On the startup merry-go-round
The dreaded emptiness of a timesheet that hasn’t been filled for weeks is known to keep team leaders and underlings alike up at night. Valon (33), goes by Val and promises that Goodwerp will give all those poor souls their sleep back. He describes his product as the solution “for anyone who works in a team and has to bill clients,” hatched out of his own frustration with the number of tools he had to use to keep his team organized. But facilitating teamwork is not just Goodwerp’s USP, it also seems to be the CEO’s personal mission, for he is eager to share the lessons he learned the hard way. Always ones to spread knowledge, inventures.eu talked to him about the ups and downs of bootstrapping it in Kosovo.
Home is Where the Overhead is Low
Starting a company from scratch is a trial in itself, but when you are doing it in one of the youngest countries in the world there are some unique challenges and perks. “One of the major benefits is that your overhead is always lower. We’re not paying thousands in rent and thousands for engineers like the overhead that some of the companies in Silicon Valley have to pay,” Valon says. He goes on to explain that they managed to get their product to market with 50,000 euros, that lasted them about nine months. “If we were to have been in San Francisco, we probably would have needed at least a half a million to that point.”
Those 50,000 euros were bootstrapped, coming from Bold Underline, the company behind Goodwerp. Bold Underline used to be a creative agency before the team decided to give up on client work in mid 2013 and focus on a product that they had been mulling over since 2009. In the beginning, they kept “fooling” themselves, that they could always get back to doing project work,“but this ship has long sailed,” Val thinks.
It’s not like in the US. Here the investors want to make one bet and win from that one bet. So that’s a tough one.”
Friends and family helped fund the original capital, but Val and his team of five haven’t been able to find an investor yet. Especially not in Kosovo. “There is money, there are people who have a lot of money, but what we don’t have are investors who are willing to take a bigger risk,” he explains. “It’s not like in the US. Investors in the US always say ‘oh, you make ten bets and maybe one of them works out’, but here the investors want to make one bet and win from that one bet. So that’s a tough one.”
Contrary to what Jessie J may have to say, it isn’t all about the money, though. The country has very talented engineers Val says, even if they still lack CTO material: “We have engineers who are technically very capable, but we don’t have engineers who are capable of managing teams. So what happens is that you have managers that are not technical at all and they are managing engineers, which is not a good setup.”
Engineering pool aside, Kosovo has another drawing strength: “I am a family man,” Val admits unabashedly. “I’d like to have my kids growing up near their grandparents, so it would have been very hard for me to move for a couple of years and be away from the family.” He still has to juggle that with a lot of travelling, especially with his company also being registered in the US and with investors in his home country being so cautious. “One benefit of having an online company is that you can reach the whole world, but then again, you have to meet face to face with everybody to explain your story better.”
Valon with his wife; Photo credit: Goodwerp
The good times and the bad
Being a founder and a father, juggling has been something else that Val has had to learn how to do. And not just with balled socks to draw laughs from his two-year-old son. The life of a startup founder is a juggling act, in every sense, he says. Fortunately for him, he has found a harbour in his wife and son. “It’s tough at times, but I love it, as it gives me the balance, the time to get away from everything and just be with my family and not think about how we’re doing, how much money we have, are we going to make the next payroll.” He even makes a confession that would raise an eyebrow or two in a room full of investors: “I am a family guy first and a CEO second and I love it.”
While his family keeps him anchored, day-to-day business woes kept frustrating him and the team because they focused too much on the wrong things. “Startups usually focus on the negatives and that’s what we did in the beginning. We would have all these active users that were using our product and there was one user that probably hated, or deleted it and said something bad and then we would focus on that user,” Val explains. It took them a while to realize that those few clients who disliked their product were never going to get on board with it anyways, and they chose to focus on making the service even better for their happy clients. “You’re always either very happy or very down, which is really hard to manage, you have to teach yourself to cope with that. And one thing that’s helping us now is that we made a pact with one another, just saying let’s focus on the positives.”
Building on that, they are looking to grow their team, focusing heavily not just on engineers but on people to handle their inbound marketing.
Photo credit: Goodwerp
Finding a voice and being heard
For a company that is entirely bootstrapped, advertising must be an obstacle. Content marketing, Val says has helped them keep afloat and grow. The company’s blog has close to 70 posts in the past year, they tweet regularly, Val seeks out discussions he can join online, and they even held their first webinar a couple of days ago. And it seems to be giving fruit: “We don’t direct advertise, because we don’t have any investment money, and clicks are expensive.” Instead, he says, content marketing is worth the extra effort: “It stays, it’s historic, it remains online forever.”
In fact, most of their clients come from Google search, Quora and Twitter, as a direct result from articles they read. And what draws them isn’t just the bit about timesheet reporting, although that particular function is celebrated by any creative type whose notekeeping skills are on the low.
The Goodwerp solution combines all the features that a creative agency may need – project, financial, team and client management. And this one-stop-shop approach appeals to a much broader market than expected. “One of the biggest surprises was the architecture field, they are very active and they are using the product as if they were a creative firm, which logically is how they operate,” Val explains.
Realizing that their product, which started off from personal need and grew to a creative agency tool, has a much wider potential was a game changer. In retrospect, the architects may have been expected, but some clients really made them rethink their narrow view and gave them ideas: “Here and there we’d have registered companies that maybe install electricity, which was very weird, we didn’t make the product with someone who installs electrical hardware in mind”. Now, they are planning an array of new products that would serve niche industries better and looking at the novel ways in which their clients, and even their own team members, are using the functions.
I like to take the chance and say ‘hey, let’s try this.’ It’s driving my team crazy most of the time but I am willing to take that risk.”
“We have this strategy for up until February and come February we’ll see exactly where we are as a company and as a product,” Val reveals. In the meantime, they keep looking for an investor, although it is a bit of a Catch 22. “You have to have 50% monthly growth, which we don’t have right now, and you have to have that much in revenue, and you know, if we had that much money we wouldn’t be speaking to investors,” Val sighs in frustration. But then he lights up right again, recalling the last moment that made him taste success: “We put our job postings for the new content marketing team and some of the people that applied were really good.” Having such people see the worth in his company really uplifted him, until the next problem, at least. And so goes the merry-go-round.