5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “Touch base with the world” with Ben Ackland and Mitch Russo
Touch base with the world. You’ll already be spending a fair amount of time with your colleagues. It’s also important to be active within your local community — have some variation, learn from others, share and test your ideas. But don’t stop there. Take time to engage with the wider world, whether that’s a week in a co-working office in another city or a conference on related approaches and technologies.
As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Ackland, the Co-Founder of NIMBLE.team, a web and app services company with a commitment to Making Technology Work for People. NIMBLE’s heart is what makes it different — born out of a ten-year history of internet projects, the core team is experienced and dependable. Their focus is on early stage app development, working with a small number of companies to get their minimum viable products to market.
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?
It all began in the late ’90s, when I moved to the amazing city I now call home: Bristol, UK. Growing up in a small village in the countryside, I managed to secure a place for a Masters in Computer Science. I learnt a lot, and also realised that what I wanted to do as a career was fuse my interest in business and (then fairly new) internet technologies.
Having been for interviews with a couple of big players like CSC, I also realised a small team was what I really wanted to be part of. An internet startup in Bristol — Netsight — had recently been founded, and I was lucky to be on the mailing list for interviews — and then very pleased to join them as a Software Developer. At the same time I was becoming more cemented in the city, making new friends, and experiencing all it has to offer.
This internet services company grew to 15 or so employees: our focus shifted to corporate intranets — some used by thousands worldwide — and my role evolved into Projects Director. My motivation was driven as much by technology as business — I thoroughly enjoyed writing software, but also building a great team, working closely with customers, running a business. This commitment to the company also allowed me to get on the property ladder, and Bristol became my home!
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
As a team at Netsight, we sold our intranet product to a number of corporates, which was a success in its own right. But ultimately the intranet space became very competitive and wasn’t really allowing us to push the boundaries of our creativity. Once a system becomes familiar for a team of thousands and they rely upon it every day, it’s not all that easy to try new things!
We continued to support our key customers, but it became clear that we all wanted to do something more novel and cutting-edge.
The tipping point for me was not an instant — it took many months to figure out what to do next. When I ended up spending a few weeks in San Francisco in the summer of ’16, it really opened my eyes to a wave of new internet startups.
I have the “Disruptive Startups” community (now some 4,000 members) to partly-thank for that. In fact, I took part in a panel voting on up-and-coming tech companies while I was there, and that’s when I decided what to do next — take the brave step to head up a new business whose focus would be to support new ideas as often as possible — bringing all my, and my eventual team’s experience to the table.
Despite being tempted to relocate to San Francisco (and I’ve been back a handful of times since — the Californian coast is truly beautiful), I knew Bristol was where I ultimately wanted to be.
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?
One of the hardest experiences for me was the change from working in a business that had a customer base, practiced processes, and a well-established (and fantastic) team, to heading up a new business that had to learn a lot of new things to become valuable.
On more than one occasion, I seriously considered taking a different path and seeking employment elsewhere, letting someone else ultimately drive the business. It’s challenging being in the driving seat all the time.
But it was the conversations I had with my family and friends that gave me the perspective I needed. They made me realise how energising it can be to take your own path, despite the substantial commitment required.
Even more so, it was the openness of my close colleagues, who had become my friends, that signalled I can (and should) do what I was passionate about. In due course, two of my longest-standing colleagues ended up joining me as the foundation of the NIMBLE team.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We have a sustainable business and about half our time is spent creating something new — ideas, processes, software. That’s a pretty engaging and rewarding environment to work in!
We’ve also managed to maintain a reasonable work-life balance, which is in part down to prioritising quality over quantity in what we do.
With quantity you can end up filling every hour of the day with work, always trying to do more and more, but in truth rarely having the brainpower to do something great. When you focus on quality, you give yourself the time you need to deliver something truly usable, slick, and solid. And you get a bit more sleep as a result!
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?
The one thing that irks me now was not having a broad enough perspective during my years as Projects Director. I’d grown up in a team focused on doing a few things well, which there’s no harm in. But because I was concentrating on repeating and attempting to scale that, I didn’t take in everything else that was going on the internet-connected world.
I had too narrow a vision. This ultimately meant what we were doing couldn’t be sustained in the medium-term — technologies were becoming outdated, the team was exhausted from repetition etc. That’s not to say I didn’t try to explore new opportunities for the business, but I tried to do it in short bursts when I could fit it in, rather than it be a regular, natural part of my role as a director.
This is one of the biggest differences today — I am more open to the ever-changing landscape of technologies, markets, applications, and I know we regularly benefit from that.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One thing that sometimes surprises people is our choice not to get too big as a company.
At its core, our NIMBLE approach is about flexibility — not just a willingness to change course over time, but also a way to start projects, how to deliver them, and how to develop good working relationships along the way.
I believe in small teams — teams that can move fast and evolve together. Once you move beyond a handful of people, you simply cannot act in a nimble manner. There are always enough of us in the conversation to cover all the bases, but few enough that things actually get done. Everyone in the business understands and knows our mission and our values, and we can be selective enough to ensure that we recruit for them. It means building deeper relationships with a few, rather than superficial ones with many.
This approach has real-world tangible benefits for us as a company and for our customers. With stronger relationships comes better collaboration. With a greater understanding of each other’s strengths, and the level of personal investment we have in the work we do, we can create some truly creative solutions.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s easy — for me at least — to keep thinking about the work we do for every hour of the day; sometimes it’s stressing about the challenges, sometimes it’s being excited about our achievements.
My tip would be to find a repeatable way to keep work out of your life and build that skill — it’ll ultimately make you more productive.
I use yoga and meditation, and physical separation of work and home. If I start thinking about work at a time that I want to spend on life, I actively recognise that, pause, and re-focus. Like anything, it’s a habit you need to build, but once you do, you really reap the benefits.
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?
There are many people whom I’m grateful to for helping me through my career so far, but someone who I’ve never really recognised was a kind, wise gentleman I got chatting to in a coffee shop in Mission, San Francisco.
He was American, had fought for his country in World War II, worked as an automotive engineer, and was now retired and enjoying life.
We got into a conversation and I shared a bit about my background, what I’d been working on and with whom, and how I was trying to figure out where to go next.
“Sounds like your real skill is being nimble — adapting to whatever challenges are put in front of you. An important one in this day and age,” he reflected.
“Yes!” I agreed.
Then we chatted about cars and my road trip down to LA — I was technically on vacation after all!
It took someone else looking in to summarise all of my values in one sentence. I realised that is what I’m naturally great at — listening to what someone is trying to achieve, what their considerations are, what resources they have, and trying to find a path for them to get there.
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 focus on a quality product for a smaller or niche audience (hundreds to thousands of users), rather than breadth of functionality for a large community.
In recent years we’ve delivered a handful of successful products, each of them having a different use case. Our involvement is typically at an early stage, so the user base is typically early-adopters. In other cases, we’re delivering software to a partner’s existing user base, which may be larger (maybe tens of thousands) but are already established.
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?
Our latest product — Visual Survey Pro — offers a paid app and optional subscription model. We invested in researching and developing the original product, and our main costs now are in further enhancing this for our customers as well as business development and support.
We chose to offer the product at a relatively low price for introductory or light use, without a cap on how long they can use it for. The built environment sector is going through a substantial, perhaps overwhelming digital transformation, and we didn’t want to rush users into making a commitment.
But we also want to ensure that committed users can get repeat value from the product through a subscription — making routine tasks that might have taken hours almost instantaneous. This Pro subscription also contributes to the further development of the app and web portal, driven by the same users’ feedback.
We considered in-app purchases — something we’ve successfully implemented in previous products — but at this stage it didn’t feel appropriate to ask users to pay more granularly for features or benefits. If they want to work like a Pro, we’ll give them everything we can to do that, at one standard price.
In-app advertising isn’t, in our opinion, appropriate for a technical B2B product for professionals. We don’t intend to consider that.
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.
You’ll rarely be creating something wholly new
It’s important to understand your uniqueness as a business and product offering, but don’t set out trying to come up with wholly new idea. Instead, learn from others, then do better. Focus on what you can add to solve a problem.
Touch base with the world
You’ll already be spending a fair amount of time with your colleagues. It’s also important to be active within your local community — have some variation, learn from others, share and test your ideas. But don’t stop there. Take time to engage with the wider world, whether that’s a week in a co-working office in another city or a conference on related approaches and technologies.
Always put people first — relationships with your team, partners and customers
If you start by building relationships before building solutions, in my experience your ongoing communication will be better. A willingness to share and support will lead to mutual trust, and you’ll naturally continue to learn from one-another. This can reduce risk, minimise blockers, and simply make working together more enjoyable.
Think objectively about your users
No one sits in their own office and questions everything that they do. Why do we store files that way? Why do we name versions like that? We’re too busy doing it! It’s so easy to get stuck into a routine, and we don’t consider that there might be a better way. But when you take time to think objectively about what someone is doing and why, you start to notice habits and assumptions, and start to ask the questions no one thinks to ask. That can lead to genuinely valuable solutions, empowering a person to accomplish their tasks more efficiently.
Know how to listen to your instinct
You probably know when you have a gut feeling for things — that’s your instinct. But do you listen to it? I’ve changed over the last few years to listen to how I feel a bit more without overthinking everything. If there’s an opportunity to take and it’s not a massive commitment, try it. Once you’ve done this a couple of times you’ll become more familiar with acting on your subconscious thoughts.
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. 🙂
With the rapid evolution in machine learning, big data and ultimately AI, I’d like to see governments commit to ensuring humans have control of their own data. I’m not just talking about protecting personally identifiable information, but the complete profile of an individual: interests, health, relationships etc.
From the first time you share something, it should be possible to understand exactly who (or what) entities have access to it, with the option to wholly revoke access — as if it the data didn’t exist — at a later date. I’d probably call it something like “protect your profile”.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
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 email@example.com
5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “Touch base with the world” with Ben Ackland… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.