How A Solo Founder Built A Platform Of Startup Growth Advisors

Published: January 17th, 2022
Sparrow Founder
Founder, Sparrow
from Toronto, ON, Canada
started January 2021
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Hey! I’m the founder of 🕊️Sparrow. We have empathetic startup advisors who teach you to grow your MRR (monthly recurring revenue) and get acquired! Our startup mentors have built, scaled and sold their own companies, so you're in good hands.

Our rockstars who will help you Amar scaled ZenMaid from $0 MRR to $1,800,000 in annual recurring revenue (ARR). Trevor scaled 13 companies to over $2,000,000 in annual revenue. Jeff sold his company to SoundCloud after scaling it to over $1,200,000 monthly recurring revenue (MRR). You read that right.

If you're an indie hacker, bootstrapped founder or just building a SaaS, we love you. Come book a session! Btw, if you're under $3000 MRR, you get a gift from me.

The project is very close to my heart and I’ll talk about that in a minute. I made this because I know the value of talking privately with experts who understand your personal struggles because they've been where you are today. It’s really a one-of-a-kind experience because it’s one thing to read about how to start a company, but a completely different feeling talking to those who have done it (sometimes repeatedly) - it's almost like pressing "CTRL + F" on someone's brain and finding exactly what you need to help you unlock more revenue every month.

Five of our caring startup advisors @ Sparrow!

Our only sole mission is to help you increase your MRR by:

  • Finding ways to test marketing channels (there's 19 in total, one HAS to work for you)
  • Brainstorming ways to accelerate how you acquire customers
  • Tactics for reducing customer churn

The price of your sessions depends on the startup advisor you speak with, starting from $75USD per hour. Before you spend your money though, I'll make sure you and your advisor chat for a bit so you feel confident and well-prepped going into your call.

And look, if I can’t find you someone from Sparrow, I’ll personally make sure we get you someone who can, even if they’re not on our platform. That’s why I’m so close to the product - your growth is my happiness. 🥲 Btw, follow me on Twitter!! I need friends.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Alright, so now I get to get really personal. I called us Sparrow because much like the bird, our decisions as a founder must be swift.

Speed with informed decision-making is key to winning customers and building a business that lasts.

Don’t build things no one desperately needs. Turn the world on its head and blow your competition out of the water - every - fucking - week.

A few years back, I attended a few business school classes. I was never the techy type, to be honest, and so didn’t enjoy the technical things I was taught in Uni. But what got me really surprised was when I was in business school, a hundred fireworks were going off in my head!

I was firing off at Ivey business cases and sharing my opinion on every question the professor asked. It was the only time in my week that I didn’t fall asleep in class. And so I knew I had a knack for problem-solving when it came to building businesses. Growing up, I also learned to be exceptionally good with people. It took years of reading to be good. But ultimately, human beings are the best things to fill our lives with.

I appreciated the people around me. I loved business school. Now I just had to marry the two.

Enter Sparrow. 🕊️

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Ah man, I wish I had photos of me and a co-founder building this out. I really do. I wish we could spend late nights doing prototypes and chatting with early customers and then celebrating our first dollar. But it’s really just me on the team for now.

I’ll be brutally honest. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in the beginning. I knew the consulting model worked for pretty much any business in the world as long as you had an informed, well-respected individual that people would pay to talk to. But Sparrow’s a 2-sided marketplace and it’s incredibly difficult building one, especially when what you’re selling is other people’s time.

The hard part about Sparrow was that I needed to build the supply-side first (as said by Fiverr’s CEO). For me, that meant searching every social media outlet with these keywords “startup advisors”, “business mentors” or “startup mentors” to find the ideal ones for my platform. But I wasn’t entirely sure what "advisors" even meant in the beginning.. so I started inviting people who I personally thought would be great to learn from.

Good idea right? Wrong. The first Sparrow session was between a first-time tech founder (he and I are bffs now) and their Sparrow advisor was someone who hadn’t really built a startup before.

As you can imagine, the review wasn’t great. But let’s take a pause here.

What really is the product here? I don’t have a “tech product”. I sell a service. And that service is provided by people who I can’t control. So in a way, I don’t really control the execution of my product. And it’s very hard to debug your product when your product is a person. Ask any psychologist.

But luckily, I understand human being and was able to understand the core of the problem after talking to that first customer. I also communicated my concerns to the advisor and eloquently explained the 3 things they could improve upon.

I took 3 main lessons from that experience which I think may help you if you’re building a product/service like mine:

  • Understand what your customer is really paying for: My customer paid for a kind of advice from an advisor who needed to have a specific type of experience. I failed to understand this simple equation and made the wrong match!
  • My advisor was my product: I didn’t appreciate this well enough. There was a disconnect between who I thought I wanted to serve (founders) and who I thought would be able to serve them (non-founders vs. successful founders).
  • I wasn’t bold enough: Being a young founder, I was too worried about asking “daring“ questions that showed I was doubtful of my advisors’ track record when really, all I wanted was to know what they did exactly to scale their companies and how they wanted to help founders. If you can’t look your product in the eye and say it’s your baby, then maybe you’re not a good dad.

Taking these lessons, now I do the following:

  1. I take extra care to understand who my customer is, what they’re building and what exactly they need help on. This is why before you talk to your business mentor, I actually sit down with you over twitter DMs, email or a live call to understand you and your goals better. This helps me match you with the right advisor.

  2. I read for hours on a potential advisor before inviting them to Sparrow. I look for social proof from multiple sources, I read their blogs, I listen to their podcasts and I do a forensic analysis on what they’ve done so far and their track record. This does take hours. But better to reach out to the right advisor after 4 hours of homework, than to do a mass-reach out and onboard “growth consultants” who never really show you how their individual contributions scaled a business. It’s a lot work. That’s why I do it for you.

For giggles, I do want to show you the first “landing page” I had for Sparrow’s business mentors, it was so bad. I didn’t really know what the page should include, so I just built it the way I personally wanted - a big mistake.

Needless to say, I had 0 conversions. But I am very proud of myself because I took the first step to make something I thought would work. I validated the idea by talking with 50+ founders and getting paying customers. It took a while to get to revenue, but boy am I fucking happy.

Sparrow’s homepage from early 2021

The main thing here is for you to understand the key components that make a high conversion landing page. There’s plenty of content on the internet and Twitter on this. I usually share the best content I learn in my newsletter. Here’s a sample - you can sign up here.

Here are a few landing page pointers to remember:

  1. Your “hero” / “above the fold” is what customers see when they first come to your website, without scrolling down at first. This part of your website must ideally have a short description of what you do and a “call to action” for the customer. My call to action is for you to fill in your form and book a session - hence that button on the hero. Another good example is Basecamp’s website.
  2. Think like your target customer and ask yourself what glaring problem you’re solving for them. I made it clear to my hero that our business advisors help founders with growth specifically. I love how Basecamp does it too, reflecting on remote work being a complete mess and they’re here to clean it up. Visuals are great. Use them.
  3. Have social proof of others using your tool. This showcases your authority in that domain. For myself, I used tweets to showcase some of my previous customers. Basecamp says they literally wrote the book on remote working. Hilarious. Sexy. And communicates their authority eloquently to their readers. They also have numerous reviews towards the bottom of their page.
  4. Be crystal clear about what you’re offering and how you’re different from your competitors. I don’t like this advice at all… but it’s true. Human beings need to be convinced to stay on your page within the first few seconds, otherwise, they’ll leave immediately. Hook them with something convincing. An example of a differentiator on my website is that, unlike my competitors, you don’t pay $100-$300 monthly fees for talking to our vetted business advisors who have very obviously built, scaled, and sold their startups. I love what Basecamp did here with their comparisons.

There’s obviously more to landing pages. This is probably just 10% of what you should be doing. But don’t be afraid to experiment! Build a page, bring targeted customers to it. See if it converts. If it doesn’t, change up a few things, run it by a copywriter (someone who tries to increase your conversion rate through better content and design for your website), and then keep testing! There’s no other way to grow. Also, I like Julian’s guide on this here.

Describe the process of launching the business.

So Andrew Chen is writing a book called “The Cold Start Problem” where he talks about network effects for scaling businesses. For me, my cold start was due to not finding the right startup advisors who are (a) great entrepreneurs that know how to mentor startup founders and are also (b) caring, personable people to be around. My “metric” for knowing if a Sparrow advisor is perfect, is if you meet them for growing your company and end up grabbing a drink because you absorbed tactical, actual useful lessons and meshed super well with their personalities!

Having the ambition to make something of myself for the longest time, I knew that what was more important than “doing the sexiest thing”’ was getting started! Almost every founder (outside what they know very well) follows this pattern: guess -> do -> relearn -> redo things. I wasn’t any different.

So I started using LinkedIn to source potential startup advisors by telling them about what I was building, my vision for the long-term, and asking if they’d like to join me on my journey.

I wasn’t proficient in cold-emailing back then and the response rates I got were quite frankly low. I kept a Google sheet of all the folks I emailed + what I wrote in their emails + their responses to me. I researched every recipient for about 90 minutes and personalized every email I sent them. All this meant on average, I needed 2 hours per email. I sent 120 emails in total and so I basically spent the equivalent of 3 full-time working weeks to reach people who I personally thought could help startup founders. Crazy.

Once they were happy to join, I had 20-30 minute sessions to talk about Sparrow, how to advise founders, what their style of mentorship was, etc. but it was really not the best use of their / my time. I was trying to prepare the supply-side (advisors) with how they should sell to the buyer-side (startup founders like you) but the problem was that I myself had never been part of an advising session and so I didn’t really know what they would even expect... It wasn’t all bad. And I wasn’t totally clueless. But I could have been more efficient. Now I do things much differently with onboarding our advisors.

Remember, in my case, my product is my advisors’ time and expertise. So if there are inconsistencies, my product looks terrible and you as a founder would have a bad experience. This is what makes the onboarding piece so key - installing advisors for me is the equivalent of pushing SaaS code on Github. Nice analogy eh? I'm even more hilarious on Twitter.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

As I’ve learned from many blogs and handbooks, the effectiveness of your customer acquisition channels will change over time. The channels which bring you your first 200 customers, may become too saturated by the time you try to get your next 500. And so learning to grow your business is a constant stream of experiments that you (as the founder) and your team need to learn from and iterate.

If you are trying to learn which customer acquisition channel to use for your company's growth, I recommend this article from one of our advisors who has scaled 13 companies (each) to $2 million annual recurring revenue (wow). Here’s his profile if you want to talk to him!

And if you're more of a listener than a reader, check out this podcast on how a founder grew his company from $0 to $100K MRR. Oh and he's also a Sparrow advisor. Damn, everyone's on Sparrow these days?

For Sparrow, since it’s a two-sided marketplace, I had to acquire both the buyer and supplier sides. For the buyers, what I found most effective was one-on-one conversations with a lot of founders through niche forums and Slack channels. As you can imagine, this won’t be as effective when Sparrow is scaling to $5000 MRR since my team can’t message people individually and expect traction at the rate we’ll need it. And so we're also working to increase our content presence online for keywords that resonate strongly with our mission.

For the sellers, I’m still experimenting with different websites/platforms. In the beginning, Linkedin was helpful. Now, I spend a lot of time on forums to scout out founders who have built, scaled, and been acquired. There isn't really a straight-forward process here since there's a lot of trial and error. I've spent hours making cold emails, with all the right information, but it turned out that the potential advisor doesn't have much time on their hands!

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

Ah, this one’s a tough one. I think one of the disadvantages of being a solo founder is that you often don’t have someone to run your ideas by. It’s ironic because I run a startup advising platform and so technically speaking, I should have all the right answers right?

Today Sparrow is getting the attention it deserves from our ICP (Ideal customer profile). What I do wonder though is how we can broaden the spectrum a little bit so we can invite more startup mentors and founders for both sides of the marketplace. Ultimately, I know that I want Sparrow to be a household name for founders. How do we get there? My sister and I have a plan. We just have to see through it.

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

This one’s interesting. And I’ll make it easy to digest:

  1. It’s rarely personal - There have been many times when I didn’t know how to carry a phone call with a new potential advisor/founder. This meant that there was either confusion about the logistics of the call or just a disconnect on the objective of our call. But really, people’s attitude is rarely against you or your personality. I would like to think there are contradicting priorities on their end and it may not always be the best time to chat. This might sound like a lie, but whatever helps me sleep at night lol.
  2. Surround yourself with people 3x and 10x better than you - This is the philosophy of Sparrow and why I built it. If you’re the smartest person in the room, get out. You need to find ways to connect with and talk to founders who are doing great things and can provide some level of informed perspective on your challenges with your product/life. It’s underrated. But I encourage you to find 20-30 minutes a week at least to talk to someone new that you admire/want to learn from. It’ll keep your mind fresh. Sparrow Advisor, Jeff Ponchick, talks about it on his Medium.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Oh, dude, I’m the kind of person who wants function over form.

It works as it should >> it looks pretty.

My “stack” is super simple. I recently started using Notion to store my notes, checklists, roadmaps, product screenshots, etc. Outside of that, I have a Slack group where I talk with founders who want to scale their businesses. It’s new but it’ll slowly come together - you’re welcome to join if you want.

Outside of that, I use Google Sheets as my CRM (lol) and I’ll use the Mac Notes app to keep track of strange things. The website itself is built on SquareSpace. Did you know, there’s a website called BuiltWith that lets you see the tech stack behind a website. Great for competitive analysis or just getting inspiration from others.

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

I could talk for hours, to be honest on this. The best books on business:

Traction - A startup guide to getting customers

  1. Good for new founders and those who want to grow their revenue, get more customers, etc.
  2. Ideal for teams interested in growth stories of successful companies.
  3. Bad if you’re too focused on just building your product and think that “customers will come” if your product is pristine.

The hard thing about hard things

  1. Raw stories of building a business from the ground up, scaling, pivoting, going public, almost going bankrupt a few times, etc. Every moment feels like a movie.
  2. Ideal if you’re post-revenue and have achieved traction, and now want to learn about culture, hiring, building teams, and management.
  3. Not good for founders who’re just starting up. Kind of too much to absorb.

The cold start problem

  1. Cool because it’s written by the Andrew Chen who has a solid understanding of network effects.
  2. His book contains case studies of successful companies, similar to the Traction book.
  3. Not good if you think you don’t need to know others’ stories because “you are unique”, please don’t take yourself so seriously.

In terms of audiobooks, I think we all know the usual suspects. I linked them for you so you can get started!!

  1. Village Global Venture Stories
  2. Indiehackers
  3. The B2B Sales Podcast
  4. The NFX Podcast

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

It honestly all comes down to focus and commitment. If you have these 2, you should have the willpower to get things done. Now whether you’re doing the “right” thing for your business depends on a multitude of factors. As you know, I’ll ask you to consult someone who’s been there and done that, like a startup advisor so you can avoid doing costly things that are highly unlikely to work - but as John O’Nolan of Ghost says, “Stop taking advice or reading on it. Just start building.” I’m paraphrasing. But that’s the gist: get started yesterday. Don’t fucking wait. No one’s coming to save you.

Honestly dude no one ever knew every right thing to do. But the only ones who get ahead are the ones who start early, and read a lot about which direction to take and more importantly - the time-consuming pitfalls to avoid.

And also look, if you want to just rant or talk to someone as a friend, I’ll put aside my business brain and just chat with you like you’re my buddy. DM me on Twitter and we’ll hit it off. Heck, if you want, I won’t even say anything - I’ll just listen for 10 minutes solid. And then kiss you goodnight. No strings attached.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Yeah, I’m looking for a full-stack web developer. Together we’ll revamp the website and make it easier for startup advisors and founders to use Sparrow to supercharge their growth journey and fall in love with our commitment to our cause. We can talk about details whenever you want. Just reach out here.

Where can we go to learn more?

I'm honestly very happy I did this with you guys. I'm always open to podcasts, guest blogs and just love chatting about entrepreneurship. So just DM me anytime! Thanks for having me.