Bootstrapping Your Startup

Chris interviews Ben Bartling of Zoomshift on his entrepreneurial journey and how they've been able to bootstrap their startup in Wisconsin.

Presented by
Chris Schmitz
Ben Bartling
Founder, Zoomshift

Andrew Verboncouer:   You're listening to the Seaworthy Podcast, episode five, Bootstrapping your Startup. Seaworthy is a podcast about building successful software. Today we're talking about the process, benefits, and challenges of bootstrapping your startup with Ben Bartling of Zoomshift.

Chris Schmitz:   Alright, we've got Ben Bartling here with this from zoomshift today. Thanks a lot for coming over Ben. 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, glad to be here. 

Chris Schmitz:   Awesome. And let's just dive in right away. I was hoping just to kick things off. If you could give a little background for the few people in the audience who don't know who you already are. Just a little history on Ben. 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, for sure. So I started zoom shift about about five years ago now started out of school, actually, when I was at Marquette University, and it's a employee scheduling software solution. So think about like restaurants or retail outlets. The managers have a real difficulty scheduling employees, making sure they show up for for work on time. And then tracking the time when they're actually they're on. So the zoom shift provides a manager a platform to build the schedule online, track their budget, manage time off requests, kind of all that stuff around the employee. And then employee has mobile apps where they can get their schedule, trade shifts with other employees, change availability requests, and then even punch in and out of shifts and so kind of simplifies that whole employee management process. So yeah, started that about five years ago and kind of went through some interesting ups and downs at the company, but it's been bootstrapped today, and it's been a fun and so far successful ride. 

Chris Schmitz:   Yeah, yeah. Well, I'd love to talk more about the fact that you guys bootstrapped because I think that's a really interesting choice, I guess. Well, first, was it kind of a conscious choice, or have you considered taking investment along the way or what's  the story there? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, so I mean, initially, it wasn't a conscious choice. It's something we kind of grew into, and came to realize was our, I guess, style and the type of company we wanted to build. But initially, I took the company through an accelerator program, it's actually called 94 Labs, it's no longer around, took on a small seed round. And then about three months after taking on that around the angel backing that ended up filing bankruptcy, he was a high frequency trader, and so it is quickly as he made his, his money, he lost it all in like, couple pounds in great fashion. So we kind of raised some money and then actually never got it. So we got to see what it felt like to go through that process. You kind of understand the ups and downs a little bit deeper, as opposed to just...

Chris Schmitz:   Well, mainly the downs. 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, it's like we're out of money, like, what are we funded or not? I mean, no one really knew. So at that point, instead of going back out and starting that whole process, again, we put the company on hold and actually started an agency - more or less to kind of just get us through that point in time, the agency did pretty well and we saw is a great way to sell fund ourselves and that's kind of how the bootstrapped mentality started.

Chris Schmitz:   OK, so the agency, Till & Creative, correct? 

Ben Bartling:   Yep. 

Chris Schmitz:   That was only born out of desperation, I gues? The focus was, you knew was always going to be on zoom shift?

Ben Bartling:   Yeah. Well, so the focus was always going to be on a product. 

Chris Schmitz:   Okay. 

Ben Bartling:   That was always the goal was to come back to a product and build something that had sustainable recurring revenue, like zoom. We weren't completely sure it was going to be zoom at that point. So it was still so young. 

Chris Schmitz:   Got it. 

Ben Bartling:   Um, but yeah, so I started the agency with my now business partner Johnny stock, and he was actually the marketing director for the accelerator. So we were kind of both in the same position where the accelerator was kind of going down, zoom lost its funding, so we're both Okay, what do we do now? So we joined forces started the agency and then john eventually came on to zoom and now we're, we're partners in that as well. So, yeah.

Chris Schmitz:   Awesome man. Yeah, so why Zoomshift, why this problem? What was attractive to you about it? How did you end up there? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, for sure. So it's kind of something I always had in the back of my mind. In high school, I worked as like a kitchen staff in a restaurant. So saw firsthand the problem with scheduling mainly from the employee side, but also from the manager side. And then when I really got into development, and saw the power of building a SAS company knew that's what I wanted to do. The idea just kind of was still there. And I'm like, Oh, I'm going to try this one. Try it first. And it always stuck. Just enough to, like, never go away. You know, like, there were times just, like, just like, really what I should be doing. I'm not is so incredibly passionate about scheduling. It's not like that cool of an idea. You know, you can't really it's, I guess it's not like, sexy, call it um, but 

Chris Schmitz:   Debatable, but go on.  

Ben Bartling:   But people wanted it and would pay for it. So yeah.

Chris Schmitz:   So how did you how did you figure out that it was something people wanted? What did you do early on to kind of validate and vet the idea? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, I mean, so it's funny, I wish I had a better story for that. And I, you know, I did the whole customer validation thing. And I knew before I wrote, even any lines of code that it was validated, and people would pay for it. I think I started the company just before the Lean Startup methodology, you know, all that was kind of becoming more mainstream. So when I started, I saw the company as much as a way to build like, a portfolio for myself, and like, hone my development skills is I did, let's build this, this company, that can hopefully be profitable. So I had kind of an MVP, and then started showing it to people with nothing to lose, I guess you can say. And it was like, oh, there's that something here. And then from there started to validate. These are the things that are important to the customer. These are the things they'll pay for. And then this is how much will actually pay. And from there, you could you could see, like, Oh, there's actually a business modehere - the numbers work out.  Yeah. How long did it take you to go from those first few lines of code to something -  to paying customer? Um, and that's a good question. Probably eight months, maybe.

Chris Schmitz:   Okay. And you're in the accelerator during, at the start that? Or was it somewhere in the middle? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah. So I was in, started working on zoom. Couple months later, got into the accelerator. 

Chris Schmitz:   Okay. 

Ben Bartling:   Went through the accelerator. And then it was like, as that was wrapping up starting to get those first few paying customers.

Chris Schmitz:   Got it. How helpful was the accelerator in, you know, the success of the, in the early stages of the company? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, it was good. You know, I don't, I don't think it was one of those things where, like, the curriculum or the structure of the accelerator was, what was valuable to me - it was more just that the connection into the community and the realization that there's like, really something here, and there's a business that can be built around it, you know, um, I initially went to school for finance. So I had a totally different view on things I guess you'd say, and was a self taught developer. So getting to the point where it was, like, confident enough, like the product I built had legs. That was a big part of the, the accelerator process, I guess,

Chris Schmitz:   okay.

Ben Bartling:   Yea, it's like, some of this stuff is, like five years ago, isn't that long, but it's long enough. It's like, wait, what actually happened? 

Chris Schmitz:   Yeah, well, I only asked because our whole goal with this podcast is just to mitigate the risk of failure for entrepreneurs going on for the first time. So I mean, something a lot of people struggle with, you know, should I raise capital? Should I go through an accelerator? Yeah, I mean, those are big choices. You're giving away a piece of your company for for each of those things. 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, definitely. 

Chris Schmitz:   But yea, so it's interesting to hear your perspective on it. And by the way, yeah, what happened? So the investor backed out, so they didn't have any stake in the company, the accelerator shut down. So I imagine they didn't take it. They didn't end up with a piece of zoom or anything. 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, so it was a really unique situation. The angel who invested in us also was the backer of the accelerator. So it's kind of, we, like the accelerator lost funding, we lost funding, it was kind of all tied into one. And so we got a small chunk of money initially when we signed that first round. And so he had a small piece of equity. And then that's that for about a year when we did the agency and kind of put the company on hold, and then zoom started to just continue to grow slowly, john, and I realized I have something here, we approached the investor at that point and said, We want to buy back the small amount of equity, you have to be able to do so really early on at a really good price. So totally clean on paper. Hundred percent bootstrapped. It's just the two of us. 

Chris Schmitz:   Gotcha. Yea, that's an interesting

Ben Bartling:  That's - some of this is just lucky. Like we just you can't plan for that. 

Chris Schmitz:   Yeah. Yeah. No, that's very interesting. So what's what's been one of the big hurdles for you guys being bootstrapped? Obviously, you know, you don't have money to spend on marketing, things like that. But aside from maybe the obvious stuff, what have been some of the bigger challenges from from trying to bootstrap? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, and I think it's - the hardest thing for the two of us has been like the mental toll of starting a company from scratch and like, working on it for five years, right in the first three, three and a half, even four years are just their grind. Like it's, it's a, it took us a long time before we sawtraction, traction to the point we were like, comfortable continuing to put the same amount of time into it, you know, so constantly re evaluating be like, are we making the right move here? Like, should we treat scratch this pivot to a different product? Should we try to put more emphasis on the agency just have more  like, internalization of everything, and in constantly having to remind yourself to separate like your personal life and success or failure of the company from yourself. Right? And there was a lot of emotional stuff with it. 

Chris Schmitz:   Yeah, not for the faint of heart to bootstrap.

Ben Bartling:   I think it's you just like, learn it as you go. But yeah, definitely. You got to be ready to strap in, I guess, if you will.

Chris Schmitz:   To bootstrap in. Yeah, yeah. No, it's really interesting. Did you entertain investment or any other people approach you saying, hey, I'd like to buy or invest in zoom? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, so throughout the whole life lifespan of the company, there's been, we've been approached at all stages of it. And it's interesting, it's for, it's always never been the right fit. And, you know, we never actively pursued anything, it was always people reaching out to us. So that that says something to that maybe just wasn't a fit, because we weren't looking necessarily, but all the people who did approach us it was either we're an accelerator looking for seed, and we want to bring you into our program. It's like, Yeah, we did that we're done with that. Like, we don't want to do that or were VC we're looking for someone with a million rev this amount of growth rate, like where you guys at? You know, they're always like, probing and trying to track us that they can get it get you in at the right point. And for john and I was like, we're in between, like, where there's like nothing in between. And we always felt to me, just this gut instinct about one of the VCs was that like, well, when we're at a mill, we're not going like, why would we don't really need to take your money at those terms anymore. So now, as we've kind of grown and gotten more comfortable, we feel that way, even more, I think, you know, it's like, it's a totally different situation. 

Chris Schmitz:   Do you think if you had taken that initial capital, you would feel the need to continue to get the next round? And the next round? Like, kind of the traditional trajectory of? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, for sure. Actually, and I think -and John and I - think john said the same thing. If we had if our initial Angel hadn't backed out, I don't think I think zoom would I just failed, and it wouldn't be around to this day, because we would have been locked into the investment path, we would have had to meet certain goals. And I don't think having that money would have necessarily expedited the path of the company. And so based on, you know, the amount of time it took us to kind of get our footing and start to see growth, I think it would have been would have expired, you know. And if not, yeah, if we would have made it work in a shorter amount of time having funding, then, yeah, we would have been just round after round, I feel...

Chris Schmitz:   Have the pressure to keep that next level of growth.

Ben Bartling:   And we definitely have competitors in our space that like, that's the path they took, and the other super successful and it's cool - there's definitely not a right way to do it. It's just like totally different companies. 

Chris Schmitz:   Yea - I'm curious. Are people typically transitioning from a competing product or are they moving on to a system in the first place? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, I mean, up until a year ago, there was no one was transitioning from the existing we were, we just like a newer idea, right. And so people were transitioning from paper or Excel, or maybe Google Docs, but nothing specific to actually like employee scheduling. And then more recently, yeah, we started to see, like, Hey, we use XYZ, or like, we use this older legacy system. Now, we're looking for something new, and we're, like, reevaluating. So that's really cool to see that then we're, we're coming up top and people are actually choosing our solution over others. 

Chris Schmitz:   Yea - Okay, what are some of the new problems that you're facing? Now, as you're in, you know, your five, you've got a pretty strong product this point, I mean, I keep tabs and just your website every couple months, and you guys continue to release like, big features all the time. It's such a small team that sounds like, you know, you had a point where you feel like you've kind of found product market fit, sort of some of the other things you're struggling with now that aren't, you know, just getting features built and stuff? 

Ben Bartling:   Yea for sure. I think. So, we were talking about this, actually, just over lunch before this, but I think it's relative right now, is that initially, you know, a lot was on product, like, how do we build this product? How do we how do we get something that people like, and has product market fit, and then can grow and I was like, cool, we have that, like, we have a base now we need more leads, like, we just need more people coming in top of the funnel that we can convert to paying and it's like now that we're seeing, then we have a really strong top of funnel that's continuing to climb. Now we're starting to see like, oh, shoot our funnels leaking, like we have enough data and we have enough people coming in to know that the way our conversion rate is fluctuating just isn't right. And so now our biggest problem is, okay, how do we focus on onboarding how do we make the customer happy from free trial sign up to you know, the lifetime right so that's that's the battle now on the main focus, and then always just turn like how do we reduce our churn rate and it's I think our space and the nature of our product. And the amount of bias it's needed to use it. churn is, is relatively low, but that's always something that you just we keep a pretty close eye on, and always want to make sure it stays as low as possible.

Chris Schmitz:   So it's all about just kind of moving the metrics. 

Ben Bartling:   Yea, moving just a little bit at a time. You know, there's no, there's no easy wins, no silver bullets. So, yeah, yeah,

Chris Schmitz:   That's interesting. What are some of the things that you're doing right now to? Well, one, find the holes into I guess what, what does it take usually, to patch him up? It's, it's not a new feature. So, you know, what kind of stuff is it? 

Ben Bartling:   Yea, so I mean, the first thing is just having like, the analytics in place to know where they are. So we use kiss metrics and expand all full story. Like, there's so many analytics tools out there now. I think, like segment-io right. It's so cool. You go like, it's awesome. To have it in place is a developer but you go on and like every week you sign on? It's like, there's like, three more tools? It's so easy to just blow your like SAS budget. Like, like, the tools we use, you know, the monthly spend we put into tools just like so easy, just like turn one on. 

Chris Schmitz:   Our revenue is growing exponentially. But our expenses are too. 

Ben Bartling:   Yea, it's like, I forgot to turn that one off, shoot! 

Chris Schmitz:   Well, if you don't mind, I'd love to talk a little bit more in depth about some of those. Because our whole goal with this is like actionable takeaways for people building products. So I could you unpack you know, I think segment is a really cool tool based mentioned, super valuable. Yeah, full story.

Ben Bartling:   Yep. full story, we actually use next panel and kiss metrics, which a lot of people just use one, we - I don't know, we use them differently in there, they kind of have their strong suits, so...

Chris Schmitz:   And that's just kind of for general analytics and event tracking? 

Ben Bartling:   Yep, event tracking. So that's where we'll find in terms of onboarding and then just like conversion, in general. That's where we track all our funnels and see where, where people are getting stalled, like what's running smoothly in the quote, unquote, like holes, we need to patch. And then that's how we measure if we actually patch them or not.

Chris Schmitz:   Okay, and in full story you use...I mean, typically, I think you can they can find like people rage clicking and stuff like that, and like raises the attention, or do you just kind of just like browse through or? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, to me, it's like, we kind of use it in waves. It's good for two things for us right now. One is onboarding. So like, you can just go through and say here's all my signups today. I like my new users this week. 

Chris Schmitz:   And this is a tool that just to give a little background - it records user sessions. So you can actually see them people actually using your product. So no, like sound or anything. But you can see where they're clicking. And just replays their mouths and everything on the screen. So you can see what kind of experience they're having in your product. 

Ben Bartling:   So from an onboarding perspective, you can click in and watch those, those new trials and see where they got hung up. So that's totally not scalable. Like, we don't even come close to watching everyone. But it's interesting to go through it every once in a while. And just watch because we're mixed panel and kiss they're going to show you the point they got hung up, they're not going to show you like, maybe why, right? Like, they just like missed the button, or they were like, rage. Clicking on something else wasn't even a button. Yeah, there's a weird stuff that's like, Oh, I could see maybe I'd be confusing, right. Um, so that, and then from a support perspective. So if someone you know, has a question about something like this isn't working, if it's not a bug, it's like, well, like, what are they doing? It is really hard. 

Chris Schmitz:   Because you can actually go see, oh, this customer session at 3pm when we got the support ticket. And see exactly what they're running into. Before they sent it. 

Ben Bartling:   Yes, yeah, exactly. This way we can have way more context and can help that customer quicker. And so then all our full story sessions pipe directly into intercom. Which is the tool we use for customer chat. And then customer support in general. And then we also use intercom for lifecycle engagement emails. So from the point customer signs up to, like, throughout the entire life cycle of that customer, we send them time to wear, like, a venture many emails to help them, you know, like, learn the product, and then stay hooked on the product. 

Chris Schmitz:   Yeah. Awesome. And then you use segment as kind of the single interface to tie all these services together, right? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah. 

Chris Schmitz:   Yeah. So that's something that's really valuable for people who are maybe are committing fully you certain platform. Yeah, like, you can just use segment. And then you can, it gives you a dashboard, you can enable the services you want. So if you're doing event tracking, you don't have to commit to just Google Analytics or kiss metrics or whatever it is an implement their client specific code in your application, you just implement segment and then you can enable or disable things as, as you need. So it gives you a lot of flexibility with the third party tools that you use.  Awesome. Any other like, third party tools that you guys using right now that you get a ton of value from? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, so we use a Horoku for all of our servers, which has been great. I think being a rail shop, that was a natural tool to choose. But now it's like, it's great for almost any language and platform. Yeah, but the we're just not DevOps guys at all right, that's like the last thing I want to worry about. And so having a managed solution, like Horoku, there is great and then we use New Relic for all our like, performance monitoring. There's like probably 20 other ones -  like your typical like Sendgrid and that kind of thing and MailChimp but there's probably a bunch I'm forgetting that I should mention, but...

Chris Schmitz:   Yeah, no, no, thanks a lot. So with your experience bootstrapping zoom shift, but also having the context of kind of, you know, raising funding and what will kind of be the tipping point for you to decide whether to seek investment, try to bootstrap? You know, Sam, coming to you for advice? What kind of characteristics would you say I need personally, and for my business for it to be the right choice for me to to bootstrap? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah, and I think that's a really good question. And really, I don't think there's a right answer to it. I think it depends on so many factors. Even just including, like, the personality and like style of the founder, the business model, like existing competition, I guess I would phrase it more like if you're going into it, thinking Which one should I do? Just try bootstrapping first because you can't really go backwards like we did. But you can't total accidental thing. Yeah, um, yeah, try it first. And see how far you can make it. I mean, you don't if it's not feeling right, don't just like keep pounding on it and drive yourself crazy. Then if you think fundings, right, and you talk to other people, and they maybe they don't agree with you, but you still think it's right, then go for it.  But yeah, I think you learn a lot when you approach it from that mindset to and it's like when you bootstrap you, the way you need to grow your company is way different than if you're funded. Like, for example, when we were like fake funded or if you want to call it we had to jump from basically zero to like, you know, a significant amount of customers and looking at that was just like, Oh my gosh, like, I did shoot, like, better get to work. I don't know how we're going to do this, you know, um, when you're not fun you're looking at and it's like, oh, cool. Like, we get 200 customers. Like, all of a sudden, I can pay a salary I can like pay myself, which is totally more digestible then the massive number to like, start to pay pay back investors or, like, hit enough girl to like, even talk about a second round, right. So sometimes when you're starting out, I think it's easier to have that mentality of just like the very incremental steps as opposed to just like the massive one. 

Chris Schmitz:   Yea, yea that makes sense. So final question, what advice would you have or just kind of like, key takeaways for people who are going down the bootstrapping path person seeking investment? 

Ben Bartling:   Yeah I think just like having patience, and understanding that it's not going to happen overnight. I think all the stories we hear about and all the companies that to get most of the process, they're just anomalies, right? Like, that's not what you're trying to build. You're trying to build sustainable recurring growth least hopefully, that's what you're trying to build. And then just like be super cognizant of you're not your company and like the success or failure of your company is not you and separating yourself from it, and just keeping a balance outside of it. You know, I don't it's something john I talked about all the time that, you know, putting in 30 to 40 hours a week is what you should be doing, and you're probably going to be more productive than doing that and doing it well, and, you know, in focus and then having a balance as opposed to grinding 80 hours a week. Like it takes a really different person to actually be able to do that and do it productively. I don't think that's the right approach. So yeah, I would say those two were the biggest for me personally. 

Chris Schmitz:   Awesome. Well, thanks a lot, man. Thanks for your time. And thanks for sharing the zoom shift story with us today. If people want to keep tabs on and you and the company where should they do that?

Ben Bartling:   Just zoomshift.com 

Chris Schmitz:   And Twitter? Anything? You active on the social networks there? 

Ben Bartling:   Yea, we are active on the web, so. 

Chris Schmitz:   Not you personally though? 

Ben Bartling:   I am. Yeah, actually, not really actually. I'm not a huge social guy - but I'm there. 

Chris Schmitz:   You aren't going to throw out your handle, though? For people to follow you? 

Ben Bartling:   They can follow the zoom one, I'm not that exciting. I'll be really honest, like, it would just be a disappointment.

Chris Schmitz:   Alright, well, thanks a lot. And I'm Chris Schmitz, @ccschmitz on Twitter.

show notes
  • Startup Story
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Bootstrapping