Like most startups, we’ve had many small wins and a few bumps along the way since we launched VentureApp. Our mission is to map the world’s business graph in order to connect businesses with the right solutions. So as we are primarily available in Boston right now, we believe we have a long way to go in achieving our goal, and haven’t talked much about our progress to date.
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But, we hit a big milestone recently – $1M in ARR – which we celebrated with some low quality champagne and an Instagram post. Getting to $1M isn’t easy, and we observed and learned a lot on our way, so in the spirit of sharing more with our community, here are some of the take-aways gleaned.
Start lean and don’t over-build
When we started testing our thesis for what would become VentureApp, we used a simple email address. We didn’t write any code. As businesses began emailing us requests for things they needed help with – finding a payroll provider, contacting an executive coach, etc. – we validated our idea enough to invest a bit more in our (lack of) technology. We created a Zendesk account in order to handle the requests for business solutions we were receiving. It wasn’t until about this time last year that we pushed our first software to begin to facilitate the process of connecting businesses with solutions, instead of over email.
This was incredibly important because the first phase of our business was really about validating the problem we solve versus determining what the minimum viable product should look like. By talking to hundreds of businesses first about the problem, it helped us in determining the different components to test in our early attempts at developing a minimum viable product.
Formalize processes early, but not too early
One of our co-founders, Boris Revsin, did most of our early sales for the first several months as we worked to nail down our value proposition and sales script to match the product we were building. Boris understood that we couldn’t assume that many of our early sales would necessarily be repeatable. Often, a startup’s first sales can be false positives. There is a lot of bias in your first sales – you are mostly selling to people you have prior relationships with and you cannot expect additional sales hires to sell the same way a co-founder necessarily sells.
In December 2015, Boris brought on our first sales hire, Josh Belinsky, who was a co-op at Northeastern at the time. Josh was the perfect first sales hire for many reasons – in addition to the characteristics that make for a great salesperson (hustler, good pitch, relationship builder, etc.), Josh’s personality is one in which he is comfortable with uncertainty and fast change. Far too often startups hire great sales folks from more established companies and these people struggle. It takes a very unique personality to handle the lack of structure in a sales operation and sell a product that isn’t quite where it needs to be. Boris was incredibly smart in being patient about hiring for his sales team and making sure we had the right early hires.
Once Josh proved that he could repeatedly hit a healthy quota (which he did incredibly quickly), Boris began thinking through how to formalize our operation for profitable, predictable growth. In May 2016, we hired Kareem Agha as our director of sales, who Boris has known for several years. Kareem has the exact skillset for an early-stage sales director – he can sell (player-coach mentality is critical in small companies), he can recruit and coach people up, and he has the ability to structure a simple process that quickly gets new reps onboarded and up to quota. You can learn more about his thought process here, but basically, he hit the ground running with knowledge and formal processes around sales cycles, pipeline analysis, buyer journeys, quotas, reporting, hiring, and more.
While we are a young business and growing pains are inevitable, following process is critical for small repetitive successes. It gives us the ability to confidently look back at a specific month and know what went right or wrong. This is what makes us better and helps us grow month over month.
Don’t be afraid to make changes
Naturally as a startup, our product team was constantly iterating and changing our product’s features, and we were doing it fast. Still are. So our sales team has had to change right alongside with the product and manage to grow at the same time. Some changes were planned and Boris’s team had ample time to prepare. Some changes were unplanned, and Boris and team were required to be reactionary versus proactively adapting. Luckily, we have a group of folks who always rise to the occasion.
One example of how quickly we make significant changes to our sales structure can be seen in a recent shift from two teams to one. Early on we believed we were building a traditional two-sided marketplace that needed to service demand and supply-side companies using our platform differently. We quickly realized that all businesses want to find, recommend, and connect with other businesses. Because our platform is being designed to view all businesses the same, some just with more functionality than others (premium vs. basic), our sales team and process needed to do the same. Combining our two sales teams into one, with everyone responsible for various growth goals, made us more cohesive, collaborative, and ultimately successful, month-over-month.
Listen to customers and then data
Many venture-backed companies talk about being data-driven, but in the early stages of a company when you have minimal data, how do you truly do this? When you have small traffic and users to measure, the best way to start to collect data points is to talk with real people. Greg Gomer, one of our other co-founders, essentially acted as our first analytics product, talking to hundreds of businesses and providing large amounts of feedback.
Our sales team now collectively talks to current and prospective customers, aggregating feedback for our product team so we can start to seek out trends we can build for. As we have grown, more data will come through measurements within our product, but the only way to really be “data-driven” early is to talk to customers and quantify the feedback as best you can through multiple touchpoints.
So what’s next?
In the coming months we’ll be rolling out a new product that we’ve been working on for the past several months. We’re excited about it for many reasons. Without giving away too much, we believe our new platform will achieve two things: 1) map the world’s business graph and connect businesses in a smarter way than ever before to help bolster economic growth and 2) put Boston tech back on the map with a true platform company.