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We're a bootstrapping SaaS startup - it's really hard

bootstraps

We don’t have any institutional investors, no flood of VC money. We’ve got to where we are today by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, our wits and the support of our users.

We’ve been growing really well and we’re really excited for the future - we’re a little more relaxed now but it wasn’t always the case.

It was hard, really really hard.

When we initially got off the ground, RealtimeCRM only existed in our heads and we didn’t have any source of revenue to pay the bills so the lights would stay on. So we started the consultancy side of the business to do just that.

There was no office and it was as lean as you could get - we started getting clients in and building software for them, as the revenue from that went up we began to convert some of that surplus into turning RealtimeCRM from a dream into a reality.

Paying the bills but losing sight of the real goal

This was the first real hurdle. RealtimeCRM was still in early stage development and nowhere near being a viable product.

Meanwhile we still needed money to come in to again keep the lights on. We made some bad deals on the consulting side of the business that hurt us just to help our cash flow.

These projects ate up more and more of our time and we suffered significantly from scope creep meanwhile RealtimeCRM, the reason for everything stagnated.

We had to make big changes and fast, on the bad deals we’d agreed to we had to cut the bleeding of time fast, renegotiate where we could and completely change the way we wrote up our agreements to stop this from happening in the future. These changes were born of hard lessons.

At the same time, we had all these big and great ideas of what RealtimeCRM could be. We couldn’t do that anymore, we didn’t have the luxury of time and with clients on our case from the consulting side of the business we had to get serious.

What was RealtimeCRM? What feature should go in and how would it help our users either make money or run their business more efficiently?

In the end we got a simpler but more focussed product that we could finally take to market. The first users started rolling in but it wasn’t a cascade and it still wasn’t going to be able to cover all of our costs

The consultancy side

We changed the way we worked. We no longer low balled projects because we had built a solid client list and built a strong reputation through countless hours of hard work and doing the best for our clients.

We could be more selective, we got a real office and most importantly we made a decision to not go over our expenses line. The consultancy side of the business helped us break even every month as RealtimeCRM developed and grew but we didn’t go further than that.

We had made the mistake earlier of losing sight of the initial goal and we weren’t going to do that again. This meant that we all had to make sacrifices as we were still a lean outfit but now out of choice, but it also meant more time for RealtimeCRM and making sure the small flame that it was at the time did not go out.

RealtimeCRM Google Cloud tweet

Simplify, beautify and be helpful

Up until this point our focus had been on the product and substantive features. We hadn’t really focussed at all on marketing.

Our marketing site was a confused mess that didn’t explain who we are or what RealtimeCRM is. Even basic things like how to sign up were not obvious and took longer to complete than was necessary.

We didn’t have giant marketing budget to throw at this so we did it ourselves and went back to basics. If we were looking for a CRM what would we want to know? What problems are we facing and then how do we sign up to it?

We worked from those premises and rebuilt our site from the ground up which you can read about here. We saw our conversion rate increase and our monthly site visitors go up too. So we’d increased the size of top of the funnel as well as becoming more efficient at converting visitors.

The other low cost tact we took was blogging, in particular levaraging the audiences of others by guest posting to bring in more eyeballs on to RealtimeCRM.

Our blog used to be a desolate place in which we posted maybe every few months some generic piece and we never guest posted. This was a huge mistake that we made in promoting RealtimeCRM.

We really didn’t know how powerful it could be until we took Groove’s content marketing mastery course of which you can learn about our experience here, but it’s extremely powerful especially guest posting.

We joked about getting noticed in silicon valley and getting our name amongst the cool new startups so we fired off an email at Google. Without expecting much, we got a response back and we got to guest post on their Google Cloud blog which they tweeted out to their 730,000 twitter followers.

It didn’t cost us anything other than some time and effort. A huge marketing coup for us that we probably wouldn’t have gotten if we had a bigger marketing budget that probably meant we would have taken a more traditional approach.

Lastly, we’re super helpful. When you don’t have a huge budget your best advocates are your users. They’re our best sales people by far and again it doesn’t require a huge budget. Just try to understand them, take the personal approach and do the best you can for them.

Even if you can’t be perfect people appreciate when you go above and beyond for them, and beyond that you really don’t want a high churn rate as a SaaS company. We’re pretty proud that our churn rate is under 2%.

Soon RealtimeCRM started to gain a momentum of its own and we’ve been dabbling in paid marketing such as sponsored InMail on Linkedin:

RealtimeCRM Linkedin InMail

With whatever avenue we choose we always start small and if we get a good response we boost the resources to that avenue and in this way we make calculated risks and don’t throw good money after bad. You can’t afford to make lots of really big mistakes when you’re a lean outfit. It’s not just money but lost time too.

Final thoughts

When you’re bootstrapping time not just money is a very precious resource that you have to dole out carefully. You have to be able to focus in on clear and concise goals that are possible not pie in the sky stuff that you’d like.

And lastly, start small and then grow more complex in everything as you see more success. That means don’t throw good money after bad particularly when trying to promote your product and also don’t try to do too much at once, you’ll end up swamped, running out of money and then out of time and you won’t have a company anymore. In our case there hasn’t been one silver bullet that has helped us, it’s been constant effort and pushing on multiple fronts to raise our profile and bring in new users.

Bootstrapping is hard, really really hard but if you survive the lessons you’ll learn will make you lean, mean and tough. You need patience and you need to play the long game but it can be done, we are proof of this.