On Starting An Online Proposal Software And Growing 200% YoY

Published: December 29th, 2020
Adam Hempenstall
Founder, Better Proposals
Better Proposals
from Shoreham-by-Sea, UK
started November 2016
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My name is Adam Hempenstall and I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of Better Proposals, a simple online proposal tool that helps businesses send trackable modern-looking online proposals.

Our customers include all sizes of companies - freelancers, small businesses, digital agencies, and big sales teams. We have 10,000 paying customers and have been growing comfortably at 200% year-on-year for the last 3 years.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I grew up in a little town called Southwick near Brighton on the South Coast of England. My Mum was a teacher and my Dad a mechanical engineer so hardly a business background. My first business, if you could call it that, was selling cassette tapes of WWF wrestler’s theme songs when I was about 14.

My Dad had got us the internet ridiculously early - to the point where most people didn’t even know what it was. I’d download these theme songs and record them to tape and sell them at school. I’d saved up enough to buy a CD writer which not only meant that I could sell them for £5 per CD compared to £3 per tape but I could also make them far quicker and with less effort.

Thankfully, I never learned about copyright law the hard way but I did get banned from selling them on school premises. With my newfound restrictions in place, I started out handing business cards out and taking the orders, then I’d meet behind the yellow line after school. It was outside of school hours and off school premises - there was nothing they could do to stop me now.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

When I was about 15 I’d started figuring out the internet, web hosting, and that sort of thing. I’d started doing websites for local bands and businesses, which honed my skills, and at 19 when I got made redundant from a call center I decided to try and make a go of it. The next couple of years were just struggle, part-time jobs, and difficulty but learned how to live on my own, make the pennies count, and build something up.

The lowest point was living in a council flat with a pay as you go electricity meter with a minimum of £5. I had £4.71. So with my sofa already scraped for pennies and have sold just about every possession I had by this point, I put my coat on and went outside. Hacking it down with rain and freezing in the middle of January, I’m hunting around for 29p on the floor. 3 hours later, I have my fiver.

I would have just slept but I’d promised a client I’d have something uploaded by midnight for him so I didn’t have a choice. Pushing that piece of work live that night was one of the coolest, proudest moments of my life and still is.

The next 10 years involved building up the web design agency, shifting into software, and starting little SaaS apps like a basic digital signature tool, a website builder (pre Wordpress), and a CRM. This taught us so much about user experience.

That led us to write a book about business automation and creating custom software to automate workflows in businesses. You’d never do this now because the integrations and range of different tools these days are so much better than back then.

Our eureka moment came when we’d been sending proposals for the agency and the software company and I’d said to the development team to make something online so I can see when people have opened it. Flash forward a year later and that’s generating more interest (despite only being an internal tool) than the other businesses combined.

So being smart enough to know we were getting lucky, we decided to focus all our efforts on getting customers for what would go onto becoming Better Proposals.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Better Proposals has been profitable since day 1 and we plan on keeping it that way. We don’t get into numbers and specifics but I’ll share a few hints that give you an idea of how we approach the business and where our focus is.

Monthly revenue and churn are our “go-to” and “north star metric” if you’re into fancy terms. Everything else we’re interested in is worked back from there. So, our activation is something we focus on because it affects our churn, signups, and conversion rate is something we focus on because it affects our MRR.

We don’t look at vanity metrics like time on site, email subscribers, blog readers, and social media numbers - they’re mostly meaningless for a B2B SaaS. Maybe if you’re a massive media publication they matter but not to a SaaS. Just get it respectable and let natural growth do its thing.

Today we keep our business simple. We have 5 people on our management team. CEO, CTO, CMO, Customer Service/Success Manager, and a Head of Sales. We have 1 weekly meeting of 30 minutes. Each of them then has weekly meetings with their team.

Simplicity is something we live by. If it doesn’t need to be done, we don’t do it, if it can be done on an email instead of a call, we do that. We keep making things simpler and simpler to fight the increasing complexity a larger business creates for itself.

Expansion is something we have been thinking about recently. Be it through an acquisition or starting a new product but it goes fundamentally against our rule of focus and simplicity so it’s difficult to see how we’d bring something like that in. Ultimately, if we can’t create an incredible business out of what we have then there’s something else wrong.

Long term plans are to keep the business forever. You’re not going to need to sell to other businesses so there’s always a need for some version of our product and I’d personally like to see it through a few different phases and reinvent itself a few times.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

We’ve been lucky to not have made too many major mistakes but two spring to mind - the first was a pricing change. We were flying and our Starter plan was flying off the shelf, we then thought “Great let’s increase the price” so we increased it from $19/mo to $24/mo. Did okay but slowed down a little bit. After about 6 months we realized it wasn’t working so reversed it.

We’ve just gone through another pricing change, this time switching to a per-user model which has been far more successful. Although in hindsight, we should have done it sooner.

The other was waiting too long to hire our first senior developer. My Co-Founder, Sabrina had done amazing but was stretched too thin and we didn’t release much in 2018. We should have got some help in but we waited too long which set us back quite a bit.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

With an ever-growing team and lots of projects in all departments, using a project management tool is a must. Our favorites are Basecamp and Jira. Basecamp is very practical and easy-to-use for collaboration on on-ongoing tasks and publishing company-wide updates and news. Jira has been incredible as well, their Kanban boards make overseeing projects a piece of cake, especially for our developers. Speaking of our marketing department, just like in any other company, Google Drive is their go-to spot. There are lots of spreadsheets, analysis, and content drafts being worked on, and Google docs make that incredibly easy to handle.

In terms of our daily communication, other than regular emails, we use Slack and have set up both functional and project channels there. This makes our internal communication a lot quicker and more organized.

For lead management, outbound messaging, and overall customer support, we use Intercom, which is one of the most popular customer relationships platforms nowadays. We also use HubSpot for managing sales activities and upselling.

The marketing department naturally does lots of outreach, so we tested various platforms to make sure our emails look professional and avoid our potential audience’s spam folders. At this moment, we use Lemlist for that. Additionally, we use First Promoter for our affiliate partners.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I've been a huge fan of Basecamp for years, and their simplistic yet powerful approach to building a business and scaling it has inspired me a lot. Their founders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson wrote a book called Rework, which offers lots of helpful, actionable tips you can implement to your business today, no matter who you are and which phase of the business you’re at. It’s quite easy to read and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s looking to become better at the job they do.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

Keep things simple. Complicating something is rarely the answer. Launch early and iterate along the way. Follow Jeff Bezos's advice when it comes to choosing what to focus on. Ask yourself what things will never change.

In Amazon’s case, it’s three things, price, selection, and delivery. No-one is ever going to wake up one day and want to pay more for less choice and slower delivery. So they focus all their efforts on having the greatest selection, the lowest prices, and the fastest method of delivery.

Better Proposals, we create lots of content that can help entrepreneurs grow their businesses. I wrote several books on that, including The Price of Freelancing which teaches freelancers and small business owners how to get first clients, manage relationships with them, and get work done without burning out. Another helpful resource is the book on automation we mentioned earlier, which can be found here.

If you’re looking for actionable tips on how to create high-converting business proposals and documents and win more clients, I strongly recommend our comprehensive Proposal University.

Where can we go to learn more?