In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob does a discussion show format with guest Derrick Reimer. They discuss multiple topics including the pros/cons of remote work, value vs. stress of Twitter, and more.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- The Art of Product Podcast
- Baremetrics Blog Post: “I almost sold Baremetrics for $5M”
- Baremetrics Blog Post: “5 things I learned failing to sell Baremetrics for $5M”
Rob: Welcome to this week’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, I’m your host, Rob Walling. This week, I’m trying out a new episode format. It is a discussion show, so it’s a conversation between myself, my old friend Derrick Reimer, and we talk about a number of topics. We talk about the value versus the stress of Twitter and social media in general, the pros and cons of remote work. We talk about Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism, and then we wind up talking about Josh Pigford’s blog post in the Baremetrics blog that’s titled, I Almost Sold Baremetrics for $5 Million.
What I like about this episode format is it’s pretty casual and we’re covering topics that I think are relevant to many of us and a lot of us are thinking about. I originally thought of structuring this in some type of news, round-table, or show where we’re talking about topics of today. We do that with a couple things, I think the ability to introduce topics that aren’t necessarily news articles or news headlines also works, and the fact that Derrick and I know each other as well as we do really helps with just the rapport in the conversation, it’s not stiff or stilted. I hope you feel the same way about that.
If you don’t recall who Derrick Reimer is, he and I have known each other for years. We met back when I lived in Fresno. He was a young kid who was participating in a startup competition that I was the judge of. He won a couple years in a row. Then, he was thinking about starting to do some consulting work and I said, “Look, why don’t you come, write some code for HitTail?”
He wrote all the early code for Drip and later on, became retroactive co-founder of Drip. So, he and I have known each other. We’ve worked together. He’s been on the show several times talking about starting an app on the side called Codetree that he sold for $128,000 a few years back. Then, he moved to Minneapolis when we sold Drip. So, he and I now live six or seven minutes apart.
We see each other once a month or so and it’s always a good time to hang out and chat. So, I wanted to mix up the format just a little bit and do something that’s not an interview, not keeping up with Mike Taber, not just question and answer, but actually just bringing topics to the table that (I think) might be of interest to you. So let me know what you think.
You can tweet me @robwalling, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can post a comment on this episode, episode 482 and just say, “Yeah, I enjoyed the mix-up of the show format and the fresh ideas in a conversation.” Or you can say, “Got five minutes in, didn’t hold my attention, and I was out.”
That helps me think about and consider maybe we had one of these to the line up every couple months. It doesn’t always have to be Derrick. I could bring on different co-hosts and folks to weigh in, so we have different perspectives.
And with that, let’s dive into the show. Derrick Reimer, thank you for joining me on the show.
Derrick: Hey, thanks for having me again.
Rob: Yeah, I think this is going to be a fun one today, just talking through some interesting topics. I had a few in mind over the past couple weeks, some things have come up where I’m like, “You know, I really want to discuss these with someone,” and I don’t know who to bring on the show to do it. Then, you and I were having dinner last night and we got on some really good conversation topics, so I figured we could jump on the mic and record a few of these.
Derrick: Yeah, we both are a couple of old-fashioned, but we probably should have brought our mics, to be honest.
Rob: I know, I agree. One thing you kicked off with was just talking about something on a lot of our minds, social media in general but Twitter specifically, because that’s big in our circles and the value versus the stress of it.
Derrick: Yeah, for me, my personal journey with it has been the last remaining piece of social media that I really use these days. I’ve given up Facebook, technically, I have an Instagram account but I don’t really use it, and I’m not really hooked on checking those things. But Twitter is a tricky one and I think it is for a lot of people in the text space because it’s where a lot of our industry news is coming from, where a lot of the camaraderie among software developers and start up people is happening. There’s not really (to my knowledge) another platform like it.
There are niche communities in Slack and things like that, but Twitter is the public square for that. It’s been a struggle (I think) for the last few years. I’ve been saying things like, “Yeah, I’ve given up all social media,” but I can’t on Twitter because that’s where work stuff happens. I just become so aware that, for me (and I think it varies from person to person how they deal with it) it’s like Twitter is always the default. I hit a rough spot on something I’m working on and what’s my first inclination is to go check Twitter, go get a dopamine hit, and I’m over it at this point.
Rob: Do you still have it on your phone?
Derrick: I took it off my phone (which has been good) and I actually did another trick where I put all my apps in one folder, so now I just have like a blank desktop screen essentially on my phone. I keep email on there, for example, because I just want to be able to do email mobily, but I don’t want it to be something I compulsively check if I have a break during my day. That’s been a good way to deter that.
Rob: When you put them all in one folder, was it just to make them hard to find?
Derrick: Yeah. It’s like I had muscle memory built where I knew where to tap my thumb subconsciously to open email and now it adds friction to that.
Rob: Yeah, I do that. I’m compulsive with email and Slack, specifically the TinySeed Slack. I don’t do it with Twitter or Facebook and I’ve never really had that problem, but I definitely can see getting into that habit and I try to avoid it. I think the thing with Twitter is I check Twitter a couple times a week and (for me) that’s a pretty healthy balance.
I might post to it more often. A few months ago, I was posting every day and I fell off that wagon. I’d like to do that again, but checking it all the time is not healthy. That’s what you were saying last night. It doesn’t feel good because you’re going for the dopamine hit of someone replying to you, a conversation, likes, or retweets?
Derrick: Yeah. I don’t know if I’m feeling particularly just unsure about something I’m working on or just my business in general, all these existential mini crises we have all the time into building startups. That’s an easy place to turn where I’m going to share some piece of work that I’m doing and it’s going to have some marketing benefit. It’s going to increase awareness about what I’m doing and hope people will spread it around. Maybe someone new will discover my app.
I can justify that there’s some benefit to it, so then I’ll share something and it feels good to get people liking, engaging, and commenting, but it’s pretty hollow and it’s a veneer that’s providing a short-term benefit, but I don’t think it’s the healthiest way to engage with that. Then, when you don’t get the response that you were hoping for, then you feel bad. It’s like, “Why am I doing this in the first place?” This is not a solid way to go.
Rob: Yeah and the struggle is that it’s not just the social aspect. I know you got off Facebook years ago and I think it was easier to justify because there was no work component. There was no way Facebook was going to help you build or grow a company, whereas Twitter might (and I want to put it in italics and bold). We know folks who have personal brands on Twitter, social media empires. I don’t know of anyone who has built a SaaS app and the marketing was all Twitter.
I view Twitter as you can get a small audience and you can get those first few customers or you can get the first people who are going to give you good feedback. It’s part of just building that relationship with people, but realistically, once you have any type of product market fit and you’re actually trying to build a scalable marketing approach, Twitter is not it. If you’re looking at it purely as a utilitarian thing, there’s definitely times and places to do it and be on it, but with all the negatives, it does feel hard to justify to me.
Derrick: Yeah. You can definitely come into it with the strategy of like, “I know the best times a day to post where I’m going to maximize engagement,” I figured out some of those things for myself. Some of it, you can apply methodically. Other parts of it are a lot of the benefits that have come to me has been serendipitous and that’s where I have a little bit of fear that if I were to give this thing up, I don’t know what I’m giving up entirely. I don’t know what random encounters or interactions I might be missing out on and I think that’s for the fear that comes. This could be the thing that catapults my nascent start up into a different realm, if I were just there engaging in the community on Twitter. In reality, I’ve become pretty convinced that’s probably not a very good reason to accept all the negatives.
Rob: I keep doing it, yeah. You make a good point because it isn’t just finding customers, but what about that one relationship you build with the business development where someone says, “Let’s integrate. We’re a web host so let’s integrate.” You’re like a kid and you’re like. “Yeah, that could move the needle.” That’s what you’re saying, it’s like, “Do I want to miss out on those? What’s the potential?” and that’s where they get you. That’s where […], is it has all these negatives, and yet we still want to consider doing it.
Derrick: Yeah. If I think back, I’m frustrated by how many Twitter DMs have actually led to productive business meetings or chats and it’s like, “Why does that have to come to a Twitter DM?” because that’s just reinforcing that I struggle to actually get off of there, because people would have to find my email address or something.
Rob: Yeah, and it does seem like Twitter has declined pretty substantially in popularity. That’s been my sense and just the number of people on it. Obviously, the tech community, the Silicon Valley, plus MicroConf and just startups in general are on there. And the press. It does seem like there’s a lot of journalists, not just like TechCrunch but like Wall Street Journal, big-named journalists are on there and there’s certainly still some value. Remember Arab Spring, there is communication there, there is value to the world that that stuff is able to get out.
It really does seem like people have moved on to Instagram and what are the others? Snapchat, although I guess they’re on […] now. You mentioned TikTok last night and I was like, “Yeah, I’ve heard of that. No idea what it does.” I’m so old dude.
Derrick: Yeah, we’re getting old.
Rob: What are you going to do? If you listen like I was asked on stage, “Are you bullish or bearish on Twitter?” and I was like, “Bearish.” This was last year. I was on my 2016 or 2017 prediction. This is when Twitter was still going strong. There are going to be too many trolls. People are just going to move on, and the nature of social media is that it’s pretty rare for a platform to actually stick around for that long. People just move from one to the next.
I don’t love Twitter and struggle with a lot of stuff on it, although I am still on it. I think there are benefits, especially now with the MicroConf stuff, the podcast and all that. I’m not going to quit Twitter anytime soon, even though I do have some struggles with it. But I’m curious, you’re seriously thinking about getting off of it or quitting it basically. Is that right?
Derrick: Yeah. I’m getting dangerously close to that. For me, my big fear is how am I going to keep a similar type of connection to people in the industry who I’m not so close with? I’m texting or private messaging all the time. How am I going to maintain that? How am I going to still get up-to-the-minute news about stuff? I see a lot of things in the React community, for example. New things emerging or new releases of things and a lot of that I’m getting through Twitter right now.
It’s important for me to know about that because I’m building tooling in that ecosystem. I don’t always want to be the guy who’s a month behind late to the party knowing about stuff, but a lot of these you can think of it as, is that really so bad if you’re a few more days delayed in finding stuff out? Probably not. In that case, for me, I’m trying to look for what are some digests newsletters for example that are in the industry? I’m already a part of some of these.
The Changelog is one of them. They send a weekly summary of what’s happening in the open source world. There’s one for the Jamstack community, too, and I’m on that one. I get a lot of good info from that. These are probably good enough for the news part. For me it’s like, how am I going to keep connection to my “audience?”
The podcast is a good one side of a way to do that. Again, returning back to the fundamentals. My email list, my newsletter list, how can I invest there? The time I maybe would have spent on Twitter carve out some of that time to try to invest that in the email list. Those are some of the ways I’m thinking about it.
Rob: Those are good alternatives. I was going to propose that mailing list and a couple of those other things. The bottom line is, yes, you may miss out on some things, but take the time and invest in stuff. I would say, investment in stuff that is less ephemeral.
That’s what bothers me about social media. It’s just here today and gone tomorrow. It’s not a blog post. It’s not even a podcast episode people go back and listen to. It’s not a book that people will read for years.
With your email list, if you can invest in an email list and repost that on the blog, because email is a bit ephemeral even though it’s a pretty deep connection. That’s when I’ve been off because the entire time we were doing Drip, I was not on Twitter at all. It was the right choice. I didn’t quit it for life though, I came back. Obviously, I’m a little more active on it now, but I do hear what you’re saying. If you tried it for two weeks or 30 days, or something, my guess is you’re not going to want to go back.
Derrick: That’s a good segue, because I’ve been reading a book, Cal Newport’s latest book called Digital Minimalism, which is like Deep Work. A lot of people know about that one. It’s Deep Work principles applied to more of your personal life and how you interface with things like social media.
One of the things you he talks about in there and recommends doing is like a digital declutter. That’s a term he coined for. Basically, taking 30 days and eliminating the things that are causing you problems like social media, that are pulling at your brain and causing it to be distracted, and all the negative side effects that come with it.
Think of this as you’re eliminating all this stuff and then at the end of it, be really deliberate about what you add back in. Don’t think of this as just a temporary detox where you remove all and then at the end, I’ve reset and now I can go back to the way I was doing things.
I’m in the midst of one of those right now. I’m not deleting my Twitter account, but I’m not checking it. I started this off going on a trip where I had very little internet access. That forced me to step away from it and even coming back from that after five days, I already had much less desire to go check it. I do feel a certain amount of Zen just from that. That’s becoming a reinforcing thing already for me. The more time I spend off of it, the less drive I have to go and check it all the time. That’s been healthy, I think.
Rob: That’s cool. How long have you been doing that?
Derrick: Since really the turn of the New Year, so we’re about two weeks in. It’s been good.
Rob: It’s a trip when you change habits like that. How scary, you don’t know if it’s going to work, and then you get in a few days and suddenly you feel this clarity, and then trying to come back to it. I’ve done this with drinking alcohol, social media, or just anything. I enjoy it. There are pros and cons to each of those things. It’s like if I have an old fashion, I feel better. In the short-term, it’s a good thing. Much like checking Twitter. Then in the long-term, I question the value of doing that and going off of those things. Coming back, you just realize how much it impacts your day-to-day or just how it actually affects your life.
Rob: And you were saying last night because I haven’t read Digital Minimalism, but you piggy-backed on it and it got you thinking about remote work.
Derrick: Yeah. A thing that he spends a fair amount of time talking about in the book is what does it mean to have relationships and have real connection with other human beings. This is heavily tied in with the era of social media there of text messaging. The fact that we rarely call each other anymore. We are always texting. There’s all these norms that were established in society and a lot of them were around lower fidelity means of communication.
He makes a good point. This is based on some research he pulls into his thesis. We’re wired after millennia of communicating with each other, talking to each other, being able to read non-verbals and verbals, the whole picture, and now we’re reducing our communication down to very binary things. If you think about what’s a reaction in Slack or a like on Twitter? It’s literally a binary piece of information. You compare that to all the richness that comes with someone reacting to something in person. You get to see their face, you get to see them smile, or see them look inquisitive. There’s just so much more you can get from it.
In the one sense, you can think of it as more efficient using these productivity tools like Slack, but on the other hand, how much communication are you missing out on and what does that do to our mental state? You make some pretty interesting points that there’s high rates of depression and mental health among college students in the generation that grew up with smartphones. That’s starting to become really evident. There’s been some research at universities about this and just a really sharp increase in a lot of these issues that weren’t a problem before.
You take all that, bundle that all up, and I start thinking about how are we architecting companies? How are we building teams? I feel like a struggle that you build a 100% remote company. How often do you really have that high fidelity communication with each other? That’s what got me thinking about that.
Rob: It’s tough. My personality is I want to go against the majority opinion. It’s like, “Hey, everyone’s raising venture capital.” “Cool. I’m going to go start one without venture capital,” and that’s going to be a bad thing that I talk about. Or, “Hey, all these Fortune 1000 companies or even venture capitalists want you to be located in one place.” “Cool. I’m going to go start a remote company.” That was what you do and it’s a natural thing that I want to do.
In addition, we have the Remote book by DHH and Jason Fried. It’s definitely a thing and we know tons of startups, especially more in the non-venture track space that we write in, that are remote. And there are advantages to it. You can hire people in cheaper locations. You can hire the best people around the world. Everyone doesn’t have to be local, all that stuff.
I see the value of that for sure, but I’ve always said that the situation we had with Drip where half of us were in one city, and I would have loved for all of us to be in one city. We just couldn’t find the talent in Fresno. Half of us were in one city and we were in the office 2-3 days a week. That was my dream setup and I wish every job that I worked and every company I run, because now with TinySeed, there’s three of us and then with MicroConf, there’s two of us, and we’re all remote.
While I don’t think we should all need to live in the same city—it wouldn’t be practical, because (again) we wanted to hire the best people, and Einar and I are co-founders, he’s in California and I’m in Minneapolis—I would love to see them once or twice a week in person, which is what we did back when we’re doing Drip. And that’s so healthy.
Derrick: Yeah it felt pretty ideal. The nice thing was we can write the rules for how this works. There was inherent flexibility, we weren’t always on the same days every week. If something in life happens and you need to be out of the office an extra day a week, no big deal. But to have that as the default, it felt really good, like hopping in front of a white board with […] getting to work through some tough problems. I was never able to reproduce the same benefits over digital means and maybe someone still needs to solve that. Maybe we’ll get there.
Rob: Yeah, that’s the question that’s like will VR solve that at some point? Can you imagine if VR was super, super high fidelity, you and I can look around, literally feel like we are in front of a whiteboard together, and to get social cues, to where it’s uncanny “Valley” type stuff, like you see these amazing video games or even a Pixar movie. Humans look human enough that you can pick up all the stuff. If you and I can be in a room and literally look like that, maybe that would do it.
It’s a bummer. Some of the things I enjoy the most are lunches and hanging out, but I don’t know if you need that. Maybe that’s the point where it’s solved because video chat isn’t enough. Zoom is not enough because you are not going to sit on a Zoom call for 2–4 hours and shoot the breeze and get those moments that you need.
Derrick: That’s the thing. A lot of the way we are thinking about building companies and the tools that we are building for them, it’s introverted Silicon Valley-type engineers who are helping architects how we socially interact with each other. There’s an inherent bias in that. The fact that we are all about using tools for productivity, an important part of building a healthy team is actually having a relationship that has nothing to do with direct productivity. That’s more of a long-ball type of thing. If we are going to build cohesion, we’re going to be able to go to lunch together.
A friend of mine shared this anecdote, coming back after a long break and catching up on work over the holidays. His wife was relaying this to him and she said, “How was work today?” He’s like, “It wasn’t a great day, but I got to see my friends.” It was powerful. That’s something that you don’t necessarily have if you just stay, show up, and be productive. If your day is not productive, then you feel like you had a good day. If you get to see your friends, you get to see the people you built relationships with, then perhaps you’ll feel a lot more well-balanced.
Rob: Yeah. In Slack, you get the emojis and you get some fun stuff shared on a random channel. That’s fun, but it’s definitely different and it’s hard. Think about with TinySeed, we are a remote accelerator, so this is an issue. We get together three or four times a year and those times are really cool when we’re together. There’s a lot of bonding that happens being in person. That’s something that we are going to be facing and trying to overcome for sure.
In a perfect world, again, I just like seeing people more often. I’m pretty introverted, too. To your point about Silicon Valley people building tools, introverted Silicon Valley people thinking that remote work is, I won’t say infallible but it is the ideal. I don’t think it is for most of the world. I don’t think it is especially for extroverts for people who want to be around other folks. The loneliness and isolation is absolutely being shown. They are doing research on it, there’s going to be a real swing here depending on personality type. There’s a lot here that is not as clear cut as just saying, “Here are the pros of remote work and therefore we should all do it,” because it’s nowhere near that clear-cut.
Derrick: I feel like I’m starting to look at a lot of these things that I previously saw as absolutes and I’m starting to see a lot more gray in them. There are benefits, but there’s also drawbacks and you have to weigh them against each other. One cool anecdote that was from Cal Newport’s book, he talks about the Amish and he talks about how a lot of people just assume that it’s this community of people that decided arbitrarily like, “This is the peak of technology and we shall not accept anymore technology.”
That’s what I thought for many years. It just feels very arbitrary, why are horse-drawn carriages better than cars? I don’t know. It’s just a form of technology. But he talks about if you actually learn about their culture, they always evaluate technology. They are very open to it, but they also evaluate the pros and cons against their value system.
Look at cars back in the early 1900s. They try to mount for a while and then they determine that people who are driving cars tended to leave the community, go to neighboring cities, and engage with people outside the community that led to a breakdown in relationships. They just decided like, “This is not coherent with our values, so we are not going to do it.” I think there’s something really powerful to being open to looking at pros and cons and weighing them against value systems and what you are trying to do.
Rob: Yeah and that’s the thing. There are so many fewer absolutes than we would like. They talk about how it’s a sign of intelligence being able to hold two conflicting ideas in your head at once. That’s what both of the things we just talked about are, Twitter and social media conflicting there has a lot of pros and cons.
The same thing with remote work where you can get a little too gung ho in either direction. I think it’s situational and having the willingness to really think it through on a case-by-case basis, to see the realities of it, and know no matter which choice I make, neither is ideal. That’s the hard part is that neither one is ideal. They are going to come with pretty major cons and figuring out how to work around them as best as you can.
As our last topic before we wrap up today, did you read that article, Josh Pigford almost sold Biometrics for $5 million. That was the title, I almost sold Biometrics for $5 million. He published it about six weeks ago.
Derrick: Yeah, I did check it out. It’s a pretty interesting read just because you don’t generally see this level of transparency about something like almost selling your company. It was pretty fascinating to see someone outline their thought process and what was going on through that.
Rob: I know. Super gutsy to do it. I think that’s why because there can be backlash. If you sell it, obviously it goes public that you sold it, but if you don’t sell it and you talk about doing it, there’s danger there. You could have customers leave. You can have employees be upset. Kudos to him for sharing that and sharing his thought process because it sounded tough. A really tough process.
To start with, he kicked it off and he said there’s always a price. Some people get too hung up. A lot of people are, “I’m never selling my business. Why would I sell my business?” I just don’t know. I don’t think that’s the right choice for most people. If you could become independent wealthy, why would you not do this? I don’t hold it against people certainly if you are going to keep your company but don’t just say something out of principle or out of some belief that this is the right thing to do to never sell your company. Think this through.
Now it’s easy. Let’s say I was running a company. It’s doing $50 million a year and I’m pulling $5 million or $10 million a year right off the top, which is totally easy to do with SaaS because it’s so profitable. If you really enjoy what you are doing, then yeah selling your company for $250 million. How much is it actually going to change your lifestyle?
You can afford a jet or whatever, but if you don’t want that and you are doing what you’re doing, why would you do that? But most of us are not in that situation. If you’re running an app doing a million or $5 million a year, somewhere in there, you are not pulling that much money off typically. Typically at that stage, you are in danger of riding it over the top, the growth can die, we can have a recession, you can get killed by a competitor. There’s all these things that could happen and selling a company for a 3X, 4X, or 5X revenue multiple, which Josh was offered 3.75 revenue.
You are doing $2 million a year and you are going to sell your company for $7.5 million, that is absolutely life changing. If you are making $150,000 or $200,000 a year and suddenly you can sell it for that, life-changing in the real sense of the word. It will change your life. You will have options that you never knew you had at that point.
Derrick: A lot of this talk of like why I would want to sell the thing. I’m working on my best idea. I can’t help but think of the Basecamp guys and that was their narrative for a long time. I feel like nowadays there’s a lot more nuance coming from them, which is really refreshing. Jason Fried was at MicroConf, was it last year or the year before?
Rob: Yeah, last year in 2019.
Derrick: Yeah, talking from the stage and he has been one, much more quick to plan the fact that they early on took some money off the table enough, to where him and JJ were millionaires after a couple of years and felt like, “Okay, we’ve made a healthy amount of return of this business. Now we can write it for longer.” A lot of founders go in blind and say, “Why would I want everyone to sell my company,” and yet, what usually ends up happening is that you are not as financially rewarded upfront as you would be if you were taking your raw skill set and having a salary job.
You’re foregoing a lot of money you could be making. A lot of opportunity cost and you are messing that into your equity that you have in your company. If you do end up five years down the line, things are competitive, whatever market conditions, and now suddenly you can’t achieve profitability, you are unable to sell it when you really want to, and you find yourself not able to extract a return from all of the investment that you’ve put into it.
For Basecamp to say, “Why would we want to sell?” because you were able to take some money off the table early on. Then, he also compared now Basecamp to like, “As if I’ve won the lottery and I’m taking the payout over time as opposed to a lump sum.” That totally makes sense.
Rob: Yup. The odds of them going to a business or something is infinitesimal and they get to work. They love their jobs, they have built a great team, and they get to build whatever they want. They’re building Basecamp version three, already built that. Jason Fried was talking a couple of weeks ago on Twitter, like they’re launching two more things this year. They really are a kid in a candy store.
If I were them, I wouldn’t sell, either, but I wouldn’t tell other people. I know they don’t tell other people not to, that’s not something. But I do think that people hear that and then take it upon themselves to think, “Well, I respect Jason Fried and […], I want to be like them, so I’m not going to sell my company either.” I don’t think that’s smart. I think you should evaluate.
Again, if I were Jason Fried, I would not sell Basecamp either because that sounds amazingly fun, but if you’re not in that situation, where you’re tens of millions a year in net profit is what he said, up from the market […], if you’re not in that situation and maybe you don’t enjoy your job, maybe you’re in a really competitive space, and you think that you could flat line.” Once your growth flat lines, your sales multiple plummets. There’s a really good time to sell and if you ride it over the top, suddenly you’re selling for 1X revenue or less. If you’re doubling every year, you’re selling for 4X or 5X revenue, again, it can be a life-changing amount of money or not.
I’m not encouraging people to sell. I think you should do what you want to do, but just really think things through. Back to that whole article we were talking about where Josh basically says, “Hey, there’s always a price. I wasn’t really that open to it,” but he got an offer for $4.95 million and it was like, “Wow, that would change my life.” Then he talks about just how it was a dead end and the buyers had claimed they had the money, but in actual hell, they got him under LOI (letter of intent), they went out and tried to raise money from investors, it was pretty dang shady. It was not cool. That must have been very, very hard.
Derrick: I can only imagine if that had been the case with our Drip story, because I just know how much stress we were under, you especially because you are really bearing the brunt of it, how long the process was, the due diligence stuff, just even getting to LOI. I’m glad that it moves a bit faster, like things didn’t drag out a year, and then Josh discovered this.
I guess on that sense it’s good that it didn’t go on too long, but even for as long as it did, I can only imagine how much you build up all this anticipation. You start to think, “Well, this is looking like it’s going to happen, they seemed very serious about it. Everything I’m hearing from them seems good.” It’s really hard to shift your mind into the gear of like, “I’m about to have a life-changing exit,” and then for that to be torn away is really a mental struggle.
Rob: Yeah. He said, “We’d spent nearly $20,000 on legal fees, months of time gathering all the docs, and they just disappeared. It was crushing. I was and still am furious with them. They wasted an epic amount of our time and money and then crawled into a new hole when they realized they couldn’t do the deal.” Crushing is an understatement, I would have probably crawled into a hole for weeks because your momentum is gone.
It’s one of those really hard decisions to make, but once you make it, you get a sense of peace about it and then that’s all you want. I remember almost hanging on to it too much because you don’t know if the deal is going to go through until it’s all signed. A month before we were selling Drip, it was like, “I’m so ready to sell this company. But I can’t say that out loud, because then if it doesn’t happen, I’ll be crushed.” I definitely feel his pain.
Derrick: Yeah, it’s tough. I don’t know how you could combat that. You have to enter the process, you have to trust what people are telling you initially. You had counsel, you had advisors and stuff, so I wonder how can you avoid that from happening or can you?
Rob: Yeah. I have no idea. I certainly did not and do not believe that I personally could. You would have to be someone of real fortitude to do it. I do like he links over to another article, where he says, “Five things I learned failing to sell my company,” and one of the things he says is avoid needing to sell. This is something a lot of people forget. If you need to sell, if you’re a desperate seller, you will have terms that are not as good.
Always having the abilities to, “Hey, we are growing, we are profitable. I don’t need to sell.” Those three sentiments will get you the best price, that plus getting a lot of different offers. That puts you in the driver’s seat. It’s the same thing with raising funding. Unfortunately, so many people go out to raise funding when they really, really need funding to do anything and nobody wants to fund those companies. They want to fund the companies that don’t need the funding as paradoxical as that sounds.
Derrick: Even on a small scale. When I sold Codetree, this is happening about around the same time that the Drip sale is going through. I was so focused on the Drip stuff that was going on and this was a side app that wasn’t really growing much, but was still just a nice side income for me. I decided it was time to not have to worry about that anymore, but even just having that, going into that with the mindset of like, “I want to sell this thing because it seems like the right time to do that, but I don’t have to,” it could just keep running on the side for a while and no big deal.
Even just going into the negotiation with that attitude. The seller then later on wrote a blog post about how they felt, like they were at a disadvantaged position because they could come in and say, “No, we really want $20,000 off.” My broker was like, “No, we don’t need to do that.” I’m like, “Cool, then tell them no.” Of course, I’m not going to do that, and then ultimately, I think, trying to keep that mindset of like, “If this doesn’t go through, no big deal. I don’t have to do this.” It helps.
Rob: Yeah, having your backs to the walls. Never good, whether you’re selling a car, selling a house. If you’re in a big hurry, you just get the worst deal. Kudos to Josh for that and for sharing. These are helpful things because (again) so many people don’t talk about it when deals fall through like this because it could have negative repercussions, but that’s something that I do love about our community, is that people are often willing to share experiences to help others avoid the mistakes they’ve made.
As we say in the intro, whether it’s to avoid the mistakes or just to understand, if I get into that situation, what will I do? What is this really like? That’s the other thing. If you have not heard of these stories, if you haven’t heard Josh, you haven’t heard you and I talk about selling Drip or any (I’ll say) real startup acquisition, then all you’ve heard is that on TechCrunch, that Instagram sold for $1 billion to Facebook over a weekend, when they had seven people and not much revenue. It’s like, “Well, that’s how startup acquisitions work.” It’s like, “No, they never do. Never.” This is like one in ten years does that.
The real startup acquisitions take a long time, they’re a grind, they’re typically for a revenue multiple or a net profit multiple if you’re running a different type of business or at a smaller revenue scale. There’s just a bunch of pretty common things that are realistic. If you don’t know that and you’ve only read the popular articles about the outliers, your sale is probably not going to be an outlier. So level-setting expectations with this post that Josh wrote is (I think) good.
Derrick: A helpful piece for the community archive for sure.
Rob: Yup, indeed. Thanks, man. Thanks for coming on the show.
Derrick: Yeah. It was a blast, thanks for having me.
Rob: If folks want to keep up with you, you release an episode every week, podcast episode at the Art of Product, you and your co-host Ben Orenstein. That’s a good bootstrap for podcasts over there. Then you are at @derrickreimer on Twitter. We’ll just send people there, but that is what it is.
Derrick: Yeah. Twitter and derrickreimer.com newsletter. Sign-up there.
Rob: That’s probably the one. That’s almost what we should recommend more, derrickreimer.com. I know you’ve blogged a bit over the years. I think all of us probably wish you blogged more.
Derrick: Yeah, it’s always the thing. It’s interesting to think about trying to do more, like higher frequency, less trying to spend 10 hours writing a piece, and think of it a little bit more like Twitter. That could be an interesting thing, too.
Rob: Sounds good, man.
Derrick: Cool. Thanks.
Rob: Thanks again to Derrick for coming on the show. He is working on his new startup. It’s called StaticKit, statickit.com. If you’re working on static sites stuff or interested in that whole ecosystem, he’s building some pretty interesting tools for static site builders.
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Episode 323 | Funding, Acquisitions, Firing and More Listener Questions
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about getting funding or acquisition offers, when to fire someone, and more listener questions.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob [00:00]: In this episode of ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ Mike and I talk about options for finding funding or an acquisition offer, setting up a U.S. company as a non-U.S. citizen, and when to think about letting someone go. This is ‘Startups for the Rest of Us’ episode 323.
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 you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike [00:31]: And I’m Mike.
Rob [00:32]: 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 [00:36]: Well, I wanted to say congratulations to Sherry Walling for ZenFounder being selected for Entrepreneur.com’s list of 24 Exceptional Women-hosted Podcasts for Entrepreneurs in 2017. Obviously, you are the co-host of that show but definitely wanted to send congratulations to her for being mentioned on that list. I think that’s quite an accomplishment.
Rob [00:54]: Yeah. It was a big deal. It seemed to get a bit of notice. People were taking notice and I know we got a big bump in ZenFounder email subscribers as well as some more podcast downloads. It’s always fun to be recognized for something like that.
Mike [01:09]: Yeah and after a short period too. The podcast hasn’t been around for very long so it’s nice to see that kind of attraction.
Rob [01:15]: I’m kind of mellow this morning. I’m still getting back onto time zone because I was in California for eight or nine days. In Santa Cruz hanging out with family, friends, reconnecting with people. It was a really nice time. It’s a lot warmer there so I still was wearing sweatshirts and stuff but a 50 or 60-degree difference depending on the day. I’m still, like I said, an hour or two off time zones so I’m getting going this morning.
It was good and it just reminded me how important it is to take some time off and recharge now and again. And depending on your level of exhaustion or burn-out, maybe you need to take a little time off every month. At other times you can take a little time off every quarter or every six months. It’s really important to come back, and I just feel a lot more motivated and like I have clarity of thought because I had this time to step away from work and stop thinking about it.
Mike [02:07]: Cool. On my end, I added another paying customer for Bluetick in advance of my public launch. I also integrated Zapier into the equation so –
Rob [02:17]: You got Zapier done, huh? That’s cool.
Mike [02:18]: Yeah. There’s a couple of things left with triggers to be able to send data outside of it and allow Zapier to kind of natively subscribe to different events that happen inside of Bluetick. I would say all but one piece of being able to trigger different things inside of Bluetick is done in Zapier. Then there’s this last piece of being able to allow them to subscribe to events. Once those are done I should be able to start rolling that out a little bit more.
I’ve got a couple of people using those Zaps right now. Most of them are actually going into my Zapier account, and I’m just piping them through Zapier back into Bluetick because when you create that Zapier integration obviously it’s create a personal, private one first and then you can share it. So I’m slowly going in that direction just because I don’t fully understand all of the implications of the decisions I’m making in Zapier. So I’m trying to be a little cautious about putting that out there in a way that makes it difficult for me to modify it later.
Rob [03:09]: Right. Yeah, for sure. That’s the nice part when you have that private Zap then you can, like you said, share it with other people. I think they want you to have like ten active users before they will move it to production. That’s kind of their rule of thumb. They want to make sure that it’s tested because once it’s out there it’s really kind of a pain. You have to version if you want to fix bugs.
Mike [03:30]: Yeah, and that’s the issue. The whole versioning thing is like, “Okay, well how do we do this and not screw things up?” I actually started going down the road of building a custom API end point specifically for Zapier so that if we need to make changes to our API for things that happen inside of our interface, we can do that and it won’t affect the things that are going on through Zapier. That’s kind of a work-around that is pretty helpful just because our API is still in flux and there’s lots of other stuff going on.
And in terms of the public launch that I’m working towards, one thing – I’ll get your feedback on this – but I’m considering going more down the route of having multiple small launches as opposed to one large one. The idea would be that I’ll gear up more towards a launch where I have a set number of people that I want to put into the system and I’m thinking in my head about twenty right now. Then go for the launch and basically tell people up front, “Hey, I’m only letting twenty people in the door at the moment.” And I could lay out my reasons why. Some of them are just to make sure that everybody’s getting the attention they need but also to make sure that if anything happens or if any bugs come up or if anyone has any specific needs as they come into it, then we have the time available to be able to address those. Whereas if I let in 100 or however many additional people, it would be difficult to do that. It’s hard to give everybody the attention that they need.
What are your thoughts on that?
Rob [04:51]: I think that’s a good idea. That’s why I did the slow launch with Drip was exactly this reason. We just didn’t have the staff to let hundreds of people in and I knew that we would bleed out trials that we couldn’t respond to quickly enough in terms of developing features or even fixing bugs. It can get really complicated and be a big rush of people. I think that’s a good way to go.
I don’t know if they need to be monthly. I think they could be every two weeks or three weeks depending on how long your trial is. Do you know how long your trial should be yet? Or do you still have to figure that out? Are you going to take a guess and then see how it goes?
Mike [05:22]: I’m not actually at the point where I’m at the point where I’m even considering offering a trial. What I’m doing now – and this is kind of hybrid pricing model where instead of offering an annual plan and a monthly plan, what I’m doing is I’m offering a quarterly plan. Because the value from the product does not surface itself for at least a couple of months. It could be several weeks or a month or even two or three months before you start to see the value just because of the pipeline of emails that you are sending through it and how long it can take people to respond. You might get responses immediately, but you might not get them for several weeks after a couple of emails.
I have a hard time believing that people would get value on day one or day five or something like that.
Rob [06:01]: No trial? Do they pay upfront for a quarter?
Mike [06:03]: Yes.
Rob [06:04]: They pay upfront for a quarter at a time? Got it. And you haven’t had any issues so far. I don’t think charging upfront is a bad way to go at all. If you realize that you get a bunch of pushback on that then maybe it’s something, you’ll want to change. It’s a judgement call at this point because you just don’t have any data so you have to make a call one way or another.
Mike [06:20]: I haven’t gotten any pushback so far. The people I’ve been putting on this past month or so where I’ve just said, “It’s charged quarterly and we charge upfront.” Not one person has said, “Are you sure? Or can we do this or that?” Nobody’s had any questions or pushback on it.
Rob [06:34]: You’ll have to see if you’re able to sell it enough upfront for someone to enter their card without talking to you. Because these people have all talked to you. And that’ll just be an experiment. You’ll have to do that first round and figure out what you think you’re going to get from it. And then since you are charging upfront, you need to prove that there’s going to be a lot of value to someone upfront so your marketing has to be really on point. And your pitch of what the product does and how it’s going to do it for them needs to be on point because if you fumble that at all there’s friction. There’s friction of that quarterly payment that you’re going to have to overcome. And that’s not impossible to overcome. I don’t think it’s a bad call. You just don’t have enough data at this point to know if it’s going to work.
The only thing I’ve heard people do quarterly with is membership sites. I’ve never heard a SaaS app do it. I think it was Andrew Culver who was saying that quarterly is the worst of both worlds in terms of accidental credit card churn. I forget what it is. If it’s that not monthly so that banks are suspicious of it so it will get blocked more often or something like that. There’s something about quarterly and how it’s not a great way to bill in terms of involuntary churn. I think you’ll want to keep your eye on that and if you switch to monthly later – you could always make it a quarterly payment and then let people switch to monthly down the line.
Mike [07:45]: That was probably what I was going to do longer term. The idea with the quarterly is one: it puts people in a position where they don’t get to the end of the first 30-days and they say, “I haven’t used this yet.” And they just want to cancel because they’re not using it. And it gives me an opportunity to reach out to them. I can see their usage and say, “You’re not using this. Let me help you get started with it. Or let me help do things because I am so early.”
The other thing that it does is that it gives me the revenue for that upfront. So if I do a monthly launch then I need a third of the number of people signing up to get the same amount of revenue that I would get three months down the road.
It helps from a cash flow perspective and it also helps from the perspective of being able to put people on it and be confident that the system is not going to fall apart. And then also making sure that they’re getting the value. I don’t anticipate doing quarterly long term. Maybe the data will prove me wrong, but as a starting point I think that it has a lot of benefits.
Rob [08:39]: I think if you do it and it works, I would not stop doing it. The cash flow is just too good. If you can pull this off without a trial, get the money upfront, obviously, offer a 30-day money back guarantee or whatever you want to offer because that’s going to be a sticking point for people as well. The question is, “What if I get it and I don’t like it?” And you want to be able to answer that. I think if you can make this work and the numbers work, it’s not a bad way to go.
Mike [09:04]: I definitely hear what Andrew Culver was saying about it’s the worst of both worlds. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms but I think that right now the benefits of it outweigh the negatives especially since it’s so early on. I just don’t have any data to work with and I may as well just try something.
Rob [09:19]: That’s right. The other thing I like about doing smaller launches and having “X” spots is you can justify it. You can say, “Look, I just can’t onboard more than twenty people. I don’t think we can support more than twenty people in terms of answering all of your questions.” It’s easy enough to justify because you are a small shop. But it also adds a little bit of that scarcity so that if you email the list, then you can build that up and say, “Look, there’s only twenty spots and if you really want to get in then you have to do it now” type thing. I think there’s a benefit on both sides in terms of making it more manageable for you and also being a nice little bit of marketing help.
Mike [09:55]: I’ll keep you guys posted on how that goes and we’ll see how it shakes out.
Rob [09:59]: Do you have a date for the initial launch?
Mike [10:01]: Right now I’m targeting January 31st. I’ve got some emails that I plan on sending out tomorrow and I’ll prime the launch queue so to speak. We’ll see how that goes.
So what are we talking about today?
Rob [10:11]: We have a few listener questions I wanted to run through. The first is from Matt Visk and he says, “Hey guys. Love the show. I’ve created a SaaS company myself and would love your input on it. It’s called PortfolioLounge.com. It helps people create their online portfolio. It has quite a few members with a handful of paid subscribers. I was wondering if you had any advice as to finding funding or interesting acquisition offers. I’m a developer at a large company but I’d love to go fulltime on Portfolio Lounge if I could.” Do you have thoughts on this?
Mike [10:39]: Not really. I’m not really in a position to figure out what an acquisition offer would look like for something like that. And I’m not real familiar with portfolio websites to be honest. You’d have more insight on this one.
Rob [10:51]: Matt, acquisition offers at this point, if you have a handful of paid subscribers, they’re going to be nonexistent. There’s just no – unless you have some unique technology patent that somebody wants or you have some Google algorithm or something like that. Just having a handful of paid subscribers, even if you’ve spent years working on the code launching and everything, it’s all about revenue. It’s actually all about net profit or it’s about strategic value. Net profit would be used in acquisitions that FEInternational would handle. If you were doing 20K or 30K a year, which is not a tremendous amount, but if you’re in that range then you can approach someone like FEInternational or Quiet Light, Latonas – there’s several brokers out there and they can get you acquisition offers. But if you want the maximum purchase price where it’s not three and a half or four times net profit but you might get five times annual revenue typically between three to seven “X” annual revenue – then that’s where you’re getting a strategic acquisition. That’s the kind of thing where you would really need to have a place in the market where a big strategic would want to acquire you. It doesn’t sound like you have that so I don’t think an acquisition offer is something you want to entertain. I just don’t think you’re going to find any.
In terms of finding funding, that’s the kind of thing where you’re going to go on AngelList. You may want to consider talking to someone like Bryce over at Indie.vc – he was on the show eight episodes ago – he funds smaller apps like this. Or if you live in the Bay area – my guess is you don’t – but if you lived in the Bay area there’s going to be a bunch of options for you. There are accelerators, there’s a lot of options. If you go to Google and talk about how to find startup funding, there’s going to be options. The question is: do you want to do that? Funding is not necessarily going to be the answer to what you’re looking for. I think it’s figuring out what your goals are and then finding the right options to line up with that.
Thanks for the question, Matt. I hope that’s helpful. Our next question is about setting up a U.S. company as a non-U.S. citizen. It’s from Justin and he says, “Long time listener from Taiwan. We’re experiencing some tremendous growth on Amazon and we’ll be building some ecommerce-related SaaS apps in the near future. Our team members are scattered around the world but our main market is in the U.S. We’d like to hear your opinion of where to set up a company in the U.S. as a noncitizen and a nonresident.” What do you think, Mike?
Mike [13:06]: I think that there’s kind of an underlying assumption here that you have to set up a company in the U.S. The situation is he’s a noncitizen and nonresident, and I would question whether or not he has to set up a company inside the U.S. in order to do business. My thought here is that if your growth is coming from Amazon, then maybe that’s a requirement, but I don’t know for sure if it is. And if it’s not, there’s obviously a lot of different options for you to create a company whether it’s in Taiwan or it is based in some other country. I was listening to The Tropical MBA podcast a couple of days ago and one of the episodes they had on was about an e-residency program in Estonia which I think was $100 to get into, and then you could base your company out of Estonia. That gives you essentially a European address that allows you to use a lot of your SaaS services. I’m not positive of this. I think that Stripe would also be an option there as well. But you have to figure out where you’re going to be able to get your services from, where your bank accounts are going to be, what the different tax implications are based on where your company is. Some of that comes back to how your taxed in your home country versus how your business would be taxed in a foreign country.
Something else you need to consider is that once you start crossing international borders, it can get much more complicated. If you’re a U.S. citizen, you’re going to get taxed no matter where you are and no matter where you’re making your money because the United States government wants their money. There’s a – I forget how much it is – but there’s a cut off number where above that amount I think that they do not charge you taxes on anything below that certain amount.
Rob [14:37]: That’s right: 90K.
Mike [14:37]: Yeah.
Rob [14:38]: I’m pretty sure it’s 90K or 180K for a couple.
Mike [14:40]: Right. But that only applies if you’re paying tax to a foreign government. They’ll basically give you credit for it. But anything above that they say, “You owe us taxes.”
Rob [14:49]: It’s pretty crazy. It’s the only country in the world that does that. Where if you live outside their borders they still collect tax which is – there have been people who basically get residency somewhere else and then they give up their U.S. passport purely because of that.
Mike [15:01]: Yeah. I guess I would just question the underlying assumption that you absolutely have to set up your business in the United States but because it’s Amazon, you may need to. But I would look into that. I think you have a lot of other options if you don’t have to do that.
Rob, I know that we talked offline a little bit about other options. You had some thoughts as well.
Rob [15:19]: Yeah. And this is purely from hanging out with folks in the D.C. and they are digital nomads and they have the option of setting up anywhere in the world. Most of them are U.S. citizens and none of them have their companies in the U.S. Almost none of them. They tend to go to New Zealand and Hong Kong. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. If you want, I’m sure The Tropical MBA or the D.C. would be a better place to go find out why.
You can even Google the Five Flags theory and I think it’s Simon Black from Sovereign Man. He talks a lot about this stuff. He talks specifically about which countries are set up to be which flag and such. All that to say, unless you need to have a U.S. company, I wouldn’t do it. If you do, it’s typical to do it in Delaware. A Delaware corp is one of the most common setups here in the states. Even companies that aren’t located in Delaware tend to do that, and it’s because they have very favorable business laws and a bunch of other stuff. That would be the most common. You’ll want to either talk to LegalZoom or talk to a lawyer and have then set that up for you.
Mike [16:14]: The other option for setting it up in the United States would be using Stripe’s Atlas program where it’s $500 to get set up and they will create a business account for you, you’ll get incorporated, you can start accepting payments through Stripe. There’s also options for getting tax and legal advice. I don’t know the details of that. Patrick McKenzie would probably be a good person to reach out to about that because he does work for Stripe now under their Atlas program. That’s another option if you had to do it in the United States.
Rob [16:43]: I’m glad you brought that up. I would probably do that over the recommendation I just said of LegalZoom or finding a lawyer because I bet Stripe has this dialed in and you’re going to probably want a Stripe account anyways, I would guess. And if it sets up a bank account and all that stuff, that’s a big win and for $500 kind of a no-brainer.
Mike [16:58]: Yeah. I think that they also have this set up when you do that they have this partnership with Amazon to get you $15,000 in AWS credits. If you need a hosted infrastructure of any kind they can certainly help out there as well.
Rob [17:11]: Awesome. Thanks for the question. I hope that’s helpful. Our next question is from Steven Lieberman at SkillsDBPro.com. He says, “Love the podcast. I have a fast growing business. I’ve made about 1,000 mistakes so far. But without your podcast and one or two others, I’m pretty sure that number would be 3,000. I’m a developer and I just had to fire a developer. He’s a contractor who knows his stuff, started out great. His first piece of work with me was outstanding. Though as the assignments progressed he got slower and was billing more time for less work. I’m working on similar items and getting them done in half the time. There may have been a combination of issues. One big thing is that he started working in two-hour spurts which, obviously, makes it hard to really get up to speed. I tried to address this with him and he kept ignoring those parts of the text. After he finished his last assignment I let him go. Letting someone go is hard to do because on-boarding someone else is a lot of work and a lot of my time, as you know. So here’s my question: what are the breaking points when you choose to let someone go? I really struggle on how much time I should spend to fix the situation or just cut my losses and move on. So, other than the obvious (i.e. they’re stealing from you) what are your thoughts? Not only for developers but for all positions.”
Mike [18:18]: I think for this it comes down to your personal feelings on what the future looks like. If you are feeling like whenever they do work you have to go in and double check it to make sure that it’s right or the directions and stuff, the course corrections that you try to put in place and you tell them, for example in this case, you sent them texts and said, “This is what I need to happen,” and those pieces of the texts where ignored, the next step may be to send them a single standalone message that says, “This is incorrect or this is a problem and we need to resolve it.” And if as a standalone message, it’s still ignored or not corrected then, at that point, you need to pull the plug.
For me, it’s more of a personal feeling that I get to a certain point and there’s this nagging sense in the back of my mind that says, “You have to go double check this. Or you have to keep following up.” And it’s almost like there’s this weight hanging over you that you have to stay on top of whoever that person is and make sure that they’re doing their job right. And essentially you’re becoming a micromanager. As soon as that happens, they’re no longer helping you in the business. It’s actually hurting you because then it’s distracting you. It’s taking time away from doing other things. It’s taking your mental energy away from other things. And it’s just a nightmare to deal with at that point. It’s more hassle than it’s worth. And that’s really the breaking point.
But there’s not, I wouldn’t say, a set thing that if “X” happens or “X” or “Y” happens. Obviously, if they’re stealing from you – those obvious things, sure, pull the plug immediately. I feel like it’s more of a general sense of being aware of how you feel about moving forward with a person. If it’s not something that is able to be corrected, then you have to pull the plug.
Rob [19:53]: Yeah. I feel like Steve handled this pretty well. If he was trying to address it and was bringing it up and the guy was ignoring it, that’s a big red flag. I think the question is different if they’re a contractor or W-2 employee. I would definitely spend more time if someone were W-2. I’d also do a lot more vetting upfront. But if their performance went down – let’s say you hired someone who was good, easy to work with and then their performance is going down over time – I would definitely bring it up and try to help them and find out what’s going on and how you can turn it around. Do they need to take some time off? Are they burned out? Are they trying to do another job? You’ve got to try to figure out are they screwing your and overbilling you and not actually working the hours? Or are they running into personal issues or something?
That’s for an employee. With a contractor, I would tend to – I’ll say give them warnings – but it wouldn’t be things like, “I’m going to fire you if you don’t do this.” It would be more like Steve did where you reach out and be like, “Look, your performance at this point – you’re not delivering nearly what you used to and we really need to talk about this. It’s an issue.” If I brought that up a couple times and they ignored me, then they’d be done because there’s no excuse for that. If you can’t communicate with me then there is no relationship that’s going to come out of that. It’s just too hard to try to manage someone who’s going to not be able to communicate or have a conversation with you.
All of that to say, I think I have a little bit less tolerance for contractors because you don’t have as much of a relationship with them. You’re not as invested in them. They’re never as invested in you or your company, so if it’s not working out it is a bummer to have to onboard someone new but it sounds to me like you made the right choice. Thanks for the question, Steve. I hope that was helpful.
Our next one is from Michael. He says, “I love your podcast. It’s my favorite by far so please keep up the good work. I’m what you might call a “wantapreneur.” I dream about getting out of the rat race, being my own boss, etcetera. I have a few average ideas but don’t think any of them are worth pursuing. My desired entrepreneurial destination is a B2B biz with $10,000 a month in revenue. I have the will to work hard but I already make decent money at my job, which I think is part of what’s keeping me from ideating more. I also have a wife and kid so my time is not limitless, but I make time when I really want to. I get up a couple of hours early most mornings to read and study. Perhaps I’m too much of a learner and analyzer and not enough of a doer. Recently, I’ve split my time tracking into three parts. Part one is family and fun, part two is the day job, and part three is the side business which is currently only imaginary plus learning. I’ve been consistently filling up one and two but I feel hopeless with number three except for learning. I beat myself up constantly for not making more progress there and that affects my mood which in turn hurts my family’s wellbeing too. What would advise as I continue to strive towards entrepreneurship?”
I think the first question you want to ask yourself is: do you really want this? Do you really, really want it? Because if you haven’t pushed forward on it yet and you have a comfy job, it’s not for everybody and, in fact, it’s a long road where you’re going to be making a lot less than your current job for years. I remember Harry Hollander’s talk – or maybe it was Ted Pitts from Moraware Software – at MicroConf a couple of years ago and they looked back at what they would have been making at their jobs had they stayed. And they were like seven or eight years into their business and it was doing multiple seven figures, and they had just broken even at that point in terms of what they would have made. If it’s purely a monetary decision, then stick with the job. It’s an easier path, it’s less distracting, and it’s more straight-forward.
But if you really do want to get out of it, then you have to take some strides towards doing and really cut out the learning at this point. I would guess that you know enough that you need to take the plunge and actually start putting code to paper, as they say, and really get something out there. Just launching something at this point and whether you give yourself a challenge of launching something small every month for six months – not a bad way to go. Force yourself to do it. Or whether you want to launch a blog or launch a little WordPress plugin – pick something small and get it out into the wild. Because without experience, you have no idea how to put the learnings into action.
I would pick a small project that is not a SaaS app. Like I’ve often said with the stair step approach here, pick an ebook or a video course or a WP plugin or an add-on to Photoshop or an add-on to Shopify. Something small that you can charge a bit of money for and see what that feels like to do it and ship something. It’s probably a lot harder than you think, and it’s also probably going to give you more experience in that one month of doing it than you can learn in two years of listening to podcasts and reading blogs.
Mike [24:27]: I think Rob’s on the right track with asking if it’s something that you really want to do. I’d had a conversation – it was either last year or the year before – with somebody. We were actually discussing my sleep habits, to be honest, which is kind of slight tangent. The question that we were trying to discuss was: why can’t I get up earlier? I’ll be honest, I’ve always had a hard time getting up early. It’s never been something that is wired in my DNA. I do not like mornings. If I were president of the United States, I would abolish mornings and there would be nothing before noon. That said, the question that was posed to me was: what are the punitive damages of you not getting up early? What are the downsides of you not getting up early? I’m like, “I own my own business so I can get up at any time I want.” And he’s like, “Exactly. That’s the problem. Your issue is that there’s no downside, there’s no negative consequences to not getting up early so you just don’t have to.” You really have to have this external force of some kind in certain situations to push you in that direction. It sounds to me like there’s no external force that’s really pushing you to the point that says, “Hey, you have to build this business.” And it doesn’t sound to me like it’s something that you want hard enough. There’s no driving passion for it. You’ve got a job, you don’t find it exciting, but it’s not like you’re going to get fired or let go in three months and you know that that’s coming. So there’s no drive behind that to say you have to buckle down, you have to put this time aside.
You see that with various studies about people in college, for example, where they are given six weeks to do a project and then there’s another group of people that are given one week to do the project. The people who are given one week, they get it done. The people who are given six weeks, they wait until week four or five and then start it. It goes back to Parkinson’s law which basically says that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. This is a prime example of that where you’ve got this side business that you want to work long term but there’s nothing really forcing your hand to make it work. If it’s fun to you and it’s interesting and you enjoy doing it then it’s much easier to spend the time on it. But if you like doing it and you have this longer term vision where you want to do it at some point in the future but there’s nothing really pushing you hard towards it, then you’re probably just not going to. I think that that’s probably the fundamental problem here. It’s not so much that you can’t do it, it’s that you don’t need to. You have to ask yourself, is that something that you really want or is it just something that you would like to have at some point but isn’t really a passion of yours.
Rob [26:54]: And our last question for the day is from Adam Kelso. He says, “Hey guys. Thanks so much for the tons of great advice and experience you give in each episode. I know you target the show ‘Startup Founders’ but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on evaluating startups as an employee? I live in Austin which has a huge tech community and there are a lot of startups to choose from. Some have good reputations; most are too new for anyone to know much about. If you were considering working at a startup as an employee knowing what you know now, what would you look for and what would you avoid?” Interesting question.
Mike [27:23]: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting question. I think that I’d probably look for an environment where you could be very collaborative with people. If it’s a small company, if it’s a startup then your expectation is probably going to be that you’re going to be working closely with the founder or founders of the company so you want to make sure that you’re able to work well with them, and rather than jumping in and trying to provide value and skip from one job to another, I might offer them, for example, the opportunity to do some contractor consulting work for them. That does a couple of different things. One is it makes sure that they have money available. You’ll kind of get the inside scoop on how things are really going. Because the last thing that the last thing you want to do is quit your job to go work for one of these companies and then find out that they don’t have revenue to support you and they have to let you go in a month or three months or something like that. I think that that’s one side of it.
Being able to offer that is going to be attractive to them as well because you are going to be able to show your value and your worth to the company. If you are able to put in the time outside of your current working hours, then it gives them an opportunity to understand who you are and how your work. If you decide at the end of a couple of weeks or a month or two of working for them part time that you don’t like what they’re working on or you don’t see a future in it or you just don’t like the people that you’re working with then you can move on and go to something else. That’s really just hedging your bets more than anything else.
In terms of specific things to watch out for or red flags, I’m not sure because most of these companies, as you said, they’re going to be too new and you’re not going to really have anything to go on. There’s not going to be a whole lot of public information about them. You could ask people who you know about them but chances are good that, unless those people have been active in the community, you’re not going to get any information out of it and you’re not going to know people who know them. That would just be a difficult situation to be in.
Rob [29:12]: I think I would step back and ask yourself the question: why do you want to work for a startup? Because working for startups, you’re going to do it for, most likely, less pay than you would if you went to work at a larger company. And you’re going to get this promise of some eventual payout in the form of stock options. That’s the traditional way it’s done.
You’re putting a lot of risk there. You’re basically not making as much money as you otherwise could in order to perhaps have a more exciting job. Maybe that’s what you’re looking for. Could be less boring. Or maybe you are looking for the payout. I probably wouldn’t do it for that unless you’re joining as employee number one, two, or three. If you’re joining later it’s probably going to be trivial amounts of options.
I think with that stuff in mind, something I would look out for or really vet is “A”: how much funding have they raised? When did they raise it? How viable are they financially? Do I believe in the business idea? Do I think it’s kind of a dumb idea? Because there’s a lot of ideas that I think are stupid. I would not enjoy working on them. I would sit down, and if you have this list of startups and there’s some that sound really interesting, see what you can find out about their financial situation in terms of burn rate, in terms of getting their next round of funding. Because stuff can go sideways really quickly, and if a company has only raised an angel round or whatever, if you have no problem finding a job then maybe you do take a fly around one of these. But if you’re concerned about them going under and you being unemployed for a few months or something if there is an economic downturn, then you’ll just want to be more mindful of that.
I think that’s the thought process I would go through. I know that working at a startup – I worked for a credit card startup, and I think I was developer number three or four that was hired there. When I left we were at twenty-five or thirty developers. It was a lot of fun in the early days. Then, as we got bigger, it became less fun as companies do. One reason that I went to work for them is they did have buckets of funding and I needed stability at the time. This is ten, twelve years ago so I had the mortgage, was married and that kind of stuff. I was much more risk adverse than I am today in terms of being willing to risk employment and all that. It turned out to be a good decision. I did make a little bit of money off the options and things can work out. But the vast majority of time, it doesn’t. The vast majority of time they do go under. The vast majority of startups fail. Keep that in mind. Think to yourself, “If I come to work for these guys for six months, my options are worth nothing at the end of that and I don’t have a job, am I still okay with it?” If you are then cool do it because it will probably be a fun ride.
I’ve also heard of folks who go and work and they grind out these seventy-hour weeks for two years then everything goes south and then they really regret it because they’re now burned out and they have no job, their options aren’t worth anything and the opportunity costs of all the money that they could have made doing another job is a bummer. I guess that’s the last factor I would think of is: how many hours are these folks going to expect you to work? Because some startups really are a forty-hour week startups. That’s how we were at Drip. We didn’t expect everybody to work fifty, sixty hours. I think that’s definitely a more sustainable way to do it. Some are sixty, seventy-hour startups. That’s probably something to think about asking about upfront.
Mike [32:20]: I didn’t even think to mention it but my question was geared more towards working for a self-funded startup, not necessarily –
Rob [32:26]: Oh, got it.
Mike [32:27]: I don’t think that that strategy would work at all for a funded startup because they’re probably hiring because they need somebody and they need a body, to be honest. I’ve seen a lot of companies where they’re a startup company and they’ve got funding and they’re just like, “We need somebody to handle this.” They will take whoever they can get. And they’re not willing to wait six months to find the right person. They need somebody in the next three to four weeks. I don’t think that working for a company like that part-time is even going to be an option. It depends on who you’re talking to but – I had it more in mind of doing that for a self-funded startup as opposed to a funded startup.
Rob [33:04]: Cool. So there’s two perspectives. Hope that was helpful.
Mike [33:07]: I think that about wraps us up for the day. 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 for ‘We’re Outta Control’ by MoOt used under creative comments. 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.
Episode 310 | Indie.vc and a More Realistic Approach to Funding
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob interviews Bryce Roberts of Indie.vc about their unique approach to funding startups and their terms. Rob shares his opinions on raising funding and angel investments.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Current terms in Github
- Bryce’s Medium post on his learnings and adjustments to their approach
- Ycombinator thread about Indie.vc
Rob [00:00:00]: In this week’s episode of “Startups for the Rest of Us,” I interview Bryce Roberts from Indie.vc. This is “Startups for the Rest of Us,” episode 310.
Rob [00:00:18]: 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 I’ve given Mike the week off this week. I have a very special guest joining me on the show today. His name is Bryce Roberts, from Indie.vc. If you haven’t heard about Indie.vc, they’re taking a really interesting approach to funding companies, and it’s much more around this “fundstrapping” approach that I’ve talked about before. If you recall, fundstrapping, which – Colin from Customer.iO is the first person I ever heard use that term. The idea is to raise a single round of funding to get to profitability, or to help you grow faster, but not to have this implicit series A that you need to raise, as Bryce says during our interview. To be honest, I’ve never been anti-funding. I’ve always been anti people thinking the only way to grow a software business is through funding and then to raise that funding and have it require you to sacrifice your lifestyle, to relocate somewhere, to need to commit to growing a $100 million company with 200 people on the payroll, just all this stuff that never made sense. I always wondered why can’t you just raise a couple hundred thousand dollars to get to that seven-figure revenue mark faster, or get their more efficiently, and then just pay investors back like a normal business does; like when you start a carwash, or a restaurant, or a drycleaner, and you borrow money. You’re not looking for an IPO.
[00:01:33] That’s the approach that I’ve started to take with my angel investments. Last three, I think, have been into companies that I believe will all be seven- or eight-figure SaaS companies; and they’re not planning to raise a round from institutional investors, ever. That’s the premise. They needed some cash to get to growth and to go beyond that. Indie.vc is doing a similar thing. We talked in detail about their exact terms. Of course, they have their terms published on GitHub, which is super cool, because you can look through the docs that I think you’d sign if you were to take money from them. Just a fascinating conversation here with Bryce, who’s really going against the grain of traditional venture capital. I think it’s a good interview. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks so much for joining me today on the show, Bryce.
Bryce [00:02:15]: You bet. Super happy to be here.
Rob [00:02:17]: As I said in the interim, folks just heard you run Indie.vc. I first heard about Indie.vc probably close to two years ago, and it was on Hacker News. There was a big discussion of – at the time, you had a long-form letter at Indie.vc – that’s your URL – and it was basically explaining this new premise, or a new investing ideology. It was about not having to have this $100 million or billion-dollar exit to make money, but that you wanted to fund businesses that could achieve profitability and didn’t need to be a unicorn in order to be profitable for investors. This was really groundbreaking, and at the time, I think it was anonymous. Is that right, the way you published it?
Bryce [00:02:59]: It was anonymous unless you clicked the one – there were two links on that original letter. One of them was to sign up for a slack channel that we’d set up to answer questions. If you clicked on that, it would go to my inbox, so you would see that I was at OATV. Otherwise, there was no messaging, or branding, or anything else like that on it. So, yeah, that created a stir in that Hacker News thread as well.
Rob [00:03:21]: What was your thought process behind doing that anonymously?
Bryce [00:03:24]: Thought process was, just as we laid out in the original letter, that it was an experiment. So, if for any reason that just was a failure, we didn’t get anyone interested in it, no one wanted to apply, that we could have it set up completely separate from OATV. If it didn’t work out, we’d just take the site down, and we’d move on and go back to our day jobs. Wanted a little bit of that abstraction, but also I think it’s a little bit a part of our brand and marketing anyway, which is not intentional. It just is – it feels like you ought to have to do a little bit of work to get to know us and to get to know what we’re trying to do. I think it creates a little bit of scarcity, a little bit of intrigue and that, as a result, it drew people a little more closely in.
Rob [00:04:15]: I remember feeling when I read the letter, because if I recall, it was in Courier font and stuff. It gave me the hacker ethos. It made me feel like the DIY ethic of, “This is really cool. It’s grassroots.” It was just a neat feeling. You’ve mentioned OATV a couple times. For folks who aren’t familiar with that, could you let them know what that is?
Bryce [00:04:32]: To be clear, the DIY is really important to us, that kind of really raw, bare bones. Everything you saw in that first iteration and most of what you see now is still – that’s just me writing, posting. That’s something that’s important to us and always has been. In terms of OATV, OATV is a venture fund that I helped co-found back in 2005 with two partners. One is my partner Mark Jacobsen, and the other is someone who’s pretty well known in technology, my partner Tim O’Reilly. “OATV” stands for “O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures.” It was a seed fund that Tim and I and Mark started in 2005, when seed investing really didn’t have a name. It wasn’t necessarily a category yet; but we were probably one of the first, I would say, handful – maybe five – institutionalized seed funds that got going back then.
Rob [00:05:27]: Very cool. Could you talk people through the premise? I guess you had the experiment that went out a couple years ago in terms of the letter and vetting people. I know you started with a cohort approach, and I think you’re no longer doing that. I think you had a fixed amount you invested up front, and now you’re more flexible, based on the business. Could you tell people about where you’re at today, just so they have an idea of what is Indie.vc? How is it different than just a traditional venture fund in terms of from the entrepreneur’s perspective?
Bryce [00:05:55]: The history is 2005, we set up a seed fund to introduce a new kind of optionality for entrepreneurs, not necessarily just bridge between seed and VC, but actually create some options for folks looking to run cash efficiently. As you can appreciate, part of the whole premise and the whole opportunity around seed was that the cost for getting these businesses online, up and going was dropping significantly. So, whether it was open-source software, hosted infrastructure – you name it – all of those things were starting to drive costs down and making it more accessible to entrepreneurs, which is kind of conventional wisdom right now, but back then it was just some wild, wild thinking.
[00:06:35] So, part of what Indie.vc was a response to was ten years into running OATV, it had become clear that some of those options that we had hoped seed investing would introduce to folks had kind of fallen by the wayside. Those options, as we saw them, were you could take a small amount of seed funding and then go raise from traditional VCs. That was one option. The other two we thought were just as important for founders were you could raise a little bit of money, make a tremendous amount of progress, and without having to raise more money, without having to take on more of that dilution and oversight from VCs. You could sell relatively early for a smaller acquisition, say, sub-$100 million type of acquisition; and it would still be a meaningful return – likely a life-changing outcome for the founder, but a meaningful return to a small fund, which is what we got started with.
[00:07:29] The third was, given how little capital these types of businesses take to get going, and given how strong and just wide the potential for profit margins are, given how efficient these things are, there ought to be a path where you just raise a little bit of money and then you just run that business as long as you want to, based on your profits and revenue. So, ten years into OATV and this whole seed investing experiment, we were looking back and just saying, “Okay. Part of that promise we’ve delivered on,” and that was filling the gap between angel investors and VCs, but those two other options seemed to have fallen by the wayside as fundraising has become the business model for so many of these companies that are getting started right now. When we started, a seed round was 250k, $500,000. A seed round now can be up to $5 million, whether you include their pre-seed or their post-seed, or their A2, or whatever these things are, right? Fundraising was intended to be a pain reliever, but the way we’ve looked at it is that it’s now become this gateway drug to this larger, unicorn culture that’s been built up around startups. So, Indie.vc in some ways is a response to that to try to capture some of that optionality again.
[00:08:46] I think part of your question was how we get our returns. As you can appreciate, we are still a venture fund. We raise a pool of capital. We put that to work. Our investors expect a return on that investment, and I think the one dimension that was pretty unique to Indie.vc-style investing is that not only can we make a return in the event that a company goes public, or gets bought in an acquisition; we can also make a return if founder decides they want to run that business indefinitely and profitably. We can take our return out in something that we call “distribution.” So, if a founder wants to keep running that business, wants to be paying themselves, really reaping the benefits of running a large, profitable, growing business, we just take our return out in cash as that business continues to grow. That’s kind of – plain vanilla as that sounds, that was at the time, and continues to be, a fairly radical concept, given that the venture-funded model suggests that any dollar you take in you’re reinvesting in growth. The idea that founders would be taking money out to put into their own pockets seems to run counter to so much of what’s already happening in that venture-funded world.
Rob [00:10:04]: Yeah, for sure, and that’s what I liked initially about the Indie.vc model and what you’re still doing today. In a second, I’ll run through your terms, which are published on GitHub. You have the exact terms that you give everyone. I was having a number of conversations right as I started doing a couple angel investments a few years back, and my interest has never been in the unicorns. I would much rather have a smaller business that has a much, much higher chance of success. Typically, right now it’s going to be B-to-B SaaS, because that’s what I know. I want to be able to put a small amount of money to work. You know, “small amount”: 5, 10, 20, 25 grand – whatever gets money in – and not have to swing for the fences and not have to swing for an acquisition. I kept looking for models to do this, and the only one that I stumbled upon was the way that carwashes and brick-and-mortars are funded. Then when I saw that you guys were doing this, my head exploded, like, “Yes! Someone is trying to apply this to startups and software companies.” We know that, if they’re smaller, they can just throw off a ton of cash, you know?
Bryce [00:11:05]: Yeah. It’s interesting, because despite the original letter that was posted – it was actually posted January 1, 2015. That’s when that Indie.vc site went live, but the buildup to that was really probably five or six years of conversations. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who’d invested in a couple of restaurants, and I was wrestling with a lot of these ideas and asked how they structured that. Given a local restaurant isn’t likely to IPO, and it’s not likely to be their ambition to IPO or even get bought, I was asking how they structured their return. In having that conversation and a bunch subsequently with other types of businesses, I thought, “Man! The margins in a restaurant business are just so paper-thin, in general. Why couldn’t we be trying this with tech businesses?” where your margins are oftentimes 60, 70, 80 – I’ve even seen 90, 95 percent in the investments that we’ve been looking at.
[00:12:02] It feels like a real opportunity to pursue that model for returns; and, yet, it just runs so counter to the business model of VC investing at this time, that very, very few people would really consider executing that, at least at a fund level, like you said. There are some people who are trying to find those for angel investments, but from a fund level, it hasn’t been necessarily as attractive or as accepted, just because the model hasn’t been proven out just yet.
Rob [00:12:35]: Right. As listeners know, my startup Drip was acquired a few months ago by Lead Pages; and we had hit a point a few months before that where we were really having internal conversations about the possibility of raising a small round, because our growth was being hampered or dampened by the lack of cash. It was the first business I’d ever run where that was the case. All the other ones, I always had ample cash to grow them, because they were smaller businesses. But we were really talking about that, and there was no chance I was going to go down the traditional VC route. It just was not – I never saw Drip – even though it had the market potential to be large, it wasn’t in my interest to be the CEO of some –
Bryce [00:13:12]: Why is that? Why didn’t you think the venture path was the path for you?
Rob [00:13:16]: Because I honestly value my lifestyle a little too much. I didn’t want to have to relocate. I didn’t want – I have my wife and kids, and we have a pretty good life. I didn’t want to feel the constant pressure of, “Get to $1 million.” “You should be hiring more.” “Hire, hire, hire.” My friends who’ve raised VC, that seems to be the thing: you need to get head count up. The idea of running even a 30 – well, 30 was reasonable, but when I started thinking about a 50-person team, it was just not appealing. I think that – I know you don’t necessarily lose control with your first round, but I looked down the line and thought, “Boy, you raise a series A and then a B. If that’s the path, then eventually are you still running your company?” Have you pushed into the center of the table and said, “I need to get to $100 million, or I go bust”?
Bryce [00:14:06]: Well, it’s interesting, because that’s actually a conversation I had recently with a good friend of mine who we spun up our seed funds at roughly the same time. We were talking about this model, and he was expressing frustration around what he termed the “implicit A,” right? Even at a seed round – like you said, you want to believe that that first round of funding really isn’t going to alter your course all that much, but the reality is there’s an implicit A as soon as you take that seed round these days. Most of the advice and most of the effort and most of the incentives around that seed round of funding end up pushing you towards another round of funding and another round of funding. So, as harmless as it may feel like it is, it’s really become, like I said, this implicit A at the tail end of any round of funding; and that’s something we wanted to be a counter to. We wanted to, hopefully, present a different set of options for a founder.
[00:15:02] And it’s something we’re seeing now. That same situation you found yourself in at Drip, we’re finding there’s a large number of companies who have grown. They could really unlock a lot of value in their business with an extra $250k, or $500k, or whatever it is. There’s a couple of hires they can’t make out of cash flow; or, there’s a new line of business they can’t fund out of cash flow; or, there’s a new product that’s additive to what they’re already doing that they want, but they can’t fund it out of cash flow. It’s within that group of founders we really found a lot of resonance and, for us, a lot of potential investment opportunities. I think what we can offer to them is – it’s funny. We just had one of our quarterly retreats in Chicago this last weekend, and one of the founders who’s a part of the Indie.vc group of companies said something along the lines of, “This is just enough VC b.s.” It’s like we haven’t bought all of it, but there’s still a level of accountability. You still have a partner in the business that isn’t with you day to day. There’s still a much broader network for folks who maybe aren’t in the Bay Area that we can provide to them, that they can access.
[00:16:10] That’s really what we’re trying to provide: just enough of that VC oversight without necessarily the levers that so many VCs have, which are voting rights. They become shareholders, but they become shareholders of a preferred class of stock. There’s a lot of layers of control that you give up and also optionality that you take off the table when you go that route. Hopefully, what we’ve tried to do in structuring the terms of Indie.vc is address those in a hard-coded way, where everybody’s playing all their cards face-up so that we can offer to an entrepreneur a certain level of service and a certain level of capital, and they can play their cards up in terms of what it is they’re trying to build. As your audience my appreciate, when you go out to pitch that round of funding to investors, even – you’d mentioned you really value your lifestyle. You mentioned that you may not be the right CEO to be running a 50+ person team. If you walk into an office of an investor and make that presentation, you can’t honestly tell them that, right? You have to tell them about how this is going to become a multi-hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars business.
[00:17:24] We think that’s a real opportunity for us, and we think that the more founders are empowered to build the business they’re best suited to build, and that we can support in doing that, we think that those returns for us will still be every bit as compelling as the returns we’d be seeing in the traditional seed investments that we’ve been making.
Rob [00:17:43]: Yeah, that makes sense. That’s the key, is something you just touched on, which is there’re a lot of businesses that are really great businesses that I think raise funding and get run into the ground because they would be great 5, 10, 15, $20 million ARR businesses, but highly profitable; and they just go for the $100 million thing, and then they implode because they just can’t get there for whatever reason.
Bryce [00:18:05]: There was a fascinating post written – I think it was last week – by a VC, saying, “Here’s how you end up in a bad position with your board.” The scenario he gave was a founder who’d raised two or three rounds of funding. Their business was doing about $5 million a month. The founder couldn’t raise any more money. The founder couldn’t sell the business. Now they’re locked horns with their VCs. I think most people who aren’t in that unicorn echo chamber would say, “Wow. If I had the opportunity to run a $5 million-a-month software business? Sign me up for that!” right? But it’s that type of misalignment with the kinds of companies some founders are best suited to build and the things that oftentimes – I think the other disconnect, too, is just timelines, right? There may be a timeline in which that entrepreneur, if given that opportunity, could grow from $5 million a month and become that massive outcome, but not on the timeline that a VC really needs it to happen in, which is typically five years. So, they would much rather see that founder crash and burn and sell that business for parts, because for every month or quarter that goes by that they have to sit on that board and that business is consuming its time, it’s time that’s taken away from the potential unicorns that are already in their portfolio – if that makes sense.
Rob [00:19:23]: It does, yeah. I want to switch it up just a little bit here and dig deeper into the specifics of how you guys work. I’m on GitHub right now, and I’m going to link your website. You have a [medium?] post, and you have the GitHub repo, where you have all your docs. My understanding is that you invest typically between $100,000 and $500,000 into each startup, and you don’t actually take equity in the business up front. It’s only upon an acquisition that that would happen. Then the repayment – and this is where you’re based more on cash flow than on exit or liquidity [event?]. The repayment is 80 percent of distributions until you’re paid back two times your investment. Then it flips to – what does it flip to after that? Does it flip 20-80?
Bryce [00:20:08]: Yeah, 20-80. That’s right.
Rob [00:20:10]: Okay, perfect. So, that’s 80-20 to your fund until you get 2X back. Then it goes 20-80 to your fund versus the founders, and that’s up until 5X your investment. Then it stops. Is that correct?
Bryce [00:20:22]: That’s correct.
Rob [00:20:23]: Okay. So, the idea is if someone – there’s a bunch of Hacker News threads if folks search it, but there’s a conversation where you actually address specifically – someone says, “What if a founder comes on, and then they just raise their salary up to a bazillion dollars or whatever instead of taking out dividends?” Because it’s when the dividends are distributed when the 80-20 stuff kicks in. You have clauses that help with that, right? They can only raise their salary up to a certain amount, or by a certain percentage, based on from when you guys invest.
Bryce [00:20:47]: That’s right. There’s a bunch of different models that people have tried out around how to trigger these types of distributions. Several of those have been – they’ll tie it to profitability. They’ll tie it to revenue. There’s a whole industry that’s forming now around revenue-based financing, where they immediately start to take a percentage of the revenue that comes in every month, and they get paid back up to a certain return as well. What we tried to do was tie it to incentives, right? So, as you mentioned, when we make an investment, we aren’t a shareholder in your business. It’s structured essentially as a loan with no maturity date, so there isn’t an interest accruing, and there isn’t a date at which that note will be called back. The unique element to the one we’ve structured, as you touch on, our repayment is really tied to the incentives of the founder. If the founder wants to start taking a significant amount of cash out of the business, we share in that. We tie it to total compensation. If a founder’s total comp – let’s say it’s $100,000 when we make the investment. We allow them to continue, we want them to continue to grow and to pay themselves and be able to reap the rewards of growing their business. So, we say up to 150 percent of that initial baseline that we set, that’s yours. Once you start to pay yourself above and beyond that, that’s what we consider a distribution. That’s when the splitting, the 80-20 and then flipping to 20-80 occurs, is once they’ve decided that maybe they do want more of a cash-flow lifestyle business. We are fully in line or aligned with them around them being able to grow and run that kind of business. We just want to be able to share as that cash flow starts coming out of the business.
[00:22:26] In the case where we do become a shareholder, there’s really only two scenarios where that happens. One, the founder decides to raise a more traditional round of VC funding. If someone is running the business profitably for years, but they decide to end up going and raising an additional – bringing on VCs to really scale up because they now see their outsized opportunity, we just convert in as part of that round at a pre agreed-upon percentage of whatever that is. Then if they sell anywhere in there, we convert into common shares and go through as part of that acquisition.
Rob [00:23:00]: Very cool. There’s a comment on Hacker News from someone who is obviously an Indie.vc portfolio company, and he says – there’s a whole discussion of it, but he says, “This is why I enjoyed being part of Indie.vc: zero emphasis on pitching or raising the next round, no demo day. All the focus was on growing a real business.”
Bryce [00:23:19]: It’s like I said. We just did a meet-up in Chicago this last week. What we’re doing now is – we did our first cohort last year, where we invested $100,000 into eight companies, and each quarter we would get together with those eight companies and not work on their pitches, but actually work on their business. We would bring in subject matter experts for things that they were wanting to build expertise around. At the end of that year, we said, “We can continue to do this or not.” It was unanimous within the group that they’d like to continue to have these meet-ups, so this was our first opportunity to start folding in new members, new investments that we’d been making since the beginning of the year. The response from a lot of the new folks was really positive. They were really taken back by what it meant to just focus on revenue and growth and profitability.
[00:24:09] One comment I remember from the weekend was someone lead off their answer to a question by saying, “Back when I used to think raising money was cool, I did X,” right? At its most basic, part of what we wanted to really see is this idea that you become who you hang around, right? So, you have a group of companies now who all are focused on fundraising, and you plug into that group, guess what you’re going to start focusing on? You’re going to start focusing on fundraising. You’re going to start solving your problems with going and raising another round. What we’re seeing now within the group – and, knock on wood, a year and-a-half in, all of those eight companies are all still in business. Some of those have gone from standing starts to profitable. We’re seeing that there’s real value in having a group of like-minded founders who want to build their company in the same way that you’re trying to build yours, so that’s support in that network. So, we think that’s a pretty – it seems subtle, but as the Hacker News commenter mentioned, it’s actually a pretty powerful undertone to create within a group. In fact, we’ve now done five of these, and I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve ever even talked about investor presentations, or talking to VCs.
Rob [00:25:21]: That’s super cool. It does become an amazing sight now when I go to – I grew up in the Bay Area. I grew up in the East Bay, so the Silicon Valley culture was very much part of me, growing up. But when I go back now – I haven’t lived there for 20 years, almost. When I go back now, when I go to a conference or whatever, I’m struck by just the one-track mind. Everyone is just talking about the pitching and talking about the raising and talking about raising money. I keep thinking, “People are focusing on building slide decks rather than building businesses.” That’s kind of been my quote.
Bryce [00:25:54]: No, exactly. Like I said, fundraising is the business model of this new, unicorn-obsessed, startup cohort. I think there’s a real opportunity for us. We have some investments in the Bay Area, but I tried living in the Bay Area, and I know live in Salt Lake City, Utah. We aren’t geographically focused. We don’t just invest in the Bay Area. We don’t make people move to the Bay Area to be a part of what it is we’re doing. I think a line that really resonated in that original piece that I wrote at Indy.vc was, “Bloom where you’re planted.” We try to embody that both in the support we provide for our companies, but like I mentioned, we did our last retreat in Chicago. We try to expose our companies – one, visit the companies in their local markets and support them there – we have a couple companies that are in Chicago – but also give exposure to people who aren’t from Chicago to the way local founders, [the] local start-up community there works so they can see that it’s different from their home states, but it’s also different from how the Valley works as well.
Rob [00:26:55]: Yeah, yeah. I like the idea from your perspective as someone running a fund that you then have diversification across geographies, right? All of your eggs are not in the Bay Area basket and all not pulling from the same talent pool and all not getting in the same group thing. I think there’s advantage to the diversity you have there.
Bryce [00:27:13]: It’s been great, and it was fun because one of the folks who came to a dinner we hosted while we were in Chicago tweeted out after they’d left – this is a person who’d done the VC-funded startup thing. They’re a pretty well-known name in the startup community, and they’re just totally burned out after their last venture-fueled startup experience. They tweeted out after the dinner how energized they were, that it was so refreshing to be around these kinds of founders who’re actually building real businesses and how that reinvigorated them to be thinking and working towards their next company. I think there really is something to that. I think there’s a group of people who really want to have an impact, who want to build something that doesn’t necessarily rely on getting permission from an investor to be able to have it exist and have it to impact people in the world in a meaningful way. So, I love that that person at the dinner picked up on the energy, and we hope that there’s a lot more of that energy we can help unlock through Indie.vc.
Rob [00:28:13]: Sounds great. Well, thanks again, Bryce, for coming on the show. I really want to be mindful of your time today. If folks want to learn more about Indie.vc, they can obviously go to www.indie.vc. If folks want to keep up with you, is it maybe Twitter? What’s the best place?
Bryce [00:28:28]: Yeah, indie.vc is the best place. It’s kind of a jumping-off point, and you’ll also see a unicorn that’s burning, and so you might enjoy seeing that. For me, I’m @Bryce on Twitter. You can add-reply me. We also have a Twitter account that’s pretty active for Indie.vc @Indievc – one word – on Twitter. I’m not great at email, but if you want to email me, I will definitely see it. If it’s interesting, there’s a high likelihood I will reply to it. I’m just Bryce, B-R-Y-C-E, @OATV.com.
Rob [00:29:01]: Sounds great. Thanks again for coming on the show.
Bryce [00:29:03]: Thank you, Rob.
Rob [00:29:04]: If you have a question for us, 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 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.
Episode 244 | Competition, Transparency and Funding with Baremetrics Founder Josh Pigford
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob interviews Josh Pigford, the founder of baremetrics about competition, transparency, and funding.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob [00:00]: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, I talked with Josh Pigford, founder of Baremetrics about the good and bad of competition, transparency, and funding. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 244.
Rob [00:21]: 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 you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob and Mike is on vacation and we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. So Mike is out-of-town in Hershey, Pennsylvania with his family and so this week I decided to bring Josh Pigford, founder of Baremetrics on the show because he has a lot of unique experience. He has bootstrapped a SAS business for the past couple of years and it had a great growth trajectory and amidst that, he’s had a ton of competition crop-up. He’s also raised a small round of funding to help with his growth and he’s been very transparent with all of their numbers actually published a dashboard with all of the growth numbers and the lifetime value in turn and pretty much opened a kimono on it and that’s at demo.baremetrics.com. So I talked to Josh about all three of those topics because of anyone I know he’s really in the midst of the throws of competition, funding, and transparency, so I hope you enjoy his takes on these topics. Let’s dive right into the interview. So today I have the pleasure of speaking with Josh Pigford. You probably know as the founder of Baremetrics. You haven’t heard about Baremetrics that they are one in click analytics for stripe. So for using the subscription API with stripe particularly if you have a SAS app, Baremetrics gives you a really cool dashboard of all your numbers and your turn and lifetime value and all that kind of stuff typically the stuff that you spend a week or two with the developer trying to build out so it’s not something that most SAS providers want to spend their time doing, and Josh has the pretty unique story that he’s had strong growth since he launched. He got out ahead of the market and then raised a little bit of funding and that’s why I wanted to have him on the show today to talk about it. So, thanks Josh for taking the time to join us.
Josh Pigford [02:13]: Thanks for having me, Rob.
Rob [02:14]: Absolutely. All right. So I want to cover a couple of topics today in particular. The first one I want to start with is transparency. Transparency is something that you’ve been a big advocate of in the sense that from really early on in Baremetrics history, you wanted to kind of have a live demo of Baremetrics, of the dashboard, and so you’ve just opened the kimono and essentially, you show all the numbers for Baremetrics that’s at demo.Baremetrics.com for those who want to go check it out, and it’s your live numbers obviously you’ve obfuscated those customer names in there that are changed for the protection of the innocent but you have real lifetime value and your real monthly occurring revenue and all that stuff. Tell me a little bit about the motivation for it and if you think that’s been a plus or a minus for Baremetrics’s growth.
Josh Pigford [02:58]: Sure, sure. So we back in, I guess been a year and a half now, so February 2014, I had this idea like I need a demo for the software and I mean I guess I didn’t have to have one but it just seems like it was the easiest way to convey the value and honestly, it was all kind of the result of my own laziness so I thought I needed a demo and I could spend a ton of time pumping out like fake data and trying to generate enough fake data to look like I have a legit dashboard but I mean there’s a lot to Baremetrics so like there’s a dozen plus metrics in each of those, have their own individual metrics pages with even more in depth data on all of those. It would’ve taken so much time to put all together and I thought or I could just add a line of code and make my own stuff public. So, I went with the lazy route and at that time, we weren’t making a ton of money, we’re kind of doing like I don’t know, a few thousand bucks a month and so just decided, “I will put it out there.” And there’s I guess a little bit of altruism to it in the sense that I’ve been building software for the web for a decade and I always appreciated other people kind of given me a look into what their startup looks like successful or not, and there’s a little bit of that aspect of it but I mean it initially was a bit of laziness that turned into something bigger.
Rob [04:16]: Sure. And now that you are obviously substantially more than a few thousand dollars a month and since your revenue is public, I don’t have it [?] but it looks like I think your MRR right now is 32,000 or 33,000. Now that this takes a little bit bigger and you have competition and that kind of stuff, do you – and maybe regret is too strong of a word but do you still think it wasn’t a right choice and are you happy every day when you wake up and see your numbers in public?
Josh Pigford [04:38]: So it’s a mixture. It was at the right move, absolutely, I mean so many things came out of it so, kind of the biggest plus was that Buffer, another startup decided to make their stuff public through Baremetrics as well. And then they’re substantially larger. I think their MRR is like $400,000 a month or maybe like 500,000. So it’s a lot of money and a lot of people follow them. And so that would not have happen had I not made mine public because like kind of that wasn’t even an option to make all these revenue public, or at least not in this like easy one-click setup. So, I don’t regret it. It was definitely the right move but man, did it bring up a number of copycats that poured in after that was substantial. So, yeah, but there’s been a couple of I would say legitimate competitors but the [?] 90+% of them, a lot of them just literally, directly ripped off like the design and everything. So, it’s one of those things like it’s sort of a bit of a gold rush in a sense that the way I certainly can’t compare of like their metrics to the app store but I mean in the same way that you hear somebody makes a lot of money on the app store, “Oh, I can do iPhone apps too.” And they copy lots of people and it’s sort of the same as you see but they’re not much more scaled but that’s kind of happened here. And so that’s just really annoying more than anything like that’s the part that’s so frustrating and then the other aspects of it like because we have to be kind of private, we don’t want to surface individual customer’s data. I feel like we have to give a somewhat scaled back demo. And so, the fear is that that kind of almost implies. The Baremetrics doesn’t do as much as it can, but it does we just can’t show it all from the privacies side of it, so.
Rob [06:23]: That’s interesting. Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. So, as you’re clicking and digging into detail, you can’t necessarily show every screen of –
Josh Pigford [06:29]: Exactly. Like I can show a couple of screenshots here and there but I mean I can’t let you, we get into the okay well especially when we start talking about like customer profiles and stuff. We have to, at that point have to generate a lot of fake data because we can’t show any kind of customer identifiable information there. So, we’re looking at different ways to handle that but it’s like there’s pros and cons but the pros is far with the cons.
Rob [06:52]: Yeah. Right. And so it sounds like you do feel like it brought some competition once folks saw your growth curve, but the pros were that it gave you this plastering on.
Josh Pigford [07:00]: Sure. Like if you look at our graph, like MRR for instance, the big inflection point is when Buffer made their stuff public because it just instantly brought a ton of exposure. And so it changes the angle of the graph permanently. And so, yeah, from that perspective, it was unquestionably the right move.
Rob [07:19]: Right. And for folks who want to check that out, it’s at buffer.Baremetrics.com. Another thought in transparency, I want to hear, I get your thought on it. I think there’s been a movement towards it and I think the first time I heard someone devolves at the revenue a few years ago, I can’t even think of who was like [?] has done it for a while, you have become famous for doing it. It blew me away right it’s this totally unique groundbreaking thing. More and more companies are doing it now, do you feel like it might be losing some of its impact and losing the maybe the bump that if someone came out today, let’s just say I came out today and exposed all of drips back in stuff, do you feel like it would still be worth doing or that the pros maybe kind of getting water down and a lot of people are doing it?
Josh Pigford [08:04]: I don’t know that I would suggest, I mean that’s kind of mixed back here because we sort of kind of partnered with Buffer and so it just opened startup thing where so baremetrics.com/open. You can see, I don’t know, it’s going to be seven or eight different startups that have all made their Baremetrics dashboards public. And like there’s this aspect of like wanting to support people being transparent because I think it can be interesting. The problem is, transparency just solely for transparency stake I would say has lost its kind of gimmicky at this point. I think when you can use it to tell some kind of story, right, like for us, the story it tells is like the Baremetrics story, right? Like it is a demo of our software. It makes complete sense from that perspective and the fact that the numbers, or our actual numbers kind of has this like, “Oh, that’s neat” kind of aspect of it that’s I think kind of been going a long way to maybe adding some sort of face to the company, but like [Josh Mo’s?] random billing software or like I don’t know, maybe he sells some subscription T-shirts or something like or his numbers are all that interesting, probably not to all startups but maybe to other T-shirt companies. And so, like if he’s taking the role of trying to help other T-shirt companies like show you how to start them and kind of the ups and downs, okay, like I think that can be interesting. Or like on a regular basis taking a look at your numbers and saying, “Okay. We had a big spike in user turn, let’s talk through that publicly about like why that happened and how we can fix it because I think that’s helpful to other startups.” But I think a lot of people just like start posing their numbers like because that’s just what people do, and I think there’s a little bit of vanity to it as well like I was guilty of it at first in the sense of like I would post on Twitter like our MRRs are X and some of that was just I’m excited because “Wait, hey, the company is growing.” But I mean to some extent sure, I’m like I feel like I was bragging to some extent too and so, I tried to be a little bit more humble about it at this point but –
Rob [10:07]: Sure. Yeah. I’ve definitely caught some people or in my mind like I feel like certain people are transparent to truly help others and then some folks, I do get the bragging vibe from them of like, “Look at me, look how cool I am.” That thing, and it gets an easy trap to fall into for sure.
Josh Pigford [10:25]: Yeah. And especially early on, like and if you feel like you get a little it attraction and especially we’re like it’s easy to look at yourself from the lens of basically the people that are in your little circle of influence and if maybe you’re doing better than the 10 guys that you hang out with then it’s like it can quickly it can kind of become a bragging thing but like if you’re doing it just to kind of be like a shell off, I think it kind of turns people off.
Rob [10:49]: Right, right. Yeah, there’s an interesting thing I was thinking about. It’s like there’s ongoing transparency which is kind of what you’ve done and what Buffer has done and then I think there’s like point in time transparency which you just touched on where you might write a single blog post about how churn went up, this is what it was, this is what we got it to, and here is what we did, and that’s super helpful, right? But you’re not necessarily just saying, “Here’s my churn every day. You can come and look at it. I think that point in time aspect is something that I’ve personally lean towards like I will, you better MicroConfs, I will often devote everything. I do it once a year if that and it’s not necessarily a commitment that I’ve made but I have an open source, or not open source but I have made everything open but I think there’s some value in transparency. I guess it’s just, yeah, I just wanted to hear your take on it.
Josh Pigford [11:32]: Well, I mean earlier on, the first and that is six to eight months after I made our stuff public, I would do a monthly blog post like, “Hey, here’s the July update of our numbers.” And what kind of touched on what worked and what didn’t but I mean to some extent it was like it was a point in time thing and not necessarily all that useful, and so we stopped doing those but like to me there’s a lot more value so content marketing works really well for us and specifically made once a week writing, end up of a blog post as I’m able to push up that week but like trying to just genuinely be helpful to other people and for us our target markets and other startups so rather entrepreneurs and so that’s sort of an easy thing for us, but I think like transparency when like when it matters to other people is what’s more interesting, right? Like I remember a couple of MicroConfs ago, we talked about making your numbers public like the one where you have shown, not this past but like a couple of months ago but the one before that would drip yeah, and how that just like showing the growth of that was so interesting to me and kind of opened my eyes a little bit about like, “Oh, okay.” So like that’s probably what something more successful looks like, well actually that might have been three years go.
Rob [12:55]: It might have been HitTail.
Josh Pigford [12:56]: HitTail, that was what it was.
Rob [12:57]: Yeah. So, this is when you were back before Baremetrics, right? This was when you –
Josh Pigford [12:59]: Yeah, yeah. So this was PopSurvey and contemporary and like stuff was in my head, I kind of go in okay but also at the same time and sight it was awful, and now that I’ve like you to have a different level of success there. And so, but when I saw like how HitTail, how you’re able to grow that and it’s like that’s when I sort of thinking like okay, like, “I could potentially make some software that could make a lot more money than it’s making right now and I just needed to find a different thing to do that with but that’s where it was super helpful, right?” So for you to release those numbers, because it was a motivator for me.
Rob [13:31]: Right. Yeah, that’s a good point. I want to switch it up a little bit and talk about funding because you’ve been a bootstrapper for a decade or more. You launched PopSurvey, you had Temper, I’m sure there’s many others that I haven’t heard of that you bootstrap. When you launched Baremetrics, it was getting great, growth numbers and at a certain point you were offered funding. The numbers were public, I’m pretty sure. It’s a half million dollars and you took the funding. And I know that there are some folks out there that say, “You should always take funding. You should never take funding.” And I’m not in either of those camps and I know that you weren’t either, so I’d like to hear what your motivation was and what your decision process was like when you were considering, do I keep Baremetrics all my own or do I take some money and essentially move faster but now have some investors that I’m working with?
Josh Pigford [14:21]: Yeah. So for me, there had been this point where Baremetrics was doing from like a growth perspective, talking in percentages, I think was doing between like 20% and 50% every month growth with MRR and so at that point, and our numbers are public so those are the kind of growth rates were investors start like, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting. How can I have the piece of the pie?” So I started getting all these phone calls or emails or whatever and I humored a few people but for the most part it was just kind of the typical like I’m just not comfortable with giving that much of the company and we just aren’t really jiving or you sound like a jerk, like all these kinds of things where it just wouldn’t sit right with me and I was fine with where we were at like I think when most of the funding email started, it was me for the most part and then like I had just hired another engineer. And so like, we’re doing fine and I didn’t have any really big aspirations at the time but I was still kind of riding the wave of like, “Oh, this works.” And so, yeah, then this $500,000 thing came up and just the terms ultimately like I mean honestly, if you start thinking of the health of the business and maybe what my goals are for the business, I would’ve been an idiot to not take it and I think that’s where my mind shifted change was like I was proud of the bootstrap aspect of it but when you start looking at things from a different perspective of like well the things that we could do with this money and what are the sacrifices relative to that. If the sacrifices aren’t anything I’m opposed to then well yeah, why not? So the evaluation, there’s 500,000 for at a $10 million evaluation which equates to 5% and –
Rob [16:06]: So they don’t have control?
Josh Pigford [16:07]: No, and so technically, so it’s a safe like they don’t even have the shares. They get the shares in the event that we sell or that we raise an all-around –
Rob [16:14]: Raising it around. Right. So it’s essentially a convertible note, right, it’s a loan –
Josh Pigford [16:19]: But it’s not even that, I don’t have to pay it back unless like if I shut the business down, if there’s no time, there’s no date attached to anything, like nobody’s hand can possibly force me in any perspective. So, like it would’ve been dumb for me to not take it.
Rob [16:35]: Yeah. Those are some very generous terms.
Josh Pigford [16:37]: Right.
Rob [16:38]: And when you’re making that decision, there’s this money in the table and obviously the terms are favorable and that’s the interesting part is I have stopped saying, “I won’t take funding.” And I’ve started asking myself these questions like when I go and refuse or whatever like, “Under what circumstance would I?” And it’s a different way to ask it but obviously, there were very appealing terms. You took the money. Did you know when you took this half million dollars, how you were going to spend it?
Josh Pigford [17:03]: Yeah, absolutely. I was itching to hire some people like after I started thinking through, when that was suggested as, “Hey, we can put in this amount of money.” Like I instantly started sitting down and brainstorming of all the ways that I could spend it and ways that what does Baremetrics need to grow and to see the goals through that I had that can keep Baremetrics growing and people ultimately what was going to make that happen. So, that was an easy one, for sure.
Rob [17:34]: And how long? Has it been about a year now?
Josh Pigford [17:36]: So, it’s been 10, let’s see, we closed on the deal in I think September.
Rob [17:42]: Okay. So like 9 months, 9-10 months, yeah.
Josh Pigford [17:44]: Yeah. Somewhere around there.
Rob [17:45]: So now you have some perspective and some distance from it, was it the right choice? Was it a good choice for you?
Josh Pigford [17:51]: Yes, absolutely the right choice. I think in [?] sight, I think I would’ve done a few things differently. There was a little bit of a, “Holy crap. There’s half a million dollars today in my bank account now. Woohoo. Let’s spend some money, right?” And I mean part of it is the investor wants you to spend their money. They’re giving it to you not so it just sits there in a bank account but at the same time like I probably spent too fast and at the time I was still maintaining the like 20%-30% average growth rate per month and then like shortly thereafter, it started the growth rate, it started like not tanking but it wasn’t 20% or 30% or more.
Rob [18:28]: Leveling out.
Josh Pigford [18:29]: Right. It’s just like that was inevitable but it happened over the course of 30 to 60 days like it happened pretty quick and I think from that perspective, I’ve kind of ended up overshooting early on how much I was spending. So we’re like at a point now like we should be fine without like needing to raise any more money but it’s just like having to be a little more cautious with our spending money at this point.
Rob [18:51]: Right. Yeah. When you’re growing like that, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself and say, “Well, in six months, we’re going to be at 50,000 or 60,000 recurring revenue and therefore we need to staff up to all of these people and it’s easier to spend money quick when you’re growing up fast, I know the feeling. Now, you leveled off after you raised the money, did you catch any flock from your investors? Did they expect that or were they kind of concerned when that happened?
Josh Pigford [19:11]: Yeah. So, they’ve just been helpful. We have a roadmap wise with the stuff that’s on the roadmap is partially influenced by customers. It’s partially influenced by like investor input about ways that we could potentially expand from a market perspective. And so, if anything, they certainly weren’t like, “Oh man, this is best bad news.” Like sort of, “Hey, yeah. There are some things that you work on to probably fix these things and so that’s us kind of getting [?] now.”
Rob [19:40]: Right. Now, typically, if you’re going to raise an angel round, the majority of folks are going to give you this money, expect the series A then a series B and they want $100,000,000 evaluation, right, or they want $100,000,000 market. Was that the expectation that was communicated to you or did you guys talk about kind of the fun strapping around where you said, I’m going to raise this single round, I want to use it to get the profitability and build a nice profitable business, was any of that discussed?
Josh Pigford [20:05]: So some of those discussed, like if we think of the purpose of my funding round, my money technically came from General Catalyst which is a big VC. They’re not typically like angel round investors. But as part of this stripe specific fund the faith created and they’re like one of the main investors in stripe. So, and for them it’s like it’s a mixture of sure, they want their money back with some returns on it but it’s also this sort of load confidence in the stripe ecosystem for them so like marketing play is not necessarily the right phrase but it’s like for them, it was just as much about saying like, “Let’s beef up. Stripe, they’ve got however much hundreds of millions of dollars put into the stripe. So, if they can make stripe more successful, then this is like then that kind of pays off indirectly for them.
Rob [20:56]: It’s almost like a strategic, it’s a strategic investment for them, right? And to build the ecosystem.
Josh Pigford [21:01]: Exactly. And so that’s kind of again, like that was one of the way that I was sort of unique from that perspective. And so that’s sort of when I also have a little bit stress from the, “Oh, man. I’ve got to get their money back” from a I’m a good human being perspective like I don’t want to lose their money but at the same time they’re not like screaming at me about anything [crosstalk] –
Rob [21:22]: Yeah. That’s nice. So, to kind of wrap up the funding portion, we talked about the advantages and kind of the no brainer aspect of raising this round for you, you’re nine or ten months out, have there been any major kind of negatives or regrets or like bad things that have brought about?
Josh Pigford [21:38]: Not really. I think in hindsight I would be a lot more careful, and this is just naiveté on my part without the evaluation side of things because of you think of it in terms of how much of the company are getting up like okay, at the end of the day kind of giving up 5%, fine, whatever. Like I would give up more, right? So I have thought like, hey, what about I could actually technically add onto the same round even nine months later and that would be great, more money, right? But the probably is I kind of got like a Silicon Valley evaluation which in a lot of times are a little inflated. And so, it makes it a lot harder for me to raise additional funds if I wanted to because a small time investor is like, that’s not worth it for them at that evaluation because they’ve got such a tiny piece of the pie. So, I think in hindsight I probably even though like they suggested the evaluation, I can hindsight I probably would’ve should’ve downplate that a little bit so they get easier to raise more.
Rob [22:41]: Yeah, right. Instead of potentially having to have a downround later or –
Josh Pigford [22:45]: Exactly, right. Because nobody will stop so –
Rob [22:47]: Right. Do you watch Silicon Valley on HBO?
Josh Pigford [22:49]: Yeah, it’s great.
Rob [22:50]: I love that show. So remember when he negotiates with the VC because he wants a [?] evaluation?
Josh Pigford [22:55]: Right, like that’s that.
Rob [22:56]: Yeah, yeah. I totally get it.
Josh Pigford [22:58]: And it was sort of one more point here to the whole evaluation thing like I raise money from a big VC fund whereas there is a whole slew of by single person angel investors, a lot of them completely disconnected from the tech scene who would love to give people money for pretty decent evaluations and like not have a lot of demands about things, like I think that’s sort of where the dogmatic bootstrapper mindset comes from is all the really awful junk that they read on tech grunge and that’s not the norm like. That’s not what most of the investment world looks like just because the rest of it is just boring, it makes for bad news. So, I think like if people are interested in like say they just want $100,000 like a really long way for them. You can probably find one angel investor or a few angel investors who would come in together at a decent evaluation to give you that money and that would just be genuinely helpful or maybe they’re completely hands off and they just kind of want to get their hands dirty in the tech space. So, I think if people are interested in that they should like ignore the hype that they read elsewhere and just kind of start poking around places like AngelList to find like individual angel investors who were just kind of want to help people out because they exist for sure.
Rob [24:22]: Right. Yeah. I like the term colon from customer that I usually call it fund strapping and that’s where you raise a small seed round of I like to think of it as between 100,000 and 500,000, I’m kind of being arbitrary about that but I think that’s probably the range you’d want to do it and you raise it from between one and five angels and it’s like you said, they don’t take control, they’re going to board sit. They can’t kick you out and then you use it essentially to get to profitability and it’s more of the way that traditional businesses are funded say a restaurant or a carwash or dry cleaner, you’re just probably going to have a lot of higher profit margin than those, so it’s an interesting part.
Josh Pigford [24:55]: And I don’t want see, that’s the thing like there is I guess a small possibility that it would make sense for us to try to raise a series A or something like that, but what I am stanchly opposed to is having to be the founder, a founder who just raises money all the time because there are so many that do have to do that where the CEO is essentially the guy who like, okay. He raised around well, six months later he’s going to start again because it takes six months to close another realm. He has to keep doing that over and over and I hate that junk. So, I have no intention of doing that. Profitability for me is the goal.
Rob [25:32]: Right. Yeah, I think of it, I use the phrase building slide decks instead of building a business, right? And I prefer to build the business, so [crosstalk]. Cool. Okay. So, our last topic of the day is competition. I like to think that any time you have a good idea and you execute on it and you achieve some success, you are going to by nature bring competition into your space and you have done that well, you had a good idea with one-click analytics for stripe. You obviously have success and more public about it and so many competitors have sprung up around Baremetrics. Do you think that competition is good? By I say good I mean beneficial to you or because you kind of hear both mindsets of well, competition validates the market but you are already in the market, you had already validated that was working so do you feel like, boy, having more competition is helpful and it’s generating more attention around the space or do you feel like the more crowded it gets, the harder it is to be heard above the noise?
Josh Pigford [26:30]: So, to me I think of it from the point of view of the customer, right. So, competition is ultimately good for customer which I think ultimately is good for us because we’ll hear indirectly a customer say like, “Hey, I was checking out their competition and they had X feature which means, translates to they solve X problem that I have.” So, can you solve that problem for me? Well, maybe not right now but if I hear it from enough people, then yeah, we’ll try to solve that problem for you. And I think that it’s good from that perspective or it stops being good is when there are two dozen people or companies who are all kind of the same. And so, we’re trying really hard, I think this sort of space, this sort of like analytics that you don’t have to think about or work to set up kind of set up a space. We’re at a point where we’re kind of start to kind of fork where there’s a lot of people playing the baseline metrics game where click here, connect to stripe account and you get MRR lifetime value cheering all these stuff. But on that level, it’s not like it’s useful but there has to be something else pass that I think for it to be really valuable but that also it’s really difficult to build but that’s where I feel like we’re starting to kind of fork off on our own is trying to move away from my numbers game and move into the genuinely useful for making business decisions game like helping people understand why things are, what they are, and how to fix them and that kind of thing. And so I think the prevalence of so many competitors right now has helped pushed us in that direction which I think is ultimately a positive thing, but I mean like holy crap is that annoying.
Rob [28:09]: You’ve seen people pop out with your whatever and I don’t know anybody who’s done this but I would have to imagine because I’ve seen it with my stuff, people are popping up probably using your same tagline, probably using names that are similar to use, probably using designs that are similar to yours.
Josh Pigford [28:22]: Oh, sure. That’s amazing, I mean almost there’s one that I’ve seen making the rounds a lot more maybe their content stuff like the stuff that they randomly post on their blog I’ve seen a lot and I’ll go to their software or whatever. It is a direct rip off of Baremetrics and it’s just like how do you sleep at night? And people are using our logo but like changing from a different shade of blue or something, I mean just stupid stuff that’s like at the end of the day, copycats, their motivation is purely to try to make a quick buck and in a year they won’t exist. But for the year that they are around like, I mean you’re like the annoying kid at school that keeps tapping me on the shoulder like, go away. That’s kind of how I feel about them.
Rob [29:04]: Yeah, no, that make sense. You were in the space where the onboarding is really easy, right? It’s one click to get in, it seems like that would be a double edged sword. It’s easy to get people onboard but then it’s easy for people to switch. Yeah.
Josh Pigford [29:16]: Switching cost are way too low right now and so yes, that is probably our number one problem from like a charm perspective is that switching cost are so low which is in the short-term good for a customer because it gives them a lot of options. At the same time, it makes for a customer who doesn’t want to get invested in their software which maybe for them, that sounds like a good thing. But, I think when you’re like so wishy-washy about trying to solve at the end of the day solve your own business problems, being wishy-washy and not saying like, “Here’s what we’re going to use. Here’s what we’re going to stick with, and this is what we’re going to base our business around.” When you stop acting like that, you end up with stuff that’s just not useful at all. And so, yeah, so we’ve got a bunch of stuff that’s coming out soon that the switching cost will be much higher and that sounds a little like just rude, but at the same time, I think it ultimately will make for software that people in the long-term get a lot more value out of.
Rob [30:11]: Right. Well, I mean it’s hard if you have 20 people in the space, or 15 people in the space with no maybe one clear leader and everybody else is kind of milling around creating noise. The customer is actually not getting the best software because everybody is competing whereas if they’re only two or three in the space and they’re really [dooking?] it out, then you’re going to get some awesome new features, right? You’re going to be innovating against each other and that kind of stuff. So, I think it’s interesting that it’s essentially, it’s like the one-click stripe analytics as you said has almost become a baseline for a lot of these products and you know how to rise above it which in the short-term is probably painful and it’s annoying to see all the competition but in the long-term it’s going to make for better products and just going to make you move pretty fast which I think is better for customer.
Josh Pigford [30:55]: Yeah, 100% agree with that.
Rob [30:57]: Cool. All right. So you’ve actually have a customer, I don’t know how – or I’m sorry, not a customer but a competitor crop-up who’s offering one-click stripe analytics for free, so they’re just kind of doing a free-mium model, when you first heard that news, I can imagine the look on your face, was that brutal was it were you kind of like, “Yup. I knew this day would come.”
Josh Pigford [31:17]: I was totally wasn’t surprised. I think start kind of poking around to see okay first, how are you even doing that? Because that gets expensive to store massive amounts of data and processes, like it’s expensive. So it’s like how are you guys pulling that off, and then you start realizing, okay. This is actually like a lead generator for their other business that which is a completely legitimate business, the other one is and lots of people love them but it’s like when you’re like releasing tool just as a lead generator, then no way does that software sort of stand the test of time because it’s ultimately like a loss leader for you and that’s just so hard to maintain especially on a small team. So they don’t worry me and our customers feedback on that has been basically the same that like, “Hey, we’re using this other one because it’s free but like no way would we ever stop using you guys. Their stuff is just not good.” So, it doesn’t bother me and in reality, so in the next month or so, hopefully, we’ll actually have a free version. I think this plays into our long-term plan, like in the short-term we actually may take a little bit of a hit but in the short-term, yeah, we’ll start playing a little bit of the free game, the free-mium game and see how it plays out. We haven’t, because we’ve never had a free plan, I mean a year and a half in and we’ve never tested it. So, it seems a little short-sided of me to not at least humor that as a possibility.
Rob [32:43]: Right. As a test, and so that, I mean it was kind of my next question is like so how do you compete with free because obviously this is going to happen to anyone who has a good idea and has some success, we’re eventually going to get a free competitor and it sounds like so far, number one is you know the game. You’ve been doing this now for 18 months, 2 years. And so, you know what it takes to really run this service in terms of cost and team size and then continue to innovate. And number two, is potentially fight fire with fire, maybe release a free version and to continue to build in an innovator, you have to stay ahead of the game. You have to keep building features that they don’t have.
Josh Pigford [33:19]: Exactly. It’s just one of those things where you kind of have to just, I know what our goals are and I can’t make any assumptions about what my competitors’ goals are. I like the types of problems that one competitor is solving for their customer base however small it may be is not necessarily the same as what I’m doing. And so, it would be super short-sided of me to say like, “Oh, well they just launched some feature. I need to do the same thing.” No, not necessarily, like their customers may want that but our customers may not. Or, the way that we solve that problem is totally different. So, I think it’s just being hyper focused on what it is that you do and you do well is kind of the way to not worry about competition.
Rob [34:05]: Well said. All right, sir. So, folks want to keep up with you online aside from checking out baremetrics.com, what you get is one-click SAS analytics for stripe. How would folks keep up with you whether it’s blog url or Twitter handle?
Josh Pigford [34:20]: So Twitter is @Shpigford and I that’s really about it. I don’t blog much anymore.
Rob [34:26]: All right. I would recommend your podcast which is called Founder’s Journey.
Josh Pigford [34:30]: Yup.
Rob [34:30]: Is that right? I’ve been listening to it for the past couple of months and it’s essentially you reading some blog post that you’re posting on the Baremetrics blog and adlibbing, you’re adding more stuff which has been kind of cool.
Josh Pigford [34:42]:
Rob [34:43]: Very good. Well, thanks again for coming on the show today, man.
Josh Pigford [34:46]: Thanks for having me, Rob.
Rob [34:47]: That wraps us up for today. Thanks again to Josh for coming on the show. If you have a question for us, call 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.