How We Started A $350K/Month Business Developing Software Tools For Ecommerce Brands
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi all, my name is Max Rice, and I’m the co-founder and CEO of SkyVerge, where we build software tools that help over 100,000 eCommerce brands manage and grow their online stores. Our customers are mostly small to medium-sized businesses in all kinds of verticals.
We’re the largest seller of plugins for WooCommerce, like WooCommerce Memberships, a complete membership solution for WooCommerce stores. We also run Jilt, an all-in-one email marketing platform built for the unique needs of eCommerce stores.
My co-founder Justin Stern and I started SkyVerge in 2013 and we’re a globally distributed team of over 30 people, with revenue of $350,000 per month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2012 I was working for a small company as an IT Director, and they tasked me with rebuilding their eCommerce website. As I started looking at available platforms, I found an article by Justin comparing WooCommerce to another platform. He seemed really knowledgeable, so I reached out to him to ask some questions and I ended up bringing him on as a consultant for the project.
We worked really well together and the project had a very successful outcome, so we stayed in touch. A couple of months later we had a chance to work together on a joint consulting project, which led to more consulting for companies that needed help with their eCommerce stores.
You rarely get it right the first time. You make decisions based on the best available information, then you learn from the results and iterate.
A lot of these projects involved building extensions for WooCommerce to add functionality or integrate with another service, and we decided to abstract some of that client work into plugins we could offer to others. We started selling those extensions on WooCommerce.com (originally WooThemes.com) and about a year after I had first reached out to Justin, we formally started SkyVerge with about 10 plugins in our portfolio.
We expanded over time to build tools for other eCommerce platforms, like Shopify and Easy Digital Downloads, and a couple of years later we started work on Jilt.
Controlling our own destiny has always been important to us, so we’ve been fortunate to be able to bootstrap SkyVerge from the start. We took the approach of identifying specific problems that eCommerce stores have, often ones that our existing customers would tell us about, and then building focused solutions for those problems. We then used the revenue from our extensions to grow the team and expand our product line using the same philosophy.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Our early products grew out of consulting projects for clients. A lot of clients wanted small customizations or additional features for their store that wasn’t built into WooCommerce. Once we’d built enough of those, we could group them together into a single product that was a bit more general so any store could use it.
For example, we built Cart Notices after a client wanted to show a “free shipping” notice when the cart total was over $50, for the public version we added more flexibility and customization, along with a UI to design the notices.
Because we were getting paid to develop the bulk of these products, there wasn’t much risk in making the more general plugins available for sale, and we found that if one client was willing to pay us to build a custom feature for them, it was really likely that other stores would also pay for the same feature. Even better, clients deeply understood the problem they wanted us to solve, so we were able to rapidly create prototypes, get their feedback, and iterate.
In exchange for the ability to re-use code from these client projects for the on-sale versions, we offered a 50 percent discount on our normal rates and also offered a lifetime license to the eventual product, so clients were more than happy to work with us. The revenue from selling the product helped fund ongoing development and maintenance, so they wouldn’t need to pay another developer to maintain the customization. It was a true win-win.
Describe the process of launching the business.
One of the most unique things about the launch of SkyVerge is that Justin and I didn’t actually meet each other in person until about nine months after we formally organized the company. I was living in the Philadelphia area at the time, and he was living outside of Boston, and we collaborated remotely to develop our extensions. It’s due to that experience that we decided SkyVerge would be a distributed company.
Because we started by doing consulting and built our initial products based on that work, we had an initial stream of revenue that we used to fund expansion. And because we sold our initial products mainly through the WooCommerce marketplace, we didn’t have to do a lot of the legwork of finding customers—we were able to associate with the strong brand that WooCommerce already had and tap into their sizeable and growing customer base.
While we built a lot of products in the early days, we also grew by acquiring small products from other developers. The deal sizes were small, anywhere from $5k to $100k, and didn’t require a lot of due diligence. We knew the market really well and had already worked with many of the other developers, so we were able to move quickly. About half of the products we have in our portfolio (including Jilt!) were acquired from other developers.
We were able to fund most of the acquisitions through cash flow from the existing products we had, though we did borrow money in a few situations when we needed to stretch a bit. In general, we were (and continue to be) fairly debt-averse and when we did borrow money it was a high priority to pay it back as soon as we could.
One of the biggest lessons we learned as we grew the company and started bringing on more people to help us, is that everyone has to be involved in building the culture. One of the most appealing aspects of starting SkyVerge for Justin and I was the idea of building the company we wanted to work at. So as the company grew, and we began to think about things like culture, benefits, and what we work on, we always started from the question, “If this was another company I was an employee at, what would I want to do?” And we spend a lot of time asking our team the same types of questions and incorporating their feedback into our decision-making.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Because we sold our products mainly through the WooCommerce marketplace, and later through the Shopify app store, we didn’t have to spend a lot of time using traditional paid acquisition channels like search or social media ads. We focused most of our early marketing efforts on content, including writing a lot of blog posts about eCommerce and the platforms we developed tools for, as well as detailed documentation for each product. Across SkyVerge.com, Jilt.com, and a separate blog we launched in 2013 about eCommerce for WordPress, we’ve published over 1,100 posts.
Content marketing remains a very big part of our overall marketing strategy for SkyVerge, and it’s been effective at building our reputation as a trusted provider of tools in the eCommerce space. We often hear from customers that they found us or decided to buy one of our products because of an article or guest post of ours that they read.
One thing we’ve found helpful in driving app store conversions is reviews. The app stores we're in tend to use reviews as part of their algorithms for listing and search results placement, and in our experiments, we’ve seen that reviews have a lot of impact on increasing trials. We’ve spent a lot of time this year designing ways to positively impact the number of reviews for Jilt without directly incentivizing them, by doing things like asking for reviews after positive support experiences and at key times during our app onboarding.
We also made a commitment early on to provide excellent support to our customers, which we think it’s a core reason we’re able to attract and retain customers so successfully. Any time we can go above and beyond during a support interaction with a user, that customer becomes both more likely to stay a customer and more likely to become an advocate for our products and tell users about us. One of our company values at SkyVerge is empathy, and that means we always try to align ourselves with the customer. We like to go the extra mile and make sure that we understand customer problems and get them solved, even if that means that sometimes our products aren’t the best fit.
More recently, especially with Jilt, which operates under a software as a service business model, we’ve explored additional marketing channels. That includes things like events, partnerships, and webinars.
This year, we’ve made a concerted effort to focus more on retention and reducing churn. We completely redesigned our onboarding flow from the ground up, starting with research into what steps our most successful users took when they first signed up for Jilt. We realized that customers that create and send an email campaign within the first three days converted to paying customers at a rate that was nearly 3x those who don’t set up and send an email.
So we developed a new onboarding set up, including email campaigns, in-app messages, product tours, and a special escalated support protocol for early trial users, all designed to get new sign-ups sending emails as quickly as possible. The result has been a dramatic increase in trial-to-paid conversion and a decrease in churn.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
SkyVerge has grown rapidly over the past couple of years, and we’re now at over 30 people, in over half a dozen countries. We’ve grown the team by more than 50 percent in just the past six months, and this year we were named to the Inc. 5000 for the second year in a row as one of the fastest-growing, privately-held companies in America.
We’ve been profitable since day one and we’re on track yet again this year to set revenue records, continuing the pattern of steady growth since we started the company almost seven years ago.
We’re very excited by the growth we’ve seen from Jilt this year, with over 250 percent annual growth, and in 2020 we expect to continue rapidly scaling up Jilt and shift our marketing focus more toward user acquisition.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the most important lessons we’ve learned over the years is that you rarely get it right the first time. You make decisions based on the best available information, then you learn from the results and iterate. As long as you’re constantly improving both the work that you produce and the way that you work, you’ll be successful.
We’ve made a ton of mistakes over the years, from marketing to product development to strategy, and each time we tried something that didn’t work, we took a step back, assessed what went wrong and thought about how we could improve next time.
This approach of looking at everything through an experimental lens and striving for learning above perfect results has allowed us to grow both faster and in a more calm and rational way.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use a massive number of tools across our tech stack (for making and delivering our products to users) and internally for things like design, development, analytics, etc. We’re probably here all day if I were to list them all out. Instead, I’ll focus on our communications tools.
Internal (with each other):
- Clubhouse - Our engineering team started using Clubhouse last year when we transitioned from a waterfall approach to a more agile project management methodology. It’s a fantastic tool for tracking progress and communicating project plans, and it has a fantastic GitHub integration, which has been very useful for us. Our product, support, and marketing teams have also begun to utilize Clubhouse.
- GitHub - We use GitHub for source code hosting, code review, and version control for all our products.
- Figma - Figma is a fantastic tool we’ve added over the past year to design and prototype our user interface for Jilt, as well as collaborate around design decisions. It’s helped us to move toward a functional design system that has allowed us to improve the user experience in Jilt and iterate much more quickly.
- Basecamp - We use Basecamp for company-wide communication, including weekly check-in questions, team meeting agendas, and progress reports. We also use it to collaborate with external teams.
- Slack - Like most startups, Slack is our go-to for real-time communication. It’s a great place for the team to chat through problems, seek help from one another, and hang out and talk about non-work things.
- Zoom - We’ve found that Zoom is the most reliable way to connect via video. We use it for small team meetings, one-on-ones, and our weekly, whole-company stand-up.
- Google G Suite - We spend a lot of time in Google Docs and Sheets. As a remote team, communication is very important, especially asynchronously. Our team needs to have ready access to all the information they need to make decisions, and Google G Suite makes it easy for us to collaborate and share vital information with each other. Our company email infrastructure also runs on Gmail.
- Segment & Zapier - We use Segment and Zapier to connect tools and data sources together and automate processes. They’re not really communications tools, but vital in making the rest of our tools work well together and help us work more efficiently.
External (with customers):
- Intercom - Intercom is the primary tool we use to communicate with Jilt customers. We use it for customer support, as well as in-app and email messaging to users during onboarding and at vital points throughout the customer lifecycle.
- Lookback - This is a fantastic tool that our product team recently started using to gather feedback from our users about new features and better serve their needs.
- HelpScout - On the side of the WooCommerce extension, HelpScout is our choice for customer support. We’ve been using it for years and have numerous custom apps built to help us better serve customers, such as a CRM view that allows us to see information about the customer’s store so we can diagnose their issue faster.
- WordPress - All our websites are built on WordPress, including our internal team wiki called HQ, which houses all our operational documents about things like benefits and team culture. We’ve made much of this wiki public, which has been extremely beneficial for recruiting.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow are two biographies that were greatly influential to me. I’m a big fan of biographies, especially those that present a balanced perspective and avoid the “hero worship” that some biographies tend to have.
We’ve recently invested a lot of time and effort into building more leadership capacity and two books we found especially helpful in this regard are Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott and Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by L. David Marquet. Those books became required reading this year for our leadership team and have influenced our thinking about management style and culture building.
I also read numerous websites each day, and two I regularly find particularly helpful are First Round Review and SaaStr.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The most important metric we look at when it comes to success is customer happiness. If we’re not making our customers happy and solving problems for them in the ways they expect, we’re not doing our jobs.
The only way you can successfully build products that make people happy and solve real problems is by talking to your customers. So the best advice I can give to other entrepreneurs is to spend as much time as you can talking to your customers. Don’t just understand their problems; dig into their motivations, their fears, their desires, and truly try to empathize with them. If you can do that, you’ll have a much better chance of building a successful business.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes! We’re generally always hiring these days, and you can find current open roles here. We expect to post a few more open positions in Q1 2020.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Websites: SkyVerge / Jilt
- Facebook: SkyVerge / Jilt
- Twitter: @SkyVerge / @Jilt
- LinkedIn: SkyVerge
- Blogs: SkyVerge / Jilt
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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