My name is Rob Bucci. Unless you happen to hang around at a lot of search marketing conferences, chances are you don’t know me.
I’m in my early thirties, and I’m the founder and CEO of STAT Search Analytics. Simply put, we do big data for enterprise SEO. Over the past few years, we’ve grown into a data partner of choice for inbound marketing agencies and some of the world’s largest online brands.
When I was asked to write about the lessons I’ve learned in scaling my SaaS business, I have to admit I was a bit reluctant. Our field is lousy with self-styled gurus, and I’m reluctant to add to the heap. So, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that this isn’t about telling you how to do things the “right” way—it’s just about my own experience wrangling the wild and wooly beast that is a young, growing company.
#1: You have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears—oh, and optimism.
It’s with a weird mixture of embarrassment and pride that I admit that I’m a self-taught programmer.
I trained as an artist, graduating university in 2005 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. I never wrote a single line of server-side code until well after I left university. When I set out to start building STAT, I was completely naive about how difficult the challenge was. I had no idea what was or wasn’t possible based on the technology I had at my disposal. But there I was, building a SaaS product, all by myself.
As the solo founder of a business, the deck is rarely stacked in your favour. The only thing you can truly rely on is hard work. And when I say hard work, I don’t just mean twelve-hour days. I mean completely surrendering to the pursuit of your dream.
I have a vivid memory of being awake at 3:00 am one Christmas morning because of a database crash. I remember being on vacation in New York and having to leave my friends at a bar so I could squat on someone’s stoop to steal their wi-fi, squinting through one eye to reboot a misbehaving cluster. I’ve left countless dinners and social engagements because of server hiccups and service crashes. It got so bad that my friends would ask “How are your servers?” in the same breath as they’d ask me how I was doing.
There was no one else to respond to those sorts of emergencies. But I never resented doing so, because I was following my passion. Sacrifice was the price of admission. In retrospect, knowing what I know, it seems totally insane that I thought I could start from scratch and build a tech company by myself. I had the ridiculously naive optimism of youth on my side.
What does my experience prove? Only that you don’t need to be a full-fledged expert in SaaS to start a worthwhile SaaS company. As trite as it sounds, anything is possible given enough dedication to overcoming a challenge. No matter what skills you bring to the table, the things you’ll rely on the most will always be hard work and unwavering optimism.
That said, if I were to do it all over again, I’d look for a technical founding partner—we might have ended up with less technical debt to deal with later!
#2: Don’t fret the big stuff—be micro-ambitious.
I spend a lot of time being worried. I know that doesn’t sound very healthy, but bear with me.
I worry about things I can’t control, like earthquakes, and melting ice caps, and what Google is going to do next. I also worry about things entirely in my control, like not being able to live up to my own expectations, or letting down my team, or making stupid preventable mistakes. They say nothing breeds failure like success, and I’m feeling that pinch. The more successful my company becomes, the more we have to lose.
But, I’m learning to tame that worry and to channel it in positive ways. Part of that is not spending too much time thinking about the distant future. This doesn’t mean that I’m not guided by long-term strategy, just that I keep my day-to-day focus on all the small wins, and let them accumulate into bigger ones.
As the comedian Tim Minchin says, “I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious.”
#3: Don’t be scared of paying customers.
When it’s just you building a product, you’re living on borrowed time. The pace of work and the sacrifices are untenable over the long term, so you can’t be afraid of charging people for your efforts.
Even if your early prototype is shoddy, and you know it’s shoddy, don’t be afraid of taking money for it. Find customers whose need is great and who are willing to work with you to make your product better. They’re out there—especially if you’re meeting a need that nobody else is meeting.
Believe me when I tell you that the first two iterations of our product were not exactly ready for prime-time. But I was never afraid to ask for money. I was lucky to find clients who were patient and saw potential, and worked with me as the product evolved. I owe those early customers a great debt of gratitude.
Charge as much for your product as it’s worth to customers, and no less. Don’t be tempted to price your product too low just to encourage adoption. When you’re a one- or two-person team, ten customers paying a thousand dollars a month are much easier to handle than a thousand customers paying ten dollars a month. As your product evolves, the price point will evolve with it.
Getting your customers to pay you well for your product early on has several effects. First of all, you need to eat. It may not be as dire as all that, but making money is going to make everything easier in the early days.
Second, you’ll sleep better, because that first sign of revenue galvanizes you. It’s a form of validation that your head isn’t up your own ass and that you’re actually building something of value.
Third, customers respect a product more if they’re paying for it. The more they pay, the more they respect it, and the more they are invested in sticking with you and seeing you evolve.
And finally, if you focus on profitability early, you’ll be in a much stronger position down the road should you choose to seek out investment.
#4: VC isn’t the only way.
This brings me to the topic of venture capital.
Early on, everyone told me that I needed to take VC money if I wanted to build a significant business. I’m proud of the success we’ve had without taking on outside investment, and, frankly, I’m afraid of the consequences if we do take some in the future. The way I see it now, venture capital could be like putting some rocket fuel in the engine of our company. It could allow us to cover more terrain, and eventually, increase our momentum. But it could also damage our engine, and make us reliant on having ever more rocket fuel to keep moving forward. I’m also concerned about losing our vision of being a customer-focused company, rather than a company that focuses only on satisfying the investors it is beholden to.
I don’t have any advice to offer on how to make the choice, since I haven’t even made up my own mind yet. But I want to be clear on one thing: there is absolutely nothing wrong with building a profitable lifestyle business that makes you and your team wealthy. “Go big or go home” does not apply to starting your own business; it’s a deeply personal thing and your direction should be governed by your own goals and needs.
#5: Be a little less bad every day.
At first, I was not prepared to run my own company. I had no idea what I was doing. This is not easy to admit, but it’s honest.
I think I’ve come a long way as a CEO in the past few years, but even still, some days I’m convinced that I’m not very good at it at all. I still lack mentors and advisors, and I believe I suffer because of it. The point is: I make plenty of mistakes.
I used to compare myself to some of the patron saints of Hacker News, and I’d come off feeling pretty bad about where I was at as the leader of a small business. Obviously, this is counter-productive: it’s useless to use others as a benchmark when their situation is probably nothing like your own.
Instead, I’ve learned to focus on what I can see are my own weaknesses. This is not a process that will ever be completed. Over the years I’ve proven to myself that I’m very good at teaching myself new skills if I’m sufficiently motivated. With that knowledge, I’m content to just work towards being a little less bad at my job every day, and to not repeat the same mistakes.
By trying to be a little less bad every day, I’ve gone from being one naïve guy with a fledgling product and a handful of customers to working with a team of insanely talented individuals on a sophisticated, one-of-a-kind product used by some very big players. From a scrappy startup backed by my own credit card, STAT has transformed into a boot-strapped, multi-million-dollar business. And on top of that, the STAT team is building a culture that I’m really proud of.
That said, despite all of the success we’ve experienced so far, we still get wrong-number calls every day from people who think we’re a Brazilian language school. I guess that’s lesson number six: do some research before selecting your toll-free number.