It takes time to build something successful!

Since SaaSx second edition, I have never missed a single edition of SaaSx. The 5th edition – SaaSx was recently held on the 7th of July, and the learnings and experiences were much different from the previous three that I had attended.

One primary topic this year was bootstrapping, and none other than Sridhar Vembu, the CEO and Founder of Zoho, was presenting. The session was extremely relevant and impactful, more so for us because we too are a bootstrapped organisation. Every two months of our 4.5 year-long bootstrapped journey, we have questioned ourselves on whether we have even got it right! If we should go ahead and raise funds. Sridhar’s session genuinely helped us know and understand our answers.

However, as I delved deeper, I realised that the bigger picture that Sridhar was making us aware of was the entrepreneurial journey of self-discovery. His session was an earnest attempt to promote deep thinking and self-reflection amongst all of us. He questioned basic assumptions and systematically dismantled the traditional notions around entrepreneurship. Using Zoho as an example, he showed how thinking from first principles helped them become successful as a global SaaS leader.


What is it that drives an entrepreneur? Is it the pursuit of materialistic goals or the passion to achieve a bigger purpose? The first step is to have this clarity in mind, as this can be critical in defining the direction your business would take. Through these questions, Sridhar showed that business decisions are not just driven by external factors but by internal as well.

For example, why should you chase high growth numbers? As per him, the first step to bootstrapping is survival. The top 5 goals for any startup should be Survive, Survive, Survive, Survive, Survive. Survival is enough. Keep your costs low and make sure all your bills are paid on time.  Cut your burn rate to the lowest. Zoho created 3 lines of business. The current SaaS software is their 3rd. They created these lines during their journey of survival and making ends meet.


Why go after a hot segment (with immense competition) instead of a niche one?  If it’s hot, avoid it i.e. if a market segment is hot or expected to be hot, it will be heavily funded. It will most likely be difficult to compete as a bootstrapped organisation and is henceforth avoidable. Zoho released Zoho docs in 2007, but soon as he realized that Google and Microsoft had entered the space, he reoriented the vision of Zoho to stay focused on business productivity applications. Zoho docs continues to add value to Zoho One, but the prime focus is on Applications from HR, Finance, Support, Sales & Marketing and Project Management.  Bootstrapping works best if you find a niche, but not so small that it hardly exists. You will hardly have cut throat competition in the niche market and will be able to compete even without heavy funding.

Most SaaS companies raise funds for customer acquisition. Even as a bootstrapped company customer acquisition is important. As you don’t have the money, you will need to optimise your marketing spend. Try and find a cheaper channel first and use these as your primary channel of acquisition. Once you have revenue from the these channels, you can start investing in the more expensive one. By this time you will also have data on your life time value and will be able to take better decisions.

Similarly, why base yourself out of a tier 1 city instead of tier 2 cities (with talent abound)? You don’t need to be in a Bangalore, Pune, or a Mumbai to build a successful product. According to Sridhar, if he wanted to start again, he would go to a smaller city like Raipur. Being in an expensive location will ends up burning your ‘meager monies’ faster. This doesn’t mean that being in the top IT cities of India is bad for your business, but if your team is located in one of the smaller cities, do not worry. You can still make it your competitive advantage.

Self-discipline is of utmost importance for a bootstrapped company. In fact, to bootstrap successfully, you need to ensure self-discipline in spends, team management, customer follow-ups, etc. While bootstrapping can demand frugality and self-discipline, the supply of money from your VC has the potential to destroy the most staunchly disciplined entrepreneurs as well. Watch out!

And last but not the least – It takes time to build something successful. It took Zoho 20 years to make it look like an overnight success.

This blog is authored by Ankit Dudhwewala, Founder – CallHippo, AppItSimple Infotek, Software Suggest. Thanks to Anukriti Chaudhari and Ritika Singh from iSPIRT to craft the article.

From Bootstrapped to Angeled : Is it your idea or product ?

You’ve shaped up your business idea to flag off. You have a pool of talent believing in that idea and lined up with working prototype with feedback. Now, it’s time for funding to take your idea to concept to design to product to a successful business.

Depending on the idea, startup projects can be particularly expensive and often incur new, unforeseen costs. That is particularly true of technological ideas, which are currently in vogue but require exploratory costs (to pay experts to determine if the idea is feasible) and initial product development costs. Even if a team proves the idea is feasible, they often need to build a working model or prototype to prove that to investors, which can sometimes add thousands of dollars to startup expenses.

Bootstrapped to Angeled_To_Raise_Seed_Capital 1

The vital idea behind bootstrapping in commercial means is to borrow as minimal finance as possible. In two words, you only rely on either on your own budget and savings, on some crowdfunded amount or simply on loans from friends and family. This scenario urges you to borrow insignificant amounts of money and thus keep interest costs minimal. But as the market dynamics populates further, the wider entrepreneurial community starts delivering differing views.

Guy Kawasaki has proclaimed that “you should always be a boot-strapper… too much money is worse than too little” but goes onto to suggest “if you do get offered venture capital, take it, but don’t spend it”.

Most people focus all their time and attention on building their idea, and forget that even the coolest product or service is worthless if people don’t use it. Creating a successful product or service requires two things:

  • A solid implementation of the idea.
  • People that use it.

For the best chance of success, you need to identify the smallest core of your idea that has value to your potential users, build only that, and release it.  This “minimum viable product” or MVP serves as the ultimate idea testing ground.  It lets you build a relatively inexpensive version of your idea, test it with real users, and measure adoption.

Investors see a lot of ideas, which is why they won’t sign an NDA (your idea is not original, no matter what you think). But if you have a team that has delivered products in the past, worked through adversity, and has a failure or two to learn from, then the investor can see a group of people who will protect his investment, and has demonstrated the skills to do so.

So No. An idea will not get you funded.

To be investible, a start-up needs to have a good product-market fit and the potential to scale up quickly to a large market. It needs to be defensible with intellectual property or some other competitive advantage. And it needs to have a credible team in place, people who investors will believe can execute. And there needs to be some kind of proof, also called validation, also called traction.

Building an early prototype also helps you attract tech talent, because it gives people something to look at and play with, and it communicates your idea in a more “tangible” form. Then you can shop it around to potential technical co-founders to get them excited about your vision. If you have the means to actually build a working prototype, so much the better!

Most Angel Investors (and VCs) won’t pay much attention these days without some other sign of traction, especially because the financial and technical barriers to entry are getting lower and lower. Bootstrapped to Angeled_To_Raise_Seed_Capital 2

Additionally, the current market size doesn’t matter. The market size in 10 years is what really matters. You want to be in a small but rapidly growing market. You can change everything in your start-up except the market. So spend a lot of time up front to make sure you’ve thought through your market. “Having value” and “being fundable” are two completely different things.

Two of the most valuable things that the investor community seems to have been seeing from close quarters are: customer feedback and data from pilot research, which can enable them ask questions that lead to product breakthroughs. Angel Investors would need to know how your idea has improved to a bit more than a fledged product wireframe, so that their willingness to invest into those ideas via money, and social reach can increase to ensure that the success of your product is further defines by cutting-edge product development process.

Following guidance is thus seems to have gained ground and immovable traction for all the aspiring entrepreneurs who are progressing from a Bootstrapping channels to Angeled funding:

  • Be value-driven rather than fund-driven
  • Be independent of technologies that make you lose control over your idea
  • Make the customer a base for your product than profit
  • Base your ideas on supply and demand and not on the money it can attract

Once again, this isn’t a strict definition, but the seed round is normally used to fund the initial stage of your company where you’re finding product/market fit, and the following rounds are meant to help with scaling. That said, the road from concept to readiness (aka product MVP) is long and winding. Entrepreneurs’ single greatest challenge in this sphere of activity is balancing bursting creativity with structured, method-driven decision making.

 

3 Marketing Hacks for Bootstrapped Entrepreneurs

If I say “the startup scene in India has taken off in a big way”, it’s probably the biggest understatement of this year! Startups are sprouting from every corner of this country fueled by big success stories. An eager online and print media are doing their best to fan the flames of entrepreneurship. That’s why India has now the third largest base of Startups in the world.

The glamour of starting a company masks a truly challenging task that every brave entrepreneur will confront and that is “how do you market your product idea in a highly competitive marketplace?”. If you are bootstrapping your company and have limited or no seed funding to rely on, you have even more challenges to deal with.

Assuming you have done the basics right, namely, identified a gap in the market that you can address or tap a unmet need and your target market has the required scale to fuel rapid growth for your product, the million Dollar question is how do you market your product or idea without spending money!

Let me narrate my own entrepreneurial journey. I started Jodi Logik in September 2015 with my own money. Till end of February 2016, Jodi Logik was a bootstrapped company and only recently a couple of individuals chose to invest to push my idea to the next level. For over 6-months, I was on my own but managed to move things along in terms of marketing without spending a single Rupee. Let me share 3 lessons I have learnt in my 6-month journey in terms of driving product marketing without spending money.

Lesson #1: Good karma pays off

One of the easiest thing an entrepreneur can do is to help others and let good karma pay you back! Let me explain this idea. Let’s say you have an idea to sell mangoes online. You can just set up an ecommerce site for your mangoes. However in order to attract customers, you will need to spend a lot of money advertising your site through the internet or traditional media outlets. To further compound the problem, you will have to deal with other sites selling mangoes! You will have to outspend your competition even if you are convinced that your mangoes are better than that of your competition!

There is a simple way to get your name out without burning cash.

People are looking for answers and that’s one of the reasons Google exists. As an entrepreneur selling mangoes, all you have to do is to find and answer questions people have about mangoes!

The first thing an entrepreneur should do to get started with product marketing is to seek questions that your target customers have about your product or product category and make sure you make a genuine effort to provide the best answer possible.

Here is an example of what I did. The target audience for my company include young Indians who are single. Jodi Logik offers an online solution to create a biodata for marriage and hence my area of interest was to answer questions from single Indians about marriages, arranged marriages, love marriages, dating and relationships.

So here is what I did. I was already a member of Quora and it has millions of users and a lot of them are young Indians. I quickly figured out that there were plenty of questions on the topics that fall squarely in my product category and the quality of answers for many of the questions that I consider as important were below par. I decided to invest my time in answering as many questions as I can on Quora and in 6-months, the number of views for my answers have grown significantly as seen below.

Quora
Figure 1: Answering questions on Q&A sites is good for business!

When you answer questions on Q&A sites like Quora, Yahoo Answers or in Discussion Forums, make sure you follow these guidelines:

  1. Provide a high quality response. Do your homework before answering anything. Providing an in-depth and meaningful response is always appreciated.
  2. Don’t try to pitch your product. Try answering the question genuinely.
  3. Don’t take a holier than thou stance even if the question is really “bad” or poorly framed.
  4. Don’t get into heated debates with anyone over your responses or someone else’s response.
  5. Humour always helps.
  6. Remain consistent. Find time every week to contribute to the community.

Here is a simple thing you can do on Quora. Create a headline that includes your brand! Every time you answer a question, you give your brand some free publicity and potential traffic!

An added bonus in answering questions is that you become very aware of your target customer’s need and expectations from the product category you are interested in and this feeds directly into your product road-map!

If you are selling a B2B product, LinkedIn and Industry forums / sites are a great place to demonstrate your competence and showcase your unique take on the subject matter.

Lesson #2: Cost of creating great content is ZERO

Google is a great leveler! It provides anyone (with access to the Internet of course) the same information on any topic and this is a boon for bootstrapped entrepreneurs. All you have to do is to create great content that people would love to read and share and see traffic to your site grow organically!

While I am still in the early days of launching a company, I decided to focus on creating great content in addition to a great product. I shared the content I created in two ways:

  1. Started writing detailed blog posts on topics that my target customers were interested about.
  2. Created in-depth guides to help my target customers and made it available free of cost.

Jodilogik

Guess how much I spent to do both? A big, fat zero. But, it’s not easy. Here are the challenges I overcame to create awesome content:

  • I worked almost 14 hours a day including weekends. I was obsessed with publishing once every day for 5 days a week. This went on for over four months. I dialed it back significantly after that and I will explain why later.
  • I had to go through a crash course on content marketing as I was new to online marketing for a consumer product. All my experiences were in the B2B space!
  • I did not have a co-founder who could share my burden and could not initially afford to hire a professional content writer.

Luckily, I was good at a few things that really helped me:

  • I was good at finding answers for questions and giving it my own spin.
  • I have a decent command over grammar and storytelling.
  • I was obsessed with creating great content!

The reason I listed the challenges and my skillset above is that every entrepreneur is different. Some are good at churning out content and some are good at churning out code. But there is one key trait every successful entrepreneur has – i.e. to craft and sell stories! This is a skill that every entrepreneur should develop and improve upon. Irrespective of your own skills, here are some free tools and resources I leveraged to churn out great content:

  1. Read the Quick Sprout Blog from Neil Patel
  2. Read Brian Dean’s Blog
  3. Read HubSpot’s marketing blog
  4. Start using Canva to create awesome images that will supplement your content
  5. Install the Grammarly plugin for Google Chrome to make sure everything you publish is free from grammar errors
  6. Learn to work with WordPress. It’s free and a great platform to launch your awesome content
  7. Familiarize yourself with basic SEO concepts and analyzing keywords for your content
  8. Learn to use Google Analytics to track how your content is performing

Recently, I published a post on The TechPanda listing 11 free tools that every bootstrapped entrepreneur should use.

In summary, it doesn’t cost you anything to create great content as long as you are willing to put in the effort. At least in the beginning, great content is one of the primary requirements to build traffic to your website and you can do it free of cost.

Lesson #3: Unleash your hidden PR skills

While it is true that great content on your website can drive traffic, it’s not that simple. For a while, I was under the impression that churning out great content will get me noticed on Google. Boy! I was wrong. I had great content going up on my blog page every day of the week but traffic was just trickling in and the expected take off never really happened. There is nothing more demotivating than to see your effort are not producing the results you expected.

The reason is simple. Even great content requires a vehicle to be delivered to your target audience. Let me explain a few lessons I learnt on the topic of getting the word out about your content or product.

  • If you are bootstrapping your company, you cannot afford a PR agency. Don’t waste time talking to any agency of any kind! Believe me. I already wasted my time.
  • Hiring a PR agency makes sense when you have traction in terms of customer acquisition and product engagement. Premature publicity can kill your product if you are not ready.
  • You need to back yourself to tell a story about your company or product at every available platform. Here are some simple ways of getting word out about your Startup that worked for me:
    • Use job boards such as Hasjob to advertise for any freelance positions you may have. I used Hasjob to hire UI designers and front-end developers for my product. Advertising for open positions (even if it’s just freelance positions) creates a good impression. Oh! Did I tell you it’s free?
    • Write guest posts on high quality sites. The idea of writing a guest post is not to gain publicity, but to build credibility and reputation. This one article I wrote for Youth Ki Awaaz created a lot of traffic for my site although I had no intention of driving traffic! Reach out to site owners proactively and offer to write. Everybody loves good content and you don’t have to pay anyone to write a guest post.
    • Partner with experts who can share useful insights that your potential customers will love! In my case, I reached out to top notch wedding photographers and I am already working on creating exclusive content that my audience will love. The advantage of this approach is that in addition to getting exclusive content, you can also leverage the expert’s network to get your name out! The key question you need to ask yourself before approaching an expert is “What is that you can offer them in return?”. If you think hard, you will invariably find a compelling answer!
    • Use Facebook groups to your advantage. One simple way to create some publicity for your brand would be identify active and large Facebook groups that may be interested in the awesome content you have created. Sharing relevant content with the right groups will certainly give you some free exposure. For example, if you have awesome content on how your mangoes can make a great mango lassi, try sharing it with a Facebook foodie group. Just remember to read about the group rules before you share your content!
  • If you follow the lessons I learnt in point 3 above, you will reap one more reward. Every time your company name gets mentioned or a backlink to your company is created on other sites, Google will attach a greater importance to your site and that’s good for boosting traffic to your website!

I am already seeing an uptick in traffic to my site. Check out the 6-month site traffic data for Jodi Logik here. Notice how increased focus on promotion in the last three months is boosting the numbers. For a first-time entrepreneur like me, seeing the steady uptick in traffic to my product with no external assistance is encouraging.

Google Analytics

In summary, the three lessons I have learnt in the last 6-months has given me greater appreciation of the fact that the Internet is a great leveler! You don’t have to be a marketing wiz kid nor do you need an army of digital marketing experts to get your brand off the ground. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can certainly kick start your marketing campaign for your Startup at no cost! Of course, I have provided only high-level information but will be glad to share in-depth insights. I look forward to your comments

Guest Post by Srinivas Krishnaswamy, Jodi Logik

Cracking a niche B2B market without funding: Valuefy’s Story

Valuefy was started in 2010 to empower fund houses to make informed decisions better and faster. Vivek Singal, a B.Tech from IIT Bombay and Sharad Singh, an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad worked together at Fractal Analytics, an analytics firm, before starting Valuefy.

On choosing to build a product like this, Vivek shares, “When we chose our niche, which was a B2B product for such a specific market, at the time when eCommerce was growing, it took a lot of faith. It was a slow journey, but definitely a profitable journey. Our clients have been very sticky and we are collectively helping manage over 100 billion dollars worth of funds at this point.“

Cracking B2B market without funding: Valuefy

Here are some excerpts from a conversation with Vivek:

Where did the story of Valuefy start?

VS: “Whole science around the portfolio management is a very niche play. Valuefy has been serving Indian players so far. To give you an idea, we are servicing 2 of the top 3 fund houses of the country. We have cemented our place in an Indian market.

We picked up analytics as a domain since number crunching was our forte, coming from our experience with Fractal Analytics. We were intrigued to find the frameworks and algorithms that helped the fund houses make decisions. We wanted to understand if there was any tool that they were using to decompose their performance, analyse returns, and understand what are the drivers.

There are some large global organizations that were working in this area, but they didn’t seem to respond to the change in technology to create more sophisticated agile tools. So they were placed as a middle office tool, but not a decision-making tool.“

What were your major road blocks in your journey, and how did you overcome them?

VS: “First off, it is very difficult to do a product strategy in this kind of a market. Our clients are very comfortable with excel as a tool where they can manage their reports on an ad-hoc basis, even though it can only give 10% of the information. Our study says that 60% of a fund manager’s time goes in understanding and processing the data which leaves them with very little time to analyse the performance and the portfolio. The problem is that they are so used to it, that it is very difficult to break this pattern and bring the adoption of technology amongst the fund managers.

Second, when we started, the markets were not favouring our product. We realized that the bigger clients were more open to it. Also, we think the international customers would have been more open to the product but the markets were slow.”

What goes into marketing such a niche product?

VS: “

  1. We have created a global advisory board. It includes people who have experience in the domain, people from our competition, also, people from the academia who are helping us with it.
  2. We have formed some key partnerships with global conglomerates. It helps as a marketing platform as well as a distribution channel.
  3. We started as a hosted product, but we have grown it into a SaaS based model, which has made it simple for us to integrate with the global companies and this will help sustain our global expansion.”

What is your advice to people who want to startup? 

VS:”

  1. Identify the market correctly. We served the Indian market for a very long time. While our market was global, we spent a lot of time on Indian markets first. So you will need to take the decision and define your market.
  2. Get the connect to the market. While you may be good at creating something, but a venture needs both a good product and good marketing and sales. So plan accordingly.
  3. Keep faith in your journey until you decide that you have given a fair chance to it.

People become a pendulum between deciding whether revenue generation is more important or increasing the valuation is more important. While valuations are sexier, I think if you want a sustainable growth and a strong business model, revenue generation helps create that solid foundation.”

Valuefy has definitely established that B2B businesses focussing on revenue generation and profitability can create a sustain an enviable growth. We wish Vivek and his team all the luck in their journey.

The Bootstrapper’s Dilemma

You have an idea, and you start up. Then you quit your job, and pursue it full-time. What follows next is the quintessential dilemma of a startup founder — “Should I raise money now?” Unless you have a machine that mints money, you will find yourself wondering about it in your startup journey. In mine, I reached stages where I had questions in my mind to which raising money was one of the answers.

You Have An Idea And It Needs Investment

You have an idea which you need to transform into a functional product. You will need resources for that. Times have changed, and nowadays, investors rarely prefer to invest in startups in the idea stage. Having a fabulous idea is not enough; it’s the successful implementation of the idea that eggs the investors on to invest in you. Raising money in the idea stage is not entirely impossible, though. You might still stand a chance if you have graduated from an Ivy league college, have a great work experience, or have built a successful startup previously.

If you have a prototype ready, you can always pitch to the investors. Raising money from your friends and family is also an option, but I’m strongly against it.

My story: I did not have to hire someone to develop the first version of our product, or outsource it as I was a software developer myself. Moreover, my savings came to my aid as I was working part-time to sustain myself. So, I coded the app and launched it in February, 2010 while I was still working.

You Have A Product And A Question: Make Money Or Raise Money?

Pull all your PR strings at the time of your product launch as this is the only thing that will fetch you your first batch of users. If your product exceeds users’ expectations, you will not need to spend money on marketing it. You can take a cue from WhatsApp, Slack or even my own product, Crowdfire. However, you will definitely require money to incur operational and other expenses to keep the product up and running. That’s when you have to either find ways to make money, or raise money.

After 6 months of starting up, Crowdfire had reached a point where the server charges had eaten up almost all of my savings, and we needed to make money somehow in order to survive. I realised that there were only two ways to do it — look for funding or find a way to monetise the product. Back then, I had no connections within the investor community. Besides, raising money is a full-time task, and I was already juggling my day job as well as my startup.

With no other alternative in sight, I decided to go ahead and monetise my product.

Now the thing is, if you’re a consumer product, making money can be difficult in the beginning because charging users before they even use the product might not be the best idea. However, if your target audience is not the consumers, i.e., you have a B2B model, and you want to make a viable business out of it, you should totally monetise it. We monetised Crowdfire and decided to go the freemium way.

Do You Have The Money To Put Together An A-Team?

People are using your product, but you would want to grow it. There will, again, come a point when you (and your teammates or co-founder) will realise that you want more — to level up and build a company. You need people in order to build a company. Finding people of your tribe, people who are willing to take the risk of an early stage startup is tougher than you can ever imagine. In 2012, I quit my job and went full-time with Crowdfire because it was making me more money than my job was. Moreover, I made my co-founder quit his job too, and together the two of us decided that it was time to build a company. We had 600K users back then, and only one thing in mind: To build the best marketing product. We met investors, and even got the term sheet. However, there was a catch: The investors offered us $ 500,000 and in turn set a target in front of us — to reach 5 million users in 24 months. With the amount of money offered, the target seemed almost unachievable. After a lot of discussions, we decided that if we were to go down, we might as well do so without wasting the investors’ money. To us, it was a risk not worth the rewards that it offered. And 15 months later, as a bootstrapped startup we had 7 million users, and a revenue of over million dollars. If not money, we did take a big lesson away with us during our first tryst with the investors: The first step to success is to aim high.

It’s Time To Go All Out And Capture The Market

For some of you, raising money may have been the answer in the third stage itself. Looking back, we realised that we didn’t really need the money back then, and hence, going for funding just for the heck of it would have been disastrous.

After a point, even great traction doesn’t seem good enough. Fast isn’t fast enough. You want greater traction, and faster progress. Even though we were making enough money to sustain ourselves, the revenue wasn’t enough to fuel our growth. On top of it, we wanted to shed our image as a “follow-unfollow feature” as we had surpassed that stage long ago. It was evident that external funding was needed to fuel our product growth as well as help us increase our market share.

In February, 2015, we raised a Series A funding of $ 2.5 million from Kalaari Capital. It’s been a year, and we’ve just released the beta version of Crowdfire 2.0 — your marketing assistant on iOS (you can get early access here), and I’ve never felt prouder of my team. Crowdfire 2.0 is going to help small businesses like e-sellers, cafe owners, bloggers, authors, youtubers, influencers, photographers, freelancers and startups market themselves by being their marketing assistant. These small businesses would not be at a disadvantage anymore for lack of a marketing team compared to big businesses that can afford one.

We’re just getting started. But, there’s one thing that I firmly believe in. Stay bootstrapped for as long as you can. In Paul Graham’s words:

Don’t raise money unless you want it and it wants you.

Guest Post by Nischal Shetty, CrowdFire

A perspective on Entrepreneurial Independence

‪To me, entrepreneurship‬ is a dynamic manifestation of creating connected values with compassion; so I focus on creating connected values without worrying for my funding orientation.

When I started, after coming out of Sun Microsystems, I was not thinking about money as I was able to get some money by helping people who were using the product that I built at Sun. I did not know what it takes to build a company and more so, what it takes to build it in a constrained environment. In the meantime, I developed a passion for the bootstrapping model for building company. I created a community around it called “Bootstrap Bangalore”, it’s been 3 years we have been meeting every other Sunday at breakfast.

Later on, I was introduced to another powerful tool called “effectuation”. I attended a workshop conducted by Professor Saras Saraswathi. The effectuation principles are simple and empowers bootstrapped companies more meaningfully. This has become a language for me to express my business model. The effectual principles help an aspiring entrepreneur to bootstrap quickly. It also makes it easy to navigate the future, which is unknown.

Fear is a constraint, and at times, courage can become a constraint as well. Starting with what was available to me when I begun (and acting on it), has given me amazing new possibilities. Understanding my affordable loss allows me to be courageous or passive, as the situations demand. As a result, I don’t have the fear of  failing; and if I do fail, I will be able to reassemble myself since the cost of failure is affordable.   

Predicting the future is unnecessary. The future can be created or co-created without predicting it, if we have the ability to embrace surprises and adjust to a  new situation. Sometimes, external funding could become a constraint for the entrepreneurs, and force them to predict and gamble in an unnatural manner, without an affordable framework in place.

Unnecessary courage and prediction without commitment does not enable freedom. When taking external funds, one should look deep to see whether the investor has the appetite or commitment to co-create the future, and therefore expanding affordable loss bracket. I don’t believe in a wave on my back, that’s just a feel good factor. I hate to go after an artificially created market without the commitment from the consumers. When customers don’t know what they want, they go slow and iterate to identify what they may need.

Taking external money eventually turns out to be expensive for any entrepreneur. If you can build and scale a company on revenue, there is nothing more satisfying than that; but in the same time if you must need to increase your affordable loss bracket, you can take external funds to scale up. Don’t take money simply because your competitor is raising money. On the contrary, external money does not necessary mean you are loosing freedom, but if you take the money when you don’t need it, you will eventually compromise on your freedom.

As we talk, about models and funding orientations, I would also like to quickly touch another important subject. Sales is one of the most critical challenges for any entrepreneur, and especially the bootstrapped ones. I was very fortunate to interact with sales gurus like Deepak Prakash (Former VP Tally), who helped me to understand yet another simple thing – don’t sell; demonstrate what you have or what you can do; if you are solving someone’s problem they will buy. And that has worked for us.

Finally, the best way to build a business without depending on external money is to seek commitment from the customers –  sell it before you build it. Be open, and allow others to help you in co-creating a company/product. Collaborate to create connected values. Again follow the first principle of effectuation, do what you can do now, without depending on others, look for participation from there on. Freedom is in your hand and it’s up to you make that choice.

Enjoy the freedom of creating value, that can bring impact and meaningful change.

Hope you had a wonderful Independence Day!! Let’s celebrate the freedom throughout the year and reimagine a “Start-Up India”, “Stand-Up India”. Jai Hind !!

By Ahimanikya Satapathy, assisted by my daughter, Adya Satapathy 🙂

I have Sold My Startup

I had started InBoundio in Jan 2013. After doing lot of freelancing, services and building casual hobby products, this was my first serious attempt in building a web product and business. This also made me took a dive into core technology as earlier I only had surface knowledge of technology. It did well and got reasonable success. We did plenty of iterations with product feature and pricing and we did got good number of inquiries about white label marketing software.

Since I am building AeroLeads too, it was difficult to focus on 2 products hence after 6 months of talks with many businesses, I have sold my startup InBoundio to an Australian Media company c9.

The last 2 years were fun in terms of learning and experience and now I have both as well as some cash, so now I will be using all this to grow current product much faster.

Learning and Experience

1. It was little tiring since I did all the work of talking and communicating with people. Though it was rewarding too since now I understand complete business cycle as well as understand complete technology and marketing stack of a business. I was also able to understand what are the metrics which a buyer look for. Saying this, I am very sure I am done selling businesses for a long time since it don’t excite me. Building businesses to sell it is also not a good business model.

2. It is not easy to sell your startup sitting in India to someone in other countries. Trust is a major problem as no one know each other. This also means you will only appeal to buyers who are looking to buy in certain price range to minimize risk for them.

3. I have seen many Indian businesses who go under the radar getting sold in 1M USD range through business brokers. If you think you can sell your business in this range, you should look to engage with brokers who have the right network. Do note that you will get valuation in multipliers of 2x-5x range which is the industry standard for web businesses. It can be 10x if the buyer sees real growth potential but don’t expect 20x or such valuation which rarely happens. Being realistic is important.

4. You can get much higher valuation if you are willing to work with the new buyer for few years, do partnerships or take some money now and rest later. At the end of the day, everyone wants to mitigate risk.

I had few such proposals but for me, it wasn’t about money, I knew it could get messy as it is not easy to partner someone in different country so went with outright sale.

5. The whole process is time consuming and can take 3-6 months. Make sure you don’t rush and covers legal aspect of transferring ownership and assets.

6. Prospective buyers will always look for these 3 parameters. If your startup have them, you should be fine, if not, you will find it difficult to make the calls.

i. Growth Potential
ii. Minimum liability
iii. Existing revenue

Where to find buyers for your Startups and Businesses

1. LinkedIn – I contacted lot of businesses founders on linkedIn using inmail and got good response. Few of them showed interest but it was also the issue of “not having enough paying customers”. If you want businesses in similar vertical to acquire you, remember that most of them only look for paying customers and not for technology.

2. Business Brokers – There are plenty of business brokers and firms who help you selling businesses in 500k to 10M range. They take about 10-15% fees and for someone in India, if you think you have the above 3 (growth, minimum liability and revenue), you should talk to them as this reduces risk, cut down your time/effort and speeds up communication.

Feel free to message me If you need some advice or if you think I can help you. I can be reached at “pushkar.gaikwad at gmail dot com” or through linkedIn.

11 tips for Bootstrapping your startup

The Bootstrap Ride

There are many paths to successfully bootstrapping a start-up. The trick is finding the way that works best for you. Now more than two years into my journey, I want to share a few lessons I wish I had learned earlier.

I would like to share a few tips from my experiences of bootstrapping an international startup. I want to speak the reality I experienced, my personal opinions, and I do not intend to contradict what others from the industry have said. I only mean to share what I have learnt from my B2B start-up experience within my business context.

Starting-up: Find a problem that exist in a considerably large scale and is solvable. Ideate solutions that could make lives easier. A problem could exist anywhere — in your current job or existing business models. People may or may not know about it. Develop a market need. Don’t build a start-up in view of a million dollar exit. Be obsessive about what you do, aim higher, execute mid-long term plans and take it higher.

Office: You don’t need a flashy office to start with. Work from home, Starbucks & co-working spaces. It’s alright to work from anywhere as long you have a seat, decent connectivity and fewer interruptions. When you set up the office, design it with bright colours and lots of natural light. Adopt a hybrid infrastructure of open workspace & cubicles. At some point in time, when you turn profitable with adequate cash balance and have a strong cash flow — consider owning an office instead of renting. It helps to save significant dollars in the long run and build company assets.

Team building: If you have an idea that you believe in and you have the skills, get started immediately. A few dont’s:

  • Don’t wait on a perfect team and plan to get going; such a thing does not exist.
  • Don’t be fascinated about rank holders, high percentile college degrees and flattery resumes.
  • Don’t do meaningless interview rounds and tests.

A co-founder is not a must-have. Look for freelancers & part time workers to help you get on the road. What matters the most is if the candidate can do your job, whether has the right attitude that fits within your company culture and goals. Give part-time work; engage to get more comfortable before offering the job. Look for skilled human capital available at low cost economies and build your teams internationally. Communicate efficiently, be transparent and set the expectations clearly.

Product: Build products that could be desirable and likeable for large, yet targeted audience. There is nothing wrong with taking a legacy business model, apply modern science and improvise it to create a new business. Change is inevitable; there is always a market for disruptive solutions. Once started, run faster and not ever stop innovating it more.

Go-to-Market: Know your buyers. Short-list them, study their potential business needs corresponding to your products and prioritize accordingly. Approach them with tailored messaging. Focus on showcasing customer benefits, NOT product features. Buyers only care how you can solve their problems not your badges in the sales pitch deck. Plan to be global from day-1. Build your products and company culture for global scale. Gaining market traction should be top priority. Constantly engage with prospective buyers, form a customer council to validate your products and gather market feedbacks regularly to improve your product road map.

PR: Winning new customers is the biggest award and growing your business profitably is the best coverage for startups. Don’t waste your time on pitching into media and investing with PR agencies. Instead, use your website and social media channels to shamelessly self-promote your company, products, case studies and thought leadership. Your prospects won’t buy from you because media covers you and you are popular — they will invest in you if you have a good product with proven benefits and referencable customers. Your company will become popular if your products are useful. Grow your company with disruptive products, global customers and an innovative team. Create newer jobs and give back to the society — let journalists bump into you.

Fund raising: Think of external capital only if you need it. Be sure about why you need the money, investment plan and projected outcome. Do your homework on who you want to partner with. Convince yourself with realistic valuation of your company and practical terms you want to work with; stick to it. Be honest in your pitch deck and fund raising approach. Investors are expected to do their home work too, so don’t be afraid to correct them. If they say ‘Grand ma should understand your business’, and you don’t sell into such audience, tell them openly. Avoid investors looking for start-up lottery. Instead, find backers who promote innovation and entrepreneurship. You can’t do an enterprise startup investor pitch in 3 minutes. Stay away from 3 minutes pitching gimmicks, it’s a ticket selling tactics for startup media events. You can easily find the VC communities from Google search. Pick up the phone and call them or send them an email. Use LinkedIn & leverage reference contacts. It’s at the best, if you build your company with market traction and proven products to be in a position to choose from whom you wanted to take money, if and when you need it.

Networking: Start-up events are trendy and fashionable these days. There is a lot of noise and smoke out there. Be smart to rise above the noise. Don’t compare yours with other startups. Don’t be too excited about showy startup media. Be selective in networking events and look for agendas that can give you key take-away for your business. Remember, your ultimate goal is not to build a worldwide network of know-who, but to know those few who can complement to build your company. Invest your networking time wisely. Not all great companies are built out of startup accelerators. Many successful companies are bootstrapped, built from garages and bedrooms. Startup media publications make most of their money from their event tickets, hackathons etc. It’s severely hyped up. Be practical and selective.

Mentors: Surround yourself with like-minded people who can inspire you and give guidance; people who can introduce you to customers, partners and investors. Build an advisory board that could help you establish your network & connect with right people and open doors to money. Advisers should be fluid, review and make changes at different stages of your start-up journey.

Social: Associate yourself with entrepreneur community. Share your experience and learning with aspiring start-up entrepreneurs. Volunteer in community development projects in small ways you can. Creating new jobs through your start-up is the best contribution you can offer to the prosperity of humanity. Build a company culture to help others and give back.

Personal: Be prepared to sacrifice, compromise and tolerate. Improve your patience level as much as possible. Don’t bring emotional sentiments in customer situations. Make friends with clients. Engage in some sports. Fall in love with everything around you. Never shut down. Travel the world, it makes you richer. Stay humble.

Bootstrapping – Imagining the possible new with evolving means

“Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” refers to 19th century high-top boots that were pulled on by tugging at the ankle strap. It generally means doing something on your own, without any outside help. In the present day context, bootstrapping is a commonly used term used to describe startups that rather than seeking help from external investors, an entrepreneur fund the development of their company through their own money or  internal cash flow.

At a time when funding has become more a norm in the startup world than a necessity, it is common to see startups go investor-hunting even when the ‘brilliant idea’ is still at a concept stage. They have nothing to substantiate their claims before investors – no product, no customer, no traction. For some this is a new job category.

It is startups like these that need to understand that funding is not the only way forward. Bootstrapping, can be a very powerful alternative to create a more impactful company. Sometimes, a hybrid model might be more effective, where the entrepreneur could bootstrap for an initial period of time and only take external funds when the business is ready to scale. We wonder then, why most entrepreneurs these days fear to tread this path and settle for the seemingly easy route of seeking angel investors and VCs!

 

Someone has very rightly said, “Raising capital is not equal to success, not raising is not equal to failure.” One should understand that funding does NOT guarantee success. Also, it is important to realize that when growth occurs faster than the business model that supports it, the result is an increased likelihood of ending up in that disappointing majority.

There are many successful bootstrapped companies across the globe, including India. According to iSPIRT – the Indian ‘Think Tank’ that is actively helping and promoting Indian product companies to make India a product nation, 73% of the Indian software product companies are bootstrapped. It recently came out with an interesting Index – India Software Products Industry Index – B2B (iSPIxB2B) to highlight some surprising facts about the Indian B2B software product companies. According to the data collected, the enterprise value of the top 30 companies dealing in the B2B software product space is $6.2 bn (₹37,500 crores) and about 37% of these companies are bootstrapped.

As a matter of fact, even VCs prefer to back bootstrapped companies to those with early angel investment. They would much rather invest in a startup where the entrepreneur’s own money is at stake as well, since it shows the amount of confidence he/she has in the product or idea. There’s no denying that while it is easy to play with someone else’s money, no one wants to play with their own money unless they truly believe that they can make it work.

Bootstrapping forces entrepreneurs to constantly think about cash flow, which in turn forces them to become customer focused and create value. It forces entrepreneurs to become effectual, where the entrepreneurs navigate their journey to co-create the future that does not exist today.

Fundraising is a time-taking process and especially for early stage startups it can be a dangerous thing to dedicate so much time on meeting investors or preparing pitches, so much so, that you lose focus on your product and your customers. If you are self- funded in the initial days, you won’t have to make rapid decisions that you repent later. You can always raise funds in the future, once the foundation of the business is stable and you are ready to scale up.

Sometimes, growing slow is better. Specifically when there is a lot that is unknown; but once you find a direction, it will become easier to run faster; and then the need for external funds becomes more appropriate.

Once you have something more concrete to show to the investors after you have developed the product; tested it; and generated substantial traction – chances of getting valued will certainly be more. Moreover, you will be in a better position to bargain and negotiate the deal on your terms.

The decision to go down the road of bootstrapping and create a self-funding business has been known to provide rewards that can be both immediate and lasting. Many of the successful companies that we see today – Dell Computers, Facebook, Apple and eBay to name a few, had humble beginnings as bootstrapped enterprises. It clearly reiterates that funding is not a norm for success and as far as you can go solo, you should. Remember – customer money is the cheapest money that you get.

There is no right or wrong way; the fact remains you need funds to run a business and as an entrepreneur, the funding orientation is a choice that you will have to make. One should understand that every business is unique and demands different resources to build and operate it. Do a quick assessment for your reasons in seeking funding from an investor – big or small, angel or first/ second round of funding. You need to look at many other factors such as the industry type/ business you are into, the kind of working capital required, competition, opportunities of scaling up etc. Carefully analyze the pros and cons and then choose the path that is suitable for your business.

Remember not to be lured by the halo attached to the big funding news that is generating headlines in all the pinkies. You can go solo, yet achieve the same ‘stardom’ while retaining full control of your dream venture. However, simply put – ask for funding when you are ready to scale big time.

‪To me, entrepreneurship‬ is a dynamic manifestation of creating connected values with compassion; so focus on creating connected values regardless of your funding orientation.

How to Build a Startup in India – Complete Guide

In last 4 years, I have built 3 startups and multiple products, some did well, some didn’t. Currently I am building AeroLeads which is a prospect generation software, before this, I built InBoundio and before it WorkMonk (now shut down). In between, I took few short and one long break (of one year). With all this experience, I have learnt a lot about how to build a business, about technology, marketing, sales and finances.

When I was starting, I made lot of mistakes and wasted lot of time in doing things which were counter productive or didn’t align with building and growing a business. I also made lot of mistakes from technology and hiring people too. So I thought to write a Complete Guide on How to Build a Startup in India. I am sharing all what I have seen and learnt from my mistakes and what you can do to avoid them.

1. Idea and What to build

Do what you want to do. I am a firm believer in this as the startups require lot of hard work and if you are not having fun and doing what you find it exciting, you will soon lose motivation.

Ideally you want to start from a pain point and see what solution you can build. It will be good if that is a problem faced by many as this will determine your market size. There is also “sell Antibiotic and Not Vitamins” concept as people only pay for antibiotics, not for vitamins.

Almost all the startups (at least the successful ones) are built around a solution for a problem. Do not create artificial problems as it is easy to have tunnel vision as a startup founder.

Also almost always people start with something else and end up building something else after few failures and iterations.

2. Team

Going solo is stupid and suicidal. I know because I am a single founder. Always have a co-founder who will share pain, expenses, problems and work load. Normally college friends become the best co-founders. Founding team of 2-3 is best. I have seen teams which are too big often split up later and ends up as 2-3 founder company anyway. You can have your brother/spouse as co-founder too but make sure he/she shares the responsibility. Way too many people add directors/co-founders for name sake which creates false illusion of someone being there.

Build your core team based on character and not on skills since skills can be build easily, character can’t. Make sure you like these people and enjoy working with them since you will be spending 50% of your awake time with them.

3. How to start

You are better of starting from your home. Don’t jump taking office, furniture, startup branding material, forming company etc. These things are not important initially. Way too too many startup founders make this mistake and loses focus. When time and money are at scarcity, use it wisely.

Spend all your time and resources on building and selling. Don’t bother about fancy office, furniture, stationery, t-shirts and even registering company. These can be dealt with later.

Whether to register a private limited company or not is your choice. My opinion on it keeps on changing but I feels if there are multiple co-founders and partners, you should register a private limited company. You can get it done for around 20k. Do get proper partnership agreements done too.

Initially you may want to pool some money and keep it in your bank account say 5 lakh which can use to pay bills too. Such buffer amount is needed so you don’t have to keep using your personal funds which will make tracking expenses difficult.

4. Technology

One of the founder has to understand technology. Way too many startups fail because of bad technical decision specially choosing wrong technology stack (I have done it). Ask others what is the best option for you. As few more people. This is one thing which has huge cost of failure involved. Don’t just chose something because this is all you know. You can spend 3 months learning something which will be far more beneficial so be open for it.

Also do not do premature scaling. Don’t buy costly servers and start talking about scaling with you have few hundred records and your product don’t even need that. Don’t use technology just because it is cool. Using AWS, angular, node.js is fine but may be overkill if all you need is $10/month hosting and a web framework which supports crud operation.

Do explore all the options and do keep things like how easy it is to find developers, in what salary range, what kind of support is available, how active is the developer community etc. Never chose a technology stack just because it is cool.

4. How to Hire ?

There is no silver bullet, the best of the best I have seen makes hiring mistakes. Ideally you want to do inbound hiring. Let people come to you by hearing about you and your startup. This often brings ownership and commitment.

I have rarely seen finding your core members from Naukri or Monster working out for any startup. HasJobs, Startup Facebook Groups, LinkedIn/Twitter, Company career page on the hand has worked much better for me and others.

Don’t go for the resume screening too. Just talk to them and look what they can bring now and in future as well. Always prefer character over skill as skill can be build in few months, character can’t. Hiring a wrong person will be a huge liability in terms of time, money and resources invested, not to mention asking someone to leave is never easy for anyone so be very careful in hiring and always keep 3-6 months screening/trial period.

5. How to Raise Funding ?

Back in 2011, I had spent 3 months trying to raise funding. There wasn’t really much to show, there was no product or team and I was extremely hyper. I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to raise and the number kept on fluctuating from $200k to $1M on daily basis.

Needless to say, I couldn’t raise anything but still I did learnt some very valuable lessons by getting rejected from every VC and angel investors of India. DO NOT chase them, let them chase you. There are plenty of associates hanging out on linkedIn and who reads YourStory and NextBigWhat so if you are doing good, they will contact you. Raising Funding is a two sided market and investors values good startups and will quick to jump on to you if they see value.

From what I have seen, do not raise anything below 50 lakh. It is not worth diluting or going through the hassle of issuing stocks for small amounts. Normally with just 6-8 people, your burn rate will be 5 lakh per month at least so 50 lakh is a minimum (this is what I have seen in Bangalore). If you can raise more initially, even better as raising money is a huge pain and sucks time and energy.

Don’t be attached too many feelings and emotions with funding though, some of the biggest and successful tech product companies in India are bootstrapped and there are businesses which are family run. If you are not able to to make things move in 3 months, move on. Raising money is not your primary job, building a business is.

6. Finances

If you are running a private limited company, make sure you keep your finances clean. All the data for private limited companies are publicly available with directors name so you don’t want to default anything as as a director. Your name may get blacklisted if you don’t audit and file returns. Hire a good friendly CA (not a firm, they are only there to make money) who will give you good advice too.

Ideally one of the core founding team member should manage finances as money is oxygen for startups. It is also important if you want to raise funding in future too. I have tried to use various software but somehow never got used to them as I found them clumsy, I anyway don’t run a big company in terms of people so for me netbanking + excel file works. Find the best option for you and stick to it.

7. Sales and Marketing

Make sure you grow organically initially. Nothing is better than growing without sales and marketing teams and zero budget and growing by word of mouth. Lets the users find you as this will validate your business model too.

Avoid hiring too many sales and marketing people initially. Premature hiring specially of sales and marketing team will burn your cash really fast. Also I have seen people being casual in hiring sales and marketing people as compared to developers (often because the founders understand technology so can screen the people better as compared to sales and marketing) which often leads to wrong hiree.

If you don’t understand sales and marketing, it is good to learn by doing things yourself. Sales and Marketing will take more time and resources than technology and is integral part of business growth.

8. Relationship, Health, Life and Fun.

Every startup founder is a dreamer and wants to make it big but it is stupid to do it at the cost of relationship, health, life and fun. I think its OK to work 14 hours a day, living on top ramen and your startup being the center of your life for some time but you can’t do it for years. In fact this means you are making wrong decisions running your startup too as this is why you are not able to find the right work life balance. I can write a lot on this from my past mistakes but I feels if you are reading this, you can easily connect the dots. Take care of your health and relationships (parents, brother/sister, spouse, friends) since you can’t buy it with money, success and fame. Also keep learning and having fun in life and have it today, don’t wait for tomorrow.

I am very sure on this – You will spend your whole life ignoring everything, only working and making 100 million dollars and when you die, Times of India will goof up and miss out printing 2 digits.

If you have any questions or if you think I can help you in some way, feel free to contact me through comments, on linkedIn, twitter, Facebook or through email.

How to Bootstrap in India

I am bootstrapping AeroLeads and InBoundio, 2 product based startups and strongly feels before raising money, everyone should bootstrap as you want to learn how to manage resources and money before you actually raise money to have more resources.

Here is what I can suggest from my learning, experience and what I have seen from other bootstrapped startups

1. Start from your own home – some of India’s biggest product startups started from founders bedroom (directi, fusioncharts). Working from your own house gives you huge advantage of working distraction free and without thinking about growth, expenses and profit. Once you takes an office, have few people around you and with hundreds of thing to worry about, you will not be able to think freely and do things fast. Starting from home often gives you extreme leverage to try all what you can and want to.

2. Do as much as you can including coding, sales and marketing – Every successful product startup founder I have met, there was this pattern. They understand technology stack as well as how to get users and customers. Before building a team and raising money, they completed the full cycle of product development and sales.

They know because they did initial programming, user onboarding, marketing, selling and support, something which is very important. I strongly feels even if you are not a great developer (I am also not a really good developer and often copy/paste code) still learn and understand the technology stack as it will help you a lot to make the right decisions. Similarly, understanding sales and marketing is equally important too. If you are bootstrapping, make sure the core team of co-founders do all this by themselves. It doesn’t matter how small and trivial the task is, do it once and then you can delegate to others.

3. Find Free and Cheap Resources instead of Paying full – Before paying, I always try to find if can I get that for free. There are so many startup resources available that there are good chances you can get everything for free (at least for few months). For example, through TheMorpheus and f6s startup site, I got 12 months free rackspace hosting worth $1000 and oLark premium for 3 months.

Search for startup deals and offers in Google and you should be able to find plenty. Do search for coupons and discount too as most of the SaaS companies do extend trials through coupons. I had also hired a freelancer from philippines in 2013 for well below the market price and he helped me a lot in testing the product, so keep using freelancers too if you can get the work done fast and cheap.

4. Look for Free Marketing – Nothing will burn your finances faster then you starting to spend money on marketing when your product is not finished. This I learnt the hard way as i foolishly lost money on marketing when the product sucked and wasn’t even complete. Contrary, by luck I got covered at TheHindu newspaper which eventually got us lot of signups (the product eventually didn’t took off). It was a pretty good experience in importance of free marketing. Even right now, my post How I got 1100+ SaaS user is the most linked and talked about blog post which brings lot of traffic and has helped me to network with lot of startup people.

The Kayako culture – Startup lessons in building organisational values

How leaving our values unclear started breaking our culture at Kayako, how we fixed it and what we learned.

In the early days, a startup’s values and culture — the essence — is very much a reflection of the founding team. These values don’t need to be documented, they usually just are.

As new people join the team, the essence will transfer by osmosis. It’s in the air. The essence will be picked up through the sheer amount of time a small team will spend working on tough things together, and will evolve as new people contribute their own ideas and styles.

As the team grows larger and as things move faster, you can no longer rely on your values being passively picked up by others.

In this post we’ll talk about:

  • The problems we faced not capturing our values sooner.
  • What makes great company values great.
  • Our first attempt at capturing values using a “Mars Group” (fail!).
  • Our second attempt at capturing values (success?).
  • How we are applying and scaling our values today.

“We were late capturing our company values and the cracks started to show”

At Kayako, there’s now 145 of us. Three offices. A large remote team. Distilling our essence and finding a way to articulate it is something we should have done a long time ago.

We started to feel the pain of not distilling our essence into a clear and repeatable format in various ways, including:

  • Inconsistencies in style and attitudes between teams. With the absence of a clear and constant articulation of our core values, teams would incubate their own traits, which would trump the company’s.
  • Speaking a different language. With these inconsistencies, we realised friction emerging in how we communicated with each other, whether that’s how feedback was given or how feedback was taken.
  • Other people hiring the wrong kind of people. Without a crystal clear definition of what our values were, we were not equipping people to be able to hire consistently for values across the company.
  • Recognitions and rewards started turning opaque. Without a crystal clear definition of what our values were, it became less clear why certain people were being recognised, rewarded or promoted.

At this stage, these issues were starting to impact our performance.

But if we left it unchecked? Our work would become less fun and less meaningful. We wouldn’t be able to attract and retain great people. We wouldn’t be able to build a great company.

We needed to get everyone back to our roots and capture the core essence of what made Kayako, Kayako. ASAP.

Values for your values: What makes great company values great

We’ve all seen company values before. Some we respect (Moz, TAGFEE). Some revolutionize something (Zappos). Some are so empty you can only laugh (guess which company’s values included the word Integrity?).

But what makes some company values effective, and others not? Why do some company values turn into a religion, but some end up as little more than wall decoration?

We spent some time researching and talking through this question with others. We found that some of the best and most effective company values had the following traits:

1: Values should be memorable and concise. If your values aren’t memorable or concise, they’re already handicapped. Values should be easy to communicate, easy to remember and will then be easy to incubate.

2: Values should be what you do, not just what you say they are. It doesn’t matter what you write down — the only values truth is in what you do, day in and day out. Not just what sounds cool or what looks good on the wall. We really like Netflix’s definition of what makes a true company value:

Actual company values, as opposed to nice sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted or let go.

Values should be lived and breathed in the literal sense.

3: Values set expectations. Values make clear who will get hired, and for what. They make clear who will get rewarded and promoted, and why. Values are like APIs for people and culture, and in that sense make communication easier. They ensure compatibility and fit, set clear expectations of each other and remain consistent as you scale.

Values are like APIs for people and culture. They ensure compatibility and fit, set clear expectations of one another and remain consistent as you scale.

4: Values should be weaponizable. As we grow, there will be various demons any startup will face: glut, inertia and complacency. Our values should arm everyone with the weapons to fight these culture-rotting forces before they set in.

We picked up a nice anecdote from the book How Google Works about how Google’s weaponizable values are used on the ground:

[Eric Schmidt] was in an executive meeting in which they were debating the merits of a change to the advertising system, one that had the potential to be quite lucrative for the company. One of the engineering leads pounded the table and said, “We can’t do that, it would be evil.” The room suddenly went got quiet; it was like a poker game in an old Western. […] A long, sometimes contentious discussion followed and ultimately the change did not go through.

We found that some of the best company values were great levellers in this respect. Google’s “Don’t be evil” value is felt deeply by its employees, who use it to check their moral compass when making decisions, and who are empowered to call others out — no matter what their pay grade (prepare to be called out using your own values.)

Values should act as a touchstone that helps everyone keep a check on whether they are doing the right thing the right way. As Rand Fishkin from Moz puts it, “[our values are] an architecture for decision making.”

Without getting too tactical at this stage, another thing we noticed was that the best weaponizable values were written in a way that they could slot into day to day vocabulary, like in the Google anecdote above, or like our favorite example from the Atlassian values:

Don’t #@!% the Customer.

This ability to use the values verbatim increased the likelihood that they would feature on the ground, in conversations and in slide decks.

5: Values should be strong as hell. Startups grow, and hopefully grow fast. New people will join with their own quirks and cultural backgrounds. New stakeholders with their own agendas will be added. New customers will be won, bringing new demands. New priorities will be loaded onto the company’s agenda.

These are really powerful forces. Without a strong set of values to build your company culture on, these competing forces will start to chip at your company culture.

Startups will go really tough times — it’s almost a statistical certainty. When reading Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, it seemed like Ben’s startups had it tougher than most. But it was their strong cultural foundations and value system that saved them (and boy, did those folks’ values have to be strong.)

What makes values strong? We generally found this links back to 1: Values are what you do, not just what you say they are. Strong values come through in the company culture built on top of them. Values are strengthened by how much trust and confidence the team has in those values. Without trust or confidence, values are empty words.

6: Values should (mainly) be motivational. Great company values motivate people to go beyond, to step outside of a comfort zone and to accomplish something different, just as much as they prevent something or head off a bad force. Together, all of a company’s values differentiate you from another company.

There isn’t much point in documenting the kind of things good people will default to doing anyway. However, there are some exceptions: Google didn’t really think anyone would be evil, but acknowledged the forces of running a huge business and maximizing profit may start to compromise instinctive good values, so while “Don’t be evil” mat not necessarily be motivational, it was there to head off potentially distracting forces in the future.

Capturing our values: Attempt one

We followed a commonly held ‘best practice’ for our first attempt: form a “Mars group” and get together in room (in retrospect, we don’t feel this practice is best — read on).

With a few founding members and a new senior hire, we kicked off an exercise to paint a picture of where we would like to be in the next 1–5 years.

To capture our company values, we then asked ourselves this: What kind of traits will get us there, and what kind of traits would hold us back?

Or in other words, what does a high performance culture look like to Kayako?

We ended up with a long list of opposites: the positive traits that would help us fulfil our vision and achieve a high performance culture, as well as the antonym of those traits — the things that would hold us back.

Our thinking was that we would assess this world of traits, and draw from it a set of values to reinforce the good traits and prevent us from straying into bad ones (good traits -> ??? -> profit!).

To make sure we were being representative of the whole company, we invited a cross-section of the team (~20 people in total) to prioritize the all the traits that they felt were either most true to us today or most needed.

Surely, this would give us a fully representative true essence of Kayako today, the essence that differentiates us?

Not even close.

Acumen, ownership, embracing change, curiosity, clarity, transparency, courage and passion.

Meh. Shrug.

We couldn’t disagree with these values. They’re generally true, they’re generally positive. But they didn’t hit any of the things we had identified as what makes great company values great. They didn’t resonate. They didn’t connect. They didn’t wake us up.

We managed to create a set of flat, lifeless and generic values. But how, with so much of us put into the process?

We identified three missteps:

  • The death-by committee approach. Great company values need raw passion, focus and emotion. By its nature, a committee compromises on all of these things. It turns out the “Mars Group” approach didn’t work.
  • Focused too much on our current problems and not on our ambitions. We were too busy firefighting to really see past problems and see what could be. As a result, we were all focused on the negative things — things that needed to fixed, right now. We compromised on ambition and as a result, they weren’t motivational.
  • We got too wrapped up in arguing what we were true to today, and what we weren’t true to. We spent a lot of time debating whether we could include values we weren’t particularly true to. We weren’t 100% transparent, so could we really make “transparency” one of our values?We realised it doesn’t matter, and in fact the values should guide everyone to be the kind of company you want to build, not just how things are today.

These were obvious missteps in hindsight — we had set ourselves up for failure. Time to rethink.

Capturing our values: Attempt two

This time, we did the opposite of a committee approach. We gave one person ownership of capturing our values. This was a leadership problem and needed leadership, not a committee.

Rather than getting everything on the wall — every possible positive value we currently do or would like to exhibit and narrowing things down from there — we took the time to sit back and really observe. Observe how we worked. How we problem solved. How we faced difficult situations. How we interacted with each other. What was there when things really worked out OK.

These are the questions we looked to answer, thinking that the answers would themselves capture our values:

  1. Why do people stay with Kayako and refer their friends to us?
  2. What are the traits and values we have been looking for — even if we weren’t actively aware of it — in people when hiring?
  3. When things haven’t worked out, why and what were the traits and values that were missing?
  4. When we’ve promoted people, why those people over others?
  5. When we really nailed something, what kind of values and traits were coming through?
  6. What kind of company do we want to be in the future?

We came up with lots of answers. Whatever came to mind when specifically answering these questions (ideally with plenty of colorful adjectives), we jotted down in a Hackpad.

We ❤ Hackpad. We haven’t found a better tool for thrashing something out and iterating on raw content

This process took about three weeks; enough time for enough scenarios and milestones to come up and go by, enough time to reflect and unpick things. I’m sure that if we were a smaller team, we could have accomplished this much more quickly.

These answers became our working collateral. The full universe of traits, behaviours and adjectives which we would now funnel and distil into our core values.

We iterated on these answers, reducing the various phrases into better, more concise phrases. With each iteration, we kept asking why: why did this trait come up? Why was it so material to success and tried to dig deep into the root.

Chris Moody blogged some key questions to ask when deciding whether avalue is worth capturing (or if it is more apart of your company’s vibe):

– Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?
– Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?
– Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?
– Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?

If the answer to yes is all of the above, you might have yourself a new value. If not, you’ve probably just observed a vibe in your company.

This process needs one person — ideally a founder, someone with your company’s core values in their gut — to be an all-absorbing sponge, and to take time out alone to reflect and apply a bit of creativity.

This really is a process of staring at a bunch of phrases and adjectives for a while, until a lightbulb lights up.

We distilled this language down into what became two of our values: Make it happen and Go big or go home.

We continued to iterate, simplify and refine the language we captured in our Hackpad. Shuffling things around, bucketing different phrases and traits together, etc.

We invited some select people to comment directly on the Hackpad with their interpretation of them after reading these early drafts. This was a very different approach to what we tried originally — we were getting feedback, but we were not forming committee. We continued this process until we got a consistent interpretation, which matched our original aim with the values.

We continued this process until the values clicked with all of us.

Here is what we came up with.

The Kayako Values

For each value, we chose not just a short memorable sentence or word, but also language describing how those values might be played out in real life.

We were inspired to use this ‘real life’ documentation of values style by the beautifully simple Buffer culture deck and the Genius.com “ISM”s. We felt it was important to provide real, concrete examples like this so that these values would be delivered clearly and with our ambiguity, across languages and functions.

Check them out on Slideshare:

Launching our company values

The first thing we did was prepare a slide deck, and not just because that is what the cool kids do. We needed to deliver these to the company and they needed to be delivered to everyone who joined Kayako.

It is critical to have editorial control over how the values were documented, paced and presented (to an extent). There needs to be a sense of occasion to them, if we are in agreement that the values are one of the most important institutions in your company.

The next thing we did was dedicate a company all-hands to these values.

Kayako All Hands
145 people. More than 10 locations.

Step by step, we took the company through the mental journey we had been through to capture these. The observations that we made, the lightbulbs that went off, the ideas we threw away and the ideas that made it in, and why.

We took everyone through how we were already demonstrating these values today, and where we had work to do.

For us, the process was just as important as the output. We wanted to take everyone on the same journey (just with a few shortcuts which we discovered along the way).

Results so far? It is too early to tell. We know that everyone is excited, we are on the same page and that’s enough to get going with.

Scaling culture with our values

We don’t anticipate the fundamentals of our values changing much over time, but we are not freezing them.

There’s a reason why we put a v1.1 at the end of “Kayako Values” (probably the same reason why Buffer has a v0.4). We may iterate on the language over time, but what we are really eager to do is capture what we learn as we reach new levels of growth.

For us at Kayako, there is catch-up and a bit of a course correction to do. We can’t sprinkle values like pixie dust and say job done. The job has just started. As a founding team, we are going to put a lot of effort into coaching others about these values: getting them in to every day vocabulary, getting them into our goal setting and feedback processes. Bringing everyone back onto the same page, and ensuring our values are being consistently lived and breathed.

We would like to start capturing more of the Kayako culture and Eau de Kayako in a similar way to how Netflix did with their culture deck and how Valve did with their handbook. We think these make magical and tangible on-boarding tools.

We’ll also be looking at how we can incorporate values into our recognitions system. 7geese, a goals and feedback management tool, has an interesting take on recognition-via-values.

We are also exploring ways of really weaving in these values to our everyday surroundings. We really like the idea of creating some artwork to capture some of the values, like Facebook does. We don’t want to spoil them, though. There is a fine line between powerful and cheesy.

The most important thing we have to do, though, will be letting our values dictate how we we hire, promote and let go. There is no better communication or embedding of values — everything else discussed in this section is just micro-optimization by comparison.

Key takeaways

  1. Do this sooner rather than later. You don’t have one shot at this, so create your Values 0.1 sooner rather than later. Leave it too late and people will start to fall off the same page. It is critical you hire with aligned values at all stages. The longer you leave it, the easier it is to defer, smaller issues like the odd ‘wrong hire’ will start to compound and ultimately, the harder it is to revisit.
  2. Too many cooks spoil the broth. This will vary from team to team. It seems obvious in hindsight, but for us, trying to approach our values by committee was a terrible idea. It took that collective thinking and discussion process and then time and a single owner to flesh them out creatively.
  3. Follow up and give your values some meat. Earlier, we identified that great values are what you do, not just what you say they are. Values and leadership in general won’t work if people don’t believe. The only way people will believe in our values is if we live and breath them: hire by our values, let go by our values and reward by our values. Anything else is a bullet in the head for your values.
  4. Get wordsmithing help. This is a skill that is difficult to master — if you can, get the help of an expert when it comes to the final stages of refining the language in your values.
  5. Get someone to own it. Give this to the person who believes in this the most and will find the time to make it happen. It really does need creative alone time to get it right.
  6. It doesn’t matter if you are not 100% true to your values today. Your values should be ambitious. They have to paint the picture of the kind of company you want to be in the future, just as much as how things are today. Of course, don’t call a value a value if you can’t back it up at all (see #3).
  7. Don’t muddle your values and your vibe. Chris Moody already put this brilliantly. Unfortunately we came across Chris’ post after we made the misstep of capturing too many things as values (and we struggled to narrow them down).

Resources that helped us

We cannot give enough credit to the following companies, authors and speakers that inspired us with their own cultures, values and advice.

This post was originally posted Medium. Follow the Life at Kayako series to learn more about working at Kayako, our values and our culture.

3 things I did right: Lesson 2 from a bootstrapped journey of 0 to 8 digit revenue

We deployed over 1.62 million lines of code to add functionalities and security to the data. But one thing that doesn’t change is this:

As an entrepreneur I play joker. I try – I fall – I stand up again for the next stunt. Whatsoever, I have to keep everyone entertained.

This article is a part of a 3-article series, where I would share 3 most vital lessons as I grew as an entrepreneur, our product grew as an offering and our team grew into a force.

Lesson 1: Don’t hire. Build a team.

Lesson 2: Sell to learn. Learn to sell.

Things you build – Things you sell = Junk

No one will pay for junk. We created a lot of junk during the initial days of VoiceTree, and soon realized that most of our efforts were wasted. At that point we segregated what would sell from everything we had built and concentrated on building MyOperator. We had built a small sales team by then (remember, our hiring funda) and started selling even before we completed building it.

    1. Sell before you build

    Initially we offered product delivery only after 2 months and had a very basic product. Most of you won’t even consider that as a product. It was a single page application covering only the basic need of managing incoming calls on a virtual IVR. But that helped us access what was most important to our customers and we stayed relevant. By the time we released the first version of our product in March’13 we already had 25 paying customers. More amazingly, we acquired another 25 customers within a month of the launch. Our sales team was more than ready by then.

    2. Iterate more initially

    Every team and process needs iteration. When you start selling early you have enough time to make mistakes as well. We changed our CRM twice; we changed the sales pitch 8 time; we let go 2 people and hired 4 more in sales; by the time we had first version of our product. We had even figured out our sweet pricing spot.

    An early sales team meant we had the immediate cash flow needed to hire more people while bootstrapping. More importantly, the initial set of customers gave us good understanding of the problem set in our domain and were building only the relevant features. Moreover, with a funded competitor we could closely understand the problems their customers were facing in product adoption. This led us into smoothing our own product adoption, providing some unique differentiations to our offering.

    3. Product moves parallel to sales

    We took a year selling the initial version of the product, delving deep into customer requirements, and identifying the problem set we should address further on. We have recently launched the next version of our product, MyOperator 2.0,   which has evolved with respect to product usability, user experience and features. We are growing 430% Y-o-Y in a market which has often been described as “not-so-great” by our competitors.

    We are now on the verge of launching MyOperator 2.0 as a global product and we are repeating the same process of selling before properly launching.

Things will go wrong, but what counts is how fast we can make mistakes and learn from them. In startup, speed counts more than you think.

The Bootstrap Ride

There are many paths to successfully bootstrapping a start-up. The trick is finding the way that works best for you. Now more than two years into my journey, I want to share a few lessons I wish I had learned earlier.

I would like to share a few tips from my experiences of bootstrapping an international startup. I want to speak the reality I experienced, my personal opinions, and I do not intend to contradict what others from the industry have said. I only mean to share what I have learnt from my B2B start-up experience within my business context.

Starting-up: Find a problem that exist in a considerably large scale and is solvable. Ideate solutions that could make lives easier. A problem could exist anywhere — in your current job or existing business models. People may or may not know about it. Develop a market need. Don’t build a start-up in view of a million dollar exit. Be obsessive about what you do, aim higher, execute mid-long term plans and take it higher.

Office: You don’t need a flashy office to start with. Work from home, Starbucks & co-working spaces. It’s alright to work from anywhere as long you have a seat, decent connectivity and fewer interruptions. When you set up the office, design it with bright colours and lots of natural light. Adopt a hybrid infrastructure of open workspace & cubicles. At some point in time, when you turn profitable with adequate cash balance and have a strong cash flow — consider owning an office instead of renting. It helps to save significant dollars in the long run and build company assets.

Team building: If you have an idea that you believe in and you have the skills, get started immediately. A few dont’s:

  • Don’t wait on a perfect team and plan to get going; such a thing does not exist.
  • Don’t be fascinated about rank holders, high percentile college degrees and flattery resumes.
  • Don’t do meaningless interview rounds and tests.

A co-founder is not a must-have. Look for freelancers & part time workers to help you get on the road. What matters the most is if the candidate can do your job, whether has the right attitude that fits within your company culture and goals. Give part-time work; engage to get more comfortable before offering the job. Look for skilled human capital available at low cost economies and build your teams internationally. Communicate efficiently, be transparent and set the expectations clearly.

Product: Build products that could be desirable and likeable for large, yet targeted audience. There is nothing wrong with taking a legacy business model, apply modern science and improvise it to create a new business. Change is inevitable; there is always a market for disruptive solutions. Once started, run faster and not ever stop innovating it more.

Go-to-Market: Know your buyers. Short-list them, study their potential business needs corresponding to your products and prioritize accordingly. Approach them with tailored messaging. Focus on showcasing customer benefits, NOT product features. Buyers only care how you can solve their problems not your badges in the sales pitch deck. Plan to be global from day-1. Build your products and company culture for global scale. Gaining market traction should be top priority. Constantly engage with prospective buyers, form a customer council to validate your products and gather market feedbacks regularly to improve your product road map.

PR: Winning new customers is the biggest award and growing your business profitably is the best coverage for startups. Don’t waste your time on pitching into media and investing with PR agencies. Instead, use your website and social media channels to shamelessly self-promote your company, products, case studies and thought leadership. Your prospects won’t buy from you because media covers you and you are popular — they will invest in you if you have a good product with proven benefits and referencable customers. Your company will become popular if your products are useful. Grow your company with disruptive products, global customers and an innovative team. Create newer jobs and give back to the society — let journalists bump into you.

Fund raising: Think of external capital only if you need it. Be sure about why you need the money, investment plan and projected outcome. Do your homework on who you want to partner with. Convince yourself with realistic valuation of your company and practical terms you want to work with; stick to it. Be honest in your pitch deck and fund raising approach. Investors are expected to do their home work too, so don’t be afraid to correct them. If they say ‘Grand ma should understand your business’, and you don’t sell into such audience, tell them openly. Avoid investors looking for start-up lottery. Instead, find backers who promote innovation and entrepreneurship. You can’t do an enterprise startup investor pitch in 3 minutes. Stay away from 3 minutes pitching gimmicks, it’s a ticket selling tactics for startup media events. You can easily find the VC communities from Google search. Pick up the phone and call them or send them an email. Use LinkedIn & leverage reference contacts. It’s at the best, if you build your company with market traction and proven products to be in a position to choose from whom you wanted to take money, if and when you need it.

Networking: Start-up events are trendy and fashionable these days. There is a lot of noise and smoke out there. Be smart to rise above the noise. Don’t compare yours with other startups. Don’t be too excited about showy startup media. Be selective in networking events and look for agendas that can give you key take-away for your business. Remember, your ultimate goal is not to build a worldwide network of know-who, but to know those few who can complement to build your company. Invest your networking time wisely. Not all great companies are built out of startup accelerators. Many successful companies are bootstrapped, built from garages and bedrooms. Startup media publications make most of their money from their event tickets, hackathons etc. It’s severely hyped up. Be practical and selective.

Mentors: Surround yourself with like-minded people who can inspire you and give guidance; people who can introduce you to customers, partners and investors. Build an advisory board that could help you establish your network & connect with right people and open doors to money. Advisers should be fluid, review and make changes at different stages of your start-up journey.

Social: Associate yourself with entrepreneur community. Share your experience and learning with aspiring start-up entrepreneurs. Volunteer in community development projects in small ways you can. Creating new jobs through your start-up is the best contribution you can offer to the prosperity of humanity. Build a company culture to help others and give back.

Personal: Be prepared to sacrifice, compromise and tolerate. Improve your patience level as much as possible. Don’t bring emotional sentiments in customer situations. Make friends with clients. Engage in some sports. Fall in love with everything around you. Never shut down. Travel the world, it makes you richer. Stay humble.

I am the Founder and Chief Executive of Corporate360, a global leader in B2B sales intelligence data solutions. We bootstrapped and turned our business profitable with multi million dollars in revenue. C360 now has a global footprint with over 300 clients, and a successful team of 30 full-time employees and 9 contractors in five countries. I want to share what I have learned from my B2B start-up experience within my business context in the hopes that it will help others on their own journey.

 

Post Contributed by Varun Chandran, Corporate360

How I built a 1100+ users SaaS business as a Single Founder with Zero Marketing Budget

We formally launched inBoundio last week, I kept it in beta for eight months and kept working on it. It was slow going since I was the only one working on it — sometimes there was no progress for days. There were times when I got stuck and had to wait for people to reply on stackoverflow and answer my questions so I could finish the coding. Lot of things went wrong or didn’t work out. But some did, and in this post I want to share what I have learned. InBoundio is just starting. It is in no way a finished product nor a mature product, but I feel I should share my knowledge and experience right now. If I wait until I’m done, I may forget many of the smaller things. So here is the complete story. If you want the TL;DR version, scroll to the bottom where I have put everything in points.

How I Began

I stopped thinking too much, stopped planning, and just started doing the things I wanted to do and which I loved. I love technology, internet and marketing, so the product I built aligned with all this and I never had to look at where I was going. Failure looked acceptable as I knew I was going to enjoy the process and the final product.

I also didn’t set any deadlines for myself, and didn’t care about making money or setting targets. This took time out of the picture, which made me more comfortable and reduced any anxiety about getting it done. I wanted to be sure I made as few mistakes as possible, and I wanted to fully understand the market and user requirement. I continued to work alone, and it was only last month that I opened an office and hired two awesome developers (who in just five weeks have become a big part of my life).

How I funded inBoundio

Since inBoundio started as a one-man company, the expenses were negligible. I got one year of free hosting from RackSpace , which saved some money. I got the logo done for $3 and the dashboard was a $12 template. That was all the initial expense. I did use freelancers later on, as I wasn’t able to code some features. I paid them primarily from money earned by selling software packages and offering services.

Offering services also helped me understand client needs and wants. Because InBoundio is still in the early stage, I will keep on doing this for at least this year.

The experience with freelancers was hot and cold. Overall, I felt I wasted a lot of time. Many features never got shipped and I probably overpaid on a few, but I have learned my lesson.

Where We are right Now

inBoundio is still in its very early stage, and I am still working on finding the correct business mode. Still, I felt I should write this post now, as I want to share my experience and journey so far (posts like “How we sold our business for 20 million dollars” suck, right?)

Right now I have a small team working from our office, both of which give more structure to the business and make things move fast. For example, we are shipping new features on a daily basis, something which was not possible earlier. We just launched our chrome plugin and waiting for our WordPress plugin to get approved.

My Learning while bootstrapping as a single founder

I am splitting my learning into 2 section. Startup and Business/Life.

Startup Learning

  1. Use freelancers wherever you can, but be careful. I had mixed experience with freelancers. I met some nice people but I felt I also sometimes overpaid. Sometimes the freelancer just wasted time and did nothing. There is a huge cost involved in finding the right freelancer, plus there is a cost involved if something goes wrong. You can use freelancers for small tasks like testing—for example, I hired a freelancer from Vietnam on oDesk for $5/hour who did a great deal of testing and found lots of bugs. I also got the initial logo for $3 and bought the user dashboard template for $12.
  2. Do not hire people unless you need them. Do as much as you can by yourself and understand the technology stack of your product as well as marketing. Find your first paid user by yourself. Find new marketing channels by yourself. Do sales and support by yourself. Take all the phone calls yourself. Do the site support chat by yourself. All these tasks are part of building your business.
  3. SaaS businesses don’t grow fast and there is nothing great about them.  InBoundio is growing 15% month to month, which I think is on “faster” side of growth, although most of the SaaS businesses grow very slow. In fact I don’t even think SaaS are the best business model on the web for making money; the unit economics don’t work and most B2B products don’t spread by word of mouth. This means higher cost of marketing and no viral effect.
  4. The best feedback you will get is from your product users. The best feedback I have ever gotten is from inBoundio users. I have asked questions on various web marketing forums like warriorforum, as well as on Reddit and Hackernews, and received helpful replies. But the best real feedback I got was from current users. Aimee, my first paid user, has replied to many of my emails telling me what was broken.
  5. Building is easy, marketing is not. Marketing will always take more resources and time than building. Most founders put all their energy into building and then run out of steam and ideas. Products fail because they hit the wall of “How to Market and Sell” and the founders have no answer.
  6. Win-Win partnership works on Internet. The best businesses on Internet are the ones where your user also wins. If you are just focusing on yourself and how you can grow and make money, you will find yourself alone. This is not what the Internet is about.
  7. Bootstrapping is not easy, and doing it is as a single founder is even more difficult. Bootstrapping sounds great when you are able to pull it off; when it don’t work out, it can do lot of damage to your personal finances. Being a single founder also means you are taking the risk and will burn out fast. So far, though, things are looking fine for me. I will keep on doing what is working. If I feel I am burning out or need funds for additional growth, I will look at alternatives– though personally, I will always chose Freedom over Money.

Business and Life Learning

  1. Success and Failure are meaningless terms. Don’t waste your time judging yourself from others parameters.
  2. Don’t look at other startups and how they are doing. There are people who started before you, and others have already finished the race before you even started, so it is stupid to compare your startup with others.
  3. Don’t waste too much time thinking about company vision, disruption and denting the universe. You will end up doing what you want to do anyway, no matter what your earlier vision was.
  4. Use your own software. This is the best way to understand the limitations of your software. I only use inBoundio to market inBoundio. Yesterday I sent 1,000 emails and today I made some social media postings. When you use your own software, you can take better action on your user feedback and learn what you want and what you don’t.
  5. There is nothing wrong with doing services to fund your company product. I personally feel a business is a business, so it doesn’t matter if you are doing services or product. The end goal is to build a business.
  6. If you are not enjoying what you are doing, don’t do it. It is just not worth it.
  7. Only do things which make you happy. I don’t think I need to explain this.
  8. Don’t chase money; it will always be the byproduct of your success. If you do well in life, you will make money, anyway. If you start chasing money, you will cut corners, compromise on quality, and become mediocre and unhappy.
  9. How big you get, how big your business becomes, and how much money you make is NOT in your control. It doesn’t matter if you have an amazing team, a great product, big funding and work 18 hours a day, you can – and possibly will — still fail. Don’t waste your time on thinking things which may or may not happen. Live in the present, build your company in the present.
  10. Don’t plan too much. Most of the plans are just wishful thinking.
  11. Money will solve only one problem, money. The rest of the problems of building business have to solved by you only.

Republished from inBoundio blog