Last year was a good year. A lot happened, we had a baby, we grew in revenue by 133%, we launched another startup, but also had a lot of projects fail. Here's what I learnt in 2012...
I enjoyed 2012. It was a very good year with many blessings. Firstly and most importantly we had a baby girl, Imogen, who is an utter delight. She sets the path for a lot of what I do now in my work and affects a lot of decisions. That's why she deserves a mention here.
So here are a few key things that happened last year, and what I learnt.
Project Bubble Revenue Grew by 133%
We started out with a decent revenue last year which was enough to pay for hardware, cloud services (e.g. Recurly), and our salaries. I wanted to get to the place where I could work full time for Project Bubble by the end 2011 and we achieved it in November, which was a major milestone. So when 2012 began I had the luxury of being able to work full time, which was fun.
My main goal as the year began was to work in marketing, so we could grow the revenue even more. I wanted to hire a support manager, get better hardware, plus have someone helping out with the development by the end of the year. So we needed to grow our revenue significantly.
It was a hard task, but by May I had learnt a lot about increasing conversion rates and managed to do this successfully over the summer. I'd also learnt a lot about content marketing and offering amazing support. All of these factors helped grow our customer base, reduced churn and increased the amount of free trial users to paid subscribers.
By the end of the year our revenue had increased by 133% and enabled us to pay for much better hardware, a customer service manager, a content marketer, another developer, marketing and a small increase to our salaries. Awesomeness.
By the end of 2013, I want to grow the team even more and have at least two full time developers working for Project Bubble. So the revenue needs to grow even more. That means a lot more hard work is in store.
Customer Service is King
I used to manage all of the customer support tickets, which was not great for our customers. They would sometimes get short, sharp replies (mostly because I didn't have much time to handle their queries) and this was costing the business. Customers weren't really being treated in the best way, and they weren't getting their questions answered.
Not only does this affect your brand and what people think of your service, but it affects business too because people will not pay to use your service if they have too many questions, or feel that you don't care. I had to do something about this.
In the summer I hired a virtual assistant who saved me from a support nightmare. She is fantastic for various reasons. Mostly because she does a great job of taking care of customer's support queries, but also because she takes initiative and goes beyond what I ask her to do. For example, recently she's been proactively emailing customers who's trials have expired and asking if they want to renew. She also only charges me for the hours she works, so I don't have to pay out a full time wage, just yet.
This has meant better customer service, and happier customers, which is what you want. It has also freed up my time so that I can spend it doing 'CEO things' and development.
I've learnt to never take the service out of customer service and treat your customers as royalty. They are after all, the life-line of your business.
SEO is Very Important
Over the summer we had a dip in business, which was horrible. The growth went down to about 10%, so our revenue flat-lined. I wrote a post about how this got me working harder than ever because I thought a lot of it was to do with a general 'summer slowdown' which most businesses experience. However, my friends at Wistia told me this wasn't the case, for them anyway.
I soon realised that the reason our business was slowing down was to do with the recent Google updates which had bumped our position for certain keywords down by a page. This was hitting us really hard and meant we were getting less customers.
My response was to hire a better SEO company, and to focus more on content marketing (which I'll do a separate blog post about some time). We built up a resource on our blog which included many useful articles relating to project management and productivity, we redesigned the website and spent time focusing on the content of each page, plus we tried PPC (pay per click advertising) and Re-targeting.
PPC and Re-targeting did not work out well for us. The amount we were spending on advertising through these channels was not bringing in a return on the investment. This was due to the fact that the project management market is saturated with other apps and is basically very expensive to advertise in. We were offering a fairly low cost, simple project management solution, not an enterprise solution with yearly contracts. I pulled the plug on these channels after trying them out for a couple of months.
We get very good ROI for the money we spend on SEO, so that's a big focus for 2013. We need to stay on top for our keywords, at least until we build a better brand and people talk about us more. SEO is important for us.
Work Closely With Your Developers
I mentioned earlier that one of my goals for the year was to have another developer helping out. Well financially this was possible by about October, at least for some part time work. So I looked on oDesk for a CodeIgniter developer who was in the US and wasn't too costly. I found one with good reviews and set up a contract to work 15 hours a week, which was enough to help out with a bit of development and general maintenance.
My thinking was that he could work two days a week developing new features off the roadmap, whilst being available for anything else during the week, such as bugs or server maintenance, should I need him. That would take the pressure off of me and allow the service to continue regardless of whether I was available or not. It was a good idea.
The reality unfortunately was not quite what I had hoped for. He was in the US, so was in a different timezone, but added to that was the difficulty that he worked in the evenings. So we basically never spoke, unless it was a pre-arranged Skype call. That meant that he would sometimes drift away from my requirements, or would not fully understand what I wanted him to do. After a few months of trying it out, and spending a lot of money for not a huge amount of development, I ended the contract. It was a lesson learned.
I think that you need to always work closely with developers. In the future I'm only going to hire developers who I can physically walk over to and chat to. I need to be able to see what they are working on and discuss the work with them there and then, throughout the day. Especially if I'm paying $250-$300 per day.
Hardware is Everything
In November, things were going ok. We'd just about sorted the SEO crisis, and business was picking up again. The growth was going back up and we were able to start thinking about what we could spend the extra revenue on (as opposed to the autumn when we were worried we'd have to cut back!), which was nice.
My thoughts were to invest in better hardware for 2013, and in the meantime save the extra cash and put it towards development. So the plan was to do upgrades in the spring of 2013, not before.
Unfortunately our old server started having issues and getting frail. The amount of users using our service for their project management had increased massively since when we first specked out the hardware in 2010, therefore the load on the DB was getting intense. Also our API was getting used more and more by features like the calendar synchronisation. This meant our Pingdom reports were showing outages every morning whenever the backup ran, and was causing the server to sometimes lock up because we didn't have enough RAM.
I tried to put out the fires by totally re-building the codebase, getting rid of inefficient SQL queries which were taking up a lot of resources. This was a good thing to do anyway, because it sped up the load times of some pages by about 7 seconds to 700 milliseconds. It did not solve the outages though.
December then became a very stressful month. We had three major outages. After the first outage I decided that it was time to do the server upgrade, sooner than planned. So we booked that in for the holiday period, as it's the quietest time of the year. There were a lot of late nights (early mornings), both while dealing with the outages and while doing the migration.
Fortunately though, by the end of the year the new server was ready and we were migrated successfully. We are now spending a lot more money on our hardware but it's worth every penny, as the service is now ultra reliable and fast. Hardware is everything.
Sometimes Two is Better Than One
I've always done things better when it's just me involved. It's the whole, 'if you want a job done, do it yourself' ethos, which has always worked for me. I built Project Bubble from scratch by just Googling questions I had about PHP and reading tutorials. I applied this same ethos to Invoice Bubble which I launched in 2010 as a side product to Project Bubble.
However, because I spent so much time on Project Bubble, Invoice Bubble started collecting dust and didn't get the attention it deserved. It was growing at a rapid pace and was getting a lot of interest from blogs and review sites. I didn't really know what to do with it, until I met Hamlesh.
Hamlesh expressed great interest in Invoice Bubble and offered to join forces with me in order to re-brand it, re-launch it, add new features, fix the business model, and market it. So in the late months of 2012, Invoiceable was launched. We're now getting nearly 80 users sign up every day for simple, free and easy online invoicing. It's got a great future.
Sometimes two is better than one. I wouldn't have been able to do this on my own. Hamlesh not only provided some capital to fund the new service, but provided great ideas, motivation, inspiration and also friendship. I'm looking forward to working more with him this year on Invoiceable and perhaps expanding the team even more.
Failure Equals Learning
With the successful startup launches and amazing revenue growth, there has also been the failed projects too unfortunately. They say that 3 out of 4 startups fail. That's probably about right.
At the beginning of the year I had a lot of projects concurrently running, with hopes that they would also be revenue generators. I had a customer support knowledge-base app, a document sharing app, a freelancer job sharing site, a blog about great web apps, a publishing platform, a networking site for entrepreneurs, a portfolio sharing app, an invoicing app, and a project management app. That's a lot of projects.
If you read my blog you'll know about Fowndr, an online networking tool for startup founders. I wanted to build something that would help founders connect, share their stories and answer questions. It was a good idea, and had a lot of press, but unfortunately never gained traction. I launched it privately at first, and that's when I had lots of people signing up with interest, wanting to be a part of this private club. However inside the closed doors, those that were a part of the community weren't engaging. Then there's Quora.
I tried launching Fowndr again towards the end of year, hoping I'd get more press, more buzz and hopefully more traction. This time I would open the gates and allow anyone to sign up and post their questions and answers publicly. It did buzz a little, then it deflated. It never gained traction, unfortunately. By the way, did I tell you about Quora?
I also shut down Kroud, which was a tool for customer support and might pick that up again some time, along with Entri, the document sharing app and Gigshare, the freelancer job sharing site. Those were projects that I didn't have the time to market, so never really gained traction.
I also sold a few other projects that I had under my belt, Great Web Apps (the blog), Favwork (the portfolio sharing app), and Halogy (the publishing platform which I'm the most proud of). Why did I sell these and not just leave them running? Read on.
Focus is a Good Thing
Focus is everything. I wrote a post about this titled, Keep Focused on the One Thing which was when I learnt this valuable lesson. It's important not to split your time too much between various projects, and focus on the one thing that brings you the most results.
Today my focus is on Project Bubble because it brings in 95% of my income, and is showing amazing growth. I also spend a little bit of time on Invoiceable, which I can afford to do because it isn't very demanding at this time. With that level of focus, more gets done, and the quality of what gets done is much better. Before, projects were getting started and not finished. Plus they lacked in quality and direction.
I sold and shut down the projects that I wasn't spending enough time on, and allowed others to take them on and build them in to much better products. For example, my publishing platform Halogy is going to be looked after by someone who has great ideas and vision for it.
I enjoyed building these projects, and I learnt a lot in the process about development, marketing, and customer service, but mostly I learnt to focus on the one thing. It's important.
I'm a Full Time Dad
One final thought about my life right now. I'm a full time dad!
You could say that I'm pretty much in the lifestyle business. I work when I want to work, and spend the rest of my time with my family, which is awesome. I realised recently therefore, that I'm pretty much a full time Dad! We are full time parents!
I work from home, one eye on my baby girl and another eye on lines of code, and I love it. I'm able to watch her grow up, and be there for her in these important early days of her life and I'm also able to help out my wife whenever she needs me. These last 6 months therefore have been amazing, and I've been grateful for having the luxury of a 'lifestyle business' that allows me to be flexible.
I'll never regret the amount of time I was able to spend with my baby, while the business was being managed by virtual assistants, whilst making money through regular recurring revenue. It's a great lifestyle.
However, I'm aware that the growth of the business and its overall success is greatly affected by the amount of time that its founder spends on it. I could let it grow slowly, and put out the odd feature update every now and then, and it will do just fine, and our customers will still get a great service. But overall, it'll never be as good as it could be, and we won't make as much money in the long term.
Therefore in 2013, I'm going to be committing myself more to the business, finding an office to work in (3-4 days a week) and really working hard to grow the revenue of Project Bubble enough to pay for at least one other full time developer. I'll also be working some of that time on my other startup, Invoiceable, with Hamlesh.
I'll still have time in the week to spend with family, and I'll still have the flexibility (which is the best thing about the lifestyle business) to drop everything if I need to and come home. But overall I think family life and business life will be healthier if I maintain a regular 9-5. I'll write another post about this some time.
So it's been a good year. The first half seeing great growth to the business, and the second half seeing great growth to my daughter! Now I've got a great family and a great business behind me, making exciting possibilities and happy times for this new year.
Bring it on!