Sramana: What was your pitch to potential clients?
Mark Organ: We can provide the best quality leads to your sales people, because those leads are already on your website and you just need to talk to them.
Sramana: It is very easy to get people to talk to you when you give them that pitch.
Mark Organ: We had plenty of people talk to us. The key was getting an order and we ended up getting an order from a nutrition eCommerce site. They went out of business two months after I left my job at Bain, so we ended up losing our order. At that point, we didn’t really have an option other than pressing forward and building the product.
Our first real customer was a division of Cushman & Wakefield, one of the largest real estate firms in the world. We won them as customers because they took pity on us. They were our supplier and were looking for space for us. They probably thought that if they were our customer, we would be more likely to pay the rent. We had leased more than 100,000 square feet from them so far so they have had a good return on their investment.
What is interesting is that they were a B2B customer whereas all of our peers in the SaaS space were going after consumer companies. I think that really formed the basis for us to take a B2B approach, which later became a key strategic advantage for us.
Sramana: What product did you sell them?
Mark Organ: We sold them a chat product. They had a couple of sales reps that loved it but the vast majority of the reps hated it. There was not a lot of chatting going on. We only had a couple of months of cash left, so in a panic we raised a little bit of money from friends and family. We created an email marketing application to drive more chat traffic. We then learned that the integration of email and chat provided a way to identify people who were looking at properties on websites so that sales reps could follow up later by phone. That was a killer app. That really worked. It became our MVP.
Sramana: It’s interesting to see that you had an accidental discovery of a killer app, motivated by the pressure cooker of bootstrapping.
Mark Organ: Yes. Some of it is definitely luck, but there is also an aspect of perseverance. We stumbled on the lean startup methodology well before it was vogue. Benjamin Franklin says that chance favors a prepared mind. That is absolutely true.
Bootstrapping is difficult. It was very hard. My team went without paychecks for 9 months and nobody quit. I did not draw a salary for 2 years and almost did not make it through. I sold every asset that I had and went into debt. We almost went bankrupt four times and at one point we were within 4 days of having to close the doors.
Sramana: Bootstrapping is difficult. The key is to work with real customers. That is when good things happen.
Mark Organ: The one thing you can guarantee about any business plan is that it is wrong. You need customers. No business plan survives contact with the market. You have to be prepared as an entrepreneur to find clues so that you can learn where the market is really at.
My father is a serial entrepreneur. When I asked him for advice he told me to just jump in the pool and start swimming, any direction will do. I did not understand him at the time, but I get it now. I am also grateful for some of the lessons that I learned at Bain, namely the 80-20 methodology. That is namely a lean startup mentality applied to larger companies. We were taught to get at 20% of the data needed to address 80% of the problem. We had to list out our assumptions and formulate hypothesis ahead of time so that when you received data that was adverse to your hypothesis, you know where it went wrong and you can address it.