I Bootstrapped A $3.6M/Year Online Review Software In 180 Days

$300K
revenue/mo
1
Founders
5
Employees
ReputationStacker
from
started January 2016
$300,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
5
Employees
347K
alexa rank
market size
$111B
avg revenue (monthly)
$300K
starting costs
$15.8K
gross margin
90%
time to build
7 months
growth channels
Pay Per Click Advertising
time investment
Full time
pros & cons
39 Pros & Cons
tips
2 Tips
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi! I’m Ian, the founder, and CEO of ReputationStacker, a software that helps businesses get more reviews from their customers.

The way it works is simple:

  1. Our users add their customers to ReputationStacker.
  2. The system sends out a single-question survey to their customers via email and/or text message, then automatically segments them into “happy” or “unhappy” customers.
  3. Happy customers are shown links to the review sites of our user’s choice (Google, Facebook, Yelp, Tripadvisor, etc) and asked to leave a review on one of these sites.

The system alerts the user about unhappy customers so they can reach out to them and make them happy before they leave a bad review.

It also automatically alerts the user whenever a new review is posted, and aggregates all of their reviews into one simple dashboard, making it easy for them to consistently rack up positive reviews, greatly reduce the occurrences of negative reviews, and manage their entire online reputation.

By combining email and text message drip campaigns with a single question survey, ReputationStacker automates what would otherwise be a tedious and uncomfortable process that our users would have to do manually (not to mention less effectively) to get more Google reviews for their business. I emphasize Google because it has become far and away from the leader in the review space, but getting reviews on Facebook, Yelp, Tripadvisor, etc is just as easy using ReputationStacker.

Of course, there are plenty of niche review sites that are incredibly important to specific industries. For example, ReputationStacker works great for lawyers to get reviews from their clients on sites like Avvo and Martindale, and for doctors to get reviews from their patients on sites like Healthgrades and RealSelf.

Our users include owners and managers from just about every type of business you can imagine: real estate agents, plumbers, contractors, medspas, salons, solar installers, car dealers, dentists, chiropractors, and on and on, and of course SaaS and online retailers. If they want to get more reviews from their customers, ReputationStacker makes it easy!

We launched in March of 2016 and have seen very few months where growth was flat. In The Q2 of 2020, we saw around a 10% drop in users during the height of the pandemic, but that trend reversed itself completely by the end of Q3.

Currently, we’re doing over $300k/month in topline, which we’re proud of considering that we are entirely self-funded.

i-bootstrapped-a-3-6m-year-online-review-software-in-180-days

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

I worked in advertising and marketing for a long time, specializing in retail healthcare - think urgent care centers, doctor/dentist/orthodontist offices, chiropractors, medspas, etc. Around 10+ years ago, online reviews for retail businesses started becoming important, then they became more important.

But again I was in healthcare, and who wants to leave a review for their doctor? Today that question isn’t a big deal since we’re so used to reviewing everything, but just a few years ago it was unthinkable. No one would ever consider writing a review for the doctor that stitched up their kid’s knee. Restaurants, of course. Hotels, sure. Clothing stores, why not. But for healthcare, it just never even occurred to people to write a review.

So I had some of the offices I was working with email each patient after their visit, ask them if they had a good visit, and if so then ask them to post a review to Google or Yelp or Facebook, etc. This worked better than we ever could have imagined.

All of a sudden these doctors and dentists who had previously only gotten 5 or 10 reviews over the past couple of years were getting more than that every month. Those reviews add up quickly, and in our world where word-of-mouth is everything, getting a steady flow of positive reviews translated directly into a new business, a lot of new business in the way of new patients, many of whom would tell the reception staff upon walking in that they read the online reviews and that’s why they chose that office.

As an added bonus, some patients would write back to the initial email and say that no, they didn’t have a good visit. This gave the office staff a chance to reach out and find out what needed to be fixed to turn the patient’s experience around. Sounds simple, but letting people air their grievances is a shocking boost to customer satisfaction (especially if you take the time to correct any perceived wrong).

Sounds great, right? It was, except that it takes a lot of time to do this work manually, and so it ends up getting done only intermittently or oftentimes not at all. It’s also pretty boring work, and we tend to quickly gravitate away from things we find boring.

But it worked. It worked well. It worked for my offices, so I told some business-owner friends about it and it worked just as well for them. As long as they did it. This got me thinking that there must be a way to automate the process, so…

I quit my job. I know, I know - everyone says you’re supposed to start your side hustle, build up a safety net, then go all-in once you can replace your income, and in hindsight, I probably should have done that. But I’m a good saver and over the years I have saved up enough to give me a 6-8 month runway. I also know myself and I know that I respond better to throwing myself directly into the deep end, otherwise I’ll never fully immerse myself. Some of us are better at gradual transitions, others need to go all-in to commit. I’m the all-in type.

Take us through the process of designing your first MVP

From my years in marketing & advertising, I knew a little about building a website, but not about app development, but I knew that the app I wanted to build was very simple and so I thought it wouldn’t take that long to get built. And it didn’t, once I found the right developer.

I didn’t have the budget to hire an agency so I ended up finding an independent developer on Upwork. But without knowing anything about coding (outside of some very basic HTML and CSS from watching YouTube videos), I was in the dark during the progress of the build. Turns out it might be a good thing to at least be able to read a little code if you’re going to hire an independent developer on the other side of the world to create an app for you.

That first developer didn’t work out. He just completely disappeared after a month (he did not receive a positive review on Upwork from me!). The second developer I hired was better, but moved slowly, too slowly for my needs. The third time was a charm. The third developer produced a fully working app in about 8 weeks and I was off to the races.

Keep in mind that this was 8 weeks at the end of a few months - the whole process was almost 6 months. During that time I built a preliminary front-end website on Wordpress, set up an LLC, opened a business checking account and some credit cards, etc - the boring but necessary parts of starting a business. At this point, I had spent a little under $30k.

From what I know now, 8 weeks is really fast for app development, but I needed a simple interface, and we were able to employ some off-the-shelf software to do a lot of the heavy lifting. In my case, I specifically mean Twilio, which is a cloud communications platform that sells email, text messages, phone, etc services that power the backend of communications in many of the software products that we all use every day.

Describe the process of launching the business.

You may think that to launch a subscription software product we would go with a digital strategy first, but instead, I went where I knew I could get a few clients quickly - right back into retail healthcare using my previous relationships. And to be candid, I didn’t have a budget for a digital strategy, but I did have a phone and determination so I started manually selling to businesses I already knew.

I’ve never met anyone who enjoys cold calling, but I’ve also never met anyone who stuck with it and didn’t improve their pitch and selling strategy more than any other method.

This was pretty easy since many of them had used the manual process I designed previously and knew it worked, and others had at least heard about it and I could show them the results (ex: here’s how business X’s review profiles looked before using our process, here’s how they look after). No matter what business you’re in, “before and afters” are always effective.

Another thing that I’ve learned over the years is that when something works, keep doing it. As entrepreneurs we’re always attracted to shiny new objects, but if boring works, then it’s okay - necessary even - to be boring. So I kept selling, moving from businesses I already had a relationship with to cold calling. I’ve never met anyone who enjoys cold calling, but I’ve also never met anyone who stuck with it and didn’t improve their pitch and selling strategy more than any other method.

So cold calling brought in new clients, but even more importantly it brought out the pain points that potential clients were experiencing and their reservations about signing up. This in turn made me better at sales. A lot better. Over a few months, I went from an average of 3 calls totaling over an hour to get someone to sign up, to closing in 1 call in under 10 minutes. That’s not only good for me, but it’s just as beneficial for the client.

If you have a good product and you’re doing sales right, it should be just as much a win for the person you’re selling to as it is for you. It should be even more of a win for the client. When the value of what you’re selling exceeds the price that the customer is paying for it, you have a customer for life.

As a bonus, my experience doing direct one-on-one sales taught me so much about my clients that it made optimizing my advertising, website, and sales pages a breeze.

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

By starting with only manual sales (no advertising or content creation costs), I was able to start making money without spending anything beyond the initial $30k it took me to get the app built and start the business. This was a huge boost, and over a few months, I was able to save enough to start experimenting with advertising (and even feed myself and pay rent too!).

Listening to our customers is our bread and butter. It’s how we’ve tailored ReputationStacker over the years to not only improve the software itself but also improve our sales processes and customer support.

I started with Google Ads, and once I got that working I expanded into Facebook ads, but I could never get the economics on those to work for me, so I stopped running Facebook ads after a few months and stuck with what worked. I’ll repeat something I said earlier because I’ve found it to be true over and over again: When something works, keep doing it even if it is boring. Keep doing it precisely because it is boring. Boring pays the bills, and every time you improve boredom by even 0.1% you increase your earnings.

We have a blog on our website where we only post articles that we think the reader can benefit from by taking the actionable steps we include. Because we had been running pay-per-click ads, finding subjects for blog articles was easy since the search terms that visitors use to find you are essentially article headlines handed to you on a platter. Some of the articles that perform the best (such as How to Get More Google Reviews and How to Get More Online Reviews) were initially published years ago, but they consistently get thousands of visits each month. Because we’re providing a resource that creates value for the reader whether or not they sign up for ReputationStacker now, later, or even never, we foster trust in them. Over time, value + trust = more sign-ups.

Something else we’ve seen over time is several competitors come into space and then leave it. When you’re selling simple software, it’s easy for copycats to knock off what you’re doing and try to undercut or outspend you. But unless they’re offering something unique or they know how to sell and then take care of their customers, most of them don’t make it. ReputationStacker came about in an organic process first and foremost to satisfy a need for businesses, not to sell something to them. If you listen to your customers and work with them to provide exactly what they need, competition is not an issue.

And listening to our customers is our bread and butter. It’s how we’ve tailored ReputationStacker over the years to not only improve the software itself but also improve our sales processes and customer support. Once we get a new user, our churn rate is very low for our industry.

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

We were profitable almost from day one, but our margins have incrementally improved as we’ve refined our processes. Again, once you find what works then continue to do it and continue to experiment to refine the process, but don’t get distracted by the shiny-new-object syndrome.

Software is notoriously a high-margin space, and ReputationStacker is no different. Our biggest spend is on ads. The software itself is simple, so ongoing development costs are negligible. Onboarding and customer support is also a relatively small portion of expenses due to the system being easy to understand and use, and the fact that it’s almost entirely automated, so once a user understands how it works then they’re good to go.

Our customer support team also really, truly cares about our users and wants to see them succeed. This is super important for keeping churn to a minimum. We currently have an in-house team of 5, and we also use freelancers and agencies as needed.

We have a strong presence in the US, and as we continue to grow we will be focusing more on international markets starting with Canada, UK, Australia, and expanding from there.

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

If I haven’t hammered this home enough already, the biggest lessons I’ve learned are:

  1. Figure out what works, and then do it over and over again. Is this boring? Absolutely. Boring pays the bills.
  2. Provide more value for the customer than what they are paying. When the value exceeds the price, you’ve got a customer for life.
  3. Listen to your customers. They’ll tell you exactly what they want, and they’ll pay you to provide it to them.

Another thing that’s important that I’ve only learned over the years through experience is that if you’ve got a problem with your business then it’s usually one of 3 things:

  1. A process issue: Either there’s a process that needs to be fixed, or there’s no process in place, to begin with so you need to set one up.
  2. A personnel issue: Either someone on your team needs to be coached or replaced, or you’re missing someone with a skill set that you need. BTW - that person can be you if you have the time and are willing to learn the needed skill set.
  3. A project issue: A one-time (or intermittent) project needs to take place. For example, a website update if your site is out-of-date, or a redesign of a physical product, or switching manufacturers if you sell real-world widgets that aren’t performing to specifications.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

ReputationStacker is pretty simple, so we don’t need a ton of tools. As mentioned previously a big part of the backend runs off of Twilio, and the marketing/front end website is a basic Wordpress site. The rest of the software is a custom build, and our payment processor is Stripe. And we run ads on Google.

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

Books (read mainly to learn, entertain a little) - Too many to list but this is a start:

  1. Good to Great by Jim Collins
  2. The New One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard
  3. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Podcasts (listen mainly to entertain, learn a little):

  1. The Tim Ferriss Show
  2. Masters of Scale
  3. How I Built This

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

First: just start. You hear it all the time but it’s the most important thing to do because an idea without action is just a dream.

That said, you should have some sort of plan to start, even if it’s scrawled on the back of a napkin. For me, the plan was to test my software idea out manually to see if it worked. Because ReputationStacker is straightforward, my MVP wasn’t hard to build (and is still the basis of the world-class software we sell today). After it launched, I sold it myself rather than hiring a sales team or jumping right into ads.

This made for kind of a laborious and slow start, but it also allowed me to work out kinks, and ultimately I think it was a big factor in us scaling up quickly and smoothly.

The takeaway here is (especially with software and online platforms): What can you do manually at first to save money, move quickly, and learn key insights that will carry you into the future?

Where can we go to learn more?

-  
Ian Kirby,   Founder of ReputationStacker
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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