After 6 months of my first blog post detailing how our startup Tint hit profitability in 3 months (read that first as this blog post continues from that), we have been very fortunate in making huge strides in our growth—particularly revenue, because we believe “sales cures all.” In the month of October 2013, we crossed the $90k/month mark with our 4 man team pictured below (note that this $90k accounts for both monthly recurring revenue and one-time payments for year-long contracts).
Our 4 (wo)man team
As we cross this huge milestone for our company, I thought it would only be fitting to recount how we did it and pass on our learning to other startups and entrepreneurs. This is Part II of what worked for our team (Part I here), and I only hope it could help yours too.
1) Obsess over Customer Service
We’ve been customer centric since day 1 of our company. We know that we don’t know any answers of what our customers want. The answers are out there with our customers, so we go and talk with them to extract answers.
To give you an example of how customer centric we are, we install tools all around our site to encourage feedback or live chatting. We also manually email all our new paying customers to make them feel welcomed. We have a support ticket system set up so our team can make sure we never miss a question and challenge ourselves to get back within 24 hours to every customer who emails/calls us. We track how our customers interact with our platform, and always ask questions to them.
Though it may be disheartening to hear people complaining about certain features, bug reports, or requests, always remember complaints are the best ways to learn. You want complaints because it means a customer cares enough about your product that they took time to email you their opinion (or complaint). Make sure you know how to discern a free user complaint vs. a paid customer feedback as well. The latter is worth a lot more to pay attention to as they are putting money where their mouth is.
Even after we’re able to close a deal with our customers, we make sure we follow up every few weeks if not more to see how they are enjoying our product. This account management is tedious, but look into tools like Salesforce and Boomerang that will allow you set reminders to follow up with the clients. Trust me, your customers will be very pleased because it shows you genuinely care about them even when they are already paying customers. Don’t be surprised when your customers start sharing about your service or upgrade as a result.
Here are a few examples of just how customer obsessive we are:
— PresNation Live (@PresNationLive) November 1, 2013
— Strong Coffee (@strongcoffee) August 22, 2013
Can’t say enough good things about @tint! Awesome product (embed great-looking social streams) and awesome support team to get you started.
— Stacey Kawakami (@staceykawakami) July 17, 2013
2) Explore Uncomfortable Opportunities
It’s very easy to fall victim to comfort & arrogance when things are growing and climbing upwards. Things can fall apart just as quickly by not staying focused. That’s why while our team celebrates achieving milestones, we make sure we never feel comfortable. Heck, one of our companies core values states: “Work hard, be tenacious, and stay humble.”
Every month we set the bar higher than the previous one, from both the product and business sides. On the product end, we’ll have a product roadmap and attach finish dates on them so the devs never feel like they have noting to do. And it keeps growing everyday from the customer feedback I get. On the business end, we’ll have certain quotas and targets we set and increase that by X% every month. But it’s never just that easy.
That’s why we always try new things, whether that be new A/B testing with placements, change pricing structure, or use new tools that would take us a long time to adopt but would make things more efficient in the long run. Even though there are frustrations and resistance from team members of constant changes, we swallow that aggravation because we know that the only way to grow is to keep experimenting and learning.
Exploring uncomfortable opportunities is asking for lots of failures to happen, but we embrace failure as the only way to truly learn about yourself, the situation, the market, and most importantly, your business. For example, we spent a 4 weeks building a referral system we thought would surely resonate with our customers. It was one of those pure hunches we had and we went for it. When we launched it, not many people used it, and we quickly learned that our customers weren’t as incentivized with the way we had structured it. Had we never tried it, we would have never known that our customers prefer financial discount incentives. This led us to start running smart promo deals that converted/upgraded many users!
The takeaway: you never know what’s going to work for your company (whether it be a risky partnership or a costly feature), so build smart and be open to experimenting as much as possible. My personal motto is “If you don’t feel overwhelmed and feel like you have control over every aspect of your company, you’re probably not experimenting enough.”
3) Invest in Culture
About a few months ago, I was physically and mentally exhausted with Tint. It wasn’t because I hated what I was doing (I absolutely love Tint); it was because I didn’t know how to balance my work with personal life and relaxation. I always had the mentality that 100 work weeks was the way to go, that relaxing on the weekends was a sin, and work days meant to work until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re probably smiling at this because that’s what you do right now… no judgment passed :).
It wasn’t long until I started getting frustrated with my co-founders over small arguments, or annoyed with our users asking simple questions that I should normally be delighted to answer. I realized unhappy life = unhappy work (it’s a cycle). It sucked and I hated it. If I had started feeling it this early on in our company stage, I knew it wouldn’t be long until my co-founders did too, which would be dangerous as that risked the company’s life.
They always say that starting a company is a marathon, not a sprint. My work habits reflected the latter, which started to burn me out, and the rest of the team. Something had to change and that’s when our team started to set some rules, and ultimately shape our culture.
We decided to NOT work past a certain time every work day, we would push each other to work out and exercise every day, we would make sure we had beer nights to catch up over our lives, and most importantly, go out and relax the mind on the weekends via hikes, etc. We made sure we didn’t account each other for the # of hours we worked, rather the quality of work and deadlines. We started to notice how excited and more focused we were. Rather than feeling burnt out every morning, all of us felt fresh and eager to work. We built quicker and more efficiently. Customers would notice my excited tone to speak with them and as a result, closed more deals. Something so intangible worked wonders for us.
In addition, we knew we would need to hire more people as we continue to grow. But it wouldn’t just be any random person we liked. Our hiring preferences became more culture focused vs. skill oriented. We decided that we’d rather hire someone less skilled and more culture-fitted than someone very knowledgeable but couldn’t get along at all. When we did follow those instincts and hired our first employee, it only added to the positive, upbeat, enthusiastic atmosphere we had already created.
Invest in your company’s culture as that will lay the foundation for the rest of its future.
4) Be Data Driven
You do not have a company until you know thy numbers. The data behind your company is what will help you truly understand the health of your business. I am going to be honest here… I hated analyzing at numbers in the beginning because I was scared to swallow the inevitable truths. I would usually pass it on to someone else on the team to run the #s and just tell me—never analyzing what it meant on our company. AND I was the CEO!
It wasn’t until a few months ago that our team started to be obsessively conscious over every single data we could track. We knew that if we wanted to keep growing, we would need to understand everything about our customers. Everything from user signups, % conversion from user to customer, revenue % increase month over month, breakdown of customers on which plan, customer lifetime value, customer acquisition cost, average revenue per customer, churn %, where customers were finding us, and much more started to be in our daily talks.
Anytime we would see a metric % change start to decrease or plateau, we would focus efforts on optimizing that data point. For example, once we saw churn % start to increase month over month, we worked on ways to educate our users about our full product and tightening the feedback loop from our leaving customers. This led us to discover that customers were leaving us not because of our poor product, rather campaigns ending. We put our heads down and optimized on educating our users our full offering that included non-campaign use cases, which resulted in decreased churn and happier customers sharing their excitement about us.
The data points also acted as determining points for our product roadmap. What I mean is that many times your paying customers may just not know what they want, but their behavior with your product speaks wonders. That’s why if you can track how people use your product as well as understand why they purchase/leave, you’ll have plenty of data points determining how to optimize your platform.
We still have lots of other data points we can track and better track, but in the meantime, we have our own KPI dashboard that we leave open to remind ourselves that understanding your data / numbers is what keeps the heartbeat going to grow your company.
Recently many startups out there have shared their stories of their unfortunate shutting down due to many mistakes, and it kills me reading them every time. The main reason I read from all of them is all too similar: focusing all efforts on user growth and leaving monetization to luck.
That’s why my #1 advice I pass on to entrepreneurs I speak with today is to figure out monetization early and start charging. Trust me, it feels a WHOLE lot better when someone is paying you their hard earned money to use your product. You feel more responsible and motivated to improve your product. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: You are doing a startup to build a business, so have a sustainable revenue source that isn’t all talk in the beginning only to realize it won’t work because you’ve run out of cash 1 year later.
What lies ahead of us is unknown and how our team will grow from here is up in the air. If you have any advice or feedback or ideas for us (or want to work together to grow), please email me directly at email@example.com and say hi! If you’re in the SF area, let me know and we can grab coffee or beers—I would love to hear war stories with other entrepreneurs and tips on how to grow from here.
Back to the grind,