a day, but you could also do it once a week or once a month, and it really gives you a sense of where things are at and what you should be focusing on. If you’re not plugging this information in and at least looking at it, then you’re never going to do anything about it. That’s the big problem that most people run into is they just don’t even look at these things or they don’t update them and keep track of them.
Rob: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, I’ll admit with pretty much all, I think without exception, all the SaaS apps I’ve ever run, I’ve built a little scrappy page and these are just simple queries. You should have all the stuff in your own database, I’m imagining. I always did and it’s a little bit of a pain. Churn can be a pain to calculate that can take some time, but I remember hacking together a dashboard with most of these numbers in a few hours, one evening.
I was listening to music and have the lava lamp on sipping Bourbon and I just hammered through these one at a time. I really don’t have a very impressive life, do I, Mike? It’s kind of sad that that would, but it was a fun night, I’ll admit. Because once I had that, I was looking at that thing every day. It was super cool. Then by the time we were launching Drip, I remember telling Derrick, “These are the numbers I know I need. Let’s figure them out,” and it did take him probably a day to get the initial version done.
We had to kill a day of developer productivity to do it, but it was really nice to (a) be in control of those, to (b) have a all in one place, and to have them displayed in exactly like the order that I wanted. I mean, we even have trailing 7-day trials, how much each day it had, have it trailing 30-day. Then we modified it and adjusted it over time. The other cool thing is that whole dashboard and admin area became a nice training ground for new developers. We’d bring in like a junior dev or whatever. You may not want them to push production code into your app right away, because it could break something for customer, but that becomes a nice playground to be like, “Hey, let’s add this number or let’s tweak this,” and it becomes this code base that can get screwed up. If the admin console crashes or has some weird thing that happens in it, it’s not the end of the world, because it’s just us using it. That was kind of also a bonus to having that all built out.
Mike: I’ve daily email sent to me from Bluetick just to see a lot of those different pieces of data.
Rob: It’s a good way to do it. I always had it as a shortcut on my browser but it’s same thing, and that’s your pulse. We actually called it, the page that displayed all this, we called it Pulse in Drip. I always thought that was a pretty fitting name, because it’s the pulse of the business.
Mike: Got it, cool.
Rob: Forty minutes on SaaS Metrics, KPIs. I think the next episode needs to just be all jokes. You and I need to just talk about movies and jokes.
Mike: I don’t know if that’s going to be a very compelling episode.
Rob: That would be even worse than this one. All right. Let’s call it a wrap. I guess I’m the wrap guy today.
Mike: Yes, you are.
Rob: This whole episode was outlined based on a single listener question. If you have a question for us, you can voice mail number at 888-801-9690 or email us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups, and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about how to launch a product into a mature market. They give a definition of what a mature market is, list some examples of established players in different markets, discuss how to tell if you should enter a particular market and how to execute on it.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups For the Rest of Us, Mike and I discuss how to launch a product into a mature market. This is Startups For the Rest of Us episode 425. Welcome to Startups For the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs to be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products. Weather you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, sir?
Mike: It’s the end of the year, so I’m just doing a lot of end-of-year paperwork that’s—mostly required government filings and getting ready for taxes and stuff like that. I had to submit, I think it was a affidavit of eligibility for my health insurance and it had to be done before the end of this year for my health insurance to be able to be renewed in April or something like that. It’s like, come on, you have to be kidding me. This far and advance and at the end of the year they’re requesting it but whatever you have to do it.
Rob: Yeah, that’s fascinating. The end-of-year stuff is always a pain in the butt. Because I’m always taking this time off. I take a week off, sometimes a week and a half off but it’s not fully off. I’m recording podcasts and doing a few calls here and there but a lot of thinking and planning scheming for the next year, and so it’s a bummer to have to think about government filings and that kind of stuff during this time.
Mike: How about you? What’s new with you?
Rob: Well, you probably hear I’m a little sick right now. Happy New Year everyone. This episode goes live on New Year’s Day. I hope your hangover is treating you well, and that Mike and I can be there for you. And for me, it’s another year, man. My birthday is December 28. So I turned 34 this year.
Mike: Did you say 34?
Rob: Yeah, I’m glad you caught that. Good. So listeners may or may not know how old I am. But everyone knows now that I’m definitely not 34.
Mike: I’m surprised you didn’t try to shoot for like 29.
Rob: Yeah, now that would have been good. I still get carded here in Minneapolis. So they’re funny. In California, they don’t card you very much at bars once you look old enough, but they still card everyone here. So it’s kind of not. It’s something you say, like, “Oh, I still get carded.” But it’s like, everyone kind of gets carded here.
Mike: Yeah, certain places I’ve seen where, like it’s just as a general rule. They’re like, hey, it doesn’t matter. Like, you have to card everybody. And depending on where you are, certain states or jurisdictions, they’ll say that if you have a violation of any kind, like you immediately lose your liquor license, and then, like, your entire business is gone. So I think that’s the case of the next town over here in Massachusetts, and they’re like, they’re not willing to take the risk. So there’s like, “Yup, we card everybody and if you don’t have ID, too bad.”
Rob: Yeah, that’s funny, you know, I found a retreat in California, and I walked into a bar and they carded me and when I walked an interval said they didn’t card him and was just laughing and laughing because they were like, “You look so old dude,” and he went with it but I think that’s funny when one person in a group gets carded and it’s kind of obvious you’re all the same age and I believe he’s like a few years younger than me as well.
So we have three new iTunes reviews. Three Mike, three in December. This one is from MJ SFS, says best Startup podcast. I’m on my fourth software, venture to battlemaps.co, and this podcast has been invaluable. Keep up the great work guys.
Another reviewer says a podcasting masterpiece filled with actionable product focused insights. It’s never moved from the top of my podcast list. Robin Mike are always full of enthusiasm, insights and great knowledge acquired from years of actually building products.
Thanks so much for those five star reviews. If you have not left startups for the rest of us a five star review. I would invite you to log into Stitcher or iTunes and help us get a few more listeners help us stay motivated and help us on those long, lonely winter nights when we’re sad and considering crying ourselves to sleep, and instead, we actually read our iTunes reviews to make ourselves feel better.
Mike: Because we’re not actually 34.
Rob: That’s because we’re not actually 34. So this week’s topic is interesting. I was going through our listener questions and there was a question that I felt like almost warranted an entire episode. So, I started just hammering out a quick outline. It turns out, it’s at least an entire episode and could probably be a book chapter. But the question asked, his name is Eric Roberts and he’s asking about how to launch into a mature market. He says, I know from listening to you guys, the competition in place is a good thing. But what about an overly mature market? How can you tell if a market is primed for a new solution to an old problem? And I think there’s a lot of nuance to this. I mean, there’s the idea of, what is a mature market, then how can you tell when you should or should not enter one, and how do you execute on that those are kind of the three angles that I was thinking it through. And so, that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Mike: Cool. So where do you start?
Rob: Let’s talk about, what is a mature market, a give a little definition and some examples. So when I think of a mature market, I think of a market that has established players that are well known. So, think of examples in CRM, it’s definitely mature market, there is Salesforce, there’s HubSpot, there’s Base, there’s Pipedrive, there’s a long list Trigger, CRM, long list of folks there.
In addition, I think in a mature market, there tends to be maybe two or three really obvious choices. So if I say CRM, a lot of people think of Salesforce, HubSpot, maybe Highrise maybe Base or Pipedrive, in email marketing, in ESPs, people think of MailChimp, they think of AWeber, they think of Infusionsoft. I mean, there’s this kind of short list, it’s the opposite of the long tail, it’s the fat head, it’s called where there’s a cluster of companies, be it one, two, or three that have the vast majority of the market and kind of sit at the top of the market share. In addition, I think the third piece of that is that there are these product norms that have developed.
So if you think about CRM, there’s this nomenclature of leads, and deals and contacts. And if you think of ESPs, there’s this, these norms that are developed, like lists and subscribers and forms. And so, while this may not be an exhaustive list of everything that defines a mature market, those are the three pieces that I think of, in my mind, that kind of defined it, that’s having established players, it’s having two or three obvious choices, and then having kind of norms or nomenclature that have developed through those products – and then in the other products that are also entering the space.
Mike: I think the easiest way to recognize whether or not something is a mature market is if you go out to a handful of people and say, “Hey, do you know of any companies that are in this particular software vertical, whether it’s you know, CRMs or mailing lists,” like if the people that you know, or who are in your circles who have any familiarity with that can name at least two or three or four different companies that are in that space then it’s probably a mature market, obviously, like if they’re if it’s a not well-known industry, for example, let’s say like virtual tabletop software. If you talk to a bunch of people who are in that particular industry, they’re going to know very well like who the players are. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a mature market.
Rob: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. I mean, anytime you see a forum post that’s like, what do you use for CRM, you know, and then you’ll get dozens of responses and almost everyone’s using a different one, or what do you use for your to do lists? And, you know, there’s, there’s dozens and bug tracking and issue tracking and all these things. So what’s interesting is, I don’t think, you know, a mature market doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a big market.
Mike: I was just thinking that.
Rob: Yeah, because to even think about like more aware software where they have a mature product in a market that has been around now for more than a decade. They build a SaaS app for countertop installers. People who install the actual physical tile that goes in a kitchen or bathroom and that’s not a huge market, right? That’s not a $100 million market. And yet if you were to try to enter that now they are so far ahead, the market has matured because they launched in, I don’t remember what it was like 2006 or 2007. And they’ve just kept adding things in and maturing the market during that time.
Mike: Well, I guess it makes – tt begs the question like, is it considered a mature market? Or is it like mature players in that market? How do you differentiate between those two things like CRM, lots of people use it so by definition you could call that a mature market but for table countertop installers, they are more aware as is very mature player in that market. But the market itself is small. So do you consider it a mature market? Because it’s not like there’s a lot of competition or a lot of people in that market? So like, is that a mature market. Do you consider that?
Rob: Well, I guess by my definition, I have three points or is there an established player or players in the countertop installer market? Yes, because there’s more aware. Is there one, or two, or three obvious choices? Yes, there’s more aware and I think they own most of the market, but there’s obviously at least one other competitor and have they developed product norms that may not have existed before software into the space. I don’t know their space well enough, but I’m guessing that there’s nomenclature in things in their product that they came up with that that didn’t exist before then.
So I would say yeah, I would say even a small market I understand your differentiation of mature product versus a mature market but I feel like once there is a mature product or two in a market the market becomes mature at that point yeah.
Mike: I was just kind of thinking about the product norms piece of it because if there aren’t a large number of products in that market and obviously like there’s room for that software to grow and for the products who are already in place to grow that’s fine but do the majority of countertop installers know about them? How many of them are actually using software of any kind or how many of them are looking for it? Do you see kind of the direction I’m going with that because like if there’s 100,000 countertop installers, but only 500 of them are using software of any kind. Does that establish a product norm, because that’s only five percent.
Rob: That’s a good point, yes, and imagine if they’d been around for, you know, if you’ve been around for 10 years. So you’d say, “Hey, this is a pretty mature product. There’s a lot of features, it’s stable,” all those things, but you only have five percent market penetration. Is that a mature market? I don’t know. I don’t know that I have a good answer to that, other than that either means that they’re not marketing very well. And we’ve now removed from more of our software that we’re doing a hypothetical at this point. But in that hypothetical where this company has been around for 10 years, they only have five percent market penetration, and there’s really no one else, it’s only five percent of market is even using software, then either that’s a really tough market. It’s a market that is highly resistant to technology, or that company is not marketing themselves very well, right? They’re not penetrating the market past five percent.
So I would then ask myself – If I wanted to enter that market, which of those is it, because if they’re not marketing very well, we’ll come in and out market them. But if the industry is just highly resistant to it, then that’s probably not a good market to throw yourself into.
Mike: And I would say that that’s probably a general rule. If it’s hard to get into them, then it’s because they’re resistant to change and resistant to adopting technology, then I would probably would avoid them in general. But it’s a very different story if they’re not marketing themselves very well. And you just trying to make a name for yourself there.
Rob: Right. And I think, that’s a good point. Because the kind of the second point that I wanted to cover, this question I want to answer is, how can you tell when you should or should not enter a mature market? I think we’ve just touched on one.
If you determine that, boy, this market is mature and really no one else wants to use software in it and I’m just going to have to be pulling from the existing competitor who only has five percent of the entire space that would give me pause, that tells me about the customer type and about the how they don’t want to change, right. So then that means that even getting them to switch from a competitor is going to be really difficult. I think also entering a mature market, I personally would not do that as a first time founder without money. One example that I kept coming back to of course is the one that I lived, entering a mature market with the drip, becoming an ESP and then becoming a marketing automation provider.
If I had not had the experience and the past successes that I had and did not have the self-fundability, you know, I was pulling money off of hit tail and other apps that I had, I don’t know that we could have made it. I don’t know that Drip would have survived because the market had so many mature players. Again, MailChimp, AWeber, Infusionsoft, and others – and it cuts both ways because, obviously, that’s what made it possible to grow Drip so quickly is that the market was – it did have opportunity. But if you’re a first time founder and you’re not going to raise funding, I would seriously reconsider trying to enter a mature market because these are the ones we can get a lot of success but these markets are very, very hard to penetrate, if you don’t have the right tool set.
Mike: I just have a quick search for, something kind of running through my brain is where we’re talking about what constitutes a mature market and there’s terms like total addressable market and then serviceable available market, which to me it seems like going back to the example of, if there’s a total of 100,000 countertop installers but only 500 of them are actually using that type of software then maybe your serviceable market is only about 1000 or maybe it’s 750 or something like that versus the total market which is 100,000. And you can look at that and say, well, if the established players have 50% or 75% of the serviceable market, which again is only 750 or 1000, then that’s a fairly significant chunk of those people. And it’s because those types of people are resistant to adopting technology or adopting software solutions for that. And maybe the delineation there is like, are they established players? Do they have most of the addressable market or the serviceable market?
Rob: Yeah, I think that’s a good differentiation there. As I think through this, when I think of mature markets, where there is a lot of adoption. So let’s flip back to the ESP or the CRM or markets where total addressable and serviceable are approximately equivalent, or at least 80%, 70% of the total addressable is already using some type of software and is able and willing to pay for this, I don’t know that I can think of a really good reason not to try to disrupt one of these markets if that’s your ambition.
Like, disrupting an existing market is where that hyper growth comes from and hypergrowth for us bootstrappers might be getting to seven figures in two years and hypergrowth for AirBnb and Stripe, maybe was getting to seven figures in six months, you know, past the point of product market fit. Because you think about AirBnb, did they invent a new market? No, they really essentially disrupted the hotel market. It was an existing place where people were already spending money on these things and they figured out a different way to implement it.
Stripe is the same one, I have them as an example later in this episode. Did invent a whole new market? Did payment processing exist before them? No, of course not. There was Off.net, there was PayPal Web Payments Pro. There were all these gateways and all these services that were really a pain in the ass to use. And Stripe came in and just made it a heck of a lot easier. And even, Drip is the same thing, I think about – there were already ESPs, there were already marketing automation providers. But that made it that much easier to basically pull existing people away who were unhappy with the current state of affairs.
That’s what I think you have to find, is if everyone in the market is using a product and loves it, then maybe you shouldn’t enter that market. But I don’t know of a mature market where people aren’t disgruntled and you think of QuickBooks. Everybody hates QuickBooks, but everybody uses it. So is that right for disruption, you think of Slack, everybody uses Slack but now we see level.app from Derek Reimer, there’s a couple other apps in that space as well.
The more I think about—if that’s your ambition, and you’re willing to really go to the mattresses because it’s going to be a hard fight. I don’t know that there’s a good reason not to try to disrupt. Honestly, if you want to build a little niche lifestyle business and generate that low six-figure income and have it on autopilot and be able to work five or 10 hours a week, then don’t go into a mature market. That’s where I would say, think twice about it, because I’ve had apps like that and they don’t have the great single channel of traffic, and they made whatever it is maybe $1000 a month, and maybe it was 10 grand a month. But there were these awesome little niche products. I mean, they were not—they were in these very nascent markets in these very tight niches and you could autopilot them, but they would never grow past that.
And so, I think that’s the thing to think about, your personal preference. Does it sound interesting, fun to do the hard work and the stress of going after these mature markets? Because I think my hypothesis is that, like, most mature markets right now are ripe for disruption in one way or another.
Mike: Now, one question I have about everything that you just said there is that, it feels to me like a lot of what you talked about relates to the product itself and not necessarily the channels at which those markets are accessible. And something that really comes to mind is enterprise sales for certain types of software, so anything that’s installed across the entire organization, whether it’s 500, or 1000, or 50,000 endpoints in that environment, it feels to me like those are cases where it’s probably a mature market already. You probably can’t start there on day one, you’re going to have a really hard time going into those and being able to offer something that is going to compete with existing solutions. One, because they’re so far ahead of you, but two, also to be able to have the resources to walk in the door and do that at 10, 50, 100 different potential customers, because you don’t necessarily have the time. So, I feel like the channel that you use, that you’re going to get in front of these customers has to come into play here.
Rob: Yeah, no, it absolutely does. That’s where bootstrapping versus raising funding comes into play. If you’re going to bootstrap then your point is dead on. Don’t go after enterprise sales and a mature market because you’re just not going to have the cloud, you’re not going to have the logos, you’re not going to have the time to execute on that.
I have a good friend here in Minneapolis, who has worked for two different companies over the past few years. Both of them were heavily, heavily venture funded and both were going after these massive and mature markets. One was like data storage and the other one, I don’t even really know exactly what it is. But it’s deep-tech stuff. It’s stuff that kind of competes with like parts of AWS, or it competes with stuff that HP or HPE has, or launches or whatever. And yes, they were upstarts but they had to raise buckets of funding in order to do that and build out a team in advance of having any real revenue. And if it works, then they’ll take part of this huge deck of billion dollar market, but that’s the gamble. If it doesn’t work, then they’ll burn through their funding. If they have enough traction after 18 months, they won’t be able to raise the next round.
Obviously, we tend to talk to more to bootstrappers and folks who are listening to this podcast or probably on that side, but it is possible it’s just a whole different playbook if you’re going to do that.
One other exception I can think of when I would give it a second thought as to whether or not I wanted to enter a mature market is if there are other startups also entering that same space who are getting traction. To me, I’m more scared of other startups than I am the big, lumbering, 800-pound gorillas in the space, right? I’m less scared of sales or competing with Salesforce and I’d be more concerned of competing with Pipedrive or one of the other like, smaller, more agile CRMs that I see kind of innovating and things.
Mike: Yeah, I would agree with that. Although there are certain times where if your features start to show up in Gmail or something like that, like you probably want to be a little concerned.
Rob: Yeah, I agree. That’s just Gmail or Salesforce is going to move so much slower that it’s almost by coincidence. I feel like, if you build a feature and one of them, build it within a few months, they’ve probably been working on that for six or eight months. They don’t move fast enough to copy a little upstarts, until you become not a little upstart.
Mike: Yeah, for sure.
Rob: The other thing I would think about perhaps not entering a space, is if you find a space that doesn’t have early adopters. So you find a market – because that’s what you’re going to need, right? You’re going to need, you’re going to need early adopters to basically jump ship on existing solutions who are willing to switch. If you found a space where there are no early adopters—we could go back to that example where we had the company who only had five percent market penetration, and it took them 10 years to get that, it’s pretty obvious no one wants to change. And so, there really aren’t going to be, early adopters.
I can’t think of another good example. I mean, maybe I think of like, the legal space. I know that, when I was a consultant, I worked for a guy who launched a product and legal space. I remember, he just had a really tough time getting traction, because there were not many early adopters in that space. So that could be, I don’t know, that space today and maybe there are more early adopters, but it’s spaces like that that I think are going to be hard to compete with where, the person’s motto is, “Well, I never got fired for choosing IBM,” or “I never got fired for choosing Salesforce.” If that’s really the mantra of everyone, then it’s going to be hard to penetrate.
Mike: I think the other consideration there is whether or not you have to essentially build something that is going to completely replace an existing solution, or you’re just solving an extreme pain point that an existing solution doesn’t solve adequately. And if people are angry about it and looking for a solution to that and they’re willing to plug your product, in addition to whatever it is that they already have as kind of a stopgap measure because it’s so painful versus you have to—it’s the difference between implementing two or three features versus implementing 250 because you have to completely rip and replace that entire product.
I think you have a lot easier time if you only have to implement a couple of things. And if you execute on them really well, people are willing to spend a little bit of extra money to get your solution in there because they’re in such a huge amount of pain.
Rob: So the third part that I want to cover is if you decide to do this, how do you execute on it? I think the thing that – maybe the common wisdom is you have to be 10x better in order to get people to switch. I would say yes and no to that. I don’t know that you need to directly build a 10x better product. I think you do need to build a better product. But I think there’s other things that you can improve upon that are not just product basis, not just a feature race or usability race. So I want to talk about three or four ways that I feel like you could be two-x better in each and perhaps they multiply together to give you more than more than 10x and this really comes out. I mean, the more I wrote this down, this just came out of the Drip playbook. It’s the playbook that I executed as we as we built Drip up and it was these four places where we innovate.
There may be more but this is what comes to mind. The first is, price and if you’re in a mature market and you have a huge player, they often have pricing power where they their brand name and they can charge a lot more than everyone else and you won’t be able to without that brand name. And not only can you not charge that much but you can use that strength of that player against them. And if your product—It’s easier to use and you’re cheaper, you can get these early adopters to start switching
Now, you and I’ve talked a lot about Don’t be the low cost provider. The point is not to be the low cost provider forever. It’s long term to raise your prices. But in the early days trying to price match a large competitor with a brand name, when you don’t have the feature set that they do, it’s going to be difficult.
And so, either price innovation, where you’re innovating on the pricing model itself, that’s risky, but you can think about it or just being cheaper. Again, it cuts in multiple directions. It can bring people who turn or who are more price sensitive in all honesty with drip. I mean, we were priced against Infusionsoft, and Infusionsoft was $300 a month to start and it had a $2000 sign-up fee that you paid right at the beginning.
And that was easy to be cheaper than them and still turn a heck of a profit, right. But we could start at $50 or $100 a month and still not have people who were super price sensitive because if you’re paying $50 or $100 a month, you still have buy-ins, it’s not like we’re going down to $20 a month or something. And so, that’s the kind of pressing I’m talking about, right? Or Salesforce, I believe, is $125 per seat per month, if I recall.
Think about being able to innovate on that and charge $20 or $30 a month per seat, that’s still a nice revenue stream as you’re getting started, and you’re not bottom of the barrel, you’re not a B2C pricing, but it is and can be a competitive advantage, especially in the early days.
Mike: Yeah, I think what you’re kind of referring to there is not using the price as just the sole way to get in the door and be cheaper like because, obviously, you don’t want to do that long term, but it’s really to unlock that the unwillingness to move by having the cheaper price and get them to take that step. You reduce the friction enough by lowering the price to be able to get them to say, “Well, you know what, I’ll give it a shot,” versus if you are priced exactly the same and you have an identical feature set or they have a much better feature set because you’re just not there and they’re mature in the market, then it makes it easier for them to justify giving it a shot. Or even just like saying, “Okay, you know what, I can’t buy into all that stuff because I can’t afford it right now.” Or I’m not even using 90% of it.
I’ve seen a lot of mature solutions out there where they will throw every feature under the sun into the product. And eventually it just becomes this model with that is difficult for some people to adopt. Because they know that they’re not going to use 80% of it. They’re like, “Well, why am I paying this much money for something, I’m only using 10% or 20% off.”
Rob: Second place, I feel like you can innovate and outmaneuver your bigger competitors with the sales model. Oftentimes, you’re competing against enterprise-ish sales models where they have high-tech sales process. You can’t sign up on the site, you have to see a demo. There’s often setup fees to pay the hefty commissions they’re paying to the sales processes. And so, if you bring them and make them, either no touch, or low touch, or even medium touch, you can innovate on that process.
Again, coming back to Salesforce, it’s very hard to go to their site. I don’t believe you can just go to their site and sign up for an account. You have to go through this long process. Whereas with Pipedrive, you can go and sign up for it. Same thing with with Infusionsoft versus Drip, that was always a differentiator, is that you could come and try Drip out, there was a free trial. Infusionsoft, you didn’t even get to see the product unless you were on a demo. They didn’t want to in there playing around with it. So that can be another way to, basically, bring your innovations to the masses and outmaneuver folks and it’s not a product, it’s not just a feature, usability, it’s actually implementing a different sales model that can be more conducive to bring on early adopters.
Mike: I would say that this cuts the other way as well. Because if there are products out there that don’t offer like the ability to get on to a demo because they’re trying to be mass market and they’re trying to have a low-touch sales process. If you go the other direction, then you can have a lot of success there because you can get those people who have given those solutions to try and they got confused or lost and they just said, “Well, how do I get on a demo or have somebody show me something.” And if that company doesn’t offer it and you do, then you can get them on a call and you can – I won’t say gloss over the things that your product can’t do but you can essentially offer to do those things for them and do that high touch onboarding process and thereby justify a higher price tag for your software.
Rob: The third area where I feel like you can outmaneuver the big competition is in product and this one I it’s really hard to do. But it’s pretty straightforward to describe it. You make it way easier to use, which doesn’t tend to be that hard when you’re dealing with larger clumsier companies with 10 or 12-year-old code bases, you ship faster—so you have a better shipping velocity of new features. And it feels like products are constantly improving versus there are once or twice a year launch cycles and you build a unique feature, or two, or three that no one else has for now. You try to figure out a way to go back to first principles and innovate on something that is really hard for them to do.
So, adding automation into your ESP, when it takes everybody else a year to do it. Because the code base and they’re already at scale is one way to do that, or adding a lot of integrations that you know, that the early adopters will use that your competitors have not added. Because again, they just move slower than you do. So, you know, you look around and you say, “Oh, there’s this whole new ecosystem around Stripe.” And there’s there, Baremetrics, and there’s ProfitWell, and there’s Termbusters, and there’s Stunning, and there’s all this stuff, it’s like, you know, Infusionsoft or Salesforce, they’re not going to integrate with those tools yet, because they’re just not on their radar. But if you integrate with all of them, you could scoop up this early adopter, you know, the bootstrapper crowd the, the online business folks, because they use those tools. Gumroad is another one, but I want to, underscore that having those features is a short-term thing, because if they are successful, other folks will implement whether other upstarts or you know big competitors will implement them. But that’s how I think about, product innovation.
Again, easier said than done. But that is the playbook that I see working as, as startups try to attack these more mature markets.
Of course it is because it was just recently built, but the look and feel of it can go a long way towards making people feel like you’re responsive to the needs of the customers and you actually care about how your product looks and is presented.
Rob: I think that’s a great example. I think Gusto is another example of a company that entered a very mature market and through—I mean honestly, if you look at these points I hadn’t—so here’s a great example, because I was thinking about Drip, and Stripe, and others, when I wrote these four points of price, sales model product and marketing, which we’ll get into next. But gusto came in their price was cheaper than paychecks. I think I was using paychecks before at Gusto and Gusto was cheaper, Gusto’s sales model was so much better, it was all self served. I didn’t have to talk to people, it was a lot easier for me the product itself was easier to use. It was a better looking as you said, and they file, I don’t know, all my stuff. I guess Paychecks did some of that too, but the experience of Gusto in the communication is all via email, like click and do things like it is so much of a better thing and then their marketing, I would say that I really heard about it from word of mouth and the other three price sales model and product really drove that for me, but obviously their marketing to get into the hands of early adopters like us, I think was a pretty deliberate decision.
Mike: Yeah, I think the word of mouth marketing, if you have a good enough product that, I won’t say, it sells itself. But like if the customers that you have love it so much over the other things that they’ve tried then that word of mouth is really going to drive a lot of revenue for your new customers. And I don’t know how easy it is to recognize that that’s what’s actually going on. But I have seen that happen. And, there’s certain products that I’ve recommended where you look around and you don’t see a lot of marketing for them, but you’ve recommended them a lot to other people or other people have recommended those products to you. It’s just easy to see when those things are actually working.
Yeah. When you’re in a mature market, and the number one player is big, but everybody hates using it. That’s when word of mouth is huge. Because you will be you will become the thing that we’re all talking about, on our podcasts, at conferences on our blogs. I mean, think of Gusto or, again, ZenPayroll when it came out. Think of when Stripe came up, a ton of it was word of mouth.
Zenefits, it’s basically likes Gusto but for health insurance and other benefits. Drip had a really strong word of mouth in the early days. You know, there’s others. I’ll give another example, ready to wrap up, but we’re working on something that’s really hard to generate in general, and it can be a cap out, when people don’t know how they actually grew. I’ll often hear founders say – Oh just word of mouth, and it’s like, Yeah, I don’t think it really was word of mouth. You know, you just don’t really know, you don’t track your metrics. But in this case, like a mature market where you have this reviled number one player, I think getting in there, building a better product, better pricing, better sales model can really lead to word of mouth and some good stuff.
I think the other thing that they don’t mention about marketing in a space like this is you can take the approach of being the underdog, right? It’s easy to market against big guys when you can basically talk about being the anti them. So Salesforce had their – especially in the early days, no software, right. They had the circle with the red line through it and it said software in it because they were saying, no on-premise software, no massive installation and server footprints and stuff – we are just this thing in the cloud.
They were anti software. Less accounting was kind of the anti QuickBooks. I don’t know that they mentioned QuickBooks by name but I remember one of their headlines was about all accounting software sucks or sucks less. I mean, it was it was a good—It was a really interesting approach to it. Drip was the not Infusionsoft, what was my headline – lightweight marketing automation that doesn’t suck and I was implying that most marketing automation software sucks and listed the Marketos and Eloquas and the Infusionsofts that are just not fun to use and they’re not fun to be sold because the sales model sucks and they’re really expensive and here’s all the reasons that you don’t like them and here’s why we’re the opposite of all of that.
So, if you’re going to enter this market embrace market leaders’ strength and turn it into their weaknesses. I think it’s Jiu-jitsu, where if your opponent is really strong and he or she swings you do a parry and you let their momentum carry them through and that’s a big part of marketing against these really big players in established markets – is what is their biggest strength can be turned against them as the biggest weakness.
I feel like we’ve covered this topic pretty well. I think the one last thing I’ll say is we’ve given a ton of examples of people doing this, talked about Stripe, Gusto, Zenefits, Drip, and a few others. The one other example, I think, that’s doing a good job of it today is Superhuman and it’s that email client that—they’ve changed the sales model, they’ve actually gone from no touch the opposite direction, there’s onboarding, every person individually. Their product, from what I’ve heard, is easier to use and it’s amazing. Their marketing is, obviously – they’re doing a good job with it. Now, their price is interesting because they’re more expensive than any other ESPs. So that’s a whole that’s a whole other thing from extremely experienced founders that they’ve, basically, made a gamble to say we think we can build something truly 10x better and we’re going to charge for it.
I think they charge $30 a month, which if you think about it, compare Gmail to Superhuman, Gmail is essentially free. Although, I pay for it now because of how much storage I use, but, very different pricing model there. So they’re one example that’s doing it successfully today. And they’re not following, you know, the exact playbook that we’ve laid out here. But I they also have buckets of money. They’re three and four-time founders. So that’s where you can, in my opinion, you can start breaking rules because you know which rules to break.
Mike: Yeah, and that’s really a matter of like, certain types of people are in so much pain, that they are willing to be the early adopters and they’re willing to pay more money for it because it just makes their lives that much easier. And whereas no knock against Gmail because I use it as well but there’s certain things about Gmail that I wish were just a little bit easier and I’ve heard the guy who runs Superhuman spoke before and he’s talked about like, how the experience is really what they focus on and I’ve seen him commenting on Twitter here and there and showing pictures of all the different things that they’re testing. Somebody said, “Oh, why don’t you support this products on,” such and such. And he showed them a picture of like eight different laptops, where they were testing different variations of like the browser client, and he’s like, “We’re working on it but this is what we’ve got so far.”
It’s incredible because it partly tells a story, but it also explains or demonstrates how much pain certain people are in to be requesting that stuff and still willing to wait for it.
Rob: Yeah, and they worked on Superhuman, I believe, for 18 months to two years. It was a small team of developers before they launched. So they broke they broke a lot of “rules”. And again, it’s because they did have a lot of funding, they had prior exits. I mean, the guy had started Reportive and sold it to LinkedIn. And then, he had even another one before that.
When you get to that level, you’re just at the point where you can make some difficult calls and pivot out of the risk because of your experience in funding. Frankly, which is something I talked about earlier in this episode.
Mike: I’m sure Data had something to do with it.
Mike: Well, I think that about wraps us up for the day. Thanks to Eric Roberts for sending us that question. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribes to us in iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about how Lucidchart grew to 13 million users with freemium. They point out effective ways to use freemium, viral loops, horizontal markets, and how you could incorporate some of these things in your bootstrapped startup.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Mike and I talk about how Lucidchart grew to 13 million users using the freemium model. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us 413.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us. The podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. To where this week, sir?
Mike: Did you happen to see the announcement that FogBugz/Manuscript was being acquired by DevFactory?
Rob: I got an email out of the blue and was completely shocked by that. I shouldn’t be, right? Fog Creek, for those who don’t know, was founded by Joel Spolsky and Mike Pryor back in, I believe, it was 2000 or 2001. Joel was probably the first blogger I ever read. He had so many insights about how to start software company and how to project-manage and all that stuff that I was really enthralled by him. And then he launched FogBugz but then they went into Stack Overflow and Trello and all this other stuff. I was always like, “This is crazy. They’ve had a lot of successes.”
Mike: They also had a CityDesk which was their blogging tool, I don’t think that it ever really went anywhere. I think they got it to version 2.
Rob: Content management. It was a website content management territory, but it was desktop, right as the switch to SaaS was happening.
Mike: I think it was before WordPress came out or just about the same time. But it was published through the website, so everything was all straight HTML. I think they had an internal beta version that Joel was still using for a while, it was like version 3-A or something like that that just never got out there publicly. I find it interesting that they decided to sell that business to an outside company just because the way that they’ve kind of run the business, it’s odd.
Rob: Yeah, it’s definitely unexpected. I don’t know what else I expected though. I mean, it’s freaking 17 years later–these things don’t last forever. I remember when Joel stepped down as CEO of Fog Creek, I was like, “Oh my gosh!” but it’s like, “Well, of course, he’s going to do Stack Overflow.” I believe Mike Pryor stepped up at that point and then Mike Pryor went up to be CEO of Trello once that took off. They really used it as an incubator–Fog Creek itself. It’s no surprise that they had the third CEO and it’s running Fog Creek. I don’t even know who’s running FogBugz.
I don’t even know if Fog Creek still owns anything else. Do they or is the company just going to shut down? Because they sold Trello, Stack Overflow is its own entity at this point, they haven’t used Fog Creek developers for years. Probably 10 years at this point. Manuscript is the only thing I know that they still had.
Mike: No, they still have Glitch.
Rob: What is that?
Mike: I don’t even know because they’ve been working on it for three, four years at this point, and I still don’t understand what it actually is, which it seems like it’s some sort of a programming framework without the programming. I don’t really understand it, to be perfectly honest. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I don’t know, I don’t know what to tell you about that.
Rob: I just googled Fog Creek Glitch and it says, “Fog Creek is renaming itself to Glitch. We’ve been thrilled to see the community embrace Glitch as the home for creating and discovering the coolest stuff on the web.” It sounds like Reddit. I’m confused at this point. I just haven’t followed this story. Fog Creek has been basically, a B2B software company–or at least Manuscript, Trello was, and then Stack Overflow was obviously VC-funded. Stack Overflow, I was going to say social network, but it’s more like a question and answer platform.
Yeah, it’s a trip man. I have mad respect for what Mike Pryor and Joel have built. You and I have both met them in person at BOS. I’ve had multiple conversations with them. These are smart, ethical-driven software developers who have done a lot I think for both the people that they’ve hired, but also in sharing their knowledge and building the tools. I have nothing but respect for these guys. The amount of success they’ve had, when you say, “Yeah, the same people that started Stack Overflow also started Trello and started this other seven or eight-figure company called FogBugz.” that’s a lot to do in a career.
Mike: I wonder if part of the reason they spun that off was because of the way that they want to run the business and the way that they want to treat the developers because I think early on, they had talked a lot about how they wanted to treat everybody—who’s working within the company—with respect and make sure that they participated in the successes of the business.
I remember some blog articles or some discussions on one of the podcasts that they had at one point talk about Stack Overflow, but because Stack Overflow and Trello were both born out of Fog Creek, at some point, they had to split the business. How do you compensate the people who were originally in Fog Creek and were excited and maybe helped out a little bit, but didn’t necessarily go with that team? There was also a question of like somebody had an idea for, I think it was co-pilot at the time, and it ended-up come in like a $1 million line of business for them, ARR. It’s just like, how do you compensate that person for the ideas and stuff that they’ve brought in?
At this point, FogBugz has been running for years, and there’s probably not a huge number of things that they’re going to add to it, I mean they could integrate it with other business processes and things like that, but there’s not a lot of other stuff they could do with it. It’s really just kind of the cash cow for them, but how do you translate that into a financial or monetary success for the people who are currently in the business and may have been there for anywhere up to 10 or 15 years at this point? It’s a private company, so I don’t think they hand out equity. I don’t know.
Rob: I think they did profit sharing, was my recollection. They did hand out dividends because like you just said, it was a pretty profitable company.
Mike: Got it.
Rob: On my end, I just got an email this morning that said, “Stripe is now valued at $20 billion.”
Mike: Oh, is that all?
Rob: Oh, man. Their last round was at $9 billion. I don’t normally follow these funding and valuation stories, but since we basically have had dinner with both the Collison brothers and been on stage with them at MicroConf, I kind of have a vested interest in keeping up with what they’re doing. Bravo to them. I have nothing but respect for those guys.
Mike: That’s an insane number but both of them are super, super smart guys. You stand near them and you just feel dumber.
Rob: Totally. When I’m around them, yeah, I feel dumber, but I feel my IQ points, I gain maybe 5 or 10 just in speaking to them. “Oh, you taught me a new word and a new concept today.”
Mike: “…that I thought I knew for 10 years, but you clearly know it better than me.”
Rob: Yeah, exactly.
Mike: Good for them. I think a lot of our audience probably still uses Stripe.
Rob: Still, what do you mean? Still uses. I wouldn’t go anywhere else, it’s insane to think of going back to the days of Authorize.net and PayPal web payments pro. I guess there’s Braintree now, right?
Mike: That’s what I was going to say. I hear that on a “higher-end” people are migrating to Braintree and, I don’t know if any other options actually other than Stripe and Braintree. But I don’t know anything about Braintree. It’s just interesting to see the ark that they’ve taken over the past, what, eight years or so? It’s just crazy how much they’ve grown and the things that they do are quite honestly, for the entrepreneurial community, they have enabled the vast majority of us to be able to do what we do. Without Stripe, most of the businesses that are out there just would not exist.
Rob: Or it’d be lot harder to get them off the ground. I remember trying to get an Authorize.net account and it just took weeks of literally sending stuff on paper and faxing it back and forth. This was only maybe six years ago, seven years–it wasn’t that long, and I’m not talking 2005. It was just insane to me that a) how are we not doing this online or at least e-signing things? But I literally was just printing out this 30-page document. It was such a nightmare. I’m glad Stripe came on the scene.
Mike: I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the past couple of weeks rebuilding and migrating some of my infrastructure in order to cut costs. I’ve doubled the number of servers. I’ve gone from two servers to four and I’ve reduced the costs of them by out 75% which is odd. I have everything hosted on Azure and they have these things called burstable virtual machines. Basically, if they are running below a certain threshold in terms of process or usage, then you pay basically, a discounted rate for it and you are gaining credits at that point. If you are using more than that percentage then you’re basically burning into your credits
I think they had maxed out the CPU with that but basically, I just paid less for this machine or these machines because I’m not using them all day every day. It’s like there are certain times a day where I need more processing power and rest of the time I just don’t need it. It’s nice to be able to have moved over to those types of servers and save a fair chunk of change. But I needed to split up my infrastructure anyway because I didn’t like having everything on just two servers.
Rob: That makes sense. It’s nice to put a few more bucks in your pocket.
Mike: Yeah. I pushed off on that division for probably about a year or so. It was kind of time to do it.
Rob: Anything else?
Mike: The last thing is, this is totally random but there’s a website that I stumbled across when I was trying to do calculations for my Dungeons and Dragons game, to kind of optimize my character. If you’re into figuring out probabilities on different dice rolls, you can head over to anydice.com. It will basically allow you to write functions that will essentially simulate what the dice rolls are, and then it will show you the percentages and distributions, and you can see crafts and stuff like that of exactly what those distributions look like.
You can say how many attacks or if you have advantage or disadvantage on different attacks or damage rolls or things like that then it will show you what those numbers look like and what’s your average rolls would be.
It’s pretty cool. You can probably spend a whole ton of time on it, but they do have some documentation there and some ready-built functions you just pull, and copy paste into the editor.
Rob: I see what you did there, Mike. Do you realize you started that segment off, you said, “This is totally random.” But any dice stuck. You can’t […] by me, man. Really bad puns. Alright. Cool.
Let’s dive into what we’re talking about today. It’s an article on a blog of freshworks.com. They have a sales CRM , it’s that section or that category of the blog, but the article is titled, “How Lucidchart Grew to 13 million Users on a land-and-expand Strategy.” I want to talk a little bit about the virality and the freemium part of it. It’s an interesting interview with, I believe, is the SVP of Sales and Customer Success of Lucidchart.
If you haven’t heard of Lucidchart, it is a Software as a Service with a freemium model, they have 13 million users and it is like Visio–it is how I think of it. It’s a diagram solution where you can create diagrams and share them and then collaborate on them. Is that an accurate description, Mike? You said you’ve used it.
Mike: Yeah. That’s probably pretty accurate. I think Visio seems like they started out much more for data modelling within a programming environment. But Vision also has a lot of different icons and stuff that you can put in there for like network map layouts and office maps layouts and stuff like that. You can use it for other things like org charts and stuff like that, but I think originally, it seemed like it started out as part of the MSDN suite, you get a few sign-ups for that, and it was primarily a programming tool.
Rob: Right. And it expanded into other things. Lucidchart, looks like it was started around 2010, 2011 and they raised $1 million in funding which you would need if you’re going to do freemium model, and then three years later they raised $5 million, and then two years after that—in 2016—they raised $36 million. I can imagine they probably hit a hockey stick moment where the user growth justified raising–because you raise that much money, you want to have really high valuation, so you don’t give away most of your company.
They said that 96% of Fortune 500 companies use it. They have customers at Google, Amazon, Cisco, and Intel, and they receive around 500,000 sign-ups every month. It’s a free tool, right? It’s free, no credit card, if I recall. That’s still a big number though. A nice horizontal market that these guys are in. They’ve obviously achieved success–13 million users is a ton of people; it’s a ton of people to support, it’s a ton of people just to have your software running.
I wish that they’d told us how many paying users or how many paying accounts because that’s really what I’m interested in. I’m interested to know if they are even profitable on revenue, above the amount of just sheer volume because they must have hundreds of employees, and I would like to know that. But all that said, what I want to talk about today is really the freemium and the viral one and they have some stuff about sales as well.
Mike: I’m sure their competitors would love to know how much money they’re making too.
Rob: Yeah, totally. I know. It’ll come out at some point. They’ll wind up talking about it.
Mike: Alright. Why don’t we dive right in then?
Rob: Sure. The first question for Dan Cook, which is the SVP of Sales, the interviewer asks him, “It runs on a freemium model, how do you pitch the product, and how do you scale it to an enterprise model?” His response is, “The freemium gives them an advantage because they have this—this is where the land-and-expand comes in within a company—they get employees within a company using the product and then they share it with other people in the company to collaborate and then they set-up accounts, so there’s a freemium plus virality there. The reason they sign-up for it is a) it’s free and b) because it’s a good tool.
In the early days it was good enough. It was not a great tool but as it developed, I bet these days, it is best in class or is becoming then. He said that, basically, they can have 15 or 20 paid or free users of Lucidchart within a company. Then they leverage that fact to say, “Alright, IT department, here’s a value proposition for you.” This is a similar model to other tools. Slack, I’ve heard them talk about this a lot. That one small development team within a huge org would start using it and of course, you have to invite other people for it to have any value. Once you have 10, 20, 30 users, IT Departments and frankly, CTOs and CIOs want to have control of that kind of stuff. It’s an interesting dual use of that freemium plus virality.
Mike: Yeah, I’ve seen that at a much, much smaller scale in Bluetick where somebody will sign-up for Bluetick and one of the earlier objections I’ve heard from somebody was like, “Oh, well. I wanted to sign-up for it but then I would have had to go to my boss and get his credit card.” That freemium model, even just the 14-day trial that I had or that I added in after talking to that customer, it allows them to sign-up for it without having to go to their boss and justify like, “Hey, I need the corporate credit card and it’s going to cost this much money.” Because in the enterprise environment, they’re probably going to not only have to go to their boss, but then their boss is going to have to justify it to somebody else.
Nobody really knows if it’s going to work. If they just start using it, in a freemium model, they can just use it and if it doesn’t work out for them, they just shut it down or just abandon it. If it does then as more people start using it then it becomes more visible. As a result of its success, then Lucidchart can go in and ask them for money for an enterprise license or a small group license within a department or something like that. But it is interesting to see that they seem to have intentionally done that or chosen that strategy.
Rob: Right. I want to point out some things that Lucidchart has or had that listeners to this podcast may not have, and if you don’t have all these things in place, it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible to pull off this strategy that they did–this freemium strategy.
Mike: Do you want to start with the $36 million or…?
Rob: That’s what I was going to say. Funding–that’s the first one. It wasn’t $36 million originally. For the first three years it was $1 million. That’s actually not that much money for three years. You can hire a few people but it’s not like you’re going to hire 20 employees and not bleed that out. But yes, funding was one advantage they had; $1 million in funding. Another $5 million three years later. The fact that they are a very horizontal market much like Trello and Dropbox and Slack, those are three other tools that have used the same approach–this freemium plus viral component.
If you’re in a horizontal market and you can raise enough funding or self-fund this thing to the point where you can provide the service to all the free users, it really can be this fascinating approach. The other thing is they have virality, not every tool has that. I think of a tool like Drip or even a proposal software, invoicing software, there’s a little bit of virality and that you can have a Powered By or a Sent From or a Sent With. But true, deep virality like Trello where–I mean, I use some Trello boards for that other people but there’s a lot of collaboration that goes on there. Slack is all about being viral. You have to invite other people to get any value.
Lucidchart does not need, need, need. You’d have another person to get value, but I would say, that’s probably a big reason that people would use it because it’s so easy to get you charts and collaborate. Of course, Dropbox has it’s all other things. Having virality plus that freemium I think is a big thing that people overlook. Because having freemium on its own without funding, being horizontal, and virality is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Mike: I think this is also a tool that because of what you’re using it for, you’re using it to help communicate, that helps it too. That kind of sets it apart from a lot of other tools. Trello, to some extent, just by inviting people, you get to have them take a look at what it is that you’re working on. But with Lucidchart, you can print those things out, you can embed them into Word document, or even just take screenshots, but by being able to invite people and say, “Hey, this is the process, or this is the workflow that I’m looking at. What do you think? Is this going to work for our team?” That right there—because it’s embedded in the communications—that just inherently makes it even more viral.
Because if people look at the tool and they like it and they want to use it because it’s a lot easier to use than something like Visio, it gives it those additional advantages. It gives people the “aha” moment that they need in order to say, “Yeah. I want to use this too.”
Rob: Another question that he asks this VP of Sales, which I thought was kind of cool, I don’t know, I hadn’t thought that much about it, but he says, “Let’s talk about your value proposition. How does it work when you’re convincing a company to buy the enterprise version? What to the teams and what does the enterprise get out of it? Why don’t they just keep using their individual accounts?” I like that because a) you’re asking why should they upgrade or why should they consolidate? He says, basically, the value to the end-user is that it’s all consolidated and it’s much easier to share among their co-workers. You don’t have to convert diagrams into other formats to be compatible. If everybody starts using it in your company then you don’t have to be like, “Oh, you’re using Visio? I’m using Lucidchart. Let’s convert to this format.” and blah blah blah.
Then to the IT department, the first one is consolidated billing, so there’s only one bill and you know you can negotiate that and manage it. It’s just easier to do it. Also, for training, a lot of big companies especially provide training for their tools. If you have just everybody using one tool, it’s easier. Then secure logins which is fine but the one that really gets them is document retention which is where someone leaves the company, as someone is running that company or running that IT department, you want to have access to everything they did while they were there because you might need to reference that later. If they take individual accounts away with them then you’ll never get that stuff back. It’s not even someone stealing it or taking it away, it kind of goes away. They forget about it or you just don’t have access to it.
That was a big one working at Leadpages and Drip is seeing people leave and being like, “Oh, yeah. There was that one thing that he shared with me and now I don’t have access to it.” It could be kind of a pain. It’s interesting to think—if you’re going to try to pull this off—about what the value prop is that you have to offer for people to upgrade.
Mike: The other interesting piece there that’s in that enterprise group subscription there is the idea that, it’s not just if somebody leaves the company, but what happens if you have to fire somebody. You want to be able to have like this master key that says, “Okay, we’re going to lock you out of everything before we follow through with letting this person go.” and then still have access to all that stuff. There’s that side of it to consider too. I think one and two-person businesses don’t tend to think about that because they just don’t experience it. But the larger companies that they are advertising to or agencies or other small businesses 50-100 people, those companies do think about that and it is important to them.
It’s good to understand that that is a value proposition that you can leverage as a marketing point to those larger companies and say, “Look, this is why you should upgrade or this is why you should buy higher-priced tier because we are including this for your account versus a freelancer account which doesn’t really have any of that stuff and oh, we have a 25 people have 25 different freelancer accounts.” Yeah, it’s not ideal because they get 25 different bills but at the same time, that master key is kind of what people are looking for.
Rob: And then he asked him a question about their outbound sales process. He says, “Yeah, we have 80 sales people and their core play is they basically target companies that already have some form of adoption.” You likely would, I’m guessing, you’re going to use some type of data augmentation tool, like a full contact, to augment you customer data to know who they work for or just look at the email address, look at the domain, the .com on the end of their email, and do a Group By and see how many people are using it. As simple as that.
If you get 20 people inside Disney or Target or BestBuy or something, it’s like they reach out and say, “Hey, you have 20 people that have signed-up for accounts. Do you want to aggregate that?” It’s an interesting thing. I’ve heard, I believe, it was either Slack or Trello also talk about this as an approach. It’s like warm outbound. It’s an interesting approach.
Mike: You just hope that their CEO or their CTO isn’t so totally paranoid that he says no outside tools that are based in the cloud and shuts them all down.
Rob: Yeah, it could happen, I supposed.
Mike: I think that’s a lot less common today than I think it was 5 or 10 years ago. But I have run into those people who say that kind of stuff and there’s usually exceptions for that. They can’t possibly have everything self-hosted. It is just not realistic.
Rob: Yup. There’s a couple more questions that I think are relevant. One is, he asks him, “Lucidchart is the popular alternative to Microsoft Visio, how do you differentiate yourself?” He basically gracefully says, “We’re grateful to Vision, but it’s outdated. It’s a classic Microsoft style product, and it has a lot of innovation on it since they acquired it in 2000.” That’s that whole thing where, yeah, you can have a better funded competitor but as a startup, your secret super power is you can move fast, and you can be closer to the customer. Because I’m guessing, a lot of the developers working on Visio—assuming there are some still—they’re not nearly in close contact as someone at Lucidchart is when they’re in their customer success department having one-on-one conversations with their clients.
Mike: I think that’s partly a difference in how the product was originally engineered. There is a cloud version of Visio, I believe, so it’s enabled for people to collaborate and stuff which has always been the biggest problem with Visio documents, is that it’s like a Word document that you have to basically send it back and forth. Even if you’re using something like Dropbox, you still have the problem of having multiple people trying to work on the same thing at the same time and it just doesn’t work very well.
That’s why Google docs has kind of come around and been such a massive upstart in the past, what was it, like 10, 15 years ago when that came out. But Word had been out in the mid-90s or the early 90s. Something like Lucidchart just has a fundamentally different delivery mechanism than Visio. Visio has to make that backward compatibility so they’re not able to do the same types of things versus Lucidchart, they’re like, “We don’t care about actually running locally on the desktop.” It just doesn’t matter to them which gives them some advantages right there.
Rob: Right. It’s interesting to think like if Microsoft really cared about the market—I just don’t think it’s big enough for them to care about probably—but they should have, would have built a web-based version back in 2008 because it was totally doable. But they didn’t and so, somebody decided at some point not to do that. I know they have collaboration features now built into the Office tools. I don’t use many of the Office tools anymore, only when absolutely need to. I’m just in Google docs all the time.
Mike: I bet they sunk all the resources into the Windows Vista.
Rob: Windows Vista, yeah. That must have been it.
Mike: It must have been it.
Rob: To round it out, he ask him, “What do you think are the top three reasons for Lucidchart’s success?” He says, “Well, people need visual communication tools and there wasn’t really anything that was that great. Second is, we made it enterprise ready, so selling into that enterprise, it was not hard. They have collaborations and integrations and all that stuff and freemium–those are the three things he says. I think he leaves out the virality. I actually believe the fact that a) the market is big, I think is a good thing. They chose a large market. I have a Lucidchart account. The reason I have it is because I got invited by two separate people on two separate diagrams. I would count as one of the 30 million users.
Now, I don’t go in, I never created a Lucidchart diagram myself, but I have collaborated with other people. I think that’s an element, a fourth thing that he didn’t mention that I do think is probably a decent driver of their trial sign-ups.
Mike: I do think the other thing that really helps them is the fact that it’s surprisingly easy to be able to get in and get started with Lucidchart, create some things that are generically applicable across the business without being locked into , “Oh, I have to use this for data modelling.” It sort of does these other things well but not really. That’s the way I would describe the difference between Visio and Lucidchart.
Whereas Lucidchart doesn’t necessarily have the data tie ins to be able to, let’s say for example, a database design, but there’s lots of other ways to do that these days. That makes Vision, I’ll say, that less powerful in that respect. But you don’t need that with Lucidchart. You can just create a generic process. Instead of sketching it out on paper and saying, “Oh well, I’ve got this customer support process that’s got to do this.” Or, “I’ve got this marketing process where I’ve got this email Drip campaign over here and the sales page over there.” You can wire them up in Lucidchart and use that to document your marketing sales funnel, for example. It works really, really well for that.
The downside is, you do have to keep it up-to-date because nothing is automatic but as long as you need to document it anyway, you may as well use something like Lucidchart where you can create good documentation that shows you how everything ties together.
Rob: 500,000 sign-ups every month, Mike. What would you do with that?
Mike: I don’t know. Take it to the bank, retire?
Rob: Yeah, that’s crazy. You can just imagine the processes they must have in place in order to even be able to support that many users.
Mike: You know, I’d be interested to see what they have for a backend infrastructure because I’m just like an engineering nerd like that. Like, “How the heck do you handle that much? How many is that per minute?”
Rob: I know. One point of data is I went to Crunchbase and it says, “According to owler.com that they have 7.1 million in annual revenue.” You don’t know how accurate that is but it’s an estimate by an outside company.
Mike: And at 500,000 sign-ups a month, that’s about one every five seconds which is insane.
Rob: Yup. I know, it’s crazy. They say, let’s see, employee count is between 101 and 250–it’s about what I expect. It says, “A team of 150 plus employees.” You don’t know when that was written but I would guess, if it was even a year ago, I bet they’re at probably over 200 by now. That gives you an idea of their size. That’s the thing, they’ve raised $42 million, if they are at $7 million or $10 million in recurring revenue, that’s not a home run. They need to get bigger than that in order to return that kind of funding because the valuation was definitely north of $100 million. I mean, $120 million, $180 million, somewhere in that range, if I were to guess. At that point, you need to sell for half a billion or a billion dollars to return venture returns. To get there, you need to have $100 million in ARR. They have a long way to go to get there.
I don’t want folks to take this entire episode the wrong way, I’m not saying that we should model ourselves after Lucidchart or anything like that, I was pointing out that the way to use freemium, viral loops, thinking about horizontal markets, thinking about other way to approach problems, how could you, in your little maybe B2B bootstrap niche try and corporate some of these things?
Mike: I think the other takeaway you could have for our audience of listeners is that, even with 500,000 sign-ups a month, as you said, financially, this is probably still not a home run.
Rob: Right. If they haven’t raised $40 million, it could be alright if they’d only raise up to $6 million and could have done it, then that’s a totally different story but that’s where I like raising a lot of funding and having this big valuation. It means you have much higher expectations at that point.
Mike: Right. All it does is dilute the founder and some of the investors, earlier investors maybe, but it makes it hard to have a spectacular exit if you’ve, I’ll say, weighed down by too much investment.
Well, on that note, I think that about wraps us up. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer the question of should bootstrappers raise money? The guys distinguish the difference between venture capital and angel investing and how raising an angel round may be a good fit for some types of entrepreneurs.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about whether bootstrapper should raise money or not. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 406.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us. The podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products, whether you build your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: And I’m Rob.
Mike: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week, Rob?
Rob: We have new iTunes reviews.
Mike: Oh, cool. What do we got?
Rob: This one from Find Fitness Pros. It says, “This is my go-to podcast every Tuesday morning. Rob and Mike continue to give their insights, not just info on exactly what to do,” and from Nathan Bell, he says, “Great information. I listened to one episode and I’m hooked. It was full of great information I can easily implement. Some of the info was a little bit advanced for me currently, but I’m confident that by selectively listening to more, I will pick up more.”
Those are a couple of new iTunes reviews that we have. I used to keep a worldwide tally of it using CommentCast and when I moved to my new computer, I don’t have the .exe or what is it called, it’s a .app I guess in Mac. I don’t have the executable anymore and you can’t download it anywhere. So I moved over to mypodcastreviews.com but it only gives me reviews, not ratings. We’re up to almost 600 worldwide ratings, I believe. People don’t necessarily need to write sentences or whatever, but I don’t have that tally anymore. Certainly, we’re above 600 at this point.
Now, what I have is I have 347 worldwide reviews and that’s a lesser number. I want to get back to the world’s rating. I think the guy at My Podcast Reviews says that they are going to add ratings but neither here nor there, the more reviews or ratings we get, the more likely people find the show, the more motivation it gives us. If you feel like we’ve given you some value as a listener to the show, it would be awesome if you can open iTunes or Stitcher and just give us a five-star review. Really appreciate it.
Mike: The solution to not having that app that gives you the numbers is just make up a number. So we’re at 3000 reviews I think.
Rob: That’s right. 3422 reviews. That’s great. How about you, man? What’s going on this week?
Mike: Well, this morning, I published a public API for Bluetick. Of course, I say it’s a public API but there’s actually only one person who actually knows about it.
Rob: It’s in beta?
Mike: Yeah, basically.
Rob: Early access, good.
Mike: I had a prospect who wanted to sign on and they’re like, “Yeah, I really need to have a public API that is available for me and Zapier wasn’t going to work for them. Basically as I said, I spun it out because I heard from a bunch of customers that I currently have, and I started talking to them about, “What is it that you need?” and trying to figure out what’s the minimum that I could build that this particular prospect or customer would need to get started. They only needed four things. Build those, put them into it, and then there’s all the infrastructure changes that needed to go into it.
It took a week-and-a-half just to do the infrastructure changes but now the best stuff if all taken cared of. I got that published out there and waiting for them to start using it, and then figure out what needs to change. I already made it very clear upfront, like, “Hey, here are some things that I know we’re going to change, and then over here, based on what you tell me, other things could change, so treat this as an absolute beta. Eventually at some point it will become stable, I guess, and then I’ll start pushing it live to everybody.
Rob: That’s nice. It’s nice to do. You’re basically doing customer development on what is its own little product. You can say it’s a feature but really some entire products are just APIs. You want to get it right from the start, and by start, I mean by the time you publish and people start hooking into it, you can’t change it at that point. I think it’s really good to take this approach of roll it out slowly, roll out one endpoint at a time and really think through how you want to structure it.
I was just on your site trying to guess the URL. I was going to just type in a bunch of stuff so you’re going to see a bunch of 404s in your error logs. Not a hacker, it was me, but I didn’t find it alas.
Mike: No, that sucks. I would tell you if you asked for the right price. Other than that, I also got my first fraudulent charge from Bluetick. It took a lot longer than I expected it to but somebody signed up, then they logged in, and absolutely they didn’t pay any attention to the onboarding emails. Come time when their trial is up, they got charged, and then I forget how long it was later. I was maybe probably three or four days later, I got a notification from Stripe saying, “Hey this charge looks fraudulent,” and I looked at it. I think it’s a debit card too and I was like, “Oh great.” Three hours later though like, “Oh you’ve had a chargeback.” I was like, “Wait, I didn’t even get a chance to decide that to do with this potentially fraudulent charge,” and they already converted it into a chargeback, which cost me an extra $15. Well that sucks, but, oh well.
Rob: Was it a person not using or was it a stolen credit card? Is that what you think? Or do you think that they just went in with the intention that it was their own credit card and they just intended at the whole time?
Mike: I’m not sure. It looks legit. The email address, I couldn’t quite tell whether it was real. I think it was a Gmail email address. I couldn’t really trace it back to a company or anything like that but the name on it seem to match what the email address was. I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure but I think it was from a real estate company or something like that. All right, well, whatever.
Rob: Yeah, that sucks. It’s going to happen. It’s definitely a milestone you don’t want to hit but you’re going to hit it eventually.
Mike: Yup. Certainly not a milestone to celebrate but I definitely hit it.
Rob: Yeah, exactly. Cool. What are we talking about today?
Mike: Today, I thought we would have a discussion about whether or not bootstrapper should be raising money. I guess by definition if you’re raising money, are you no longer a bootstrapper at that point? I think there’s maybe a time during which you are bootstrapping a company and self-funding it. I almost called it self-funding, like should people who are self-funding raise money, but again that would go against it.
The idea came because I saw Justin Jackson had tweeted out a link to an article he wrote over on Indie Hackers called The Bootstrapper’s Paradox. In that article, he shows a graph or what they’re doing for transistor.fm, which is the new startup that he’s working on. Basically it shows a graph of over the course of 60 months was 10% exponential growth and 5% turn. The MRR will get to $21,000. But 60 months is five years of time.
I thought it would be interesting to just have a conversation about this because when I was reading through the tweet that he had put out, there were a bunch of people who chimed in on it, mostly people who were listening to the show would have heard of like Des Traynor, Jason Collin, and Natalie Nagel. They’re giving their thoughts on this stuff and I just thought it would be interesting to talk about it.
Rob: Yeah, that’s for sure. 10% growth every month sounds like an impressive number but when the number starts very small, like $1000 a month, that means you’re growing $100 MRR a month. You just can’t do that early days or if you do, it’s going to take five years. You either need to figure out a way to grow faster or you need to be really patient.
This is a struggle. It’s funny that, Justin called it The Bootstrapper’s Paradox. I don’t know that it’s that as much as this is the reason people raise funding. We know people who are just bootstrapper through and through, you should never raise funding and 37signals used to say that and even mentions it that DHH and Jason Fried took funding from Jeff Bezos two years after launching Basecamp. It wasn’t even funding that went into the company. They took money off the table. If I recall, I think that number is public. I think it’s $10 million that he invested, was my memory and maybe I don’t think I’m making that up. It’s either rumored at that or it was announced.
They had essentially at that point had FU money and it’s really easy to make different decisions or just say, “Hey, we’re going to grow as slow or as fast as we need,” when you have that kind of money in your personal bank account and you’re just running this business day-to-day.
Justin’s article is a bootstrapper’s realization of “Oh Sh*t.” This is why people do raise money. It’s coming to that realization at this point and I think it’s a good thing to call out for sure. I’ve been thinking about this so much so I’m looking forward to today’s episode because in my Microconf talk this year, I talked about things that I learned bootstrapping and then self-funding and then in a venture back company after Leadpages acquired us.
In the last five to seven minutes I did just a little snippet about fundstrapping, which is this term that Colin from customer.io coined, where you’re kind of in-between. You bootstrapped a little bit and you raised a small round. I say it’s between 200,000 and 500,000 and you raise it with the intention of getting to profitability. Without, you’re never going to raise institutional money, or raise it from friends or families or angels, so you don’t give up control, you don’t give up a board seat, you really have the benefits of funding without the institutional chaos of it, the headache.
It wasn’t a throwaway piece but I almost didn’t include it in the talk. That piece has gotten me more emails, more comments, more thoughts, more people came up to me, ask me what that’s like, asked if I would invest or find new people who were doing fundstrapping. It’s just fascinating response to this, this thing that’s been percolating. It’s a long rant on it to start but I just think this is becoming more and more of a viable option and potentially even a necessity as the SaaS market gets more and more crowded.
Mike: Yeah. That’s the part that I think has changed over time, where five or 10 years ago, you could come out with a SaaS and you’d launch it to the public and you would start to grow by virtually the fact that there was nobody else out there or there were very few competitors out there doing what you were doing. Now if you launch anything, you probably got a couple of competitors just right out of the gate. If you don’t, then you probably don’t have a product that’s going to go anywhere. But if you have any competition, it’s probably substantially more competition today than you would’ve had five years ago or 10 years ago. Just by virtue of having launched five or 10 years ago, you were going to be more successful quicker than you would if you did the exact same thing now. It’s going to take longer, which means that you’re going to burn through more runway and it’s just going to be harder.
Rob: Right. Now, five or 10 years ago, there was less competition but the expenses would have been higher, 10 years ago especially because you literally needed a rack server. There was no Amazon EC2. In addition, there was still like when Basecamp first launched on their homepage, they were like, “You don’t have to install any software. No downloads needed.” They were still educating on just the concept of being in the cloud and there were hurdles there.
Mike: That was almost 15 years ago.
Rob: Yeah, that’s true. No, you’re right. That was 2005 or 2006? You’re right, 12 or 13. You’re right. But even with that, say 10 years ago, even with that, it’s still I believe was easier back then. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start something today. It just means you got to house some more, you got to pick a better niche, you got to have more skills, or you need a little more money in the bank.
Whether that means you raise it yourself out of consulting efforts, which is what I did, or if there’s definitely more money being thrown around as funding these days that is, I’m not going to say no strings attached because it’s certainly they take equity, but 10 years ago if you took half-a-million bucks, boy that was typically institutional money, it was a pain in the butt to raise, you are giving up a lot of control, you are giving up a board seat, that is no longer the case. There really is this viable option, this in-between.
Mike: I think if you look at the businesses that, in the past have tried to figure out how to raise capital, one of the things that most people, 15-20 years ago, it was common to say, “Okay, let me go to a bank and get a loan from the bank.” But that is a non-starter for most new businesses. You got SBA loans and things like that where you can use the money to take over an existing business where they’re able to evaluate.
But if you have a business that you’re trying to get off the ground, a bank loan is basically a non-starter, especially when it comes to SaaS because they don’t understand how to calculate how much that business is worth. There isn’t any inventory and with software, it’s going to lag in terms of the revenue over something like a physical goods business, or a coffee shop, or a fitness studio where they know how many people are coming in and they can put a value on the equipment whether it’s the coffee machines or the spin cycles on a fitness studio. Banks are okay with that. They understand that.
But when you got a software business, the expectations today are much higher than they were five or 10 years ago. You have to do a lot more in order to make your product a lot more polished, which means it’s going to take time to do that which burns through your runway. It burns through that money a lot faster today. I guess you wouldn’t burn through it faster. It’s just you burn through more of it than you would have 10 years ago to get to the same point.
Rob: Even if you can get a loan, you have to send a personal guarantee. Now, all your personal assets are on the line. And if you decide to shut the company down, you owe them money. If you borrow $100,000 it’s a big deal. To me, that is more of a risk than I think an entrepreneur should take, unless you’re at the point where you already have, “All right, I’m at $10,000 MRR,” in which case you may or may not need the money, but if you’re at $10,000 MRR, you should raise equity funding anyway.
But if you know the business is going to succeed, that’s fine. When I hear that people charge $50,000 or $100,000 on credit cards to start a SaaS business, I’m like, “Oy vey.” That is going to be catastrophic. That is a really, really stressful way to live and it’s something I would not do, especially when we’re in a space where raising equity capital is relatively inexpensive. Raising a small angel round and selling 10% or even 20% of your company to reduce a lot of stress and to get there faster, I think it’s a pretty reasonable idea these days. It’s not impossible to do, I’ll say.
Mike: I want to talk about that specifically right there. What you just said was raising capital is relatively inexpensive. The reason I like the way that you put that is that when I think of the way I thought about raising funding years ago was that, “Oh, I’m going to have to give up a lot of control, I’m going to have to give up a lot of equity, and I don’t necessarily want to do either of those things.”
But if you’re thinking about putting together a business and you have anybody who’s helping you—a partner or a co-founder, something like that—your immediately giving up 50% of the company anyway, and then there’s a whole lot of difference between doing that and giving up 50% when there’s really nothing there, and yes, it could grow up to be something huge, but you’re giving up 50%.
So there’s like a mental block there of you saying, “Okay, well I’ll raise $250,000 in exchange for 10% of this,” and you don’t want to do that but you’re willing to give up 50% to somebody else when there’s really nothing there that’s being invested except for their time. Do you know what I mean?
Rob: Yeah. It’s cognitive dissonance I believe is the term where two things that don’t agree or paradox, I guess. It’s something in your head you’re rationalizing one way but then you turn around and give away 50% to a co-founder. That’s what you’re saying, It’s like you can give a small amount to get a big chunk of money, or even if it’s a small chunk of money.
Here’s the thing. Let’s say you live in the middle of Minnesota, or the middle of Nebraska, or something and you have an idea and you raised even $100,000 or $150,000 and you paid for your salary for a year or a year-and-a-half. That gives you a year or a year-and-a-half to get to some point of revenue that makes sense. Even if you gave away 15% of your company, you’re valuing it at $1 million right off the bat, or if you give away 20% or $750,000, it still makes your life a lot easier.
I think that’s the realization I’m coming to, is that at Microconf, or through this podcast, or whatever at different conferences, we meet smart people who are trying to launch businesses and something that stands in their way often is that, “I have a wife and kids. I have a house. I can’t do this nights and weekends. But I don’t want to raise funding because it’s really complicated. I don’t know how.”
What’s funny is you outlined this episode and you brought the topic up. But this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, and there’s a gap here in the space. We do have folks like indie.vc which, if you haven’t heard my interview with Bryce from indie.vc, it’s episode 310 of this podcast, and it’s a more realistic approach to funding. It’s kind of a fundstrapping model. I’d recommend you go listen to that.
In addition, I feel we’re coming to an inflection point where there’s this gap and there’s a level of interest in something, and no one is filling it. No spoilers on what I’m up to next, but I’m starting to feel I might be the person to tackle this, to take it on. I’ve been spreading the word about it. I have been talking about it for years and I’ve been investing in startup like this.
We talk about Churn Buster, LeadFuze, CartHook. These are all small angel investments. I’ve done about 12 angel investments and I think three or four of them were essentially fundstrapped. it’s where they took money from a handful of folks and they never planned to raise a series A. I put my money where my mouth is, but now I’m thinking I only have so much money, how is it that I can take this to the next level in a realistic way. It’s something that’s definitely in the back of my mind and it’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot. Hopefully, we’ll dive into more in the future.
Speaking of that, if you listen to this and your thinking, “Oh, this is an interesting topic,” go to robwalling.com. Enter your email because it’s going to be something that I’m going to be thinking more about in the future as well as on this podcast for sure.
Mike: One of the comments that jumped out of me on the Twitter post that Justin had put out there was from Des Traynor and he said, “I think a second piece people don’t really internalize is that 60 months of the best years of your career is a substantial upfront investment too. Like a seed round but instead of money, it’s your life.”
That’s a fascinating way of looking at this because even back n the day, I would always say, “Oh, well. You know you’re basically trading money for time,” and I don’t think that I really equated time with years of my life. It sounds intuitively obvious. That’s exact same thing. But when you’re in the middle of working on stuff, you don’t think, “Oh, I’m trading five years of my life away of hard toil to get this thing to where it could be a lot sooner if I were just to take some money and trade some of that equity for it.”
Rob: Right. It could feasibly be a lot sooner. It may or may not. Money doesn’t solve all the problems but it certainly makes things, I’ll say less stressful and you having done it with true bootstrapping with basically nothing and doing nights and weekends, to then self-funding with revenue from HitTail going into Drip, and then venture funded. I’ve done all three of these. I will tell you that having that venture money, I didn’t have to raise it and I did attend the board meetings but I didn’t necessarily have to report to the board. My life was less stressful at that point than either of the prior two scenarios.
I think it’s a good point, man. I don’t want to come off. You can tell, I’m coming off kind of pro-raising a small round, and I don’t want to come off too one-sided. We’ve never been anti-funding ever. From the start, Microconf, I think in the original sales letter. It was, we’re not anti-funding. We’re anti everyone thinks the only way to start a software company or a startup is with funding. That maybe from the introduction of my book, actually—Start Small, Stay Small.
Even back then in 2010, I was saying, “Look, raising funding is not evil in and of itself. It’s the things that you have to give up by raising funding. Just know what you’re getting into.” Yes, we have seen founders that get kicked out of their own company. There was, I figure what that app it was. Was it Tinder? Something sold for $460 million. No. It’s FanDuel. It’s sold for $460 million and the founder who started it, and I believe was CEO when it started, he got no money because of liquidation preferences and he’s suing them.
That’s a huge exit. He got I believe it was zero dollars from the exit. There was an article or something that was like, he’s suing them now. If the contract say this is what the liquidation preference is, that’s one thing but he’s suing them because he thinks they screwed with the valuation intentionally and there was fraud or something. He’s not going to win if he just says, “No, that wasn’t the deal,” because he signed the papers. These VCs are not stupid but he’s trying to do that.
Yes, that does happen. But I believe there is a way to do this and I’m seeing it with these smaller SaaS apps. A way to do it without that much stress, without giving up that much equity. Brennan Dunn, RightMessage. That’s another one. I also wrote a check. And Rand Fishkin’s SparkToro. He’s doing the same thing. He’s not calling it fundstrapping, but he said, “Hey, we’re going to raise around, and we’re going to get to profitability, and we don’t want to do institutional money. If you listen to Lost and Founder which is his book, he talks about the perils of all that and you couldn’t read that and say, I can see really they didn’t like – once they raise funding, he really didn’t like it.
You can look and say, “Well, Rand’s anti-funding now.” But no, he’s more anti-institutional money, and there’s a difference. Venture capital is institutional money. These angel rounds tend not to be.
Mike: But I think even back, we’ve talked about it on the podcast before. As you said, we always had the position that, it’s not that we’re anti-funding, we’re anti-this-is-the-only-way-to-do-it. That’s always been my thought behind it. I’ll say the majority of my career and thought process has been like, “Yeah, I really just don’t want to take funding in this more because I don’t want to necessarily give up control.” Back then there weren’t really the options for that. Now, things have changed a lot. It’s not, say, front and center on my radar, but it’s something I’m definitely looking at niche and exploring a little bit more.
I definitely think that—like with Bluetick for example—there’s ways to go further faster, but I just don’t necessarily have the money to be able to do it, which sucks but at the same time, it’s always a trade-off. I think that’s what you always have to consider is, what is the trade-off and what am I going to have to give up in order for me to get X amount of influx and then what are you going to do with that?
You have to have a plan. You can’t just say, “I want to raise money.” You got to have a plan for not just raising money but also what are you going to do with that money when you get it? How are you going to deploy it? How are you going to build the company and how are you going to grow things? You can’t just drop $100,000 in your bank account or $500,000 and say, “Okay great. I’ve raised money. Now what?” They’re not going to give you the money if you don’t have a plan.
Rob: And if you don’t know what you’re doing, money’s not going to fix that. You’re just going to make bigger mistakes. This comes back to the stair-step approach. No chance I would have raised money in 2005-2009 with ,DotNetInvoice, and Wedding Toolbox and just beach towels and stuff. Even if I could have made the case that DotNetInvoice would grow to something, I would have made huge mistakes because I made small ones back then. But I learned and I gained experience and I gained confidence.
By the time I get to HitTail, I remember thinking, “Yeah,” because remember, I bought HitTail for $30,000 and then I grew it up to basically that much MRR per month but end and I value at it. Maybe I should raise a little bit of money in it. It would make this a little easier. But to me, it was the headache of it. I was like, “I do not want to slog around and spend months asking people and the paperwork.” It just felt like a pain in the butt to me. I don’t know if I could have. Did I have the name recognition? Could I have raised enough?
Arguably, yes. By the time I got to Drip, it was definitely like it. If I haven’t had that HitTail money, let’s just say I’d had none of it. I basically used a bunch or revenue from HitTail to fund Drip. If I hadn’t had that? I absolutely would have seriously considered doing what we’re talking about raising a small round. I knew Drip was ambitious, I knew it was going to get big at least by the time we are six or eight months in, and it had a need for that.
That’s what we’re saying here is the words always, never, and should, they’re not helpful words. Don’t say, “I should always raise funding.” “I should never raise funding.” “I should raise funding other people think I should or shouldn’t.” These are not helpful words. Just evaluate things and look at them, and like you said, look at the trade-offs. Pluses and the minuses, and the realities of them, not the FUD. Not the fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
I can tell you the story, “Oh, look. The founder of Fandle. He got screwed by his investors. Therefore, I’m never going to raise investing or I’m never going to raise funds.” That’s dumb. Actually look at the black-and-white of it. I think that’s what we’re talking about today. We;re not saying you should or should not, but it’s look at the reality of it.
Now, you and I talked about this in-depth in episode 211, When To Consider Outside Investment For Your Startup. We went in-depth on what are funds and family round, an angel round, or often called a seed round was. We talked about series A, B, C. Once you get to the serieses, that’s when you get to institutional money, which is when things get way more complicated. Once you raise a series A, it’s the point of no return. It’s implied you’re going to raise a B, a C, and go on to either have this huge exit or an IPO, and it’s growth at all cost for the most part.
But if you’re able to stop before that series A and stick to people who are on board with you, angel investors and such are on board with, “Hey, let’s build a $5 million, $10 million, $15 million company with it, it’ SaaS. Let’s do a 30%, 40%, 50% net margin on this thing.” That’s great. That’s the kind of company I want to build and that’s the kind of company I want to invest in.
But venture capitalists don’t want to invest in that. If that’s not your goal, to go to $100 million and do what it takes to do that, then you don’t want to go down that road. You want to have those expectations clear both in your head upfront, as well as anybody who’s writing you a check.
Mike: Right. The problem with that is that episode 211 when we talked about that, that was four years ago. That’s a long time in internet time.
Rob: I might need to go back and listen to that episode to hear what we said. How much you want to bet? Oh, I’m going to go search it and see if the word fundstrapping if I mentioned it in there.
Mike: I don’t think so. Oh, it is.
Rob: Is it?
Mike: Yup. About 20 minutes in, you said, “I heard the term fundstrapping and I really like it. It was from Colin at customer.io.”
Rob: There it is. In 20 minute then boom. This is 2014, November of 2014 even back then.
Mike: But you were in the middle of Drip at the time, were you?
Mike: Was that right?
Rob: Yup. In the middle of Drip and I was probably already thinking about because at this point, we were growing fast and I was dumping all the money I had into it, both from that revenue and from HitTail, and I was thinking, “Boy, if I had half a million bucks right now, given our growth rate could have raised it. If I had half a million bucks right now, we could grow faster. I can hire more and have more servers and not shut down EC2 instances on the weekend.”
We used to do that to save money that’s insane, that lengths. I remember valuating Wistia versus SproutVideo, and Wistia, for what we need, it was $150 a month and Sprout was $30. It’s a nice tool but now way it was Wistia. I went with SproutVideo because I needed that $120 bucks to pay something else. We had to migrate later and it was a bunch of time and all that stuff. I never would have made that choice if we’d had a little more money in the bank. It’s the luxury of having some investment capital.
Mike: Yeah and unfortunately, you have to make a lot of trade-offs like that. You spend a lot of mental cycles and overhead making those trade-offs and just making the decisions because you don’t have the money, which is a crappy situation to be in. All that said, part of the problem is, you don’t necessarily want to raise money if the idea itself or the business model just simply doesn’t have merit. Maybe that’s partly what those investors are there for is to make sure that they act as something of a filter.
That’s always the problem that I’ve seen with angel investors is that they’re the ones who are in control, not you. Maybe angel investors isn’t the right word, but outside investment where they basically end up getting control of enough of it that you don’t get to make the decisions anymore. They’re the ones who make the decisions whether or not your business is going to succeed based on whether or not you get the money. If you can’t set aside the time, like nights and weekends, to be able to do it, it’s just not going to work out. You need that money in order to make the business work, then it’s going to be a problem for you down the road.
Rob: And that’s the thing is the losing control of your business tends to be if you raised multiple rounds because each round you sell, let’s say, 15%-20% is typical. May 15%-25% and if you do one round, you still have control. You and your co-founder or you if you’re a solo founder still own that 80%. But if you do another round, another right you get two, three rounds in, it’s typically by series C or D where the founders are the minority shareholder and investors now own most of it. If you don’t been on the path, it’s unlikely, or if you just make bad decisions.
I saw someone on Shark Tank where they had no money upfront and they sold 80% of their company to an investor, to an angel investor. Shark Tank was like, “We can’t fund you because you’re working for nothing.” All the work is for the investor. If you make a bad choice, that’s another way to do it too. You do need to educate yourself about it and I think that’s something that some people don’t want to do because it is boring stuff.
I really like the books that Brad Feld does and this one is maybe like venture funding or like a guide to venture funding. I got four chapters in and I just couldn’t stand it because it was all terms. He didn’t write it. It was more of a series that he’s involved in. The terms were just so boring that I stopped. I understand if you don’t want to learn at all. You need to learn enough about it to do it.
I want to flip back to something that Natalie Nagele responded to Justin Jackson and then it was actually just what I was thinking when I saw his graph. It was five years to $21,000 MRR. In all honesty dude, I would shut that business down before I wait it that long. I forget how long it took Drip but it was maybe a year. I don’t think it was even a year from when we launched and it was probably 12-18 months from when we broke around on code, that we had $21,000 MRR.
Drip was admittedly a bit of a Cinderella story. It was fast at growth than most but if you’re growing $100 a month in the beginning and you continue that 10% growth like that, you can’t do that. You need to get it up—
Mike: But I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, though, because if you look at the way Drip was funded into, you said 21 months or so to get to that point? He’s talking about a completed self-funded company versus something where you put money in from HitTail. Those are two entirely different things. I don’t know all about the details of Transistor but my guess is that there’s a huge disparity in terms of the amount of code and the quality of code that needs to go into something like Drip because of the sheer complexity of it versus something like Transistor.
Rob: Yeah, that’s true. I was for the long entrepreneurial journey too, I would say. I had successes that I’ve parlaid into it. You’re right. It’s not a fair comparison. I shouldn’t say with the Drip but…
Mike: I was just arguing about the point of, if it was five years to get to the $20,000 in MRR, should you shut that down? I think it’s a very different answer based on what it is that you’re putting into it. If you’re dumping $200,000 into it, yeah, you probably should shut it down if it’s still going to take you five years to get to that. But if you put nothing into it, or $10,000 into it but it takes five years to get there, it’s like, “Uh, well, I don’t know.” It’s a judgment call.
Rob: It’s interesting and that’s the thing. When I think back in 2005, I started with DotNetInvoice, making a couple of grand a month. It took me until late 2008 to get to where I was making about $100,000 a year, between $100,000-$120,000 a year and that’s when I stopped consulting.
So it took me three and a half years. But again, I did it with no funding and I cobbled it all together myself. That’s the situation we’re talking. I wasn’t doing SaaS. I did it with these multiple products. I think if I was less risk-averse, I’ve could’ve done it faster. I think that’s probably what we’re talking about here. It’s getting a little bit more ambitious and trying to speed things up. How do you do that?
Mike: Part of being more ambitious these days, I think, is because you’re forced to, because of the level of competition that’s out there. You have to do something that’s quite a bit above and beyond what you would have done three or five years ago because the competition is there and people are going to be asking for features that they see in other products that you’re trying to compete against. If you don’t have those features, they’re going to say, “Well, I could pay the same amount of money to you versus this other product and they’ve already got those features so why would I go with you?”
You’re just not able to compete unless you have those features there that you can demonstrate. It’s not even just about the marking. It’s about having the things they need. If you don’t have them, they can’t go with you. It’s not even that they like you. They just won’t do it.
Rob: Yeah and that’s true. Again, funding even the way we’re talking about it, it’s not going to fix all ills. If you pick those markets that’s too small or you don’t build a good product, you’re not going to get to action. Or if it’s a market that people aren’t interested, or you don’t know how to market, you don’t have the experience, you don’t suddenly become an expert startup founder just because you raise funding but if you have the chops and funding is a big piece.
Time is a big piece because you’re only working nights and weekends. You can only put 10 hours a weekend or rather 15 hours. It’s a big difference if you can suddenly go to 40 or 50 hours with two co-founders. It doesn’t fix everything. In addition, does it come with complexity? Yes. You have to report to your investors once a month with an email. You can feel the stress of that.
That was actually something that I asked Justin McGill, Jordan Gal, and Matt Goldman, those are the co-founders of those three businesses that I mentioned earlier, CartHook, LeadFuze, and Churn Buster, and I said, “Hey, do you feel raising this money made things more stressful or less stressful?” They each have their own take on it. If I recall, Justin McGill was like, “It’s more stressful because I feel like if we don’t grow, we’re going to let you guys down.” A lot of the investors he has a lot of respect for. That’s one way it cut through. It can make it more stressful.
I don’t want to put words in people’s mouths but I think Jordan had said, “It’s more stressful but better because it motivates him to succeed.” you got to think about how your personality is and if you feel like it’s going to add more stress, if suddenly five or 10 people that you really respect, that are friends, colleagues, and fellow Microconf attendees write a check to you, how does that make you feel?
Mike: Yeah. I think the answer’s going to be different for every person, especially depending on what your product is like, what the expectations are, how you’ve position it, and how the investor views it. Some investors just say, “Yeah, I may lose all this and that’s totally okay,” and other ones may say, “I have these expectations and you’re not meeting them,” if you miss a deadline or something like that.
There’s a lot of dynamics and complexity there. Some people will thrive in it and some people won’t. I think at the end of the day, I also feel having money has the potential to make the downsides of your product or business model worse. It will just exacerbate some of those issues. If you don’t have a market that you can actually go to, if you think you do but you don’t, and you get a bunch of money in, I think it’s just going to make it worse because yes, you can try a bunch of things and you’ll be able to throw money on it, but then you’re burning more money than you would have otherwise.
Rob: That’s the thing. I know we’re going long on time but really important. I would not raise any type of funding before I have product market fit. That’s a personal thing because (a) your valuation is way last before then, and (b) no one is going to give you money if you don’t have a product, period. You have to have a product these days. You can’t raise money on an idea unless you’re Rand Fishkin, or Jason Cohen, or a founder who’s been there and done that.
You have to have a product, you have to probably be live or at least have beta users, your should have paying customers. That’s a bare minimum to even think about trying to raise funding. You have to get there. You have to write the code, you have to beg, steal and, borrow to get someone to write the code. But the valuation is going to be way less and you’re probably going to burn though a lot of that money just trying to get to product market fit. From the time you launch until you’re part of market fit, I’m going to say it’s 6-12 months if you know what you’re doing.
You see founders like Shawn Ellis, you saw Jason Cohen, you saw me do a Drip. You see people who are pretty good at it and know what they’re doing, and it still takes them six months, and ours still takes 9-12 months to do it. At that point, once you do it and you do kick it in a little bit of that growth mode where it’s like, “Okay people, are really starting to uptick it.” That’s when you pour gasoline on the fire.
But before that, I have seen at least one startup in the last year raise a small round before product market fit, and just burned through it really fast because they staffed up, do a lot of marketing and do a lot of sales, and it just that their churn was so high. That’s typically where you can tell his people aren’t converting to pay it or they aren’t sticking around. There are dangers there. Like a samurai sword, like a said in the past, it’s a weapon that you need to know what you’re doing with to wield well and I think you need to be smart about when you raise.
Mike: Yeah and it sounds like there’s obviously different takes on it. If you want to go down like the VC or angel route, series A funding down the road, I think it’s possible to probably raise money if you have any sort of history or relationship with them, like if you don’t have a product yet. But you’re still also going to get eaten alive in terms of the equity shares and everything.
I think that point that you raised about you have to have a product and you have to have paying customers before you start to go raise money, that’s how you maintain your equity, a fair amount of the equity, enough of the control to be able to what you want, need to with the business, and also be reasonable sure and confident that you’re not going to just waste the investor’s money and burn those relationships. You can use that money for good, and you know what that money will do for you versus you’re still trying to get to product market fit. You don’t know who’s going to but it or who uses it, or why.
Rob: Yeah and the once exception as I’m thinking about it is if you raise a big chunk, let’s say you raise $250,000 or $500,000 and you feel like you need to spend it, and so you staff up but your not part of market fit, you’re going to treat their money. But the exception I can think of, is like I said earlier. What if you just bought yourself 12 months of time and you didn’t staff up but you just worked on it, or 18 months. You didn’t raise this huge amount of money or raise a small amount to just focus on it and work, I could see doing that before product market fit. That would get you to the point where then you can raise that next round.
I’m not trying to be wish-wash but I’m realizing I never said never raise before product market fit but I did say I wouldn’t personally. But I have the resources to get me to product market fit and I could work on a full-time to do that. It’s an exception. If was I doing it nights and weekends, then I would take money before I see I have to think about where the advice is coming from or where the thoughts are coming from. I’m just thinking it through as if I were literally doing this nights and weekends, I would consider taking money as soon as I could. If I was going down this road because going full-time is a game-changer. Being able to focus full-time, being able to leave everything behind is a big deal. It really is and a night and day difference.
Mike: I know there’ll be a range of opinions on it, but I wonder what most investors would think about, somebody saying, “Hey, we got this product. I’ve been working on it and I’d like to get some funding and money in the bank, basically to extend the runway because I got a little bit of something going here, I got partial product in place, I got some customers, but it’s not a lot. I need runway in order to make it work but I don’t know specifically how much runway I necessarily need or how I’m going to get to having $10,000-$20,000 MRR, but I need time to get there. There’s something here but I don’t know what.” I think it’s hard to evaluate for anybody what that looks like.
Rob: Yeah. I don’t know of any investors today that would work with that. I think that’s a good thing to bring up. It’s like, is that a gap in the market then? Could that be a successful funding model of looking at people who essentially have the potential and have, like you said, pre-product market fit but have something to show for it and looking at backing them for a period of time.
Anyway, I love this topic and I think that we’ll probably talking about it again, just soon you’ll be hearing more on it from me, but I feel we might need to wrap this one up today.
Mike: Yeah. Great talk. I like it.
Rob: Me as well. So if you have a question for us about this or any other topic, call our voicemail number 888-801-9690 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each and every episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.