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10 Lessons for Bootstrapping Your Startup to $1M Annual Revenue

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In an entrepreneurial landscape dominated by headlines of unicorn startups and billion-dollar acquisitions, getting a company to $1 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR) may sound like small change. Let’s be real, though, hitting $1 million ARR is an aspirational milestone most young companies can relate to. And it’s not that easy, especially if you’ve secured modest investments or no investment at all.

The software-as-a-service (SaaS) company I work for falls in the latter category. We’ve never raised a single investment dollar, and it took us four years to reach the $1 million ARR threshold. It was a wild four years. Frustrating, fun, scary: you name the emotion, and we’ve felt it.

But more than anything, it was an instructive four years. We learned so much, and we want to share a few helpful tidbits with our peers out there in the trenches, scratching and clawing your way to your next big milestone.

Here are 10 things we think are most important that you can use in your own start-up journey:

1. Don’t quit

Steve Jobs famously said that the difference between those who make it and those who don’t is perseverance. At one point I remember hearing “Folks, I don’t know if we’re going to be here next month.”

It’s frightening not to know where you’re going to be next month, but you have to continuously figure out how to get a few more customers and extend your runway. You can’t “make it” or succeed if you don’t exist, so you can’t quit.

2. Give your customers everything

At the company I work for, Text Request, we spent hours with our customers. We built whatever they asked for (if it fit with our goals and other customers could use it too). We also gave away a lot of free software.

If you want to grow and gain customers, you have to create a needed product that solves your target customers’ problems. Determine who your target customers are, ask them what they need, and then tailor your solutions for them.

3. Try everything you can think of

The book Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares covers 19 sales and marketing channels for startups to test. We tried all of them. We went to events. We advertised. We started a referral program.

For us, cold calls and cold emails worked surprisingly well. We took an industry, looked for companies in a given city, and reached out to set up product demos. Organic search has increasingly helped our sales funnel, too.

Either of those could be the best plan for you, or it could be advertising in a particular channel. Every startup is different and targets a different niche, but you’ll only find successful strategies and channels for growth by testing all your options.

4. Focus on the basics

When you focus on doing the basics, opportunities open up. When you commit to SEO basics, your targets will find you online, and a big fish will occasionally swim by. When you provide fantastic customer service, a few users will leave reviews and tell their friends. When you keep your head down and do the work, eventually you’ll look up and have hit a big milestone.

5. Get the right people on your bus

This is one of the critical lessons from Jim Collins’ Good to Great. Thankfully, our small team had the right people from the beginning. Brian and Jamey Elrod, our husband and wife co-founders, had already started a successful company from scratch (Educational Outfitters). Our third co-founder Rob Reagan has created software for twenty years and published a book last year on building apps for global scale.

Rob brought a couple of top-notch developers with him, and the rest of us showed up determined to figure the business out. If you’re going to take a company from $0 to $1 million, every member of your team has to be dedicated to working together for the long-term benefit of the company over self-interest.

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” – Henry Ford

There’s always something that keeps entrepreneurs up at night, but you can put the questions below to rest:

1. How do you build it fast enough?

In the early days, we worried about losing a customer because we didn’t have [X]. It was stressful knowing that So-and-So would move on to the next option if we couldn’t deliver fast enough, and many times they did. But that doesn’t matter.

Losing one customer isn’t worth pushing out a faulty product. Despite the pervasive Lean Startup mindset, it’s more important to your customers that you create needed features (read: solutions) that work great the first time. They have to trust that you’ll give them the tools they need to accomplish their goals, or they’ll leave.

2. How do you keep customers longer?

Our support is perhaps our #1 competitive advantage. One of the things we’ve learned is that a lower price, and sometimes even new features, won’t keep customers around longer.

To keep your customers from churning, you’ve got to do two things: First, provide a smooth onboarding process that immediately teaches customers how to gain value (solve their problems) with your product. Otherwise, they won’t pick it up, and they’ll eventually leave.

Second, always be there with kind words and helpful content whenever a customer needs help. If you aren’t, they’ll get frustrated and find someone else to help them.

“People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – Teddy Roosevelt

3. How do you get people to your website?

Advertising might be a good option, but if targets aren’t already thinking about what you can do for them, they probably won’t care about your ad or purchase. Instead, create content to educate viewers and help them solve their problems.

Focus on growing your organic traffic, becoming a trustworthy source, and honing your brand’s voice before spending lots of money on ads.

4. Do you need investment money?

When you’re floating in the middle of the ocean, you’ll do anything for a ship to pick you up. But sometimes you just need to swim. We chose to swim, and you might want to do the same.

When every dollar spent has to fight to prove its worth, you’re inevitably going to build something more valuable and more sustainable. Plus, bootstrapping gives you more control over what decisions you do make to grow your company.

5. How do you pursue 10X growth?

A growth hack is not going to propel you from 100 customers to 10,000 overnight. It doesn’t take one trick, but lots of little and big things working together to create exponential growth. It also takes time.

Instead of looking for a golden goose, create complete and actionable strategies. Those, and a little patience, will help you achieve exponential growth.

Growing your startup to $1 million ARR is not easy, but it’s possible – even without investors lining up to give you money. Put the 10 lessons above into practice, and, with a little time and a lot of work, you’ll get there.

Is there a business you’d like to start or have started? Share your ideas and suggestions for our readers!

Startups

5 Women Who Revolutionized Tech and Made Millions

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There are many female entrepreneurs in today’s world revolutionizing the tech industry and owning their own unique craft. Before, technology and business was seen as a more male-dominanted industry that women rarely crossed into. That’s no longer the case. (more…)

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The Truth About Marketing Every First Time Founder Should Know

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While starting your own business is an exhilarating experience, many start-up founders struggle with successful marketing more than any other area of business. So if you’re thinking about starting a business, here are some of the key things you need to know about marketing before you take the plunge. (more…)

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Lessons I Have Learned About Scaling a Business as a Startup Founder

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When I set out to start my own business three years ago, I never imagined bright lights and private jets to New York or Shanghai for business meetings. Good thing I didn’t because it is nothing like that at all. It was a struggle from day one and I had to embrace the grind to grow. (more…)

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5 Hacks to Improve Your Writing Skills in English for ESL Learners

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Studying in college is hard for everyone, but ESL learners arguably suffer the most. Moving to a foreign country, learning a new language, and keeping pace with the rest of the class may seem like an unbearable burden. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, but you have to pull through and not give up. 

In moments like this, it’s always a good idea to seek help. Whether you go to WriteMyPaper to order an essay or just talk to a friend, admitting vulnerability is an important step towards improvement. In this article, you will find some tips on how to get better at essay writing, even if English is not your native language.

 

Control Your Environment

Improving your language skills is all about constant practice. Living in an English-speaking community is the first thing you should do to start your practice. It might be tempting to surround yourself with people who already speak a familiar language. However, this way, you won’t be practicing English on a daily basis.

You need to make those lessons almost intuitive in a way that you don’t have to do anything to learn the language. If you live in an English-speaking community, for example, if your roommate speaks English, you will have to practice the language, whether you want it or not.

Still, make sure you don’t take it too far. Taking care of yourself is still as important as ever. Feeling like an alien for the sake of education is not worth it. Remember to keep in touch with your friends and family, talk to them as often as necessary.

 

Practice Constantly

Practicing language is not just about doing your homework. You can make practicing English a normal part of your daily routine by watching TV, listening to music, and reading books in this language. 

Yet, this is a bit tricky. When being surrounded by white noise, people tend to learn not to notice it. You need to ensure this doesn’t happen. As you watch movies or read books, maintain your attention on what you’re doing. If you hear or see a word that you don’t understand – translate it and write it down. Be mindful and remember what you’re doing this for.

 

Writing Is The Answer

If you want to specifically learn to write, you need to do one thing, and that is to write. Continuous practice will help you understand what mistakes you often make and, in time, eliminate them. Focus on your goal, and don’t get discouraged when something’s not working. After all, even Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Get a journal and write in it daily. Pick a new topic every time and note everything you can think of. It’s also important that you write by hand, a spelling checker in your computer is tempting, but it will not help you remember how to spell words correctly. 

Besides, journaling as a habit has multiple health benefits, and it can be therapeutic. It can help you get in touch with yourself and process your emotions better.

 

Learn In a Group

It’s proven that learning in a group is more efficient due to the sense of competition. Find a bunch of like-minded people who want to study with you or join an already existing one, like a speaking club.

The benefit of such activities is that you get all these people from entirely different backgrounds who are all good at various things. This will help you exchange experiences, which is impossible if you’re alone.

Schedule regular meetings, come up with topics to discuss and activities to do. You could watch videos or movies together, or talk about common things. Having assignments like describing an event can also be beneficial for the entire group. This way, while one person speaks, the rest think about how they would say the same things differently. 

This will help you feel more confident in your skills and, consequently, speak and write better.

 

Expose Yourself

The most important thing about learning a language is not to be afraid of making mistakes. It’s inevitable; you just have to take it as a natural part of a learning process. 

A child that is learning how to walk doesn’t give up after falling once, and you shouldn’t either. It’s most likely that your friends understand that you’re just learning a language, and they won’t laugh at you for misusing a word or a few. 

Get over that fear of error and make as many mistakes as it will take. Treat it lightly, and don’t beat yourself up for it. On the other hand, try to attend as many events as you can that will expose you to the foreign language. Not only will it boost your English skills, but also improve your social confidence!

 

Wrapping Up

Learning a language is hard; there’s no arguing about that. However, it’s going to get easier with time. Take every hard thing that life throws at you and turn it into a lesson. 

Watch your favorite movies in English, converse with native speakers, and you’ll see the improvement very soon!

Remember to be patient about it. Don’t give up, and don’t beat yourself up over something that you have so little control of. Good luck!

 

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