Not long ago, I sat patiently in my CEO’s spare bedroom while his mother removed her belongings from the family desk so I could work there for the day. We had no corporate office, no employees and no paychecks. Luckily for us, what we did have was product/market fit and a couple hundred paying customers. We did everything—literally—in order to grow the business.
At Mhelpdesk, we made a conscious decision not to raise venture capital. Because of this, being small and lean was our only path to success. Despite our lean approach, we built a product people wanted and grew at an unusual rate for bootstrapped companies. For startups looking to keep their equity in their own pockets, here are some tips for continuing to grow while staying lean.
1. Join an incubator.
Mhelpdesk was growing. We knew we needed to hire, and working out of our CEO’s home was no longer an option. Our team lives in northern Virginia, and we decided to join our local incubator Fishbowl Labs. There, we received free office space and got to be around other smart, interesting entrepreneurs carving out their own startup paths. At Fishbowl, we made great friendships and business relationships with other resident companies and had access to a variety of seasoned mentors. Our presence at the office allowed us to gain exposure in the startup world. Finally, access to affordable office space was a great move to decrease our overhead.
2. Listen to customer feedback.
At Mhelpdesk, we take customer feedback very seriously. Requests are submitted to our forum, and subscribers can vote them up or down based on popularity. Through this interactive process, we are able to prioritize our product roadmap based on the highest ranked features. We also respond to tickets within a couple of minutes. In the beginning stages of our company, we founders personally dealt with requests. Doing this kept costs down and fostered loyal and repeat customers based on personalized experience.
3. Have hustle.
A necessary trait of any bootstrapped or funded startup is hustle, which may be even more important for startups who haven’t taken on any funding. Our founders make 200 cold calls per day; they cold email CEOs to explore partnership opportunities and reach out to bloggers to see if they’d be interested in picking up a news piece on our company. We are available to our customers around the clock, which gives them confidence in our ability to take care of potential issues immediately. We even caught the eye of famed hustler Gary Vaynerchuk, who mentioned in this video the hustle coming out of our team “is intense and huge.”
4. Solicit word-of-mouth recommendations.
Multiple online reviews have helped quickly accelerate our growth. Many of our reviews came in voluntarily. We prompted others to leave feedback based on their experience with the software at sites such as Capterra, GetApp and Software Advice. Prior to purchasing, customers shop around for a solution to their problem. If a well-known company in their industry is using our software successfully, that is a huge incentive to do business with us.
5. Create a community.
Building champions around our brand is a great way to create meaningful relationships with the Mhelpdesk community. Call us crazy, but we give customers our personal cell phone numbers so they can reach us around the clock. We build deep relationships with each of them. Because we care about our customers, they care about us. They are loyal and willing to work through minor hiccups. Through this strong community, we receive many referrals. I believe this sets us apart from larger companies who can’t be lean. We are able to leverage our customer relationships to acquire more customers.
The traditional path to rapid startup growth and expansion is through the influx of outside investment. We decided to grow our business on revenue generated by offering a solid, needed platform. Without bringing in cash, growth does happen a little slower. But it can be worth it. By staying lean and customer-focused, we were able to reach profitability and keep growing Mhelpdesk the way we always intended.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.
Image credit: CC by Rasmus Mäkelä