2015 was an amazing year for Proposify.
Our customer base grew from under 200 to over 1,600 (that's a 746% increase)
Our MRR grew by 1,566% and we reached cashflow-positive.
We doubled our team by going from 4 members to 8 (counting co-founders).
It’s been fun, challenging, and exciting; just what a business should be.
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder where we’ll be in another year. Proposal software is becoming more competitive all the time with new players entering the market and others closing down.
I’ve been asking myself: Where will we take the product? How will we grow? What are our long term goals?
Goals by themselves are meaningless. I could tell you I want to lose 30 pounds by the summer (I do), but without a concrete plan of what my daily activities are and without holding myself accountable to carry them out, I’ll never reach that goal.
Losing weight is hard because it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget about the big picture. I get lazy. I get snacky. I lose the drive and determination.
Running a business is the same. It’s easy to say, “I want to have 100,000 customers”. Having a concrete plan of what you’re going to do each day to reach those goals and where you’ll need to be at each milestone is much more challenging.
It’s easy to get caught up in mundane things that rob us of time:
Checking social media.
Chatting with co-workers.
Accepting coffees from strangers who want to “pick your brain”.
Scouring the web for hilarious gifs.
Before you know it the week is gone and you haven’t done anything to push the business further ahead.
This post all about how I plan to focus my time in 2016, the most important things a business owner should be doing, and how you can apply it to your business, whether you’re building a product or providing services for clients.
1. Customer Development
You should be learning from your leads and customers every day. It gives you a deeper understanding of who they are and how you can solve their problems better. This in turn helps you market your company more effectively and find new opportunities.
My customer development process looks like this:
When you sign up for Proposify you get a “Quick Question” email, an idea I stole from Alex Turnbull from Groove.
When a new user responds to my email, I learn who they are, what they were looking for, and how we stood out from the competition. I then save the responses in a Slack channel called #customerdevelopment so the team and I have easy access to it for future marketing activities.
45 days after a user signs up to a paid account they get another email from me asking for a phone call.
I streamline this process by using Doodle which syncs up with my iCal, letting them pick the time. Once we have a time that works I schedule the call in UberConference which automatically sends us both an invite and reminds us five minutes before the call.
On average, I do a call each day. People who take the time to set up the call are often happy to hear from a co-founder and I learn a lot from talking to them.
I try keep the calls between 15 - 20 minutes, and I keep an Evernote file open while we chat so that I can leave notes about their name, position in the company, industry, and positive/negative feedback.
Then after the call I clean up the notes to be easier to read and post it to Slack.
If you run a digital agency, customer development can help you narrow down your market and specialize. Try making a habit of calling your clients after every project to learn how things went and whether or not it was successful.
Share the feedback with your team and together you can get a tighter grasp on who your target client is and how you can best solve their problems.
2. Thinking About The Big Picture
Take a couple of hours every now and then to go on a walk with just yourself and a coffee, and ponder these questions:
- What kind of company do you want to build? Are you there yet?
- Are there holes in the market? Is there something none of your competitors are thinking about that the market wants?
- Should you be offering new products or services to your existing clients?
- Should you be going after a new industry while keeping your unique value proposition?
- Should you be doubling down on what’s working instead of (potentially) wasting resources on unproven markets or products?
Staying ahead of the curve is arguably the most important role of a CEO in any type of company.
Spending time on customer development will give you the insight you need to guide your company in the right direction.
But more importantly, take the data you uncover from customer research and apply it by talking with others: cofounders, investors, board members, employees, and mentors on a regular basis.
Form your vision, execute it, learn from it and refine where needed.
Learning is essential to growth. As soon as you think you know it all, you’re already lagging behind.
Entrepreneurs should constantly soak up knowledge from people who are further ahead than themselves.
In particular, you should be learning skills closely related to growing your business, like sales, marketing, design, technology, and your customers’ industries.
Learning about unrelated topics (like science, pop culture or world politics) can also help you sharpen your mind, grow as an individual, and think about life from a different perspective.
There’s a lot of content out there, and it can break your flow to stop and read every article you come across, so I use Feedly and Pocket together which makes it easy to save articles for reading later.
In addition to blogs, reading books is also important to stay up on. Admittedly, this is a weak point for me, but I’ve got two books on my desk I plan to get into soon:
Also, don’t forget about other methods of learning, like online courses, podcasts, webinars, video training, and conferences.
4. Building Authority through Content
As you read what others have to say and apply it yourself, you’ll come away with valuable knowledge and insight that can help others.
If you aren’t already blogging, that should be your New Year’s resolution. You’ll be amazed at how taking the time to provide value for others comes back to you a hundredfold. It helps you build your subscriber list and can help form partnerships with major influencers.
If you need a hand getting started I recommend reading Quicksprout’s Complete Guide to Building a Blog Audience.
Not much of a writer? Start a podcast. We started Agencies Drinking Beer last year and it’s helped us build an audience and grow our customer base. (I wrote a guide for getting started with podcasting that may help)
Granted, I’m not as consistent with blogging as I’d like, so I definitely plan on ramping up my blogging efforts this year. I also want to make season 2 of our podcast better, more informative, and entertaining.
5. Nurturing (the right) Relationships
As an entrepreneur, relationships can be your most powerful asset. They can help you get funding when you need it, increase exposure to your content, or form channel partnerships that can grow your business exponentially.
Schedule time each week to follow new people on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Reach out to your favourite bloggers and authors. Not to pester or ask for favours, but to tell them you love their content and want to share it. Offer to help them out, or feature them in your content.
For me, the podcast has been an amazing way to network and build relationships with smart people. It gives me an excuse to reach out to people with large followings who fit our customer persona's whilst also giving them a chance to get in front of our audience.
Last year we were also pleased to get Ben Yoskovitz to join our board of directors. Ben has a lot of respect in the startup/SaaS world, and we would never get someone of his calibre on our board without actively nurturing relationships.
6. Investing in your People
As you know, your employees are your greatest asset. You’ve worked hard to recruit the best talent, so make time for developing them.
Here’s what I do when it comes to developing my employees, and slowly I’m getting better at it:
Spend one-on-one time with them
There’s a lot to be said for the simple act of spending time with your employees, both as a group and a one-on-one basis.
Being together in an office helps our culture, and from time to time we get together outside of work for dinner and drinks, a night of comedy, or games night which really helps build bonds.
I used to think no one wanted to be “reviewed” — it sounds pretty judgemental. But I’ve learned over time that employees often want a formal review process every year. They want to know what they’re doing well and where they could be challenged to grow.
It’s also valuable as an employer to get an idea of how your people are feeling about the company and their job. Is there anything frustrating or overwhelming them? Are they not challenged?
A brief meeting can help give them a boost of confidence and challenge them to develop skills in a particular area.
You don’t need a formal questionnaire or checklist. Beforehand, think about what you see as the employee’s strengths and weaknesses, then discuss it with the person and get their take.
Praise them for what they’re doing well and give them guidance on how they can get better in other areas.
Ask them how they feel about the job, the company, and the people. Ask how you as the owner can make their job easier.
Helping Grow their Skills
Ambitious employees want to get better at their job and gain more autonomy and money.
Help them by asking where they want to be, what they love to do, and where their passion lies. You might find that they are lagging in one area because they hate doing it, but they are incredible in a whole other area that can open up doors for the business AND increase their job satisfaction.
If you have the knowledge and experience then teach them the new skills they need to learn. If you don’t, then send them to a conference, register for a workshop, or let them travel to another city to represent the company.
We’ve done this a few times over the last year, and plan to do more in 2016. It’s helped our employees feel more connected to the company and to the team.
Running a business is like riding a bicycle — keep pedalling and you’ll move forward. Once you stop, momentum may carry you forward for a little while but eventually your business will slow down and other people will pass you.
Growth hacking is a systematic way of coming up with growth ideas, testing them, and learning from the results. Eventually you’ll stumble on a way to grow at a much faster rate.
If you haven’t heard of Sean Ellis, you should check out what he has to say about growth hacking (he coined the term, actually).
Here’s a podcast episode where he shares his framework for growth hacking.
In a nutshell, it involves looking at the various steps in your marketing funnel and running tests to learn how you can grow faster than your competitors.
Once you find a process that works for you, make it a weekly habit to meet with your team to come up with growth tests, then measure, analyze and learn from them.
The key is to actually make time every week for generating growth ideas with your team, testing them and analyzing them in a formal, systematic way.
In the early days of running a business you get used to jumping into every role: handling client service, account management, building landing pages, sales, marketing, product development, coffee runs, whatever is needed.
But as your company grows and more team members come on board, entrepreneurs need to transition their role to being a leader who works ON the business more than IN the business.
That’s what I plan to do in 2016 and beyond, and I hope you do the same.
What other ways do you plan to focus your time in the new year?
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