Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi everyone. My name is Mike Taber and I’m the founder of Bluetick.io. We’re a self-funded SaaS app that helps salespeople, customer success reps and busy founders close the loop with their customers using sequences of automated email follow ups.
Most people think automated email follow ups are only useful for sending cold emails, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Situations exist in virtually every online business where customer-facing email interactions can be partially or completely automated.
It’s easy to fire off an automated email, but Bluetick solves the problem of making sure that the recipient took an action based on that email and if they don’t, it will gently remind them that you’re still waiting on them.
Were you asking if they’d be willing to do a case study or provide a testimonial? Did their credit card expire and it needs to be updated? Do you need more information about an order that was placed? Need files they promised to send? Need a new customer to fill out a form to scope out the work they requested?
All of these are entirely reasonable requests and most people are perfectly willing to respond. The problem is that people are just busy and unless your request is on their top five list of things to get done today, it’s easy to slip through the cracks. That’s where the automated follow-ups come in, which will automatically stop when they reply or an event is detected in a third-party application.
I wasted several years of my life trying to get my last product off the ground, only to eventually pull the plug because it wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to be reasonably sure this was going to work so I spent almost three months talking to prospective customers and validating the idea. By the end of that process, I had collected enough prepayments that on paper, I had over $1,000 MRR without having written a single line of code.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started developing Bluetick.io about six months after I made the difficult and painful decision to stop working on a different software product I had been developing. That tool enabled computer security administrators to remotely scan a computer and verify it was configured the way they expected it to be.
These types of tools are used heavily at enterprise companies to establish compliance to various regulatory standards. I’d spent several years working on it as a side project while consulting, using some of that revenue to hire a few contractors along the way, but the turnaround time was excessive and I couldn’t afford better developers. I quit consulting for a while and dedicated myself full-time to trying to make it work. But after several months, I realized the business model I was pursuing wasn’t going to work. I was going to need a reseller channel and I didn’t want to deal with resellers so I went back to consulting.
A recurring problem I’d run into for several years was sending follow up emails. I often had to request status updates while doing enterprise sales for my previous product. I ran into a similar situation while selling sponsorships for a conference that I co-founded.
In both cases, it was time consuming and tedious to track whether or not I’d received a response to an email I sent or verify that the action I’d asked them to take had been taken. I’m not the type of person who likes to harass people via email, so I often found myself deferring sending the follow up emails. It was a psychological barrier, rather than a technical problem. I knew what the next email should say, but was manually waiting for the “perfect time” to send it. Sometimes it would pass and I’d simply abandon it.
I looked for an existing tool that would do this, but everything I found at the time was either out of my price range, was Gmail-only or simply didn’t work very well.
My worst fear was that I would sink several years of time and effort into building a new product, only to have it go nowhere. I decided to spend a few months conducting customer interviews and validating the idea as best I could before writing any code.
Take us through the process of building the product.
The first thing I did was to tap into my personal network to see if I could find other people who were willing to pay for a product like the one I was trying to build. I emailed 10-15 people I thought would be interested and spent 15 minutes with anyone who was willing to have a call to explain my idea and get general feedback.
The single most important thing I did was at the end of each call, I asked if they knew of 3 other people who had similar challenges that they would be willing to introduce me to. I managed to triple the number of conversations I had from asking that of each person.
It made me realize there’s a big difference between “I would pay for that” and “I will pay for that”. Most people want you to be successful but something changes when they have to put money on the line rather than just giving advice.-
When I felt like there was enough interest in the idea, I spent 2 full weeks building wireframe mockups of what the product would look like, how it would work and how users would interact with it. Then I scheduled a “demo” with each person who had shown interest. At the end of each of those demos, I asked for a prepayment to confirm their commitments.
About a third of the people who said “Yes, I’d pay for that” balked after I asked for a credit card. It made me realize there’s a big difference between “I would pay for that” and “I will pay for that”. Most people want you to be successful but something changes when they have to put money on the line rather than just giving advice.
I had saved up some money and was doing consulting again, so I hired a team of 3 developers from UpWork. I gave them a deadline of 3 months to get the product to be usable as a beta. It was obvious early on that since I was doing consulting, I wasn’t able to be as responsive to the developers as a manager, nor did I have enough time to fully review their work.
I ended up diving into the code myself to help meet the schedule and while we managed to get the product minimally functional in about 4-5 months, it was at least another 6-8 months on top of that before it was minimally usable and customers started using it. I spent around $15k of my own money on these contractors. It helped me get further faster, but the cost of that speed was non-standard code that in some areas is still being cleaned up today.
For a long time, I had everything running on a single Windows virtual server hosted in Microsoft Azure. As I added customers, the amount of data processing started to slow down the application. I migrated to two servers and eventually to four, which is where things are at today. I’m also making heavy use of Azure’s Table, Blob and Queue services.
Scaling the application has been something of a challenge because it synchronizes with the mailbox of each customer every 10-12 minutes. To do this, it iterates through every folder and verifies that the local copy of each message is identical to the one on the server. Some customers will create a new mailbox to use with the product, while others have more than 750k emails in an existing mailbox, so each new customer has the potential to substantially change the processing load.
Over time, the impact of adding a new mailbox will be minimal but in the early days it was considerably more difficult to deal with.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I spent the first 6-8 months after the product was minimally usable trying to encourage my paid beta subscribers to incorporate it into their workflows. Eventually, I realized there wasn’t any incentive for them to do so because they weren’t being charged for it yet. They had made prepayments, but that wasn’t the same as being actively charged on a regular basis.
Eventually, I sent each of them an email to let them know that the beta period was ending and I was going to start billing them for the product, whether they were using it or not. This pushed everyone to either become a customer or not. It was a difficult decision to make, but nobody complained about it and it was absolutely the right call. I learned that giving people an unlimited beta “until they receive value” wasn’t enough incentive to make them want to start using it.
The website was awful, which is a big understatement. Most people learned about the product through word of mouth, either via my podcast or other customers. It took almost a year before I hired a designer to build a new website with a good looking UI.
I didn’t really do a splashy launch either. Up to this point, potential customer needed to schedule a demo and I would walk them through the product. Then I could answer questions or talk around different features or requirements that they had. Some of the feedback was helpful, but mostly it was a crutch to get around the fact that the onboarding inside the application was terrible.
I didn’t draw any attention to the official launch. I simply removed that part of the process and allowing customers to sign up on their own.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Email marketing has tended to be my “go-to” marketing strategy over the years. Unfortunately, it’s not very effective unless you already have people on your mailing list. There are two ways I’ve found that steadily and reliably reach potential new customers for my mailing list.
The first is what’s called “engineering as marketing”. If you build an online utility that provides value to people, you can require an email address to get the results from that tool.
One that worked well for us was an email subject line tester that provided a grade based on a variety of different metrics. People tend to share free tools like this, so it reliably received organic traffic every month. We ran an advertising campaign on an existing tool via a joint partnership and it brought in 400-500 new email addresses/month while we ran the campaign.
The second that has worked well is podcast appearances and webinars. Since I run my own podcast, I’m very comfortable getting on a podcast and talking about business topics, including email marketing. These podcast appearances tend to drive traffic, awareness and create backlinks to the website, which also results in some SEO benefits.
Some good ones:
Webinars require a bit more preparation and up-front work, but are usually worth the investment. When someone registers, whether or not they attend the live webinar you will get detailed information about them and their business, including an email address that you can use to send marketing emails to.
If you don’t have enough people on your own mailing list to justify running a webinar, you can leverage someone else’s audience. I recently did this for another organization who was simply happy to have someone offer something of value for free to their audience and in exchange, I received contact information for almost 50 registered attendees.
I have a few marketing agencies on board as customers who use the product on behalf of their customers. Since Bluetick.io is integral to the services they offer to their customers, when they land a new customer, typically so do I.
Word of mouth has also been rather effective. Whenever a new customer signs up, I email them directly (using Bluetick.io of course!) to ask if they’d like to schedule a free onboarding call. I demo the product, how to get the most out of it, answer questions, offer advice on their email campaigns and do whatever is necessary to help get them up and running.
The value provided through these calls is far above and beyond what most of my competitors offer. Customers tend to appreciate that level of service and support and the ones who schedule that onboarding call stick remain as customers at least 5x longer than those who don’t. When they have a question, bug report or feature request, they know who to contact. Since they’ve spoken with the founder, there’s a certain amount of empathy they have, which goes a long way towards being patient when they need help.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The business is technically profitable, but as soon as you include my time in the equation, it’s far from it. Nearly two-thirds of my time has been historically spent working on another business that I’m the co-founder of, which has made it difficult to focus on marketing Bluetick.io to the level that it needs to be successful. That’s something I’m actively working to change.
Short-term, there’s still some technical debt that needs to be addressed which will help make implementing new features faster and easier. The biggest area I’d like to see improved is in the area of multi-user accounts for agencies. Most of my competitors offer those features, but they’re missing from Bluetick.io, which makes it difficult to add more of these higher-end customers who not only pay more for the product, but tend to be a recurring source of new customers.
The next revenue milestone that I think is meaningful is $5k MRR. At that level, there’s a higher probability that my marketing channels have started to themselves as being effective. It also starts to provide enough revenue that the business can afford to do things like paid acquisition.
After that, hitting $10k MRR would be a big deal. My post-trial churn is pretty low so that would mean the business is largely self-sufficient, giving me some financial breathing room to do more experimentation when it comes to marketing, hire contractors to help with various aspects of the business and generally signify that the business is on the right track to reaching product-market fit.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The most difficult thing I’ve had to contend with as an entrepreneur is that I’m not always going to have the right answer. Sometimes, a decision needs to be made and you won’t know if it’s the right one until longer afterwards. Worse yet, waiting for more information usually isn’t going to make any difference.
The back-end storage system for Bluetick.io that stores the contents of a mailbox has been re-written four times. It’s in the process of being rewritten a fifth time. This wasn’t a mistake so much as a direct result of scaling issues that weren’t obvious until after they became a problem. As more data is added to the system or new features are needed, you discover new ways of doing things that you hadn’t realized were necessary or possible.
If I could wave a magic wand to go back and do everything again, I would have spent more time before hiring the consulting team to figure out the best ways to implement some of the shared functionality. In some cases, each of the three developers implemented the same type of code in three completely different ways, none of which covered every possible use-case.
To some extent, there was some poor timing involved in launching the product. Over the last two or three years, some application templates have been released which would be incredibly beneficial to use, but porting the product to use them would be enough work that it’s not worth it right now. Had we started with one of them, many of the challenges we face now wouldn’t exist.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Payment Processing: Stripe. I’ve used it for about a half-dozen products I’ve launched and it’s rock solid. It continues to improve over time.
Email Marketing(Bulk): Drip - The founder was the co-founder in one of my other businesses and having tried a bunch of other products, Drip just works better for me.
Email Marketing(Individual): Bluetick.io - Why would I use anything else?
Project Management/Support Desk: Teamwork - I organize every aspect of each of my businesses using Teamwork. They came out with Teamwork Desk and since my needs aren’t complicated, it made sense to tie them together.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
For more than a year, I’ve been on a “content purge”, meaning that I’m creating rather than consuming content. I don’t find it helpful anymore and it doesn’t really help me get anything else done. In theory, I could listen to podcasts at the gym, but it feels like I’m still working. Honestly, I just need a break sometimes.
Ironically, I’m the co-host of the Startups for the Rest of Us podcast and MicroConf, a conference for self-funded software entrepreneurs. It’s a little weird that I’m doing those things, but not really paying attention to what other people are doing anymore. I guess I feel like there’s more value for me in doing things than hearing about what other people are doing.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Stop consuming advice on how to start a business and start the business. You’re never going to have enough information to “know” that you’re making the right decisions. Sometimes you’re going to make mistakes and that’s ok.
The more things you do, the better you’ll become at recognizing patterns and those patterns translate very well between different types of businesses. Building a business lets you see more of those patterns. Reading a new book every week doesn’t provide the same experience.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’m not currently looking to hire any full or part-time positions. If I could find a great Virtual Assistant to help with various ad hoc tasks that would be awesome. But it’s not such a pain point that I’m even looking right now, so it’s more of a nice to have.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: https://bluetick.io
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how!