Guest: William Roberts & John Holmes
Episode Transcript (Click to expand)
Ramesh: Hello everyone. Welcome to one more episode of the agile entrepreneur video cast and podcast. And this is your host, Ramesh Dontha. Today, with the very first time I'm going to talk to two co-founders, John Holmes and Will Roberts. Both of them are co-founders and executive partners at www.weworked.com. It's an online timesheet software company. They have bootstrapped it built into a company that serves customers in what, 120 countries. That is phenomenal. All right guys, John and Will welcome.
Will: Thank you.
Ramesh: So, John, can you introduce the company please?
John: Sure. I'm a little bit about weworked, we started, weworked about nine years ago. My time may be off a year or so. It goes back pretty fast, but not years ago. When I started, weworked we both worked for small companies and weworked basically as a time sheet invoicing payroll/ leave tracking software that we developed with the focus of small business clients. And it's kind of morphed into something much bigger. But from the beginning, that was the initial focus.
Ramesh: Okay, great. So Will how about you, if you could introduce yourself and then the side of the business that you focus on as well?
Will: I am Will Roberts; I am a cofounder here at www.weworked.com. I've primarily focused on the technical support team, database architecture, database management and some marketing.
Ramesh: Fantastic. So all right guys, so welcome. And so let's talk about the nine years ago before, right. So that's when you guys started. And how did you decide to start a company? What were you guys doing before that? So let me start with Will. So what were you doing before you guys started www.weworked.com?
02:14 Will: I actually was, I had started my own consulting firm, I think back in maybe
2005. And I was, you know, pretty much serving as a contractor to the federal government.
Ramesh: I see. So John, how about you? What were you doing before that?
John: I was a software programmer for small businesses. And I did some government contracting work as well.
Ramesh: Okay. So then how did you guys meet up and then how did the thought of starting a company come, who started and then who followed up?
Will: Well, firstly we met on the job.
John: Yes, we both met probably back in 2000, 2001 we were both working for a smaller tech company that created software for the government on the department of transportation. And Will and I kicked it off right away from beginning. So years later after Will started his business and I was probably two jobs moved from where we met. I had reached out to Will regarding weworked. So its kind of, I kind of had the initial brainchild of it. I was out of work for a few months and sat around thinking about what I could do to kind of change the projection of you know, my future with respect to jobs and businesses. So having worked for small businesses most of the time, one thing that I noticed was none of the small businesses had in house Time sheet software. And it was a struggle for a lot of them back in the early two thousands, because a lot of the software was developed for large enterprises. So started working on it, developed a good starting point. And then realized I needed a lot of help to pull this thing off and went through my mental Rolodex who I could call upon and Will was the first guy. And that's how, that was in short. That's how it kicked off.
Ramesh: Fantastic. Okay. So let me ask you this guys. Whenever a software company like this gets formed and you have an idea for a product, the challenge is always you know, we build it, they will come, you know, they may not come. So that's an issue. So when you had this idea of this online time sheet, did you have a customer in mind that somebody you know was going to use it? Or you guys are
okay, we'll build it and later on we'll market. How did that go about?
John: Yes, that's an interesting question. I had a little bit of experience working with Google ads prior to starting weworked, and I had a good experience with using it. So I kind of felt like if I build a product, knowing what I know about small businesses, that if I could leverage the internet where it was going around the early two thousands, that was actually very scary area, timeframe. That we would be able to find a customer. We did not have a particular customer that once we built it, we could say, Hey, we have it. We would like for you to start using it. Primarily because the customer that we focused on was what I call strangely small business. So at the time the initial focus was for companies with fewer than 10, maybe 20 employees max. So we already knew we weren't going to get a lot of money out of them just due to their size. So there was really no value we felt initially with going out what I call the old school way and soliciting work. So we had to try to figure out a way to leverage and scale our marketing in a way that we could request a small fee but still be able to make some money.
Ramesh: Okay, great. So then how long did you guys take to build the product or maybe a prototype or proof of concept? I'm assuming that you did not build the entire thing in one go, you must have done some prototyping or proof of concept. Can you talk about the timelines and what were the things that you worked on during that time?
John: Well, I would say initially it was about six months. A lot of the work was done in the evenings after work, you know, so after I got off my nine to five, a lot of the programming was done then. Looking at where we are now, I would say we probably had a prototype for the first two years in my opinion, just looking back at it, you know. So I would say probably a good six months to the point where we were ready for people to use it.
Will: I'd also like to add at the point when I jumped aboard, I was already running a small business, so I served as a use case as well. So I was able to say, okay, maybe we should do it this way. So I was able to add that the perspective that we needed for a customer that we've been trying to go after.
Ramesh: Hey, that is a very good point you're making Will there, because especially when you have a partner, right, partners, the main thing is first you want to have a complimentary skills. Otherwise then each of you will go into each other's space, which was not the case here. That's good. And then secondly, you want some kind of a beta customer, somebody who's giving you a feedback and looks like Will, you were the person who was able to give a use case and the actual user perspective into the development.
Will: Absolutely. I was on the front line. I was using it, I mean, at the same time I was using, we're building it, I'm using it, seeing what works and what doesn't work. So yes, absolutely.
Ramesh: Okay, so good. Now let's talk about your first paying customer. So six months or so, you'd build some product that you guys thought was useful and usable and then what happened afterwards?
John: Well, we didn't get the initial traffic that we had hoped, which I assure is pretty common. And we got a few customers, but one of the first thing when I say customers, we got people interested, so they would contact us, they would call us. But what we realized was the early adopters were not in the US. So that really changed our mindset. So the first few, actually, our very first customer was in Europe, I believe it was a tire company in Europe. Some part of Michelin, some part of Michelin tires. And we had built the system not knowing just sort of, you know, focused on the US not thinking global about time zones, currencies, different things like that. So we had people reach out and say, Hey, we're interested. We love the software, but in where we are, this is how we do business, you know, so can you accommodate that? So Will and I immediately realized, we actually were thinking too small, you know, so we adjusted everything to be more generic and able to be picked up regardless of where you're located. So once we did that, I would say once we get that first customer who was willing to work with us, because we made these changes pretty quickly, the first customer willing to work with us to actually pay us, because we did have it online for free for probably about a year. Because we had a lot, we made a lot of assumptions as to how people would use the software and we realized half of them were wrong. So we wanted people who was more important for us to have people use it than for us to actually start trying to turn some money out of it.
Ramesh: Excellent. This is good. So you took six months and afterwards then you played around and you were not getting enough traction. But you've got traction finally from a European customer that got you going. So how long ago, I mean, how long after that you guys felt comfortable and made this a full-time business? Because one of the concepts that I’ve been digging into is like how long people stay in the side hustle kind of stuff before they do it. So how long have you been operating this as a side business?
John: Will, let me answer this one Will, because Will already is, was an entrepreneur prior when I reached out to him, he already had his own business and was doing his own thing. I was still doing the nine to five. I recently in the last two and a half years, came out of the nine to five. And just focus strictly on weworked. So that probably took, so I would probably be the real use case for that. And I would probably say it's probably about seven years for me to feel comfortable enough even though we were making money. But for me to feel comfortable enough to say I will, you know, get out of the nine to five and try to go full state, which is a very hard decision to make.
Will: Especially when you have a family.
John: Yes, If I was 20 something with no kids, it'd be a little different.
Will: Totally different.
Ramesh: This is good. I really like the way the discussion is going. So now let's get into pricing a little bit. So you started getting the initial adopters, early adopters who are testing it out, and finally you're getting big customers, but how did you know, how did you figure it out what it should be priced at?
Will: I am going to let you go ahead. I am drawing a blank.
John: It's been a lot. We started for free. Because one thing we did have was, we had competitors, which I think helped us because we had something to look at with respect to our pricing model and where we really wanted to be. So there were probably at the time, three solid, I would say three solid competitors that had their pricing range. I'd just say it could be from $10 a month on up two $30 a month. So it was a big range. And then we had their features set to compare to ours. So I remember we looked at the features and I remember having a conversation Will say, Hey, there are several features we do not have. We hope to have them. But as a result, I think we should have our price point more aggressive to attract people to give us the opportunity, you know, give us a chance cause we're a small business. We're new just to give us the opportunity and then we can build upon that. So what we set our prices to initially did not change for probably six, seven years.
Ramesh: Wow. That is fascinating.
John: Yes, it never changed. And I would say that was just for me lack of experience. And just not really wanting to rock the boat. So scared you're going to lose some customers. When in reality each year we probably, as we added features, we should have been slowly increasing our price. So right now we feel like in the last 18 months we had our first price increase. So, you know, we had to reach out to all our customers that don't know, Hey, we have not raised our prices in about seven years. We're glad that you guys have been with this, but in order to keep providing any features and moving forward, we have to increase our prices.
Ramesh: Excellent. Very good. So we talked about pricing and initially you gave it out as a free product and then, but you also mentioned you've been using some paid advertising kind of stuff, the Google ads. So right now, let's say last 18 months or so, how were you attracting customers? What are the different marketing strategies were you guys using?
John: Primarily SEO. We have a love hate relationship with Google ads. Because they changed the algorithm.
Ramesh: Who doesn't by the way.
John: I know, right. I mean there is, one year will be heavy Google ads heavy Bing ads, Yahoo at the time. And then it just did not make financial sense for us to do it. We had to figure out other ways to attract customers. And my primary focus was SEO. We need to get to the top of Google search. So that's what we focused on. And luckily, I think it was probably the timing. We were number one if you search for us with Time sheet software, just a very generic time sheet software, we were number one on the Google results.
Ramesh: That's a lot.
Will: Organically as well.
John: Just organic at the top. But things changed, you know, Google started adding four ads at the top and pushed you down even more below the fold and things like that. So recently this year we really aren't making a much stronger push with Google ads and we're spending way more than we ever have. Just because we think they've streamlined the software in a way that we can really get our conversions the way we want them, where they make sense. But there was a time we would pay, when we first started, I think we've paid a dollar a click, maybe even less than that early on. And then it got very competitive. It was up 12, $15 a click, which we just couldn't, we just cannot afford it. So now they have, you know, a lot more features where you could just only pay for conversions and things like that. So we've implemented a lot of those, so combination right now, SEO and Google ads. And we even considered podcasts to do more marketing and stuff like that. We're still kind of researching that to kind of see what the return would be.
Will: Also streaming services. Also that we entertain the thought of advertising on streaming services, like title, Spotify.
Ramesh: Okay. This question, given that your marketing to businesses, did you consider LinkedIn as one of the channels?
John: Yeah, we actually...
Will: Yeah, we had, we have done some marketing on LinkedIn. It just, it just didn't appear to be fruitful for us. I don't know.
John: Yeah. We did Facebook, we've done Facebook, we've done Twitter, we've done LinkedIn, we've started marketing on LinkedIn early on when they first rolled out their ad system. And I didn't really like the results, like the analytics of it. Not a knock against LinkedIn. I just think it was early on and I just, the numbers didn't really make sense to me. The clicks, they say we were getting and stuff like that. We're not seeing it on our side. So we paused it. We might, you know, we might look back into it. I'm sure it's evolved a lot since we started marketing on it.
Ramesh: Okay. So excellent. So that's a very, very, a lot of insight there. So we talked about pricing, we talked about promotions, we talked about how you bootstrapped it. Have you ever taken any outside financing? Or are you completely bootstrapped even till now you guys are the only owners, is that how it is?
Will: That's correct. We are the only owners. No outside money whatsoever.
Ramesh: Were there any need for outside financing? Did you go through the discussion amongst yourself or were you comfortable throughout the journey that you never had to resort to outside financing?
Will: I don't think we ever considered it. From our business model we pretty much support it and were able to sustain ourselves. It was all pretty much all hard work, so that was the only investment that was required up until getting us to the point where we were really making money. So I don't think we ever, I mean you can correct me if I'm wrong, John. I don't think we ever considered outside financing.
John: No, I think we may, we've probably had a very loose discussion on if we were able to fine tune our Google ads and our marketing campaigns in a way that
only funding was keeping us from scaling tremendous. We may be, you know, is that there's something that like that where it was like, Hey, all we have to do is double win, quadruple down on this, and then, you know, it'll just blow up. Then I think at that point we would at least have the discussion. I mean people do reach out to us pretty frequently about acquisitions and things like that. Will and I agree that we don’t even have the talk right now.
Will: Yeah. Unless we get that number.
Ramesh: So during the journey I know there are ups and downs. So can you talk a little bit about things that did not go well for you, but you were able to recover from them? Any aspects of any part of the business?
Will: Just dealing with the growth has presented its share of challenges. Of course with the unexpected interest from international firms being able to pivot and introduce new features at the drop of a hat. That's actually, it's been a challenge, but it's been fun for us, been rewarding for us as well.
Ramesh: Yeah. It's a pleasant surprise that you're getting international customers when you didn't expect. That's great. You guys what are the, what kind of advice would you give to other entrepreneurs and having come from, definitely you are a minority owned business and then probably that experience is there as well. And you are definitely catering to small businesses and you are catering to international. So considering all that, I'm sure they have lot to offers, what kinds of advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs and other business people?
John: Definitely get in the game. You got to get started and what you think people want, you would not know for sure until people started using it. And I think probably our top feature beyond something that people use is that contact us page. The contact us page has served us so well because people feel, I mean if they liked the software and they're invested in it, they would want you to keep adding things and evolving the software. They don't want you to stop and go out of business or sell it. So every day we get feature requests, feature requests.
Will: Even more so they don't want to go anywhere. They don't want to have to leave. They want to stay with you for the most part.
John: Absolutely. So one of the first things beyond, I'd say equally as important as the sign-up email is the contact us. I know you want people to sign up, but I would argue however, they're reaching out to you whether it's on that first page where it's like, Hey, sign up or they're reaching out to you on that contact us page. It's still a lead. Lead is a lead and you know you can take it from there.
Ramesh: Correct. So Will anything from your side?
Will: I would say one of the things, I often preach this to my children. You don't necessarily, your idea doesn't have to recreate. It doesn't have to be the latest and greatest thing. It doesn't have to shake up the world. It can be something that already exists and you putting your own unique spin and signature on it and you're going to be very successful at it.
Ramesh: Yeah, it does. That may extend that probably makes sense right. You know it's established, there's a pain point associated with something. It's already there. And then you want to somehow differentiate by offering. When you guys did an international differentiation, you guys did a small, very small business and then you gave it away for free. So lots of things that you played with to get to where you are.
Ramesh: So guys, this has been very, very good discussion. Any last-minute thoughts both from you, Will let me start with you. Any last-minute pots that'd be have not discussed.
Will: I just wanted to speak on to one of the unique qualities of our support model is that we don't offer, we offer 24 seven support, but it's email chat only. We don't take phone calls unless absolutely necessary. We've just recently published a phone number after about nine years. We only use that if absolutely, absolutely necessary.
25:45 Ramesh: That is phenomenal that you've been able to service your customer satisfactorily, you know, without that, that's great.
Will: We, have those at the kick and scream that would try to get it to change, but we try to stick to it if all possible.
Ramesh: So John, anything from your side?
John: No, I think I really enjoyed the talk. I appreciate you giving us this opportunity. And definitely give me a copy of that 60 minutes start up.
Ramesh: Yeah. So www.weworked.com John Holmes and Will Roberts, so two guys who have bootstrapped, and then John especially started as a side hustler and then built into a company that serves, I'm still trying to figure it out guys, 120 countries and then without a phone number. So you guys...
Will: If you think about it, it will be kind of difficult if we actually had a phone number because we wouldn't be able to speak all the languages.
John: We do use Google translate very often.
Ramesh: So massive growth. Very impressive startup, and I am delighted to have talked to you and then, so probably we'll do it some other time.
Will: Absolutely. We look forward to it.