15/2/2018 0 Comments
In this 3rd interview in the Techpreneur Interviews series, we’ll hear from Christopher Gimmer, CEO of Snappa, a web-based graphic design tool for marketers and entrepreneurs.
Find out how his need to alleviate a problem in an existing business led to the birth of an even more successful one!
We also talk about the reality-check of the 1000-day rule for entrepreneurs, and you’ll come across a lot of information about strategy, mindset, and the processes involved in scaling a bootstrapped (self-funded) business.
Chris really breaks down the rationale behind some of the major decisions that he and his co-founder have made, and the interview has morphed into something very much like a case-study. Let's get into it...
Welcome Chris. Thanks for joining me on the Purposeful Products Blog!
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
It’s kind of a long story! I actually have a finance and accounting background. I majored in finance at university, and worked as a financial analyst for about 5 years.
I got bored with what I was doing, and started travelling a bit more, and wanting a bit more freedom. I also wanted to work on things I was more passionate about.
I met Mark, my cofounder at Snappa, at work. I discovered that he did some programming on the side, and started becoming fascinated with the whole online world and online business.
The two of us became really good friends, and we started launching side projects while we were both working our day jobs.
We had a couple of failures along the way like most people, but eventually we had minor success, and then some decent success with Snappa, and then we both quit our jobs to go full time on it. So, that’s the quick version!
Was Snappa your first experience of building an app?
The first thing we ever did was a student dating website. We were able to get a decent number of users in our local city, but it wasn't a real business, so we eventually gave up on that.
The first thing we started that was somewhat of a success was BootstrapBay, which was a marketplace for bootstrap themes and templates. (Bootstrap is a framework that helps developers to create web based applications.)
We grew that to about $10,000 a month in revenue, so it was profitable, although there were costs, of course.
After that, we started working on StockSnap, a free stock photo site, and then came Snappa, so that was the progression.
Snappa was the fourth thing that we worked on.
Did you just say StockSnap is one of yours as well? I didn’t know that! I use it quite a lot...
Yes, but we recently sold it. We were working on BootstrapBay and I wrote a blog post on where to get free stock photos. That post started doing extremely well, and was bringing in a lot of traffic. Essentially, we were linking to a lot of these new stock photo sites that were starting to pop up, and we thought to ourselves, “Why don't we create our own photo site?”
At the time, none of these sites had search functionality, and they were releasing photos under Creative Commons, and they usually had just one, or a handful of photographers that were contributing.
So then we launched StockSnap and started building up some traffic…
Actually, we had the idea to build Snappa a year or two before we started working on it.
We weren't sure how we were going to market it, but once we had the traffic from StockSnap we realized that it was probably a good time to launch Snappa as a graphic design tool, so we were running the two sites in parallel for the first two years.
For two years?! Phew! Hard work…
Yes. We were focusing almost all our energy on Snappa, and StockSnap was running in the background, and it became more of a lead generation source.
Then someone came along and realized the potential of StockSnap and made us an offer for it. We took the deal because it made sense for someone with more resources to be able to focus on it...
… and develop it?
Yeah, develop it more than we were doing.
When we launched Snappa, probably 30% of our traffic was coming from StockSnap - maybe even more than that, but over the two-year span, we started to develop other traffic sources too. When we sold it, it was a smaller portion of the leads and the revenue that we were generating, so we were okay selling it off.
Yes… I was just going to ask you if you experienced a drop off in web traffic after that.
I had already calculated what that drop off in traffic might be. Obviously, that was a big factor in the selling price - we had to make sure that we made more than enough on the sale to counteract any reduction in traffic
Actually, it was a lot less than I was anticipating, so I think it worked out well for us.
So you’ve got more time to focus on your baby now?
How long have you been an entrepreneur in total, Christopher?
I guess if you count the student dating website that we launched back in 2012, then that was the first thing that we ever put out into the world.
For two years it was just messing around with side projects while we were working full-time. There was nothing too serious.
Eventually I said: “I need to figure this out, and learn what the hell we’re doing.”
At that point; late 2013 / early 2014, I started to read a lot of books and blogs, and listen to a ton of podcasts. I was soaking in as much knowledge as I could about how you market something online, and how you actually launch it.
Early 2014 was when we launched BootstrapBay, and I think at that point, we had a much better idea of different marketing tactics. During that time, Mark grew tremendously as a developer, and the quality of our products increased too. So, 2012 was when I started dabbling, and 2014 was when we started to take things a bit more seriously and really went for it.
We left our jobs shortly after launching Snappa, so I’ve been an entrepreneur from anywhere between 3 to 6 years, depending on when you start counting!
I recently interviewed Kyle Richie, the CEO and founder of the Strides goal setting app, and Justin Chen, cofounder of the polling app PickFu, and all three of you started in 2012!
That is a total coincidence, so why 2012? Does it take that length of time to develop a high-profile product? There must be something to it...
Actually, one of the theories that I hear quite a bit is the 1000 day rule.
It says it will take 1000 days to replace your job income with the income that you’re generating from your business. If I take 2014 as the time when we started working on things more seriously, it was pretty true for me.
About 3 years in is when I was making as much as I did in my day job.
It does take time. Nothing really happens overnight.
You do think: “How long do I give this?” and "How long will it take?" each time you start a new venture. It’s good that you mentioned that, because sometimes you need to graft for a while - it may not happen in 6 months.
Over the last few years, I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs, and there are very, very few people that I’ve met where it's taken them less than a year to have a resoundingly successful business.
The common trend is usually that it takes a couple of years of grinding to finally get there.
I think with entrepreneurship what you’ll find is that the first few years is a lot of sacrifice, a lot of hard work. You'll probably be putting in more hours than in your regular job...
But once you hit that inflection point, it just starts to get a bit easier, you aren’t working such crazy hours, and you’re making more money than at your day job.
You have to be willing to suffer before you can start to reap the benefits. That’s the observation that I’ve made.
Yes, you feel the burn first, and it gets harder before it gets easier!
I think that’s why there are so few entrepreneurs, right? Because in reality, most people don't want to make that sacrifice for several years, so it ensures that only the tough survive, so to speak.
Entrepreneurship is a bit Darwinian...
Please tell us some more about Snappa.
Snappa is an online tool that helps you create online graphics. In essence, it’s a much easier and simpler version of Photoshop.
When I was working on BootstrapBay, we were growing it primarily through content marketing.
At that time, I was the one writing all the blog posts and creating all the content. I’m not a designer. I was a finance guy by trade before becoming a marketer/entrepreneur, and any time I needed to create images for our blog, I found it really painful to do so!
When I looked at the different tools out there I found that they either had a lot of good features, but were slow and difficult to use, like the Photoshops of the world, or on the flip side, the tools were easy to use, but too simplistic - you really couldn't do much more than add text on a background.
I found an opportunity for a graphic design tool to cater to marketers and entrepreneurs like myself who wanted to create nice-looking graphics, but where it wasn't in their best interest to be spending hours working on one graphic that was going to disappear in the newsfeed the next day, so that's what the vision for Snappa was.
So, you were scratching your own itch, as the saying goes?
Yeah, that’s exactly what happened.
Every time we published a new blog post, as a bare minimum, we would need a new featured image for that post, and I didn't just want to use stock photos, I wanted to make a custom image, and we needed images within our posts too.
I was using Photoshop and I just found it was taking way too much time. At the same time, these amazing free stock photo websites were popping up. I thought it would be awesome if we could integrate these nice stock photos within the tool itself to save that extra step of scouring the web for stock photos, before importing them into Photoshop, and adding design elements onto them.
Was there a point where you started to think that Snappa could become something big?
Before we launched Snappa I took a year off from work and for myself, personally, there was a lot riding on it.
If it failed, I was basically going back to my job, which would have been kind of embarrassing, and it wasn't something I wanted to do.
The first week we did an initial promo, and I think we got 250 sign-ups, and that was steadily growing month over month. Within the first few months, we knew that we had something on our hands, and I thought: “Wow, we have a real business here. I can finally quit my job.”
You never want to get too far ahead of yourself, thinking your business is going to be the next huge thing, and obviously, we’re a bootstrap company, so Snappa is never going to be a billion-dollar business, but it did exceed our expectations.
I think we also had a limited mindset in the beginning. We were saying: “If we can get to $10K of revenue a month, we’re set for life!” Then you hit that and you think, “Oh, okay…” and you put the next goal in place and it's never good enough, you are always striving for more.
But this wasn’t just luck – the point to emphasise here is that you validated your idea before building, didn’t you? As a result, you did even better than expected!
How did you identify the right target market to fit the product?
I tried to do as much customer development as I could, because one of the lessons I learned early on from the student dating website and other things that we launched was that it’s a shame to waste 3 - 4 months developing something that people don't care enough about.
Yes, it's a tough lesson.
I had a theory that a decent amount of the people that were using StockSnap were probably using those stock photos for social media and content marketing stuff, so the first thing I did was to send out a quick survey asking people what they were using the stock photos for.
If people said they were using them for social media and content marketing, I followed up and asked if they’d mind hopping on a skype call. I think I did another survey too, and then I did about 20 Skype calls.
I asked them questions about their process for creating graphics, and what tools they were using… stuff just to validate whether they were experiencing the same pain points as I was with the graphic creation process. After I started hearing enough feedback from people that it was indeed a pain point, that gave us the confidence to go ahead and start building Snappa.
The launch you did - was that a Beta launch?
In July 2015, we put out an open Beta. It was really barebones, compared to what Snappa does today. There was a lot of stuff that wasn't in that first Beta.
One of the things we learned was that you don't want to spend years perfecting a product which: a) might not be useful, or b) where you may not even have worked on the right things.
Our plan was to launch as quickly as possible. As soon as we had something that was semi-valuable we started gathering as much feedback as we could, including identifying other critical features that we needed to put in, and obviously working through as many bugs as possible. After that initial beta period, we learned what the absolutely critical features that we needed were. Then we set a goal and said “Okay, as soon as we finish these three or four features that we’ve decided on, we’ll do a full launch and then we’ll have a free plan and a paid plan.”
So, we officially launched at the end of November and split out our plans. That was how the launch went down.
It sounds like you were pretty disciplined.
Through all that, what were the most important things that you learned about life as a tech entrepreneur, because I know that wasn’t your background initially.
Everything takes longer than you think it will...
Indeed! I don't think new tech entrepreneurs are prepared for that. It can definitely be frustrating...
I don't know a single entrepreneur in the software world that does not share the same experience.
A big lesson that we’ve learned is to try to validate as early as possible, and to get the product out there because what you think is super important may not necessarily be that important.
You really do learn the most when people are actually using the product.
This may sound counterintuitive, but I’ve found that features aren’t always as important as you think they are. Every time that we’ve come up with a new feature that we thought was going to be revolutionary, it didn't make as big of a difference as we thought it would.
That's not to say that you should never improve your product, or keep innovating but I think sometimes people think “Oh I just have to add this one feature and then all these customers will come flocking.” That’s usually not the case, so that’s one word of caution - don’t always rely on new features to save your business.
That's great advice. Working in development teams myself, I know there's a tendency to have these features that you feel are the “wow!” features. We’d be so proud of those features, and think they were awesome, but you come to realise that customers may be much more interested in something else.
It’s so important not to waste time and financial resources on the wrong things…
There were some quality features that we launched where we did notice a bit of an uptick, but for the most part, 75% - 80% of the time we launched a new feature, the graph just didn't change that much.
So, what do you think really does start to make the difference?
Is it just a slow, incremental thing? Have you noticed anything in particular that creates an uptrend?
Believe it or not, I think the reliability of the product is a big thing.
You can have a buggy product that has all the features in the world, but if it’s not working properly, eventually people are going to get tired of that.
Usability is another thing - even with a lot of features, if the product is difficult to use, that's going to create a problem.
We tried as much as possible to balance feature development with stabilizing the product; making it as fast as possible, making sure all the bugs were squashed, and making sure it was easy to use, no matter what features were added in.
Of course, marketing also makes a huge difference. At the end of the day, people need to find out about your product. If you have the best product in the world, but no one knows about it, it won’t do you any good.
I think it’s a combination of getting more eyeballs on your product, and making sure it’s easy to use, works well, and listening to your customers in terms of which features are really important, and not worrying to much about the nice to haves.
Thank you. I really appreciate those comments. I say it in my book for tech entrepreneurs, Don’t Hire a Software Developer Until You Read this Book - you can’t just invest in features and appearance. The product needs to be stable, free of major bugs (and irritations that drive users nuts!), and perform well (in terms of speed, and time to load screens etc.)
Otherwise, for every new customer you win, you’ll lose two or three more.
Steve Krug, the UX and usability expert, wrote a book called Don’t Make Me Think, which is a good book to take a look at too.
Software should be easy to use, even with minimal instructions - no head scratching, no frustrations… It should be very obvious how to use it, and its ease of use should be tested with real users!
What would you say has been the steepest learning curve for you?
To be honest, the whole experience was just mental to begin with!
Also, there were two times where we’ve had to re-do huge chunks of the software in order to make Snappa scalable. Originally, we built the first version of the app on an Open Source framework, and then we realized it was only going to take us so far, so we had to rewrite some of the code, so that it was completely custom. That set us back quite a bit.
Then six months to a year ago, it was a similar story where we had to convert the app, which was written in PHP over to NODE.JS, so that was another three months or so of just cranking out code.
At times like that you do feel like you’re going backwards because you're not pushing out new features.
Chris, thank you, you’ve raised some excellent points. The reality is that the architecture for the product is important, and if this isn’t quite right, or you need to evolve, or change direction as a business, you may have to revisit work that’s already been done. There are times when code needs to be updated, cleaned up and generally improved which can put new feature development on hold.
Chris is sharing some very honest feedback here about some of the day-to-day challenges and frustrations of commercial software development.
There can be a lot of work to do in relation to maintaining and managing code, keeping code quality as high as possible, and making sure that you have a firm foundation to expand from, even if it slows you down for a while, whilst you establish a firm base for yourself.
It’s normal to put your foot on the accelerator to just get features built, and then to be forced to ease up as you run ahead of yourself and need to clean house again... This is also known as technical debt.
Yeah, basically you need to do that in order to start pushing out those new features again.
You always want to keep advancing and adding new features, but sometimes you really need to take a step back and improve what you’ve got, before you can take another two steps forward.
You have to be o.k. with that – it’s just part of running a software business.
You need to refactor (revisit and improve) code here and there, and you need to make sure your product is scalable…
I think that was one of the biggest challenges. When we do launch the next project, I think from day 1 we’ll pay a little more attention to that kind of stuff - making sure that we have a really good foundation. I don't necessarily regret the way that we did it though, because we had no money.
You have to balance planning ahead with just getting the damn thing out there!
Now that we have more experience, and more resources, it makes sense for us to plan things out a bit more, and to be a bit more careful, but going back two years, we just needed to launch with the frameworks or knowledge that we had at the time.
As someone that’s bootstrapped their business, what would be your top cash flow or money management tip for tech entrepreneurs?
Hmmm, that's a good question! The nice thing about the SaaS model and recurring revenue (also known MRR, monthly recurring revenue) is that it tends to be a lot easier to forecast.
In terms of hiring costs, we always hired just that tad bit ahead, so we weren’t putting ourselves in a bad position. We tried to hire as soon as it was possible without screwing ourselves over, but it’s tough because you don’t want to go too long before hiring because the feature requests pile up, but at the same time, as a bootstrapped company you never want to overextend yourself.
In terms of our expenditure, we spent most of our money on development, and then for marketing, we were extremely scrappy.
We never really did any paid advertising. All the marketing tactics we used were basically free, or as close to free as possible, so you have to figure out what marketing tactics don't require upfront cash and then get really good at that!
Did you ever do Pay Per Click, (PPC) / Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?
We experimented a year and a bit after Snappa launched.
Unfortunately, because we have a Freemium product with a very low price point, it's just not very profitable.
I’ve talked to many software founders about this, and generally the ones where paid advertising is working have products with lifetime values in the thousands of dollars, and are more enterprise-y. With products like ours, it tends to be more difficult to make the ads work.
Ideally, you need a learning budget, and from the people I've talked to, you need about $5 to 10,000 dollars to really figure out how it's going to work and how profitable it's going to be. That’s a bit tough to swallow as a bootstrapped company, to spend $10,000 on something that may, or may not even work out in the long run.
Uh-huh. That's certainly a lot to bank roll!
I’m currently considering a number of different marketing channels myself. I'm going to try a several new things, and give each channel some time so I can see which ones work…
Yeah, we’re still growing month over month so I feel like we still have a lot of room to grow with the marketing channels that we’re using.
I’m not ready to make an investment into a channel that didn't look too promising, from our brief experimentation with it.
When you’re a small team, I think it's better to do one or two things really well, as opposed to trying ten different marketing channels at the same time. Usually you’re worse off doing that.
We’ve always been of the mindset that having one or two marketing channels that are working, double down on those ones, and don’t worry too much about what you’re not doing.
That’s a good tip! There's a lot of wisdom in the advice to commit to a few channels, learn as fast as possible, and make them work, vs. experimenting more widely and, then doubling down. The latter is likely to be more risky, so it’s important to manage that risk. Be especially careful if you’re considering more expensive experiments...
So, what's a typical day like for you now?
Over the last 6 months to a year, I’ve been really focused on putting in the necessary procedures to take myself out of the day to day as much as possible.
We recently hired a marketing manager who is now doing most of our marketing, so I’ve been bringing him up to speed with what we've been doing, what's been working, and giving him autonomy to start looking at different things that we could be doing, or improving on what we’re doing now.
For me, a typical day includes overseeing operations, trying to come up with new tactics, and new things that our business could be doing, and coordinating the team so that everything runs smoothly.
So, you're becoming a “pure” CEO - more of a visionary, and executing less of the day to day, “doing” stuff yourself. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, that's definitely fair. When we first started, Mark was doing everything development-related and I was doing everything that wasn't!
Now we have support. As a CEO, and a founder that's always what I’ve been striving for, working on the business…
...On it, not in it, yes!
So, that was my goal for 2017 to get the business to that point where I could take a more high-level approach instead of being in the weeds all day long.
That's the ultimate, but that's also the challenge, isn't it - when you’re starting out in business?
You need to be able to switch between different “brains” that handle different aspects of the business; CEO, salesman, worker, customer care, finance person etc. etc. and then to become ready, willing, and able to start delegating so your business can grow.
Were you able to do that early on?
In the beginning, there is just so much coming at you, that you almost don't have time to think high-level!
My goal was to eliminate things one step at a time so I could get to that point.
Support was the first thing that I needed to get off my plate as that really bogs you down.
The next thing was writing content. It was getting to the point where planning all the content, promoting all the content and writing it was becoming too much, so I hired a freelance writer to start helping with that.
Eventually you start taking more of the day-to-day stuff out of it, and then you start realizing the value of thinking more high-level and more strategically.
That’s the ultimate goal as founders, to have that flexibility, and spending most of your time being high-level and strategic, and the least amount of time putting out fires, and doing tasks that other people are probably better suited to than you are.
It’s scary letting people take over marketing and the blog, because you think that no-one can do as good a job as you, but the reality is that we’re not as talented or smart as we think we are.
It's hard to let those things go.
If you haven’t read it yet, check out The E-Myth revisited by Michael E. Gerber. He discusses these concepts in detail, which is helpful in terms of revisiting your vision, and understanding how you should be aiming to manage your business over time so you control it, rather than it controlling you!
Chris, what would be your number 1 biggest piece of advice for aspiring tech entrepreneurs?
I think the number one thing is to try to launch and ship something as soon as possible.
I know people that always seem to have an idea, and always seem to be working on something, and years later they’re still in the idea phase, or chipping away at something.
You’ve really got to ship as quickly as possible because that's where you are going to learn the most - that point when your product is actually in people's hands.
If you’re bootstrapping, then revenue is very important, so I would try to validate as much as possible that people are going to pay for your product, so whether that's getting presales - that's always the best situation, but probably the most difficult.
Just try to be reasonably assured that what you are building is going to generate income when you launch it.
Thank you! So, what's next for you, and for Snappa?
We’re always looking at improving the product. We recently launched a team plan, so you can now collaborate on your graphics with different team members.
We always have a full pipeline of feature requests, and things that we want to add in, and for me it’s continuing to grow the team and take more of a high-level approach with the business.
Best of luck, with everything! Before we finish the interview, can I ask you some quick-fire questions?
Go for it!
As long as you have a short time frame for your Beta, I think it's fine. However, if you’re building your product for two years without any presales, that's where I think it starts to get scary.
If the software itself is the business, like Snappa where the software is the true value of the company, then I think you really want a cofounder who’s been there from day one, and really invests in the product. If the tech isn't the true value of the business, then I’m more willing to use a freelancer or an agency.
So, the more core the tech is to the business, the more you want to protect it and keep it in-house?
The last thing you want to do every time the competition launches a feature is to automatically copy that, because you’ll always be playing catch-up, and that might not necessarily be the right feature for your audience.
Every competitor has a slightly different customer base, so we always prioritize the feature requests that we get from our customers, along with what our vision is for the product. We keep tabs on what the competition is doing, but I wouldn't say we monitor them very closely, and then panic or anything like that!
Where can people go to find out more about your app?
You can go to Snappa.com.
Thank you! I appreciate your time, Christopher.
My pleasure, thanks for having me.
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