Starting a business from scratch is tough. Starting up without funding? Now that’s tackling Everest.
But as a team, we’d already bootstrapped three startups before Geekbot, so we knew exactly what we were in for. We’d taken many lessons from our time on the front-line.
And our prior experience only made hitting the million-dollar milestone fourth time around all the sweeter.
Today, we’re taking the time to pause, reflect, and share everything we’ve learned from scaling Geekbot from $0 to $1,000,000 annual recurring revenue (ARR) with no external funding. If you take anything from this piece, we hope it’s the inspiration to embark on your own startup journey.
If you do, be sure to share your learnings with the world.
Now, let’s begin.
One Problem Had Stifled Three Startups
The Geekbot team has worked together since 2009.
We’ve always worked remotely. And we’ve never seen the need to have an office or to follow set ‘working hours.’ The set-up has been great as far as personal freedom and flexibility are concerned. As for management and communication?
Well, that’s been more of a struggle (you might even call it a disaster). At the outset, even simple status update meetings were a struggle. They took too long. And they rarely delivered the intended clarity.
Then, as Slack began gaining serious traction in 2015 — with Slackbots emerging as a popular feature — we had our lightbulb moment.
We asked ourselves:
“What if, instead of an actual meeting, we could use a chatbot to collect status updates from each team member individually? And what if the bot could then broadcast the answers to the rest of the team — all in Slack?”
This way, we could eliminate update meetings altogether. But at the same time, we’d still keep everyone in-sync. Furthermore, the best kind of meeting is one that never happens, right? So the team took to Google to find the type of product we needed — BUT.
As much as we searched, tried, and tested: we found nothing that served our precise use case, meaning just one solution remained.
If we wanted to run asynchronous meetings, we’d have to develop a solution ourselves.
That’s how Geekbot started. As an internal tool to serve in-house needs. But soon enough, we knew we were building something that other teams might want as well. After all, more and more businesses were becoming remote-first or working across several locations.
Surely the market would be big enough to sustain an actual company? Decision made. We started to build.
Like so many great products that have come before: it seems we had stumbled upon a widely felt problem by scratching our own itch.
And while there’s a ton of science that covers how to ‘validate problems, propose solutions, and develop a minimum viable product’ — we still believe one of the most effective approaches is to solve a problem you have yourself.
That way, you know the pain is there. And you feel it all too well.
Key takeaway: Solve a problem you have or tackle one you already know a lot about.
Preparing A Not-so-launchy ‘Launch’
Strictly speaking, we never launched Geekbot. At least, not in the way a typical product launch goes nowadays.
Our website was barebones. We didn’t have a marketing strategy.
We certainly didn’t have a sales team. And we hadn’t spent months iterating on an MVP (given we’re a team of engineers, we could have easily gone down that route!).
Instead, what we had was a super-buggy prototype.
But it was a hyper-focused prototype that solved a very specific problem for a particular user. Also, it had an intuitive UX. Meaning it was easy to use while teams could quickly adapt the product to fit their needs.
We overcame any shortcomings by treating customer support and customer success as an integral part of our business, which proved to be the perfect way to foster deep relationships with our early clients.
At the same time, it showed people that behind the bot sat a dedicated team who work day-and-night to exceed expectations and make the magic happen.
Thankfully for our bootstrapped operation, this strategy worked like a dream.
Key takeaway: Don’t over-develop your MVP — focus on making the user experience as intuitive as you can over adding new features. And build a reliable customer success team that takes every opportunity to talk to your users.
How To Build Momentum Without A Salesforce
Our focus on the customer experience produced results straight away. And we quickly learned that delighting early adopters was a potent way to promote a product on a budget.
Word-of-mouth referrals created momentum. Despite being a small company with next-to-no marketing budget from a tiny country with a non-existent technology scene, we were suddenly landing household names as clients, including Shopify, Sony, and Github.
We embraced this strategy and doubled-down on our customer focus.
And a virtuous circle ensued: we kept learning how to improve Geekbot, while our clients kept referring other businesses to this ‘super-helpful service.’
Ironically, despite the growing list of high-earning clients, Geekbot wasn’t earning us a cent — until, one day, our customers came to us with an unexpected feature request.
They wanted a way to pay for Geekbot.
Solve a problem you have or tackle one you already know a lot about.
In their own words: they relied on Geekbot to do better work. So, even though it was unplanned, charging for Geekbot seemed a very reasonable turn for us to take. We stayed faithful to our client requests… and finally, we started charging for Geekbot.
The move presented a new predicament: how much to charge? We decided to pitch high, which we did for two reasons:
- It’s much less controversial to correct a mistake by lowering a price than raising it
- It’s much less painful to drop in a generous discount from a higher starting point
Besides the above: there was also a concrete strategy behind our pricing decision: to build an even better product, we needed as much feedback as possible from users who truly cared about the problem.
What better way to find people who care than by charging a little more? After all, when you need a specific solution, you’ll pay for the right one.
Key takeaway: Get better feedback from your ideal customers by pricing a little higher early on.
Our Take On Marketing? Don’t (Over) Do It.
We didn’t market, advertise, or actively sell Geekbot for a long time.
Come to think of it: we only started marketing the service pretty recently, years after actually releasing the product.
— “Why no marketing?” you ask.
Well, our reason was simple: Geekbot is ‘all about the product’ as the team likes to say. It may sound cliché, but it made all the difference in practice.
A great product is the foundation of word-of-mouth marketing. And as you can see from our early success, word-of-mouth can be the best way to build a business — at least, it worked best for us.
So, we only worked on campaigns that focused on referrals.
To this day, we don’t pursue sales in the traditional way. Instead, we look for ways to connect on a personal level, so most of our ads are nothing more than testimonials written by happy customers.
I’ve watched too many great marketing teams promote mediocre products, only to see the bubble burst as a lack of product-focus allowed the competition to catch up.
Short-term marketing metrics only mask a problem until it’s too late to react. On the other hand, if you focus on your loyal clients and use their feedback to build the best product, you’ll get way ahead of the competition and attract even more users in the process.
To their detriment: it seems few businesses practice this way of thinking.
Key takeaway: Focus on converting new users into loyal customers first — consider marketing and sales as second-class citizens until you’ve nailed part one.
If Only Startups Were Always This Simple.
If your startup journey is all sunshine and roses, you’ve probably forgotten a few key details. If not, we question if it’s a true startup story at all.
At Geekbot, we’ve encountered enough thorns to know that roses can hurt.
In the beginning, everything was simple. We just had to build a product. But then the inevitable arrived: we had to build a team to support the product. This took serious effort and consideration.
First of all, we had to shift our focus every day: there was the hiring (and lots of it), dealing with administration, trying to oversee an entire structure…. then something would hit the fan, and we were no longer managing a company.
We were overseeing ‘controlled’ chaos.
We’ve had our fair share of growing pains, that much is for sure. Going from a tight-knit team of five to a scale-up of sixteen played havoc with communication streams, team alignment proved tricky, and drama often ensued.
Events pushed us to make several structural changes and rethink our organization from the ground-up (and that caused a fair amount of burnout, leaving us all feeling a little helpless). I’m pretty sure if our growth hadn’t been so organic, Geekbot might have failed at this point.
I know I made plenty of early mistakes.
My biggest regret is that I tried to reinvent the wheel on too many things too often. Were I to start over, I would seek more advice from those with the relevant experience — maybe even accept the venture funding that comes with valuable know-how.
On a brighter note, the experience has taught everyone so much about how teams function.
And we’ve channeled our learnings into helping other teams resolve similar problems.
Today, Geekbot is a much better product as a result.
Key takeaway: Every stage of a startup presents new challenges — don’t be embarrassed to seek advice from those with more experience tackling particular issues.
How To Turn A Scale-up Into A Stable Business
Scaling a business requires an altogether different skillset from starting one.
The first thing you’ll need to change is who you hire. You’ll need managers and leaders to spearhead growth (at the same time, you won’t want to stifle the creativity that brought you success in the first place).
Then, there’ll come the time when ‘general maintenance’ builds up. The kind of work that’s integral to keeping a business running — like bug fixes, software upgrades, security alerts — but that can quickly bring innovation to a standstill.
After all, who can find the headspace to dream up new features when there’s an endless backlog of issues to clean up. When this happens, ruthless prioritization and creative automation is the key.
I know we’ve invested more funds into tools and services that save us time than anything else. And the outgoings have more than paid their dues: we no longer have to carry out basic maintenance just to keep the lights on.
Everything we’ve spent has freed us to focus on making our product better.
Key takeaway: When maintenance starts to take over, take time to automate what you can — or invest in products and services that remove the burden.
Looking Back — And Looking Forward
The Geekbot journey has been nothing but awe-inspiring. I’m immensely proud of my team for getting us this far.
Building the right team has not been the easiest, but it’s certainly been rewarding. Moreover, everyone working here gives me great confidence we can tackle the bigger challenges that lie in wait.
It’s this collective struggle and achievement that makes the whole startup story feel like an epic tale — and the Geekbot team loves epic tales. If our experience inspires you to create your own someday, we’d love to hear about it.
Or if you’re a Geekbot user or supporter, my team and I would like to take this chance to say a heartfelt thank you. There’s no way we could have made it here without your support. You are the reason we keep on building.
And we’ll never stop finding ways to help you focus on the work that matters most.