Turning an idea into a startup and a startup into a thriving business aren’t linear processes. There are twists and turns, challenges and risks. But no matter the journey a business takes, it starts with an idea. For Insightly, that bit of inspiration came when I was working at another business that I started and went looking for a customer relationship-management solution that addressed the needs of my small business. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything on the market specifically made to meet those needs. Not long after, I sold my portion of the business to my partner and set out with the idea to develop a CRM purpose-built for small companies.
I bootstrapped the business for nine months from my basement with only personal savings to support me and my family. My computer science background gave me the technical ability I needed to create the product, and I used my own experience as a small business owner in the development of Insightly. At every turn, I asked myself, “What would I want this product to do?” The answers guided every part of the project.
Integrating with Google Apps and launching the app on the Google Apps Marketplace proved to be a great way for us to gain visibility with small business customers – our target market. We were also lucky to launch during a time when there were only a few hundred apps on the marketplace. It also allowed us to get a lot of constructive feedback from customers, reporting bugs and making suggestions for additional features and functionality.
After its launch on the Google Apps Marketplace, the next challenge was to scale. When Insightly first went live, I set up an email notification, so I’d receive an alert every time a new customer signed up. Forty-eight hours later, my wife made me disable the feature because my phone pinged every five minutes. Within three months, Insightly had attracted more than 20,000 users and today, almost five years since its initial launch, we have more than 1 million users. As our user base grew, we needed to do the same. The great struggle for startups trying to scale is doing so without a lot of money and resources.
Scaling up meant doing the following three things:
Do what you do best, let others do the rest
Scaling isn’t only about onboarding new customers. Satisfying customers means constantly adding new features and options. As a startup, even on the heels of early success, we didn’t have a massive development team or roster of experienced IT professionals capable of building, testing, and launching new features. We kept the focus on improving our core CRM and project management capabilities. To make Insightly more robust, we pursued meaningful integrations with existing applications that gave our customers more tools to run their companies.
The lesson is to play to your strengths and make additions to your business that support new features and capabilities without trying to do something you’re not prepared to. Your customers started working with you because your product or service solved a problem. Veering from that won’t endear you to anyone. Whether it’s through bringing in some talented new employees or through partnerships or acquisitions, adding new tools and features without deviating from your initial value propositions makes your offering more attractive.
Startup executives frequently try to do everything on their own. However, a CEO’s role needs to evolve with his or her company. If you’re spending too much time with marketing, you need to delegate that responsibility. The same goes for hiring or any aspect of managing the business. When projects start getting delayed because you’re too busy digging through resumes, that task needs to go to someone else.
In the earliest stages of a startup, employees need to wear a number of different hats. As you grow, roles need to become more defined. By delegating responsibilities, skilled employees can take on new tasks. This is why it’s important to make smart hiring decisions from the beginning. This was one of the reasons I decided to relocate the business from Australia to Silicon Valley. We needed to hire skilled developers and engineers that were just as passionate about working on the Insightly product as I was. We just weren’t finding that in Australia. Rather than settling for mediocrity, we moved the business and began making strategic hires, such as engineers to work on product enhancements. It was at this point that I felt comfortable enough to begin delegating important tasks and trusting that the team I was building would run with the ball and achieve great outcomes with minimal guidance.
Finding and hiring candidates who share your passion and vision will ensure that your customers receive the same amount of attention and care from your employees as they would if they were dealing directly with you. One of the great advantages small businesses have is their ability to provide customers with more personal service. You cannot forget this as you start to grow. It’s one of the reasons people chose your business in the first place.
Find the right people and take some risks
Failure isn’t a word entrepreneurs like to hear. We want to succeed – personally and as a company – in everything we do. Inevitably, there will be initiatives or strategies that don’t work. However, if you think your business needs something or can move into an additional market, make the necessary plans and take a chance. And, don’t be afraid to go it alone. If you can’t find the right people to get started with, do it yourself. If you think your idea can work, go for it. Sometimes it won’t work out, but you’ll learn from it. It was just me when I started Insightly, and the company has grown into a full team of talented professionals committed to our customers’ successes as much as our own. From all of this, I’ve learned to trust myself when I believe in something. The short-term challenge is worth the long-term benefit.
Scaling a company isn’t an exact science. Every company will take a different path to success. However, no organization grows and succeeds without taking some chances. Just starting your company probably seemed like a significant risk at one time. If you’ve had enough success to consider scaling up, why not take another?
Anthony Smith is the CEO of Insightly, a San Francisco-based SaaS CRM application.