5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “Don’t expect family and friends to be able to understand and support you when it gets hard” with Matt Barnett and Mitch Russo
Don’t expect family and friends to be able to understand and support you when it gets hard. Find some other founders, preferably more experienced, to learn from and grow alongside, they get it. When we were deciding to go all in on Bonjoro or not (never run two companies they tell you), I knew three other founders who’d launched second products and companies which outgrew their original one — they all told us to go for it, and here we are.
As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Barnett, founder and CEO of Bonjoro. Originally a British industrial designer & artist, Matt turned everything upside down to launch a tech company in Sydney Australia. After a couple of false-starts, Bonjoro was born from a sales hack for his first business, where Matt would send every new lead a personal video instead of a plain-text email. When customers started asking how they could do the same thing, Matt and the team decided to go all-in on the idea, and two years later Bonjoro has snowballed into a startup success story. Matt’s love of building great products is only surpassed by his total commitment to building great business culture, and Matt asserts that Bonjoro’s “customers as friends” culture has been the main driver of the businesses success. His goal is to be the next Zappos, to be the most loved brand in the world.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I moved to Australia from the UK around 8 years ago, where I’d worked running a design consultancy and side hustling as an artist. Though I skipped the “starving” part of being an artist, I never felt my work was “scalable” enough to provide me with a solid income doing what I loved, and I hungered to start a high growth product company.
After one particularly grueling mid-winter British surf — hail, snow and mild hyperthermia — I decided if I was going to try my hand at something new, I’d at least do it where the sun shined and bought a one-way ticket to Sydney, Australia. I found my first CTO on a date shortly after arriving, and while love never blossomed, our first startup did; Vimily — The world’s first video family tree.
This was my first big fail. It got as messy as it can get really; we had investors and a growing team when it all crashed and burned in just a few short months. Despite this, when my cofounder moved on with most of the team, three of us somehow managed to salvage the tech we had built and pivot it into the market research space, running mobile-video diaries for qualitative researchers. We re-branded as Verbate and started to grow a customer base in Europe, the USA and Australia, and it was via a sales “hack” for that company, that we eventually launched our big success, Bonjoro…all still under the original parent company, Vimily.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
We never really meant to build Bonjoro. We were having challenges converting leads for Verbate as many of our potential clients were overseas in the US or the UK, and on completely different time-zones. I was much better at closing clients once I got face to face, so I figured why not send every lead a quick, personalized video pitch shortly after they signed up or registered an enquiry. I would literally do these on the ferry on the way to work, I wasn’t even sure people could hear me with the wind, but regardless I connected with them, and our close rate jumped 30% overnight.
It could have stopped there, however, when the tenth client asked where they could download this “video email” tool, we decided (over beers on a Friday) to hack together something they could use. That hack started growing 20% a month, eventually taking over the parent company and is now the Bonjoro that I sit across and love today.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Our original startup struggled with activation big time. While we had many signups coming in, engagement was low, and we just couldn’t crack it. With money running out my co-founder eventually walked, leaving me to explain to the team and investors that we were closing the product down. I considered giving up, and friends told me that would be a smart move, but two team mates stuck around, and one investor was especially supportive and actually gave us some funds to try and turn it around. Everything was down to their decision to stay and try one last time, and I couldn’t turn away from that.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I always say every time we tried a new product, we added a couple of zeros to the revenue line. Bonjoro is the brand and ethos we always wanted to build; its growing like crazy, though we have a long way to go and some big goals for the company. There are many things that lead to success, but experience and domain knowledge would be at the top of my list. Tenacity and resilience simply keep you in the game longer; long enough to outlast the competition, long enough to build a loyal customer base, long enough to build a business that delivers value.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Don’t go looking for co-founders on dates! Though saying that, honestly, you just never know where you’ll meet like-minded individuals with the same passion and drive who could start something great with you. I’m a solo-founder now, but would I change any of my journey? Not at all. It’s all a learning curve, and co-founders de-risk those early-years significantly, even if statistics show that most co-founder relationships fail.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our brand / ethos first approach to how we build the business seems to be relatively unique, especially in the tech space where most are product-first. I remember someone called ‘Pat Flynn” signed up one day, I didn’t recognize the name and thought nothing of it, but I sent him a personal video (as we do for every signup), shared some advice, and did my best to treat him as a person first, customer second. Six months later, we discovered this guy Pat was a bit of a big thing when we got flooded with signups, every single one raving how Pat had shared what we did on stage at Social Media Marketing World. That would never have happened if we hadn’t been following our guiding “customers as friends” ethos, or treating every potential customer equal. I think we ended up sponsoring a couple of Koalas for his kids to say thank you.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Build or find a community of like-minded founders, marketers, CTO’s…whatever your role. You’ll find a world of support, and that any challenge you face has probably been faced by someone else and they’ll be able to help. I run a group of surfer / kite surfer founders in Sydney, and what started as a few first-time starters catching up before work, has become an amazing, ongoing source of inspiration, support and lifelong friends.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve had so much help to get to where we are, I would say very little of it was down to me. First place though has to go to my wife. I don’t think for a second it’s easy dating a founder; some amazing highs, but some very stressful lows as well. When you have someone who is happy to use your wedding funds as cash flow when investors funds haven’t hit on time, you know you’re onto something special.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
We have around 15,000 users on our Bonjoro plans to date, 96% not in Australia, but in the US and elsewhere across the world.
1. We spend a lot of time on forging relationships with B2B influencers, and run an affiliate program to support them, and their communities.
2. We still send personalized videos to every single signup we get on Bonjoro. As a result of this, we hold a higher percentage of genuine relationships with our customers than any other startup I know — this leads to compound benefits, whether it’s higher conversion rates, or more word of mouth referrals.
3. We have a very active community for our power users, and do a lot of work to help define the direction of the business with these customers — we even send them bear suits when they reach a secret milestone with the product!
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We have a freemium model — a basic free version, then paid tiers based on value-driven features. All paid users have access to unlimited videos, and team member seats are discounted.
We do get asked why we don’t charge based on number of videos created. Pricing models scaling with usage are attractive for sure, but we’re committed to changing communication behaviors, so putting a limit on the scale at which our users can communicate goes against this.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Family, Business, Health & Friends.
a. Pick one to do well.
b. Pick one to do ok.
c. Pick one to do once every few weeks.
d. Write one off completely.
e. If business isn’t priority one or two, maybe question if you really want to start this.
Right now I’ve gone from phat to fat. But hey, I’ve got a daughter and a business, and I like seeing friends once a quarter.
2. Don’t expect family and friends to be able to understand and support you when it gets hard. Find some other founders, preferably more experienced, to learn from and grow alongside, they get it. When we were deciding to go all in on Bonjoro or not (never run two companies they tell you), I knew three other founders who’d launched second products and companies which outgrew their original one — they all told us to go for it, and here we are.
3. Decide what you want to build, half the features, half them again, then launch that. If customers won’t use or pay for your solution in its simplest form, you’re wasting money building features on top of that. The first Bonjoro was a desktop recorder widget that sent a plain text email with a link — zero branding, zero name, zero design, and we sold it.
4. Build a brand, not just a product. People will follow a brand for life, even if you don’t have the product to back it up. We had multiple customers in our early days pay us for a half-finished product because they believed in what we were doing and wanted to see us succeed.
5. If you have to bet on one thing for success, bet on team. With the right team, the product can change, the company can change, the customers can change, and your team will still do what it takes to succeed. We built three products before we dared call ourselves successful. I may be the founder, but it’s my team that got us there.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Ugly creatures. A fund to manage and protect the insects, frogs, and generally un-loved but endangered wildlife on this planet. We’re already seeing a crash in bees, but with dung beetles, moths and amphibians plummeting too, the implications for the food chain, and ultimately humans will be huge.
Unfortunately, when you spend your day cleaning up poop or eating flies, you don’t tend to endear yourself to fundraisers as much as a panda with a popsicle.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
For educational content about using video to grow your business (blogs, eBooks, guides) head to our Twitter channel @bonjoroapp. To see our team and culture follow us on Instagram on the same handle, @bonjoroapp.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About the author:
Mitch Russo started a software company in his garage, sold it for 8 figures and then went on to work directly with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes to build a $25M business together. Mitch wrote a book called “The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies” and now his 2nd book called Power Tribes — “How Certification Can Explode Your Business.” Mitch helps SaaS company founders scale their own companies using his proprietary system. You can reach Mitch Directly via firstname.lastname@example.org
5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “Don’t expect family and friends to be able to… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.