Building a publicly listed company from the ground up is a rare and special thing. But it’s not something that happens overnight – it takes years and years of hard work, continuous growth and a series of hard lessons along the way.
Our founder, Daniel Wikberg knows that long, hard journey all too well. Starting the company in 2003, he’s grown it into a publicly listed company with over 600 customers in more than 10 countries.
Here are some of the biggest lessons he learned along the way.
On starting out...
1. Invest in marketing early
If I could go back, I would have started marketing to support sales much earlier. At Upsales, we didn’t invest in marketing until late in the game. For the longest time we were a company founded on cold calls and that’s all we did.
It took us a while to take a risk on marketing. (And it is a risk when you’re a small business. You hear about so many businesses pouring money into marketing efforts that don’t deliver any results.) But the results were really worthwhile. Once we started, it didn’t take long for us to recognize just how much of a difference marketing makes to every sale.
What really made a difference was when we finally did take the marketing risk, was that we knew exactly what we wanted it to do for Upsales – support our sales effort.
2. Don’t undervalue your product
A lesson I wish we’d learnt earlier was how to value our product correctly. As a young company we left a lot of value on the table because we were eager to make sales and get our product out there.
That’s a big lesson for young businesses to learn. If you’ve got a good product people will pay for it. So don’t under-sell your product just because you’re new in the market, unknown or eager to land more customers.
3. Know when it’s time to scale
As soon as you see some kind of recurring business – you start bringing in a client a week and you see that happening over and over again, for example – it’s time to start thinking about how to scale it.
But at the same time you need to figure out what processes need to develop as you grow. You need to make sure that the entire machine is working. If you’re making one sale a week and you want to scale that up, it’s not just a matter of growing the sales team. You need to think about the entire operation – customer support, implementation, account management, etc.
We were naive in the beginning. We thought if we signed a client, they’d just use the product, be happy and pay the fees forever. You need to make sure everything is working, that way you keep churn down and keep clients happy and coming back.
On growing once you’ve made it...
4. Keep challenging your people to grow
Once you start making money as a business, it’s easy to start playing it safe – you have employees to pay and customers to keep happy.
You get this idea that you need to become a “real company”. You become afraid of stopping that revenue. And this slows the business down. It kills innovation.
In my experience, the only antidote is to continue evolving your company. And that comes from your people.
At Upsales one of our values is great expectations. If you can get your team into the mentality of continuously challenging themselves, they’re going to do amazing things. Get them to think about how they do things.
For example, we challenge our teams with questions like: if you can bring in $10,000 in revenue, what would it take to bring in $100,000 in revenue? Or if your idea is to build a system in a week, what would it take to build it in a day.
The point of this isn’t to get everything done super-fast, it’s to push our boundaries. It’s to say ‘how can we do things better?’ and then see if we can do them better.
It’s about challenging people to think faster and think bigger. Everyone has this potential in them and as a business you want to push them to ‘more’. That’s how you keep growing and keep finding success as a business.
5. Going niche will kill your growth
Don’t get too narrow and tailor your product to specific customers. That’s a trap we fell into at the start.
If you’re always building specific features for each customer, you’re narrowing your product’s value to a wider audience. You need to be careful not to cater to specific customer requests. This will only pigeon-hole your product into a certain niche.
To continue growing at a steady rate, you need new customers. So whatever you’re offering, it needs to not only keep existing customers, it needs to appeal to new ones too.
6. Choose the right people for right now
The mistake we’ve made too many times when it comes to people is that we used to look five years into the future. We imagine what a person can do for us down the line. But we’ve found that often those people don’t want to do the leg work necessary to, for instance, grow a small team, into that five-year vision.
The lesson here for us is that you need to know where your business sits when you’re hiring people and what kind of people you need at that moment.
For us at Upsales, all of the best hires have come from existing networks and recommendations.
On going public...
7. Know how the business will run during the IPO process
Talk to anyone who has been through an IPO and they’ll tell you it’s complex and time-consuming. And that’s absolutely true. It’ll suck countless hours out of every day just reporting on your financial status and compliance.
What’s most important, and often not considered, is how the business will continue to run while the CEO is spending 50% of their time doing IPO-related things. It’s vital that there’s a plan in place for this otherwise the entire business can go off the rails fast.
8. Pitching to investors
These pitches are so critical. Get it right and in 10 minutes you could walk away with a million dollars. Get it wrong and an investor will just walk out in the middle of your presentation.
You need to put a lot of effort into keeping your pitch short. That means focusing on the essentials. It’s more important to be clear in these pitches than to be fancy. The more buzzwords and jargon, the more you’ll lose investors – you can’t assume people know what “churn” means.
An auxiliary benefit of this process is that it brings out the best in how you sell your business. It really makes you refine your sales message.
9. Ride the coattails of your IPO
Use your IPO as an opportunity for more growth. When you do an IPO, it’s a window of time when customers think you’re the coolest business on the block. You can really capitalize on this – it adds credibility to what you’re doing and it impresses prospects.