In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike help you answer the question, when is it time to level up? They address how to think through the process and what concerns there might be to leveling up.
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Rob: In this episode for Startups for the Rest of Us Mike and I answer the question “When is it time to level up?” This is Startups for the Rest of Us episode two hundred thirty-five.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products whether you’ve built your first product or are 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. What’s the word this week, sir?
Mike: Chris Kottom who had suggested our episode on stair-stepping had sent us in another link. He’s got a book called Minitest Cookbook and it’s aimed at helping Ruby and Rails developers write maintainable test cases using mini tests. I went over and checked out the website. It’s pretty cool. It’s got a lot of stuff in there. He’s got a nice little eBook that goes along with it and looks like it’s got a lot of good information in there.
Rob: Congratulations, Chris. We’ll make sure to link that up in the show notes. We also received some praise for episode two hundred thirty, which is our fifth anniversary episode where we had our wives come on and do the show. It’s from Patrick [May?] and he says, “Hello, folks. First off, I love the show and it’s real business life theme, no baloney for sure. I’ve never emailed you but after the spouse episode today I had to comment. Ladies, it was so great to hear from the other or better half of an entrepreneurs life. As a small scale farmer and entrepreneur I felt connected with this episode. My future wife and girl friend of eight years supports me, helps me tackle tough decisions, and keeps me focused when I wander. You guys rock and keep it up. Thanks.”
Mike: Thanks, Patrick. We really appreciate that. I’ve heard a lot of people have been pointing their spouses toward that particular episode and having them listen to it.
Rob: I know. It seemed to have resonated to hear that side of it. I’m glad. We were obviously inspired by Techzing’s two hundredth episode where they had their wives come on and Sherry was actually on that episode as well. But the format seems to speak to a lot of people and I think it tells maybe this other side of the story. It’s like the other business partner’s side of the story that isn’t told enough, I think.
Mike: The unsung heroes.
Rob: I think exactly. People who put up with us in the day to day life.
Mike: Well the only other thing I’ve got is my book is coming out for its public launch next week. So that will be out, I think about the time this episode goes live.
Rob: Very cool. So if folks want to check it out where would they go?
Rob: Nice. All right. Well this week’s episode Mike and I are going to be talking about when is it time to level up. And it’s actually based on a question from Simon at Small Farm Central. Simon writes, “I have a couple of products that I feel are pretty mature. They’re growing ten to thirty percent a year but I can’t grow them super fast because the market’s a bit tapped out. The vertical is very small and we rule the vertical pretty well. I have some new products that I’m working on but I’m wondering when is it time to reduce investment in these more mature products and focus on the new ones that probably have more growth potential. Even if I stop investing and pull back on my existing products, they will keep generating cash since they are SaaS apps.”
So the question is how do you know your product is mature, how do you now when to move on, and really we’re boiling it down to when is it time to level up? I’m using that term level up in the context of our stair-step episode a few episodes back, and also in the context of Patrick McKenzie’s talk at MicroConf where he talked about moving from Bingo Card Creator, which was a small price point, one time purchase and most of his traffic was a single channel. It was SEO with some ad words. And then he leveled up to Appointment Reminder, which was SaaS, and now he’s leveling up to [?] Starfighters.io. And it’s really in line with the stair-step approach that I’ve been talking about for awhile and that we’ve covered a few episodes ago. I think there’s more to dig into this, the specifics of when you should think about leveling up and what some of the concerns should be, and how to think through that whole process.
Here’s some thoughts about when to consider leveling up. And by leveling up I mean moving from that step one, which is typically a single purchase priced product up to multiple purchase priced products, and then up to recurring revenue.
Now in Simon’s case in particular he actually owns two small SaaS apps in this same space and he helps small farmer manage their web presence, is one of his apps. Imagine Squarespace for small farms. And the other one helps them manage their CSA programs. CSA is where a consumer you could pay the farm a monthly subscription and you get a basket of fresh produce every week or every other week. It stands for Community Supported Agriculture. But he knows this market really well. It is a very small niche market so it’s not going to be something that grows like an app for marketers or an app for designers. It’s a good point he brings up, says his growth is not super fast. It’s ten to thirty percent a year. Which is slower than a lot of apps that we might hear about. And I think that’s the first point at which you should consider perhaps moving on, is when revenue has essentially flatlined or is growing very slowly. And if you’ve spent six to twelve months trying to increase it and investing time and energy in trying to find new traffic sources or trying to improve conversion rates and they’re not going up, that is, to me, a leading indicator that you might want to think about adding another product to your portfolio or leveling up.
Mike: Yeah, I think that’s all about a balancing act, too. The ten to thirty percent a year, call it twenty percent, and if you try really, really hard and you get twenty percent but then you don’t try hard at all for the next six months, say, and you still get twenty percent growth, then it’s indicative that there’s not a lot of, I’ll say external influence, that you can provide that’s going to push that business forward. It’s going to move on its own but I think a lot of this also boils down to the fact that just certain types of markets, they take a long time to essentially tap into to get those customers onboarded. And I would imagine that this is not a very tech savvy crowd, so you’re probably going to have to do a lot of hand-holding in order to get those people on board. So, even if you are to try and scale those efforts up, it’s not as though you probably have the man power to be able to get as many people onboarded as you would like.
Rob: I think this relates to the law of diminishing returns. Early on as you’re building and you’re starting to market, you’re going to increase revenue month after month. And then at a certain point you’re going to hit a plateau, and we have talked about this in the past about breaking through plateaus, and there can be any number of causes for that, but if you’ve been working on an app for a number of years and you can see the pattern of it has been slow growth all along, and it’s going to continue to be that, then maybe that’s not a time to bail on it, right? Because it’s just the status quo and that is what this market looks like. But if you’ve had years of eighty percent growth, fifty percent growth, and then it’s slowly tapering off and you feel like you’ve peaked in the market and you might be starting to lose interest, then that’s the time where I think that you’re starting to perhaps lose momentum.
That takes us into our second point of when to potentially consider leveling up, is when your momentum has died down for an extended period of time. Basically, when you’re own personal interest is starting to wane. And I find that this often happens around the time when plateaus start to come up. Because when your business is growing like gangbusters, you’re momentum doesn’t tend to die.
Because the problem with losing momentum is that if you don’t care, if you don’t love this business any longer and you’re starting to maybe lose interest, you’re going to start wandering. You’re going to start thinking about other ideas, you’re not all in anymore, and the business is naturally going to suffer because of this. And so that’s the second thing, is if your revenue has peaked or is flatlined, or if your personal momentum and desire to grow the business has flatlined, both for an extended period of time, those are the points where I really start thinking about should I be making a transition out of this.
Mike: Yeah, I think those things are tied pretty well together in terms of the motivation and how fast you’re growing, because if you’re growing fast you’re motivated to keep doing it, but as your returns start diminishing on the same effort, you’re just not as motivated. And I found that even with the stuff I’ve done. I don’t know if there’s a specific name for that, but it almost seems like there should be.
Rob: Yeah, I know. I think there’s a judgement call to this because every business is going to hit some plateaus and every business is going to lose your interest for different periods of time. So you might have two weeks or three weeks or a month where you hit a plateau and where you’re bored with it and you’re fed up. And to me that’s not long enough. It’s got to be something like six months where you’ve tried everything you can think of and nothing is working, and you’ve asked for advice, and you’ve talked to advisers or mastermind forks or whatever community it is that you have, and you’ve tried everything that you can think about and you’re at the end of your rope and you’re still not growing. That’s the point where, I’d say, are pretty solid indicators that you either need to seek more help, like you need to pay a consultant to come in and help, or you need to start thinking about potentially moving on/leveling up.
Mike: I think something else that factors into this is how much money you’re making from it. There’s a difference between whether it’s something you’re doing on the side or versus whether it’s something that it’s completely your full-time income as well.
Rob: Yeah, I agree. And I think this begs the question of do you always have to keep growing, because there’s a lot of talk in the venture funded startup space about growth, and I think there’s also a lot of talk in the bootstrap startup space about growth, and I’m not sure that growth is necessarily an end goal for everybody, nor should it be. I think depending on where you are in your life, let’s say you’ve just had a child, you may not care about growing for a year or two, or you just want to rent a trailer and drive around the country and hang out with your family. Growth is not necessarily the end all be all of all this stuff. I know I talk about it a lot. It’s been a personal goal of mine to grow businesses over the past few years but if you hit the point where you’re making ample money to live on, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with living the life. Like in quotes, “Living the life,” for awhile and really evaluating whether or not you want to start another app.
You and I were discussing this before, not to use the word coast, because coast has a negative connotation, but I coasted on revenue for a solid eighteen months. It was around 2010, maybe, 2011, we had our second child and there was a solid ten months where I worked a day and a half a week, two days a week. Nothing grew but nothing flailed either. And then there was about another six months where I was just enjoying it and doing things and that’s when I wrote the book and that’s when the Academy really got built. I don’t think that a constant push for growth necessarily should be the goal for everyone at all times. I think it depends on your situation.
Mike: Yeah, growth for the sake of growth shouldn’t necessarily be the goal. It’s what are the things that you’re trying to achieve and why. Why is it that you want those things? If you want growth in order to make more money so that you can do X, Y, and Z then that’s fine, but at that point it’s not growth that’s the goal it’s that X, Y, and Z, whatever that happens to be.
Rob: Right. So I think what I’d do if I were in Simon’s shoes is to go on a retreat and I would get the heck out of Dodge for forty-eight or seventy-two hours, try to be alone and basically ponder this decision and its ramifications and ask a bunch of questions. There’s actually a good podcast episode. It’s Sherry and mine’s podcast called ZenFounder. And you go to zenfounder.com, episode two. We outline the things you should ask in a retreat. But one of the questions that I would be asking is do I still have interest in this niche? Do I still want to grow these apps? Do I really want to start over with a new product in a new market? Because I think that’s what Simon’s asking about because he’s saying his market is too small, currently. Because starting over with that new product in a new market is very, very hard and don’t underestimate how much of a challenge and how long that takes. Looking backwards at the past two plus years, that Derek and I have spent building Drip from scratch, it’s a ton of work. I think that’s something to really think about. It sounds great at the beginning and there are going to be some hard times again. So ask yourself, are you in a place in your life, and mentally where you want to take that leap and go through the hardship of starting something new.
Mike: And I think that if you’re going to do that that’s something that you have to really commit to because it can be very easy to become complacent when you’re in a place where you’ve got money coming in, you don’t have to work terribly hard to get that money coming in the door, and you can essentially drag out other things that you’re working on for an extended period of time because there’s no push or drive for you to complete it in a short amount of time. So just be mindful that if you’re going to go in that direction then you need to commit to doing it or not bother because otherwise you’re going to waste a lot of time and something that you could have easily finished in eight or nine months is going to take you three or four years to finish.
Rob: Right. And the good part is that Simon has a lot of experience. He’s basically grown these two SaaS apps to the point of success. I don’t know what his revenue is but I know that he has a few employees and he owns this market. So he definitely has a lot of experience under his belt and the true stair-step approach of learning these things early on. So I think he does have some advantages under his belt. But I do think that going on a retreat and thinking through do you need to keep growing right now, is it time for you to maybe live the life for a little while, take four or six months and coast and enjoy it, or are you geared up to really start something and hammer it out, start a new app. I think this ties into thinking about it, in terms of fast growth versus slow growth. Because every app and every market is not going to be fast growth. The vertical of small farms or catering to restaurants, or selling into hotels. There’s a bunch of niche markets that we can think of, especially if you’re building a niche piece of software for those markets, where I just don’t really think it’s feasible to have this hundred percent or two hundred percent year over year growth every year. Your growth is going to be slow the entire time, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing as long as you have the patience to do it and it’s not driving you crazy.
Mike: Yeah, and we had an extended conversation about how to essentially present that fast growth versus slow growth. We talked about auto pilot, we talked about coasting. All these different words that have different connotations depending on how you use them. And I don’t know what the end words for them really should be but it comes down to what your growth curve looks like. Fast paced marketing startups, you’re going to have a lot of heavy growth and it’s going to be easier to onboard people, and you’re going to be able to move them through your sales funnel quickly, versus these other things where the growth is significantly slower, in the neighborhood of, as we said earlier in the episode, the ten to thirty percent year over year growth. That is much slower but the question also comes out as to how far down the road does that growth look like it’s going to go? Is it going to tap itself out in a year or is it going to be ten years or twenty-five years? I think there’s a very big difference between some of those different numbers. And it’s going to influence, in some ways, what you decide to do moving forward. I think that ultimately what you do is also going to be heavily influenced by what you’re interested in.
Rob: Yeah, I think it ties into personality as well. Certain folks are more patient and more willing to just hang out an build a successful, highly profitable app but not feel like their always tantalized into going into that next high growth niche market that everybody’s talking about. I have a lot of respect for the folks that are doing that and can stick with one thing for years on end. So I think that’s an interesting way to think about it.
I think the stuff we’ve talked about so far can be summarized under “Is this something that you want to do?” You need to think about it from your personal perspective. I think another question I would ask myself is is there another opportunity that you can think of where each hour of your time will be worth five X, or ten X more than with your current business? Because if that’s not the case and you don’t have your finger already on something, I’d be less inclined to back away from this. Again, unless you’re really fed up with where you are and you want to make a quick exit, I’d be thinking about what’s next and thinking about how that will be different. Without that “What’s next,” it makes it a little harder. I think just leaving a business behind without having an idea of what you’d be up to next maybe leaves a question mark in my mind. For my personality I think it would leave me concerned but maybe that’s not a general feeling.
Mike: One thing that just jumped in my mind was, for this particular business, have you set out everything that you’ve achieved to do?
Mike: And I think that if you have then I think it’s probably definitely time to look around and see what else you could do and maybe move on. But if there are things that you set out to achieve originally that are still within the realm of possibility and you just haven’t done them yet, I think you may very well run into a place down the road where you’re like “Gee, I wish I had done that.” Maybe not. It depends on what those things are but it seems to me like that’s something else to keep in mind.
Rob: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. I think the last thing I’ll throw in here because it tied into my decision when I moved from HitTail and moved onto Drip, was is there an external dependency that could potentially render your product moot like you’re integrated with Twitter and they’re going to jack with your API, or you’re integrated with Google and they keep changing everything every six months. In Simon’s case, I don’t think it is, but in the case of HitTail, if Google’s going to be changing things and breaking your app altogether then it might be a good time to think about diversifying.
So I think those are the thoughts and concerns and the questions that I will be asking. And I know Simon asked a little bit about how do you know when your product is mature or how do you know when you own the market. I feel like you have a better sense of it than we do, just because we don’t know your market. And my guess is if you ask yourself or you look at the data, how many small farms there are and how many you’ve reached, you have a pretty good sense of whether or not you can accelerate growth or whether or not this is just a solid business that is hit maybe a plateau. I do think that I would think of it in terms of a plateau and not as the end all be all of the business because my guess is someone somewhere could take this business to the next level. The question that I would ask is what would it take to [?] X this business and do you think that’s possible? And that can play into this decision of if you think it’s possible and these are the steps then do you want to do those?
Mike: I think my sense of that is just very slightly different, which is just that is there a possibility for this business to double or triple in size within a reduced time frame than what you’re currently looking at? As I said, I think it’s slightly different than what you just said, but it boils down to is it even possible, not just for you but for anybody? And if it’s not that might be your indicator to say okay, let’s go do something else or, as we talked about before, maybe you’re just happy where you are and just keep running this business for the next fifteen, twenty years.
Rob: Right. Which I do not think is a bad thing because the pains of starting over are not to be understated. So if you decide to stick with it, that’s great. We wish you the best of luck. If you decide to use this as a time to have an exit and level up, I thought about three different options for how I’ve seen this done and two of them are good choices and the last one is pretty much a bad idea, but we’ll walk through each of them.
The first choice that I’m throwing out, and these are in no particular order, they’re not in priority or anything, the first option is to sell the app. What’s nice is that there is a market that has started to coalesce over the last couple of years for these higher end SaaS apps, especially, but pretty much bootstrap software. And even eCommerce and product test service and all that stuff. There’s now becoming a bit of a liquid market that is more than just the low end flip of market where everything’s twelve months of revenue or twelve months of profit or whatever. So there are definitely solid website brokers out there that are dealing in this type of stuff and the multiples vary depending on growth and all types of stuff, but frankly with a SaaS app that is fairly systemized I think you can get at least two and a half times your annual net profit and potentially up to three, three and a half. Which it becomes an interesting number at that point. If you’re doing a chunk of change each year and you’re able to get 3X that change then realistically your choice is do I take this money off the table now and give me time to start thinking about what my next idea is, potentially acquire something that is more interesting or build it from scratch, or do I stick around for the next three years and try to manage this thing on the side in order to earn that same amount of money?
The second option that I’ve seen people do successfully, but only a few times, is to actually put someone in charge of the app. [Heaton?] Shaw did this with Crazy Egg where they hired basically a CEO to run it, full-time, that person was not focused on other apps. I attempted to do this with HitTail, and I had Derek working half-time on HitTail, half-time on Drip. This is way back in the early days of Drip. The problem was is that Drip quickly grew. It became a bigger app, bigger opportunity than HitTail so I pulled him off and we both started working on Drip, and as a result it didn’t work out for me because I wasn’t willing or wasn’t able to find someone who I thought could totally run it on their own and run it, but perhaps Simon’s in a different situation here where he could really hire more of a CEO or COL level person who can continue to run the app in his absence.
Mike: Yeah, I think that’s the difference between whether or not you have somebody who is going to be involved in your old business that’s also in your new one. Because I think that with Crazy Egg, I don’t think that [Heaton?] and Neil had had anyone who was actively involved with KISSmetrics when they decided, essentially to relegate that to the back burner. So that may be the deciding factor, I’ll say there. But I think that this route is possible but I think that you also have to do it right. You have to make sure that you’re not stepping on an opportunity either forward or backward when you do it.
Rob: And the last of these three options for putting an app on the side is to try to do both. It’s to try to start your new app and just figure you can manage the old apps on the side and not hire someone who is not fully in charge of them. And this, from what I’ve seen and from what I’ve experienced, is not a good idea. Patrick has mentioned this with Bingo Card Creator that trying to do it on the side basically revenue dropped every year since he did that. I saw this with HitTail when both Derek and I stepped away from it, revenue dropped. It’s really, really hard to do two things well at once. The exception is early on when I had a bunch of small apps, I had little apps like [?] and Voice and Beach Towels and little eBooks here and there, those really didn’t need much management. They didn’t have a high touch sales process like I imagine the Small Farm Central does. They didn’t have nearly the moving parts that a real SaaS business did. They just really got leads through a single channel and they converted those leads and all of the stuff was really an automated process either through a virtual assistant or through code. So that’s an exception that if you have something that really, really can be automated, almost ninety-five percent or whatever, then I think you can put that on the back burner but it’s definitely much, much harder to do and I don’t know of any models I’ve seen successfully doing it with a more complex app like a SaaS app that’s doing five figures a month.
Mike: Yeah, it feels to me like that’s a function of the support and the onboarding. So for example, Bingo Card Creator, the onboarding is not very difficult but the support could potentially be much, much larger so you have to have somebody there who can manage the support side of things. And you have to be able to continue staying on top of the SEO because it’s such a low margin business. Because of the low margins you’re not going to be able to take your focus off of it because if you take your focus off of it, immediately your margins are going to plunge, your support costs are going to overtake everything else. And I think you probably experienced something similar with HitTail where you had Derek working on it half-time and then you pulled him off of it but them there wasn’t really anybody there to backfill that. It just seems like that factors into it heavily.
Rob: Yeah, the thing is most of us are running businesses that change frequently even though it may not feel like that. And if you have a business that relies on SEO for a lot of your traffic or relies on ad words, that stuff is changing every six months, so you can lose a lot of your rankings when Google decides to do an update or ad words get more expensive. Or if your using Facebook ads, as an example, they change algorithms and they change the way things are done and suddenly a main source of your traffic goes away and if it was your main business you would spend the time experimenting and figuring it out. But if you’ve now moved on to something else it’s really hard to shift your focus back and spend the week or two weeks or three weeks, whatever it’s going to take, to completely rediscover another traffic source or to reoptimize an existing traffic source that you’ve lost. And so that’s where, in every case that I can think of, trying to do an old somewhat complex app and to start a new one, it breaks down eventually. It may work for six months, it may work for twelve months, but eventually you’re probably going to hit a roadblock with one of these many changing things that we see that you’re then not going to have the time or desire to go back and fix.
Mike: Well, Simon, I really hope that that helps answer some of your questions. If you have a question for us you can call it into our voicemail number at 1.888.801.9690 or email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Out of 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.