How Harvest Grew to 40,000+ Customers With Zero Funding
Danny Wen co-founded Harvest to scratch his own itch. 11 years later, here’s what he’s learned.
Danny Wen doesn’t believe in planning.
At least, not for more than a few months out.
We don’t try to plan too far ahead, because we couldn’t have planned to be where we are.
Even today, running a 51-person company that sells time tracking software to freelancers and agencies alike, Danny says that the team “can only plan a few months in advance.”
Maybe that lack of planning has held the company back from growing even bigger, and owning a greater share of a very competitive market.
Or maybe—and, talking to Danny, this possibility seems far, far more likely—that short-term thinking is what has helped Harvest stay on the bleeding edge of innovation, constantly beating larger, more established players when it comes to embracing new devices, technologies and ways of thinking.
To look back on the history of Harvest is to read an 11-year case study on the power of being ahead of the curve:
Their app was one of the first SaaS products built with Ruby on Rails.
They were one of the first businesses to launch an iPhone app (before the App Store even existed).
They were the first in their space to integrate with Twitter.
The list of “firsts” goes on and on.
Often, startups raise a lot of money, telling themselves that it will help them to be this aggressive with their product releases.
But here’s the kicker: Harvest has never raised a dime.
We talked to Danny, co-founder of Harvest, about his company’s track record of rapid development (and, ironically, deliberately gradual growth), and how they went from a two-person design and development agency to one of the most successful businesses in the time-tracking space.
How Harvest Grew to 40,000+ Customers With Zero Funding
“Maybe Now Is the Time to Start”
The year 2000 was, as anyone who was working then remembers, a very, very bad time to work for a “dot com.”
The bubble burst.
It was also the year that Danny Wen and his co-founder, Shawn Liu, graduated from Cornell and entered the workforce.
We had met as undergrads in college. We were both studying computer science, and at the time, the dot com boom was in full swing.
We were excited and just itching to work on stuff, so even during school I was working on side projects with friends.
Once we graduated, we both went to work at different internet consulting firms.
Once the bust hit, the pair got to see “the other side of the coin” as the industry took a sharp downturn.
Shawn and I are living together in a brownstone in Hoboken, New Jersey. Both of us were just like, “we don’t really have much going on…maybe now is the time to start that studio we always talked about.”
And so, in 2003, the pair launched their company, Iridesco.
A Small Agency With Ambition
At first, Danny and Shawn did development work for clients. New projects would come in through referrals, and their slowly growing body of work continued to bring in business.
It wasn’t big business—one of their first projects was a $600 website for their roommate’s aunt’s education video product.
For a while, that was enough.
But it didn’t take long for the “let’s build something of our own” bug to bite.
In 2005, we decided to take a month off from doing consulting work to just try to build out an idea that we had.
The idea was called SuprGlu, and it was a content aggregator that took advantage of the Web 2.0 phenomenon taking off at the time, aggregating users’ posts from services like Flickr, Del.icio.us and Blogger.
We launched it in just a month, and it felt really good. We thought, “wow, it is possible; we can think of an idea, take some time to work on it and it turns into something.”
As we began to see some press take notice of the product, we just couldn’t believe what was happening.
Soon after, the phone rang.
We got a phone call from somebody from a venture capital firm who had seen the product. We picked up the phone and thought, “okay, who’s playing this prank on us?”
They didn’t take the money, and it was for the best; without a revenue model, the product didn’t look to have hopes of becoming a commercial success. They shut it down.
But that first taste was enough to keep the team looking for new opportunities, and they soon turned their attention to a big, painful problem.
Another idea just kept coming back to us.
As an agency, we’ve been using Excel for timesheets for our clients, and we thought, it would be so much easier if this was on the web.
We looked around and didn’t see anything like what we had in mind, so we decided: “okay, clearly we’re capable of taking a product from idea to launch, why don’t we do it for this?”
This time, the team decided to give themselves four months—they had just enough runway from their agency work—and they got to work.
Four months later, they had a product.
It was just a timesheet that we put online; very basic, but it worked.
The Smallest Success
In the first month after launching Harvest, the team found themselves with one paying customer.
Not in the least, says Danny.
That one customer was brilliant for us, because we didn’t know this person at all. We had no idea how they found us. And yet they did, and they decided that our product was worth paying for. That was amazing.
Those earliest customers came with the help of some press, as Harvest was able to ride the Web 2.0 media wave.
Bloggers loved it because we had a new take on an age-old problem. I remember Lifehacker accidentally wrote about it twice, because two different writers didn’t realize the other had covered us already.
We didn’t spend any money, we just put the product out there, reached out to bloggers and got some early hits.
And while that early press didn’t lead to much early financial success, Harvest’s seed was planted.
Slow, Deliberate Growth
While the product was out in the wild, Iridesco had a small problem: they were out of money.
We had to figure out what to do, and we decided to take some consulting assignments again to keep us going.
While they did client work, Danny and the team continued to try and promote Harvest.
We kept reaching out to other blogs that we thought would be interested, we worked on features that might be able to get some coverage, and we invested in a small advertisement on The Deck Network.
That last effort—advertising on the Deck Network, an independent ad network—proved to be a smart move.
It had just launched, and it was reaching all of these influential sites that had design and development audiences. We paid a couple thousands dollars—more money than we thought was reasonable—and it was really, really effective for us. It got us in front of the right audience, and we finally began to get actual paying customers.
The Deck was Harvest’s only advertising channel in those days, and the company advertised with the network for more than ten years after those early days, until the Deck’s closure last month.
Beyond The Deck, the Harvest team got creative about other ways to get in front of their target audience.
Do you remember BarCamp? The first one was being held in New York, and we were like, “hey this is cool,” and we believe in the spirit of this event, so we sponsored it.
Because we were building the product for ourselves, it made it easier to think, “okay, what kind of events do we enjoy?” and then we could try and get in front of those audiences. Creative Morning was another one; we were early sponsors, helping them out with coffee and breakfast.
We also launched a New Founder’s Program very early on, and it was basically a way for us to give Harvest to a company that had just started.
These would be creative studios or designers that just started, and they’re getting their footing. We would provide Harvest to them for free for a year, and they’d have one less thing to worry about as they got their business going.
In exchange, we’d do an interview with them and post it on our blog to help them get some exposure.
The various marketing tactics helped drive some new users in Harvest’s direction, but ultimately, their most effective marketing channel was word of mouth.
And there’s a very good reason for that…
Above All, Focus on the Product
Danny readily admits that their early efforts at marketing were far from sophisticated.
But that's because they focused on what they felt they were best at: building a product people would actually love to use.
We really focused on the product. We wanted to make sure that it was high-quality enough that as people moved around within agencies or between companies, they would want to bring Harvest with them and recommend it to others.
Staying Ahead of the Curve
Danny doesn’t see Harvest as a SaaS company, or a time-tracking business.
“We’re a design and technology company,” he says. And since the beginning, their strategy has reflected this, with an aggressive focus on leading the industry on embracing new technology.
We’re very interested in utilizing design ideas and new technology platforms to see what we can do to make the work that we’re doing easier, and to make our customers’ lives easier.
When the iPhone first came out, we were very interested in how business might fit into this new device. And we were very early with a Safari-based version of a web app that anyone with an iPhone could use.
Later on, we were early in building native iPhone and Android apps.
Where many businesses take a “wait and see” approach to gauge customer interest before investing in new technology, Harvest has built a business on being first.
I think it’s interesting to take bets just to be early in a new platform.
Not all of the bets have worked out. For example, we really couldn’t make the Apple Watch app work.
It’s actually really fun for us to work on that kind of stuff, but it does come with some risk.
Learning How to Grow
The path from Harvest’s launch has been a long one, but more than ten years later, the company’s growth has certainly been impressive: with more than 40,000 businesses using the product, the team has expanded to 51 people, spread across North America and Europe.
That growth hasn’t been without its challenges.
We’re learning how to be a 50 person company every day.
We’re learning how to be more efficient, and how to be more experimental.
Ironically, things get harder with 50 people than 15—people have more defined roles that they’re reluctant to step away from—so we’re constantly re-learning how to make things work and keep taking risks.
And while the company does have some plans for where they’re hoping to go, it’s far from set in stone.
Every quarter, our team leads will write a brief summary of what’s happened with everything they’ve been focusing on for the quarter, and what’s coming up in the next quarter.
Even though we do have a longer road map for the product, we step away to look at it every quarter to see if it still makes sense for us to follow it.
In general, I don’t think planning for an entire year upfront is very productive.
So many things change throughout the year, so many new ideas come about, and you get a lot of new information. Maybe something’s happening with the metric that you’re really interested in improving, so you need to put more time into that. Or maybe new technology appears.
We don’t try to plan too long in advance, because we couldn’t have planned to be where we are today. We plan a few months in advance and just keep going.
But not having a plan doesn’t mean that Danny and the team don’t know where they’re going.
Going back to being a design and technology company, we really commit to thinking about, “well, given what we know today, given where we are today, what are some ways we can use the technology that’s available to us? What are some ways we can use new design ideas that are available to us to solve this problem?”
Our core focus has always been and remains helping small businesses do what they need to do in a more painless way, so we’ve done time tracking, expense tracking, invoicing, focusing on these work flows and making them fit within how teams work today.
That, to me, is a very continual mission. We want to help businesses work smarter, and that’s what our tools represent, and that’s where all of our ideas within our application represent, and when customers start using our products, hopefully it’s a very refreshing experience for them.
The plans will change but the mission will always drive us.
Daily Habits and Decision-Making
As his team works to collaborate better, Danny, too, is focused on working better himself.
Decision-making is something that I’m really interested in, and I’m always thinking about how to better approach decisions.
On my phone, I have a bookmark for this Google form that I answer every single night. One of the questions on that form is “are there any decisions I want to review later?”
Decision-making just isn’t a thing that many founders work on, and I think it’s really important to be able to recognize when a decision is big or small, and then also to check in on it later. After you make a decision, come back to it in a few months and see how it played out. Was it good or bad? That can inform your thinking and help you make better decisions in the future.
The 5 Questions Danny Asks Himself Every Day
- What three things did I accomplish today?
- What was meaningful today?
- Any major decisions I want to review later?
- What was stressful today?
- What is my #1 priority tomorrow?
Danny’s Required Reading
Groove’s blog subscribers tend to be voracious readers who work tirelessly to better themselves and their businesses. That’s why we’re asking each of our interviewees to share their favorite blogs and books.
- Raising the Bar by Gary Erickson
- How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen
- Julie Zhuo (VP Product Design, Facebook) on Medium
Your Turn: Ask Danny Anything
Danny has (very) generously agreed to answer your questions in the comments of this interview.
We’re going to be watching closely and trying to learn as much as we can ourselves, so don’t be shy. Post your questions for Danny in the comments below.