Episode 216 | How a Single Founder Launched a 7-Figure SaaS App (with Nate Grahek)

Show Notes


[00:00] Rob: In this episode of “Startups for the Rest of Us,” Mike and I talk to a single founder who launched a seven-figure SaaS app with special guest Nate Grahek. This is “Startups for the Rest of Us,” episode 216.

[00:10] Music

[00:18] Rob: Welcome to “Startups for the Rest of Us,” the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products, whether you’re built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.

[00:28] Mike: And I’m Mike.

[00:29] Rob: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. So, what’s the word this week, Mike?

[00:33] Mike: Well, I’ve been to the gym 15 times in the last 18 days.

[00:37] Rob: Congratulations.

[00:38] Mike: I actually don’t feel all that bad. It’s just like there’re certain muscle groups that I didn’t know that I had.

[00:43] Rob: Did it get easier after the first few days?

[00:45] Mike: Well, the first week was the worst, and then since then things have gotten significantly better. It’s not nearly as bad as it was the first week. I mean the first week was really rough, and even my wife said it was like the – I was only three days in, and she was just like, “I don’t think he’s going to make it.” [Chuckles]

[00:59] Rob: So, MicroConf Vegas 2015 – it looks like we finally, finally have dates. So, it looks to be April 13th and 14th in Las Vegas; and then, of course, we always have the evening reception on the 12th. So, that’s really a Sunday night, Monday, Tuesday. We have signed a contract and sent it in. We haven’t received the countersigned contract yet, but my guess is by the time this episode goes live, that we will. So, if you’re interested in hanging out with about 200 self-funded startup founders, single founders, head over to MicroCom.com, enter your email address there, and we will be selling tickets in the next few weeks. Myself and Heaton Shah are confirmed as speakers, and we have basically a full list of all the speakers we’re going to be inviting. We just have not emailed everyone yet.

[01:45] Mike: On episode 214, where we discussed Inbox Zero a little bit, Jack Jones left a comment on the blog, and he said, “For Inbox Zero, I highly recommend FollowUp Then. I tried Boomerang and others, but FollowUp Then works completely via email – no separate app or plugin to use. This means you can use it from wherever you deal with your email. It has lots of cool features, like scheduling tasks, automatically, following up with other people and automatic cancellation when someone replies. Between FollowUp Then and emailing tasks to Trello, I’ve maintained daily Inbox Zero across three businesses and my personal life coming up on a year now.”

[02:15] Thanks for that, Jack. And Tyler also said, “The two tools that’ve helped me maintain Inbox Zero for quite a while are Boomerang and TeuxDeux.” And it’s T-e-u-x-d-e-u-x. “Boomerang’s perfect for getting emails out of your inbox when you want to deal with them later, while the simplicity and automatic task rollovers of TeauxDeux have made it my top to-do and calendar app.”

[02:32] Rob: Very nice. Good tips. We also got a comment from Ben on episode 215, which was our predictions episode in which I predicted that five-terabyte cloud storage would be under a hundred dollars next year. And Ben said, “The five-terabyte cloud storage for under a hundred dollars has already happened. Microsoft announced back in October that OneDrive will be unlimited cloud storage, rolling out in the coming months. Both Office 365 plans of around 70 bucks a year or a hundred dollars a year will also include unlimited storage. And while not unlimited, my OneDrive plan was bumped up to 10 terabytes for a hundred dollars back in November.”

[03:09] So, I appreciate you pointing that out. So, either I’m a genius with my prediction and I was ahead of my time, or I’m just misinformed about present-day cloud storage offerings.

[03:18] I tried out Cascade content based on your mention and basically had them write a knowledge-base article based on a screen cast, and this is for the Drip knowledge base, where I recorded screen casts because they’re faster for me to do. But I’ve had requests from customers that they want to see a written version of those, and so far, so good. They’ve done one video and turned it around in two or three days, and so I think I’m going to send them – I probably have five or six others that I’d like to get done. But what’s nice is this allows me, moving forward, to not have to worry about writing it out myself or hiring someone. I just have someone that I can send a video to as soon as I post it, and then within a few days, get it back – kind of like getting a transcript done or something.

[03:58] Mike: Awesome.

[04:00] Rob: So, today Mike and I have the distinct pleasure of having special guest Nate Grahek on the show, and Nate is a single founder who launched seven-figure SaaS app. He’s also a lifetime Academy member. So, welcome to the show, Nate.

[04:12] Nate: Thank you so much for having me, guys. I’m kind of a little star-struck, to be honest. It’s fun to listen to you guys each week, and to actually be on the show, it’s definitely an honor. Thanks for having me.

[04:22] Rob: Very cool. Well, do you want to start by telling folks briefly who you are, what you do?

[04:28] Nate: Oh, sure. In 2012, I started a company called StickyAlbums.com. It’s a service for portrait photographers to create custom, mobile apps for each of their clients. So, a wedding photographer, an infant photographer, high school seniors – they deliver a subset, like a very simple image gallery, as a mobile app; and it becomes a marketing tool for the photographer. That’s the big problem we solve. We help photographers get more customers.

[04:56] Rob: Very cool. And is your background in development? Are you a designer?

[04:59] Nate: My background was in training and development and corporate training, and very quickly I had to learn how to do web development because all training with the economy around that time was moving to the web. We couldn’t afford to fly people in for corporate stuff anymore. And so I learned HTML. I learned Flash. At the same time, iPads were blowing up, and my boss says, “Nate, we[‘ve] got to put all training in iPads.” So, in the course of figuring out how to put other content on iPads and iPhones and other mobile devices with HTML, I was also doing portrait photography on the side and kind of had that classic, light-bulb moment – like scratched my own itch. “How can I make my portrait clients better at referring me new business?”

[05:43] Rob: Very cool.

[05:44] Nate: And I asked one of my high school senior clients – because I was giving them paper business cards to pass out to their friends, and she’s like, “Yeah, we don’t like carrying paper. What if I give you your own custom app with your face on the icon, and you can just share that with your friends?” They were like, “Oh, yeah. I don’t go anywhere without my phone.” So, that was the crux of the idea right there.

[06:02] Rob: Got it. And so you were a photographer?

[06:00] Nate: Yes. I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a professional photographer now. I’m very much humbled, as the range is huge.

[06:11] Rob: Sure.

[06:12] Nate: The market’s huge, but the range is also pretty big, and I was definitely considering myself a rookie on that scale. The domain experience really, really was valuable.

[06:21] Rob: So, you started StickyAlbums.com in – was that 2011 or 2012?

[06:27] Nate: 2012. I launched the site and the domain, like, late ’11 and then had my first sale right in January of 2012.

[06:35] Rob: Got it. And so today, towards the end of 2014, where does your business stand in terms of revenue – whatever you’re willing to share – and team size, if any? I’m not sure if you have full-time employees or –

[06:47] Nate: Yeah.

[06:48] Rob: – contractors.

[06:49] Nate: [I’ve] got a lot of competition, so I’m trying to decide what I should share with them. They just flooded the market after I approved this idea –

[06:55] Rob: Oh, jeez.

[06:56] Nate: – and the competition’s been healthy, but it’s all good. So, within the first two years, we grew to 5,000 photographers. Everybody can do the math. It’s roughly a million dollars in annual revenue. That was a blur. To grow that quickly was pretty intense. And now the last year – so, our third year of business, we’ve kind of plateaued a little bit because of the annual, recurring thing, where we have people that are no longer photographers that were. And we’re still replacing them with new photographers at a pretty good clip.

[07:25] And then since this year, I really sat on the decision of growing the team for a while, because I’m really a huge fan of you guys’ podcast and the idea of staying small and flexible and manageable. But I knew that I wanted to grow something for photographers that was going to be around in the next five years. In order to do that I wasn’t going to be able to do it myself anymore, and so this year I invested a lot of energy in growing the team. We now have four full-time employees, including me. We’re hiring our fifth in January. We’re hiring a full-time designer I’m pretty stoked about, and then we have four other part-time employees that are contractors. So, that growth was exciting. It’s daunting to switch gears into being a manager now. A lot of my time goes to managing, but it’s really rewarding to create a remote culture where people can come to work when and how they want to. I get the unique personalities from everybody adding to a much greater sum. It’s pretty cool.

[08:22] Rob: Yeah, that’s a lot of fun. I know that feeling, too – you know, having gone from kind of doing everything on my own to then expanding. It’s good to have a team.

[08:29] Nate: Yeah, it is. It’s daunting. I’ve got two, small kids. I knew the risk involved in growing. Being a manager always takes more time than you think it does. There’s a human element you never plan for. Despite all that added complexity, it’s incredibly rewarding. Like, I got to give people holiday bonuses this year, and that’s felt really good.

[08:47] Mike: So, one of the things that you mentioned early on was that you were talking to somebody. You wanted to give them a business card, and they just said, “Oh, we don’t really like paper.”

[08:55] Nate: Yeah.

[08:56] Mike: And you kind of went down the road of saying, “Well, I could put your face on an app.” What sort of validation did you do for this idea, or did you just kind of dive right in?

[09:03] Nate: Well, it was first, like, the ‘scratch my own itch’ model where I just made these. Technically, I know I’ve got a lot of developers on the call. It’s an HTML 5 web app, so we’ve built it using some open-source and some proprietary tools. We prompt the user to save the web app to their home screen, and we populate it with a home screen icon, but it is just a website that saves offline. And so there’s huge advantages to it being that way, where it’s shared with just a link instead of it being an actual, native app. There had been other vendors in this space that have tried that model and failed because it’s too complex to try to submit that many apps to the app store. The photographer has to have their own developer license and on and on and on. There’s just a lot of complexity there that we short-cutted by making it HTML, and it’s something I figured out. I taught it myself, and I was just making these sites for my own personal photography clients. I gave them to the client, and they loved them, and it brought me new business – and so much new business that I stopped sharing them in my own business, because I knew I wanted to grow StickyAlbums – not my photography business. So, I had to stop using my [chuckles] own product because it was working too well.

[10:12] Mike: Got it. So, this is really not even an app itself. To the user, it looks like an app, but really it’s a shortcut to a website on their phone – right?

[10:20] Nate: Exactly. I can do a link, or I’ll give you guys a URL. I can post my show notes, and people can see an example of what one looks like.

[10:27] Rob: Very cool. And your pricing – it’s 19 bucks a month, 29 bucks a month; and then you have a lifetime, it looks like, that’s $699?

[10:34] Nate: That’s actually going away. The pricing page is kind of tricky. We could spend time there, if we want to, but it’s kind of –

[10:40] Rob: Oh. It’s 19 a month if it’s billed annually, 29 a month if it’s billed monthly.

[10:42] Nate: Right.

[10:43] Rob: Got it. I missed that.

[10:45] Nate: 90, 95 percent of our customers are on the annual membership, and we just find that works a lot better. People commit. Because it’s a marketing tool, we’ve learned that people who do the monthly are just experimenting, and they don’t take it seriously enough. And if they don’t see the results right away in that first month, then they don’t renew; whereas, when they bite off for the whole year, we have that whole year to engage with them and to teach them how to use the product. And they get to see results, and then they’re a customer for the long haul.

[11:14] Rob: And do you find that the sales effort up front is a lot harder? Because you’re essentially trying to get a couple hundred dollars all at once up front, rather than –

[11:23] Nate: I don’t think it necessarily make it harder. I’ve learned that using a discount code, a lot of people do sign up with a discount. And it’s that deadline. It’s a limited-time offer, and we do a lot of partner deals. So, one way or another, people need a reason to buy today. That’s the thing we’ve found, and beyond that, it doesn’t matter if it’s annual or monthly.

[11:45] Rob: Right. And when you said “it’s going away,” did you mean the lifetime membership?

[11:49] Nate: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re removing that.

[11:50] Rob: Got it.

[11:51] Nate: That was early on. It helped us grow big and reward some of our most loyal customers, but we’re going to take that away and bring in a two-year plan.

[11:58] Rob: Nice. So, you’ll have monthly, annual and two-year. So, you mentioned earlier that you grew to 5,000 paying users in your first year. Obviously, that’s 5,000 photographers who found you, who decided to buy. A lot of folks listening to this podcast are probably wondering how did you achieve such enviable growth. Was there one tactic? Was it a combination of tactics? What was it that gave you that hockey stick?

[12:22] Nate: It was 5,000 by two years. At the first year, I was at about 3, and then the second year we made it to 5. It’s not just one. I think the one that enabled the crazy speed was word of mouth. It was that I did a couple things really well. I treated my customers well, and then it’s that word-of-mouth referral. We had a tracking form when people first came in that says, “Where’d you hear about us?” and I would celebrate. Once a week or once a month, somebody would write, “Everywhere.” [Chuckles] Like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s so cool.” They were hearing about it from their friends, from other places, from other blogs. So, it was definitely a combined approach. But I think, more than anything, people buy when something’s been referred by somebody else that they trust.

[13:09] Rob: Right. It’s a lot easier sales process if someone’s already been referred, rather than seeing a cold ad and then having to get familiar.

[13:16] Nate: I have a theory. We do a lot of education now, too, and teaching other photographers how to do marketing themselves. And I tell them that paid advertising – I think the only time it works is when you already have a foundation of word-of-mouth referrals happening. Somebody’s like, “Oh, yeah. I heard about this cool photographer, blah, blah, blah. And Julie said she was great.” And then later on that week, you see an ad in a local newspaper. [They’re] like, “Oh, yeah. That’s right! I remember. I wanted to call Julie.” But if you just saw that ad for Julie, and nobody had told you who she was, that ad’s not going to really do anything.

[13:50] Rob: Right.

[13:51] Nate: And we found that to be true in our business, too, where our paid advertising is only icing on the cake when we have that good word-of-mouth buzz happening first.

[14:00] Rob: So, obviously, once you had a thousand or 2,000 people using it, then word of mouth is going to help. But how did you get those first few hundred users?

[14:09] Nate: I got really lucky with a – this was even when it was first Concierge. We didn’t even go to the actual builder code that was written, that is the base of the business today. I went to market without that. I went to market where I was selling this as if, when photographers were uploading their pictures, like a machine was doing it; but it was actually just me. [Chuckles] I was taking people’s pictures and building these one-off albums one at a time. I had a friend help me build some automation so I could be faster for myself on my local computer. I used to take, like, ten, 15 minutes to build each one. And now, with the app he made for me – he made this small version of an app that took it down to five minutes per album, and that let me go to market. And I did a paid blog post review, and that got us our first 15 to 20 customers.

[15:00] But then there was a site called Photo Dough; and they had, like, a Groupon for our industry. Their meteoric rise also. And so doing a deal there was perfect, because everybody knows Groupon. I didn’t have to pay to be there. They just got a cut. The timing was right. For that first three days, we did $10,000 in revenue. And, ironically, I had at the same time been shopping for developers. I’d met with three different developers, and they’d all estimated the MVP was going to be about ten grand.

[15:32] And so my wife was pretty excited. It was a fun, exciting day to refresh the web page and just watch the sales go up. And she was like, “Oh wow! When do we get some of that?” I was like, “Actually, now that we have 200 customers, I have to get this thing automated ASAP.” And, luckily, the team was able to build it in 30 days; because that month I think I built 400 websites by hand until the automated builder was done. And since then, we’ve made close to a million, I think, apps.

[16:02] Rob: Wow. Yeah, that’s really impressive. So, you definitely pulled the MVP approach – kind of the lean startup approach of just getting out there and selling something, seeing if it caught fire. And with you, it obviously did, and then you had to use human automation to get you through it.

[16:16] Nate: Yeah, it was terrifying. I risked $300 of my own money –

[16:19] Rob: Yeah.

[16:20] Nate: – and then after that, it was building with the customer money. And I was definitely nervous. I said to myself, “If this fails, I will just give people their money back and apologize profusely.” But I wasn’t ready with a mortgage and – we had just had our second kid. He was a month old. I wasn’t ready to risk $10,000 of my own money yet. I wouldn’t recommend anybody do something like that at that stage of their life. The lean startup stuff was – I wasn’t even familiar with what I was doing, that it was called “lean startup” until I found podcasts like you guys. I was like, “Oh, there’s a name for what my wife forced me to do.” [Laughs] She was like, “There’s no way you’re spending that kind of money! Figure it out – how you’re going to do it without it.” And that’s what I did.

[16:58] Rob: Very cool.

[17:00] Mike: So, it sounds like there wasn’t very much time between the time you had the idea and you realized that this really had legs. I’m curious to know what your mentality was going into it, thinking that you were going to do all of this stuff by hand versus automating it first, because I think that’s a common situation – where people run into something, and they have this idea, and they say, “Oh, we’ll, I’ll build some code,” because, naturally, most of the people listening to this are developers. And that’s what they do.

[17:25] Nate: Yeah, right.

[17:26] Mike: So, their first instinct is to write code to solve the problem. You clearly went in a different direction, and that’s one of the things that lean startup advocates – is testing the idea to make sure that it has legs before you do a lot of investment. And I’m curious to know what your mentality around that was. Or, was it just, “My wife said so”? [Chuckles]

[17:44] Nate: Yeah, right [chuckles]. The first idea was sitting around the fire – it was October of 2011 – with my neighbor, who was a developer. I knew education – right? So, I was going to sell a product. I was like, “There’s this huge market to sell informational products to photographers. I’m going to sell videos,” because that’s what I did in my day job, “teaching people how to make these HTML apps.” Thank goodness for one of my good friends now. He was like, “Dude, there’s such a small subset of people that will actually take the time. Photographers don’t want to deal with HTML. You’ve just got to build a builder for them, and it’s not that hard.” I was like, “Wow. Really?”

[18:18] So, that’s the idea. And then four months it took to flush it out. I put my energy into the marketing site so that I could validate the idea with sales. That was where I put all of my energy and then was just going to continue being the – like, the builder was just the concierge, like human labor – a model first to test it. But I quickly learned there was a lot of things that I thought I would have to build from scratch. I built on WordPress, and then I bought a membership plugin. So, I thought I was going to have to hire developers to build all of the membership stuff, too; but that was already just, like, a hundred-dollar S- – I think I used an S2 member plugin for a hundred bucks. And it let me go to market with PayPal integration right away. Within two months, I was able to put up a sales page. I knew sales was the first thing I had to show before I was going to invest more money.

[19:12] Rob: That’s really cool that that was your intuition, because obviously, with most people – developers, designers, or otherwise – the typical inclination is to build something first, to go into your basement and build it. But you obviously wanted to get sales first. Where did that come from? Why was that your number one before you built anything?

[19:31] Nate: I had the idea – right? It had worked for me already in my business. And other photographers, I had shared the – quote/unquote – “product.” They saw the finished albums that I was making. That was it. That was the MVP there. I can sell making these for photographers. So, flushing that out – that was actually the first thing. I was just getting creative in my own photography business – like, “Oh, what could I make for my customers in photography? Oh, this is cool. Oh, wait. This might be a huge market for other photographers – not just my own business.”

[20:06] And when I made the switch from making something for my own photography business to being a service for other photographers, that’s where most of the energy went into building a sales page; because I had already put in the work building the – quote/unquote – “product.” I put probably three, four months into researching what the format was, what different tools we were going to use in the JavaScript and the HTML format of the album. So, there was definitely some time there. Luckily, I think, I switched gears off of the product. I had dreams about making it amazing, but luckily my first developers that I hired – they were really big 37Signals fans, and they were good at coaching me to keep the MVP actually an MVP.

[20:52] Rob: And you had kind of a Cinderella story early on. I mean it’s kind of a rare idea that gets this much traction this quickly. I’m curious. You had to have run into some hurdles, some roadblocks within that first year. Does one come to mind that really made you pause and think like, “Maybe this won’t work”? If you don’t have one that made you think that, maybe there was a darkest-hour time.

[21:17] Nate: Yeah. I think probably the biggest challenges were personal, to be honest, like the fact that I had two children. My wife was like, “Are you serious? Now is when you want to launch a business? We have a two-year-old and a[n] infant.” So, deciding when to quit the day job was very daunting. There was so much going on, because I was still working the day job those first four, five months and coming home till two in the morning, working on building these for people. So, that was very, very taxing – to work a 40-hour day job and then come home and put another 40 hours a week into launching it. That was not sustainable. I burned bridges with friends and family in those first months so that I could make the leap and quit the day job.

[22:03] And then once I was able to quit the day job, then the challenges after that were staying focused on sales. I’ll share my revenue chart. I would have a record month, and then the next month would be like half the size. And then I’d have a record month in sales, and the next month it’d be half the size. And it repeated this pattern because I was doing support also. And as soon as I was able to hire a good support rep, that’s when we had consistent growth, because I could stay focused on sales and marketing and partnerships, and she could stay focused on engaging the customer. As soon as I would pull away – and it was good. Again, I’m glad I did that. It was good for me to stay super close to the customer and know their issues and really understand what problems I was solving and which ones I wasn’t. It was instantaneous. That’s the point I wanted to make – is as soon as I took my hand off of sales, I could see it impacted in the numbers right away. As soon as I stopped selling and marketing and building relationships with other people, sales would drop off. And that’s a constant today. As soon as I try to slow down and focus on something else, sales slow down, too.

[23:07] Mike: So, it sounds to me like you’re constantly pushing down on that pedal to make sales and marketing work for you. But aside from the word of mouth, what’s your most successful marketing channel that you’ve kind of stumbled on or identified so far?

[23:21] Nate: Yeah, absolutely. As I transitioned into this, like the marketing piece, it’s also been tempered with learning over time that there’s always more features to build. I love building new features, and the majority of features we’ve put in have come from customer requests. That’s never-ending. I could fast-forward five years, and there’s always going to be more to build. And my goal has been to make sure that we have the ability to build features, like, we still have a business to build features for. And I’ve luckily focused on sales to make sure that we just keep the lights on, I think, is what’s important. There’s a lot of other competition in our space that’s come into the space and price really cheap. They come in, and they fizzle.

[24:04] This is one story I like to share, this very humbling call. This was an early challenge. When you first launch a product, there’s this terror. I would wake up every morning, like, “Somebody else has my idea. Somebody’s going to rip this off and steal it.” And that was a pretty constant challenge. And then after six months, we had one. It would really stress me out at first, and it took me a while to really get over the early, like, “Stop being worried, so focused on the competition. Just focus on your own business and our own customer base.” And I finally got better at that.

[24:36] There was this one vendor that I stumbled across. I think he was in month two or three. And it ruined my day. I was so sad. They had so many more features. They had the HTML site. They had the app side – the native side. Their marketing video was really well done, better than what I thought ours was. And the moral of the story is fast-forward three years. I actually got an email from this company saying, “Hey, Nate, we love your marketing and follow what you’re doing. We’re actually looking to sell and wondering if you’re interested.” And I had the whole conversation really wanted to understand what worked, what didn’t; if there was an opportunity for me to buy them. They had ten customers the last three years. While they had built this amazingly robust, feature-rich solution, they hadn’t put any energy around marketing it and educating people about how to use it in their business. They wanted to recoup some of their money that they had invested in, like, contracted development. I felt terrible. I really empathized with these guys, but it’s one of these classic cases where they focused too much on building one more feature with their own dollars instead of building it with the company.

[25:44] And that comes from my commitment to my customers. I want to be around here in five years so that we still have a service to provide. And I do that by making sure we’re growing a healthy company.

[25:55] Rob: Right. And their story is the more common path – right? That’s the more common story we hear of people launching a startup – is that they err on the side of too much product rather than too much sales.

[26:06] Nate: Yeah. But it’s so counterintuitive. I was like, “Oh, we’re done.” It was one of those things where I found it on a Google search, or somebody said, “Hey, Nate, have you seen this company?” And I was like, “Oh, wow. That was fun. We’re done.” I really thought [crosstalk].

[26:21] Rob: They were going to put you out of business. Yeah, that’s actually really common in terms of competition coming up. You always think they know more than they do, and especially if you’ve been in a market for any length of time and you’re good at it, you typically are way, way ahead of them in terms of revenue, customer count and in terms of your intimate knowledge of the market.

[26:39] Nate: Right. There was an analogy I made early on that I had to relearn my mindset of what the Internet is before launching my own online business. A lot of the things I consumed online were trending things. Every once in a while, something trending comes up, and I go, “Oh, yeah.” And it feels like we all know about the trending things that are happening. We all know about Uber. And instead, what I’ve learned is the Internet is like a big room – a really, really, really big room. And you can yell about something for years, and the majority of the Internet still won’t hear you. And that is what took me some time to realize – that it’s all about getting other people to talk about you and getting your message out, because people don’t need to hear about you just once. They need to hear about you over and over again. And just because you’re yelling in your corner doesn’t mean anybody’s hearing you yet.

[27:26] Rob: Right. Wise words. So, Nate, back in May of 2012, I did my first Mixergy sometime around there. And you emailed me afterwards, and you said that you saw that I had the Micropreneur Academy, and you asked me a few questions about it. And we had a short email exchange that I hadn’t remembered when you and I reconnected later. And then in June of 2013 – so, that’s about a year later – I did a Growth Hacker TV interview, and you sent me this email, and you said:

[27:55] “Hi, Rob. I just watched your interview on Growth Hacker TV. Great stuff. It’s been just over a year since I emailed you and then joined the Micropreneur Academy. While I feel I was so busy executing that I was only able to implement about 10 percent of the full course content, the little that I did implement was invaluable. The majority of my customers are on annual plans, and with the first few months of renewals being decent, May was my first $100,000 month.’ So, you said, you know, thanks. And you felt a lot of gratitude [to] both myself and Mike for the podcast and then others who are so willing to share what we’ve learned.

[28:27] Nate: Yeah.

[28:28] Rob: That was cool. I love hearing that kind of story, because you kind of came out of nowhere. I was just like, “Whoa! Who is this guy having so much success?” And I’m curious if you recall any specific times where you may have used either advice from the podcast, or from the Academy, or stuff that Mike and I’ve shared that helped you out as you were growing.

[28:47] Nate: I think I heard you talk about the point of just execution early on – how important executing is. And when I started in the Academy, I think I downloaded all of the MP3 courses right away and just listened to them on fast mode whenever I was commuting. And the one that sticks out for me – I think you did a class on joint ventures, or marketing partnerships; and I think that’s one that’s just been probably – when you asked earlier my most successful marketing tactic. It’s just been relationships – building relationships with other people. Like Marketing 101. It’s finding a reason for other people to talk about you and what your service is.

[29:27] And so some of that was easier. It was a brand new product. And think about a blogger, somebody whose job is to educate and share good ideas to their audience. They love having something brand new and shiny to show off and talk about. So, getting my foot in the door was relatively easy earlier, but now it’s had to transition to building the partnership based on the audience that we now have. We can kind of swap back and forth, and then also focusing just on really good content, just really educating people. And I also learned the value of education, obviously, through Micropreneur Academy. It was just invaluable.

[30:05] Rob: Very cool.

[30:06] Nate: There’s a couple podcast episodes that I find myself forwarding to other early-stage entrepreneurs a lot. The first two are the product test and the founder test. It really helped. The founder test especially helped me look at my own blind spots, or my own opportunities for growth and not feel so bad about it. And through growing the team, it helped me identify key personalities I had to hire for. And one of the best lessons I’ve learned – I also was really fortunate to find a mentor in Clay Collins, who’s the founder of LeadPages. He’s here in the Twin Cities. He told me the best lesson in hiring is you want to hire early in your business people who are good at doing a thing instead of a jack of all trades. That way, you don’t have to stop and teach them how to blog, or how to podcast, or how to do webinars. If they’re already doing those things somewhere else, they can come in day one and start generating revenue for you.

[31:06] Like, my first hire was customer support. I almost hired somebody that was just good at knew photography, but didn’t know how to do tech support. And, luckily, [at] the last minute, the last person to apply – she had done customer support somewhere else. That would’ve probably broken my business had I made that wrong decision. Luckily, I chose the right person who could come in day one, and she started handling most of the support tickets, like right away.

[31:30] Rob: Very nice.

[31:31] Nate: And I’ve learned that lesson on both sides ever since. And then, finally, the episode 141, “Five Elements of Effective Thinking,” where you guys did that book review. I love – I quote that on, like, a weekly basis, I feel like: just really focusing on doubt. And I really get worried about people who are certain about things. Having the guts to question and to be skeptical – it’s so true that in politics and other areas we devalue that. We feel like somebody’s wishy-washy. But when I’m hiring, and when I’m building partnerships, it’s like a huge red flag if somebody is absolutely certain about a thing. It’s like wait a second. If you’re certain, that means you probably just haven’t been doing that for long enough. [Chuckles]

[32:14] Rob: Right – to see the nuance of it.

[32:15] Nate: Exactly.

[32:18] Rob: It’s too black-and-white. Very cool. Well, thanks for sharing that. So, those were episodes 133, 134 and 141 you mentioned. I think all of them are in our little “Greatest Hits” area of our website, and we’ll link them up as well.

[32:30] Well, thanks, Nate. We really appreciate your time, coming on the show and sharing your story. I think it’s been inspirational for folks listening. If someone wants to keep up with you on the Internet, where would they do that?

[32:43] Nate: I like wrapping all of my podcasts up as a reward for people to listen to the very end. I love the feedback of, “What part of this interview was the most valuable to you. Send me an email: nate@stickyalbums.com.

[32:57] Rob: Awesome. Thanks again for taking the time to come on the show, Nate.

[32:59] Nate: You bet. Thanks for having me, guys. It was a pleasure.

[33:02] Mike: Thanks, Nate.

[33:03] If you have a question for us, you can call it in to our voicemail number at 1.888.801.9690, or email it to us at: questions@startupsfortherestofus.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt, used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for “startups” and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

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One Response to “Episode 216 | How a Single Founder Launched a 7-Figure SaaS App (with Nate Grahek)”

  1. Povilas says:

    Another great episode with great founder. Again and again it proves that you have to spend as much time and effort on promoting and sales, as on the product. A lot of people forget about it.