Lessons learned from growing a small business
I have been part of DNSimple since day one, even though I only recently joined the company officially. Throughout the years I've watched as the company has grown to the team we are now, and along the way I've observed what works and what doesn't. Here are 6 lessons I've learned:
Customer development and marketing strategy
DNSimple is not your "traditional" company. We don't have offices, we don't work at the same place, there are no managers, and our schedules vary. It all began with an idea, a product developed to respond to a specific need (make DNS simple and have your site running in no time). We didn't really have a plan, sometimes it feels like it just happened. The initial marketing strategies were minimal at best; conferences are where the product took off, with the help of french nougat and candies. I guess maybe if you believe in what you are doing the product kind of molds itself to the market. No fuss, no faking, just a good product that solves a problem.
The path that worked for DNSimple was to develop for a niche first and create a good product that you believe in. Not all types of marketing require a marketing department: you can be creative and understand that YOU, as the founder, are the chief marketer. Initial customers will buy because of you. Of course it is not as easy as it sounds, and it can be a risk to develop for a niche because maybe the need for your product doesn't exist, but it worked well for us.
Sheboygan, it's been real! Wrapping up the quartely #dnsimpleretreat. Time to part ways and head back into working remote! • • • #remotework #startuplife #remotelife #retreat #cheesy #boomerang @anthonyeden @meeunier @jacegu @clapkent @__skwrl__ @arnamak @laetitiaeden @martinisoft @josephcaudle @sbastn
Capital: It all started with a credit card!
DNSimple is also a bootstrapped company. Now bootstrapping is not so new, but 6 years ago it was not common. I don't even know if we had any other choice for DNSimple. We didn't have capital, but it seems paying for our servers with a credit card worked out nicely. Even today, bootstrapping means that we have a certain budget for the day to day operations, but for any surprises you'd better get creative. Once again I think it comes back to you; believe so much in your product that you know that people will be willing to pay to use it. Yes, your actions are restricted by the limit on your credit card, but this approach also grants you certain freedoms. There are no board meetings to determine how the money should be spent, freedom in your actions and to develop what you think is best for your customers. It also means that since we have to have money in the bank, no freemium for us. We do have a family to feed and we have to be real. I think bootstrapping a company also takes away the pressure of having investors and a peace of mind to know that you are in charge and that you alone control the future of your company.
What I want you to take away from this section is that you don't always need a bunch of capital to start a tech business. The most important bit of advice—one Anthony tends to give a lot—"charge from day one, you get what you pay for"
Of course bootstrapping has its limits, and that means that the evolution of your business is slow and requires patience. But that's not always a bad thing—it will give you the drive and lucidity on how your company is growing instead of putting yourself in the shoes of a giant right away.
What office? Our team works remotely. We are currently in the US, Canada, France, Spain, and Italy. The team at DNSimple works from co-working spaces, cafes, their homes, or anywhere with an internet connection. The freedom of being where you want is something that we cherish. There are several blogs about our remote working habits, and if you are interested I invite you to read them. There's nothing that says you need to spend big money on an office in order to be successful, it's not the sign at the entrance that makes who you are. Especially now that we work in a 'virtual' industry.
Once thing that I will speak about is that working and living at the same place can be challenging. It is sometimes hard to separate work and family time; finding a healthy balance is difficult. This is especially true in families with children. But it is also a gift to be there for what matters the most when they need you.
We don't have "managers" so the dynamics of working together is different than at a typical office environment. We're responsible to rate each other's performance on a quarterly basis—we fill out a survey and look at the results together. These peer reviews help us understand how the rest of the team views the progress you are making, and the transparency of it all allows us to talk about potential issues and try to fix them. For me, the way we handle peer reviews is the most fascinating aspect of our company. There's no time wasted, you are held accountable for your work.
What I like especially is that you become aware of how the team sees your work, not only one person (the manager) judging you and your contributions. I wouldn't have said it in the past, but I now strongly believe that small teams can function well without managers as long as there is open communication and a means for the team to share open feedback with one another. Of course, we have to be realistic, there is a fine line between this concept working well…and chaos.
Research and Development
Our team, whether it's developers, operators, or marketers, work on what they are passionate about at DNSimple. We meet several time in the year to set goals for the foreseeable future, to refocus, and to discuss what has been implemented until that point. You are responsible for what gets discussed, but outside of the commitments you make, you are free to work on anything you'd like. We all have a common goal, our team is building a great, user-friendly product. Empowering team members to work towards to a shared goal and take responsibility for what they work on, leads to stronger bonds and engagements. Strong innovation can be born from this model by giving team members the freedom to experiment.
At DNSimple, every team member is responsible for their fair share of customer support. Yes, everyone on the team. We don't sub-contract our customer service. For us, interacting with the customer directly is a key element to making our product better. We use a service called Groove to organize support requests, through the feature set that Groove offers we each have access to an easily approachable interface where anyone can contribute. Part of our mentality is to "see the pain, feel the pain, and fix it"! In the end, having our developers and officers answering customer support costs more than traditional support, but it leads to a better product. The customer also benefits in these situations, as we can provide them with an answer as quickly as possible—which hopefully leaves them feeling well taken care of. It's not always easy, sometimes it's difficult to divide up the workload evenly. It may slow down other work and productivity. But if you are a DNSimple customer, you know that customer support is one of our highest priorities and we are extremely proud of it.
I am not an expert, these are my personal reflections; these are the lessons I've been learning since the beginning of DNSimple. While not all of them apply to every business, I believe there are some good points that any new business owner can take with them as they start on their journey of entrepreneurship.
Le bonheur ne s'achète pas mais on peut acheter du fromage et c'est presque pareil!
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