“5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS” with Will Read and Mitch Russo

Do you know your business could be much bigger than it currently is, but aren’t sure how to get there? I can help!

Service is everything. The clue really is in the name: it’s software as a service, not software for hire. Creating a great product is only half of the challenge, so you have to ensure people want to keep using it / coming back to you for more. Service is how you achieve this. Build real relationships with your customers, listen to their feedback and put it into action. And just be human — it’s kind of hard to relate to software.

As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Will Read. Will is the founder and CEO of Sideways 6, a company which helps organisations improve through the power of employee ideas and one of the top 100 startups in the UK today. Will, who was recognised as one of Startups 100 ‘Five to Watch’ in 2018, firmly believes employee ideas should be at the heart of innovation. His goal is to give 50 million employees a voice and prove that great ideas really can come from anywhere. Outside the business world, Will’s passions include craft beer, reading and Watford Football Club, where he can regularly be found cheering on the Hornets.

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’ve always aspired to be entrepreneurial and started various creative projects and businesses whilst growing up — from selling sweets in the playground to setting up an affiliate marketing business at school, running a speaker hire company at university and a podcasting and events business alongside my first job.

Whilst none of these endeavors were particularly financially successful, they all taught me something and kept me busy. My full-time, ‘grown up’ entrepreneurial journey started in 2013 when I joined the New Entrepreneurs Foundation (now CFE Fast Track). I spent a year working alongside a successful tech CEO and the following year, I launched Sideways 6.

While I’ve had jobs at different points in my life, I don’t think I ever would have been comfortable without having more agency over what I was doing. As a solutions-focused person, not being able to affect real change would drive me insane!

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

It was actually through working in a more traditional 9–5 environment that the idea for what would become Sideways 6 came to me. After university I landed a graduate placement with Sky TV, but soon after realised the constraints of my role. I had ideas and felt I could see opportunities for ways to make improvements in the company, but there really wasn’t anywhere to share them where they would be heard. Line managers weren’t interested and there was no way to get ideas to the right people — the real decision makers in senior management.

It was a frustrating experience, and coupled with the fact I felt I’d become disconnected from my entrepreneurial ambitions, I decided to leave and joined the New Entrepreneurs Foundation. During the programme, based on my underwhelming big corporate experience I came up with the idea of a ‘suggestion box 2.0’, but after some market research was shocked to find out there were already hundreds of companies offering apps and websites for employees to put forward their ideas. Two of these companies actually listed Sky TV as a client, but I hadn’t been able to find the system during my time there; something was clearly wrong.

If ever there was an ‘Aha’ moment that was it. Realising accessibility was critical to any system proving effective for employees was the real starting point for Sideways 6. I knew I wanted to create something that made sharing ideas as simple as possible for everyone.

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?

I started Sideways 6 alone when I was only 23, so while I was full of optimism, drive and determination, I was totally unprepared for the number of late-night arguments with myself and discussions that would usually be had with others only taking place in my head. Quitting never really crossed my mind though, largely because even as a solo founder I was lucky to benefit from the help of advisors and mentors along the way. The solitude of leadership has also become a lot easier as I’ve surrounded myself with great employees who both challenge and support me every day. I’m still as driven as I was when I set out, but the great thing is it’s not just me pushing us on — it’s the whole team.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I’m really pleased with where we are right now and excited about where we’re headed. We’re coming up to 40 people across our two offices in London and Minsk, and we’re working with the kinds of brands I dreamed about working with when I started the company.

We’ve been able to do this on relatively little outside investment — though that wasn’t necessarily a choice! When I first went out to raise money for the idea at the very beginning, I wasn’t able to garner any interest at all from investors. I think it probably took some determination to go through a failed funding round and look to good old fashioned sales and customers to fund the business in the early days.

We’re in a strong position today, which has meant we’ve been able to start exploring ways we can develop our CSR efforts. It’s something that’s important to me and the team, so it was great to be able to give a sizeable discount to Oxfam earlier this year and help them power their ten-year global strategy with employee ideas using our platform.

Nothing’s ever straight forward and we’ve faced significant challenges along the way. I have to say a big part of our success right from startup was having the tenacity and conviction that our product had genuine value, because what we’re really selling is change. It’s meant from our earliest days we’ve always been confident enough to focus on qualifying genuine leads and prospects, so we only try to speak to companies where we think we can have a genuine positive impact on either employee engagement, revenue or cost.

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?

There really are so many. There are some silly small stories — for example, when we sent off the contract for our second ever customer and it contained no less than seven references to our first customer. I guess the learnings from that are that you need to double and triple check everything, but we were absolutely in ‘hustle mode’ and I was excited about the new client so I forgive myself!

Then there’s the bigger mess ups. In the early days we ran a very high-profile ideas campaign with a client while I was away on holiday in South America. At 3am in the morning I was woken in Buenos Aeries to frantic calls from the customer telling me that for the previous 5 hours, our platform had been sending a message a minute to 500 people in the company. I was mortified, but we fixed it quickly and we’ve never had anything like that happen again.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

On an operational level, we’re of course not the only ones who are working in this field, but typically they require employees to download an app, or register and log in to a new platform. This leads to pretty terrible engagement rates — sometimes as low as 0.1–0.5%. Where we stand out is by connecting to the communication platforms already used by our customers, like Slack, Workplace by Facebook or Microsoft Yammer or even work e-mail. It allows employees to share and discuss ideas using software they are already familiar with, with no new app downloads, training or tutorials, giving us and average of ten times the level of engagement of our competitors.

On a cultural level, among other ways I think we stand out in our commitment to learning and development for every member of staff. We have an ‘Always be Learning’ fund for each employee of £600 (although we’ll happily exceed this if the right opportunities come along) to be spent on anything related to their development, from courses, events and workshops to books and annual Audible subscriptions. Since 2017 it’s seen us spend over £40,000 to help our team develop their skills and knowledge, with the knock-on effect being a happy group of people who constantly look to improve, enhance and expand what they bring to the table.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I know a lot of people who have tips for making your working environment less demanding, but what I’ve found works for me is what you do when you’re not behind a desk. Make your time away from work as effective, meaningful and high quality as your time in the office. For me, that means unplugging from work emails and calls, making sure I’m getting enough sleep and only bringing my ‘whole self’ to work. If you’re so strung out you’re falling apart you’re really not going to be any use to anyone — least of all yourself.

Exercise and a safe space to talk are also really important to me. I’ve recently fallen in love with boxing, which has ticked the exercise box, and I’m lucky to have a fantastic coach to speak to candidly about everything that’s going on with me.

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 so many. I call myself a solo founder, but I don’t think there is truly such a thing. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with, and learn from, some incredible people during my years running the company.

One person that comes to mind to shout out is Richard Acreman, founder and partner at WM Reply. I worked closely for Richard during my year on the New Entrepreneurs Foundation and still see him regularly as a mentor. Richard and I actually came up with the name for Sideways 6 together in January 2014 over a bottle of wine, and he’s always been on hand to help me out whenever I’ve needed it.

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?

As our service is geared towards large organisations, through a number of great partnerships we’ve been able to give over 3 million employees a voice (and counting).

The three key steps we took are:

Focus on Value

We’ve been dragged every which way in the past, but for the last few years at least we’ve been very focused on only working with companies where we feel we can add a lot of value, and then doing *everything we can* to get that value across to them once we’re working with them. This regularly means going ‘above and beyond’, but it’s always worth it.

Make it easy

If there’s one rule that applies to all new technology it’s that your success with adoption can make or break you. Our thinking was always ‘why take the chance?’ We removed any of obstacles that could prevent people getting involved, so the only limit to their involvement is their own creativity.

Service is everything

The clue really is in the name: it’s software as a service, not software for hire. Creating a great product is only half of the challenge, so you have to ensure people want to keep using it / coming back to you for more. Service is how you achieve this. Build real relationships with your customers, listen to their feedback and put it into action. And just be human — it’s kind of hard to relate to software.

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 charge a yearly Licence fee for access to the tech and the service. We did consider ‘freemium’ at one point, but didn’t think it would work for us.

Especially as a SaaS company, the temptation to offer free trials or demonstrations is always there — but it’s one I was always determined to resist as I felt it would immediately de-value our offering. Even as our team has grown I believe we’ve retained this determination and steadfast belief that in working with us our customers are changing their businesses for the better.

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. Being a solo founder doesn’t mean going it alone (have people around you who can advise and guide)

2. Take yourself seriously (easy to dismiss ideas, or not put in the necessary research to really bring an idea to life, but doing things properly is key to laying solid foundations)

3. Only seek investment when it’s right for you (investment can give a platform for growth and future success, but only do it when you know it’s right e.g. clearly identified funding needs / strategy)

4. Invest in your staff (save on recruitment, creates a genuine team mentality)

5. Always be learning (every day is a school day for the whole team, so take every opportunity to add to your knowledge and skillset)

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. 🙂

I’d love to get more people talking to each other. Talk to each other, be interested in each other, go ‘deep with other people and try to understand each other. I think that as a society, and especially in business, we’ve lost that a little bit. I feel like more conversations and more sharing of ideas can solve a lot of problems.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on Twitter (twitter.com/WillRead) and LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/wread/), where you can also find links to the Sideways 6 accounts.

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 protected]

“5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS” with Will Read and Mitch Russo was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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