Is there still place for ugly stories in the sugary start-up world?
By "ugly stories" I mean these without investors, conferences, EU subsidies, crazy start-up events, travels to Silicon Valley and embellished photos for Insta.
Yes, this is one of these stories.
We established our company in June 2016.
11 months later we earned our first million.
To this day 100% of the company's shares is in our hands. The company has never generated a loss and has been profitable from the very beginning of its existence.
However, this is not-so-typical success story. Despite a happy ending, it is full of doubts, failures and wrong decisions.
Dear reader, we present you a series of over 50 comprehensive articles describing the winding road of our business. The following 100 texts are in the pipeline.
Forgive me this large number of issues, but there is no easier way to answer the question - "How did you succeed?".
This series is not for people looking for simplified answers. You will not find here a wonderful way to do business nor pointless talks and meaningless advice, such as follow your dreams or change the world.
This is a case study - an analytical lecture, cold facts supplemented by my personal, tough-minded reflection on creating a company.
I do not want to wake up anybody from its sweet star-up dream about unicorns. These who like still dreaming, I recommend staying in the colorful world created by Instagram.
Who are we?
In short, we create and sell software.
We provide a wide range of products, and the most popular one is MDBootstrap.
It is a frontend framework, a set of tools / elements / functionalities used to create websites and web applications.
Currently, it is (in terms of total number of users) the world's most popular tool of this type in its technological niche.
What does our business look like in numbers?
Our solutions are now used by over 500 000 professionals from all over the world.
We mainly sell our products in Western Europe (43% of sales) and in the USA (37% of sales).
Our biggest clients are: NASA (yes, this one from space), Amazon, Nike, Mazda, Samsung, Sony, Airbus, Yahoo, Deloitte, Ikea, General Electric, KPMG, Unity, Aegon.
Main statistics for March 2018
(There are one month's data, i.e. from 3 March 2018 to 31 March 2018)
(Numbers in brackets present the same value for December 2017 and percentage change in relation to March 2018.)
PLN 285 000
(PLN 193 500)
Marketing and sales costs
Total cost (including tax)
PLN 92 000
(PLN 105 000)
PLN 193 000
(PLN 88 500)
Website traffic in March 2018
2 113 436
(1 120 972)
Websites / Sessions
Average session duration
4 min 57 sec
(5 min 00 sec)
Participation in start-up events
Table of contents
Here you can read about detailed description of the individual section of our study.
If you want start reading, click the bottom "Start reading".
Section I - Anatomy of our business
Basic information about MDBootstrap, which are crucial to understand our actions and their consequences.
Company's success depends on hundreds of factors - bigger and smaller ones. If someone says:
"The most important in business is [...]" and finishes its statement in few words, in my opinion, it is far-reaching abuse. If sky's the limit, a company needs much more than answer told in few words.
2. Key concepts
3. Our products
4. Our clients
Section II - Prelude
Tumultuous time before launching a brand new product.
"Let me repeat this aloud.
You want to launch a new product to the market dominated by free, open source solutions. Your competition will be not only dozens free products made by passionate people, but also projects provided by technological giants, such as: Google, Twitter or Facebook, which offer free product as well.
Your distinguishing feature will be charge for your products, whereas the majority of other companies provide the same for free.
Did I miss something?”
“Hmm...We have no money, no team, or office or experience in this technology. What's more, we do not want any investor nor any subsidies. We are going to do this ourselves.”
“Are you...hmm... kidding me?”.
In this way I can describe our initial talks to people about our idea for MDB.
Section III - Forged in hatefire
About obtaining first users, clients and reaction to MDBootstrap.
We were prepared to take action and started our promotional campaign. First comments about our product were devastating. Our critics just slung mud at us and MDB was totally hammered.
Polish developers were the most ruthless. With great satisfaction they pointed out each flaw of our product and wrote posts explaining why MDB would never succeed.
Dialog which stuck in my mind:
12.32 User X: gallery scattered completely on the phone. You had better take to something else and programming leave the better ones than you.
12.33 Me : Thanks for the info. Could you write to me which phone and browser you used?
12.34 User X: Iphone5s, chrome
12.40 Me : Corrected, thanks for the info
12.44 User X: F..k you. You will fail anyway
Section IV - Marketing strategy
After product stabilization, getting first users and clients, it was time to do what was our area of expertise - marketing.
Every time I say that in MDB we have no sales department, people think I'm joking.
"Half a million users, among your customers are giants such as: Amazon, Samsung, NASA and you tell me that you have no direct sales activities? If you don't want to talk, it's OK but don't sell me a bill of goods. Now you tell me that these all companies came to you without any exchange of e-mails or phone calls, just like that”.
“Hmm...How can I put it…”
Section V - SEO
80% of our website traffic is generated by search engines. For comparison, social media represent only 2.6%.
When it comes to sourcing website traffic, Google Search Engine Optimization it is absolutely crucial element of our marketing.
At he very beginning let's define what SEO is for me. Probably it is not a definition you could expect.
Section VI - Marketing automation
Automation is the apple of ours eye. We automate all we can. It is one of the main reasons why we managed to achieve such results despite the small team and without external investors.
In this section, I will focus on the automation of marketing and sales processes, commonly know as marketing automation.
Section VII - Analytics
Analytics in our company is divided into low- and high level.
Low-level analytics is conducted by specialists in a narrow field - they research users' behavior on the websites, effectiveness of individual marketing campaign and monitor very specific processes. Their actions have the tactical dimension, which means that they perform on specific tasks in a relatively short period of time.
High-level analytics is carried out by me - a businessman who equally acts as a team manager responsible for analytics, marketing and frontend. In simple terms, my task is to monitor implementation of business objectives, find threats and development opportunities, create strategies (short- and long-term) combining all actions in the company, from developers' work, marketing, analytics to sales.
Section IX - Web Push notifications
Web Push is a small, rectangular message displayed by the browser in the corner of the computer screen or on a mobile device.
In our website case (mdbootstrap.com), the number of Web Push subscription is 16 times greater than the number of newsletter subscription.
Section XIII - Management
There are few things in which we have made as many mistakes as in management.
When we started our business, we greatly appreciated lack of procedures. We were fast, versatile and could react to changes in surroundings immediately. New ideas were implemented instantly and our expansion rate was significantly higher than results obtained by the competition.
However, at some point we opened Pandora's box and began the most stressful and irritating period of MDB history.
Section XVII - Collage
What motives us to start our own business?
Most people think money is the key. This is the least accurate answer.
There is no amount of money for which it is worth working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, Easter, for years with no holidays, risking breaking family ties and loosing personal life.
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