Turn Your Startup’s Shortcomings into the Reasons Your Customers Love You
Every startup works against constraints. We found a way to make ours the reasons our customers love doing business with us.
Note from Len
Belle Beth Cooper is the co-founder of Hello Code. If you've read some of the most-shared productivity and startup content in the last couple of years, there's a good chance you've come across Belle's work.
While being a startup has some big advantages, we also work against a lot of constraints that our larger competitors don't have to deal with. I learned a lot in today's post about turning those constraints into positives, and I think you will too. Enjoy!
I’m part of a two-person, bootstrapped startup called Hello Code based in Melbourne, Australia. In that one sentence you can see that we have plenty of things working against us, but we’ve been surprised to find that some of those constraints actually work in our favor.
As we’ve worked on building our business, my co-founder Josh and I have had many discussions about things that might hold us back. Until very recently we only had one developer (I just taught myself to code so I can build our iOS app). We’ve also been working part-time for other people to keep our bills paid ever since we started our company.
These aren’t the kind of things you brag about as a company founder.
But as each issue came up we had to decide what to do about it.
- Should we pretend we’re not as small as we are?
- Should we get more developers on board so we look better on paper?
- Should we keep quiet about where we’re based since we’re not in Silicon Valley?
Inevitably we ended up deciding to lean into pretty much every drawback we have. We’ve been open and honest about who we are and what we’re doing.
The crazy thing is, not only has this not hurt us as much as we expected, it’s actually helped us.
We’ve been able to build relationships with loyal customers who love everything we do, simply by being ourselves.
We’re at the bottom of the world
Almost every investor or startup founder I’ve talked to has told me to move to the U.S. And as far as we can tell, if we wanted to take investment we probably would need to move there.
Whether we want to move to San Francisco, or anywhere else, is moot right now. We can’t afford to pay our bills with our company revenue yet, let alone plane tickets and moving costs.
Rather than pretend that’s not the case, we’ve embraced the fact that we’re based in Australia.
How we do it:
Here’s what our company website looks like:
And here’s the footer from our web app, Exist:
We’ve embraced our Australian roots so much that we make a point of telling people where we’re based. We could leave that out and let our customers make their own assumptions, but we’re drawing attention to it instead.
Another way we make this clear is more subtle, but astute readers would pick it up: we use Australian English spelling. It doesn’t come up often, but if you’re American you’d probably notice if you saw the word “colour” on our website or in a blog post.
Our customers are from all over the world so we could just as easily have used American English spelling. We decided to embrace local convention because it’s part of the makeup of our company.
How it’s helped:
For our Australian users, we now have some extra camaraderie just because they know we’re local. Here’s what one of our users (who lives in Victoria, the same state as us) said in a feedback email:
And lastly, as a fellow Victorian it’s great to see this kind of development come out of Melbourne. I’m interested in moving into this area in the future and starting to undertake some small projects that are whetting my appetite, so it’s comforting to see some activity nearby.
Being local can even make our users want to support us more because they want to see Australian companies succeed. Here’s what another customer told us in an email:
I’m absolutely loving Exist (and particularly the fact that I get the opportunity to support great Australian developers).
We’ve also had people tell us that simply by being outside the tech bubble of San Francisco, we seem to be more approachable and relatable.
I once had a meeting with another startup founder who reached out to me after reading a post I had published on The Next Web about my experience as a founder. When I met with him, he told me his initial assumption when he enjoyed reading my article was that I must be based in Silicon Valley, or somewhere else in the U.S. When he realised I was in Melbourne just like him, he reached out for a meeting because he suddenly felt I was more approachable.
Takeaway: Not being in the epicenter of startup land doesn’t have to be a drawback. Look for the advantages to where you are and find ways to connect even more strongly with local users.
We’re the little people
Australians tend to get behind the underdog. Something about our culture makes Aussies more likely to root for the little people in any competition, and in this case that’s us.
It’s always been a struggle for us to build our product with just a two-person team. We both work part-time to pay our bills, so we’re not even putting all the possible time and energy of two people into Exist.
Although we’d love to have the support and resources of a bigger team, we’ve learned to love the fact that we’re tiny. It’s something that makes us unique, and it helps us connect with our users.
How we do it:
We’re not just upfront with our users about how big our team is. We also make an effort to show them who we are.
We use our real names and our faces online. When users receive an email from us, chat to us on Twitter, email us with a support question, or look at our website they see our names and faces.
Here’s what the footer of the Exist homepage looks like:
Whenever we send an email to customers, it comes directly from belle@hellocode or josh@hellocode. You can reply to any email we send, and it will go straight to our inboxes. There’s no pretence or abstraction that makes us seem like a fancy corporation.
And every time a user asks for a feature we can’t promise soon, my reply states upfront that there are only two of us, we can’t afford to work on Exist full-time yet, and there’s a very long list of features and bug fixes competing for our time.
Here’s a reply I sent recently:
How it’s helped:
A surprising advantage we’ve found of being small is that our customers are more likely to trust us than big companies. Because our product handles personal data, we’ve always made a point of being clear and honest about what we do with that data (and what we won’t do).
Our customers also get to know us more than they would when dealing with a big company. Using our names and faces everywhere means our users remember who we are, and remember that we’re real people. This helps us build strong relationships and get feedback like this:
@ExistApp Also, I feel good supporting development of indie developers, as I like what you are doing. Keep the good work coming. :)— Daniel Schildt (@autiomaa) February 7, 2015
Takeaway: Our users are ordinary people who like knowing we’re just normal people, too. Use your size and status as an advantage to help your customers identify with you.
We’re bootstrapped and struggling
Bootstrapping your company is tough. It means not taking investment so your only revenue comes directly from customers. In our case it’s meant charging for our product from day one, and very slow growth.
Working hard to find product/market fit as our growth stays stagnant can be a real struggle. If there’s anything we’ve really wrestled with in terms of being open about it, how slowly we’re growing is probably the biggest one.
How we do it:
I always create a monthly report for internal use that details our stats from the past month (traffic to our blog, number of signups, income, etc.) and what progress we made on the product.
More recently we’ve started publishing a post on our company blog every month including these details. Here’s an example of how open we are with our numbers:
It’s scary to be so transparent about our progress (or lack thereof) and the specifics of running our company. It feels especially scary when you’re struggling. All of our users, any future users or potential investors, and all of our fellow founders can see exactly how well we’re doing.
Some of our users actually look forward to these reports now, so they can keep tabs on us:
In the past few weeks we started building a side project to help us be even more transparent with our users. littlelogs is a site we built to let people share short logs of what they’re working on.
We built littlelogs because we wanted a way to share publicly what we’re working on each day. Our users—current and future—can see what goes on behind the scenes of Hello Code, and how much time we spend on our freelance work to pay the bills.
It also gives us some accountability. If I play games on my iPad all day I won’t log that, but the lack of logs will speak for itself.
How it’s helped:
We’re as open about our struggles as we are about our wins. And these days, there are more struggles than wins to share.
Although it’s been a risk for us to share our setbacks, they’ve brought us closer to our users—a lot of whom are freelancers or startup founders themselves, and deal with similar issues everyday.
We’ve started a podcast to share more about the hidden, and often ugly, side of running a company and our users have responded really well to this.
We’re also backing up everything we say by making our work public. Sharing our monthly stats and logging what we get done every day means we can point to the evidence of what we’re working on, how busy we are, and which things are or aren’t working.
We don’t keep secrets from our users, and they respect us for that.
Takeaway: Being honest about our struggles is a relief for us, and helps us bond with our customers. Take a deep breath and share something you’re unsure about—you might be surprised at the response.
We didn’t set out with a plan to embrace every drawback we came across. It’s something that’s evolved over time as we ran into each hurdle and discussed how to deal with it.
For us, leaning into the constraints we have and being honest about who we are, where we are, and what we’re working on turned out to be a benefit we didn’t expect.