How We Bootstrapped Our App And Increased Our Revenue

Published: May 29th, 2020
Dan Pepin
Founder, Bonify
from Manchester, New Hampshire, USA
started May 2014
market size
avg revenue (monthly)
starting costs
gross margin
time to build
210 days
growth channels
business model
best tools
Google Drive, Quickbooks, YouTube
time investment
Full time
pros & cons
39 Pros & Cons
12 Tips
Discover what tools Dan recommends to grow your business!
Discover what books Dan recommends to grow your business!

Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.

Hello, my name is Dan Pepin and I’m the co-founder of Bonify, a small app development company started around six years ago with my business partner John Carbone. Bonify started out in life as a web development company servicing organizations of all sizes, including the likes of the YMCA, Fantastic Sams, and Dartmouth College.

Since our last update, we have transitioned from being a service-based company to developing and servicing Shopify apps full-time. I can’t begin to tell you how great it is to type that!

We now run 3 Shopify apps including Custom Fields, Arigato Automation and Customer Account Fields. Our 4th app, InstaSheets is due out very soon.

Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?

Business has been growing very consistently for the past 12 months. We’ve been seeing about a $2,000 increase in MRR every month. With the pandemic, we’ve fared surprisingly well so far. We’re seeing some key metrics rise as online purchasing has increased while folks stay home and new merchants build new stores.

Saying no to a distraction means saying yes to moving our overall vision forward.

In our first interview, we set some lofty goals for ourselves for MRR. We surprised even ourselves by meeting and surpassing those goals late last year. We’re no longer dependent on the client services and web development side of the business. We’ve been slowly letting go of our web development clients during our transition and are down to only a few old clients. We stopped taking on new projects and new clients a few months ago. We’re now averaging 40k+ per month from our Shopify apps and the client-based revenue is no longer critical for us. It’s taken years to get here and we couldn’t be happier that it’s finally happened.

Custom Fields Growth

Arigato Automation Growth

We’re now in the process of expanding our team. While we bootstrapped the app side of the business, it was just the partners working on the apps and customer service for them. Now, we’ve expanded our team to include help with server infrastructure, user interface design, ongoing development, and a dedicated customer support representative. These are all in very early stages but this is the future of our company.

We’ve also fully realized our vision for the creation of a Shopify app development platform. We now have a generic system in place to develop future apps that leverage the backend features of our powerful automation app, Arigato Automation. This will let us create new apps and get them to market much faster, like our upcoming InstaSheets app.

Also in the past year, both John’s family and mine have had babies! It’s been a challenging year as we tried to take some parental leave at almost the same time. Doing meetings from home can be challenging when we have six kids all yelling in the background. :)

What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?

The biggest challenge for us has been supporting the Arigato Automation app. We have found that our customers have unbelievably varied use-cases for using such an app. We are amazed at what some of them are accomplishing with it. On the flip side, less tech-savvy store owners who try to use the app can get overwhelmed and confused about how to set things up. This can lead to long, drawn-out, and complex support requests.

While we were aware that supporting an automation app would be more complex than your typical app, I don’t think we were fully prepared for the kind of things people were going to try and build with it. For example, we have one store with over a thousand automation! We’ve seen people create chains of automation that run their entire store’s order flow from purchase, verify, send to a vendor, email customers, update products, etc… It’s very difficult to support those types of customers!

John and I are not great at marketing (we’re both developers), and while we have dabbled in a few ad campaigns and marketing efforts we always find it hard to click with users outside of Shopify. One issue for Arigato Automation, in particular, is that it’s such a general and customizable app it’s hard to directly market to any specific problem, aside from “do you need automation?” An app that can do almost anything is incredibly difficult to describe and market. Future apps will be more tightly focussed on specific problems.

On a more technical note, we’ve really learned a lot about building a scalable infrastructure to handle a lot of traffic. When we launched Arigato we would run a few thousand actions per month and now we’re running a few million per month. We’ve had to iterate a lot to incrementally improve the platform as traffic increased. Lesson learned: Always build for the future, but avoid premature improvements. It’s a tough balance.

Our primary method we’ve recognized for gaining new subscribers is cross-selling between our other apps, particularly Custom Fields and Customer Account Fields. By using a small bit of self-promotion in all the apps, and recommending each when appropriate, we are able to gain customers across our entire app ecosystem. Cross-promotion between our existing apps has helped increase Arigato’s user base. Utilizing our mailing list to cross-promote has also been effective. Once you have one app with a decent following, it’s easy to point those customers at new apps. We regularly hear from customers using two or even 3 of our apps.

Another key has been providing above-average customer support, especially while trying to gain traction. In-app chat support for Arigato has been hugely successful in that sense. Truthfully, the level of support we give doesn’t scale in the long term, but it has been extremely valuable in terms of business intelligence to work directly with real merchants doing real things with the app. After the interaction is over, we close by asking for a review. You’d be surprised at how effective this method of getting reviews is. We have found that generally, you can keep a customer around if you can really dig in and help them before they uninstall. Some types of issues are very unique and difficult because every store on Shopify is unique, but by providing 20 minutes of good support you may gain a valuable customer for years.

What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?

We’re very excited to be fully invested in Shopify apps at this point. We see Shopify as a growing platform with great opportunities. We are currently working on (and close to launching) a new app called InstaSheets, which we believe will be the most powerful and customizable way to sync your Shopify data to Google Sheets. You’d be surprised how many Shopify store owners want to get their orders, customers, and product data into Google Sheets in very specific data formats.

Currently, John and I personally spend around 20 hours per week doing support. While manageable, the time investment will continue to increase and we definitely need some help sooner rather than later. Between us, we’ve handled upwards of 8,000 tickets over the years. We’re ready to retire from customer service and focus our attention fully on building the business and making new apps. What was once a ticket here or there during the day is now the dominating force in our business keeping us from our next set of goals.

Over the next five years, we hope to develop a few more apps and really increase the customer base in Arigato. We believe that automation is a great space to be in (after all Shopify has its own automation product called Flow). We may also consider partnering with a marketing company to help us grow.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?

I can really only speak to those trying to grow a SaaS business. A couple of issues we had were related to product pricing and the overall direction of the apps.

Pricing is one of the easiest things to iterate on and gain lessons from. We have changed our pricing strategies across our apps multiple times. We have found that, generally, people are willing to pay more for a great product and great support. Underpricing your service may actually be doing you a disservice. A customer comparing multiple similar services with various prices will either be: a) looking for the cheap solution (is that who you want to market to?), or b) looking for quality and willing to pay more. Our preferred customers are those who want a higher quality service and are willing to pay a little bit more for that.

Another tip is to really keep focused on the direction of your service and company. When you first launch you’ll have customers making all sorts of requests, some of them good and in-line with what you want to do, and others a little more “out there”. We have found that anytime we tried to appease a single customer with a fancy new feature we would not get the value out of that enhancement because the volume just isn’t there. Build for 99%, not the 1%. It’s hard to say no. Especially when customers get aggressive and pushy, but we have to do it. Saying no to a distraction means saying yes to moving our overall vision forward. We keep track of feature requests and encourage them, but a feature needs to be requested many times (and clearly add value) before it gets added to our backlog for development.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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