Know your market. All too often, software products are created because the developer thinks they might be useful to people. This doesn’t mean there’s a profitable market. So make sure that you actively solve a problem that people are willing to pay for. With regard to SaaS platforms, there are many who acknowledge the problem but aren’t sure whether they want to spend their resources on solving it.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Obdam, CEO of Betty Blocks. Its no-code development platform allows users to build applications without writing code. The company employs 220+ people worldwide.
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 come from an agricultural family and have a background in software development. In 2003, my brother and I started a software company specializing in building web-based portals for businesses. The software we made needed constant improvements. At one point, my brother — who didn’t have any programming experience — got frustrated and asked: “Can’t we just create a program that allows us to improve our software without coding?” What started as a side project for internal use, proved to be a success and eventually led to Betty Blocks (www.bettyblocks.com). Today we employ 220 people across 8 countries. Betty Blocks is one of the leading vendors of what’s called a ‘no-code’ or ‘low-code’ platform. People with and without any programming experience use our platform to develop business software applications without having to write even a single line of code.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The “aha moment” came to us early on. While we produced customized business software, we noticed certain ‘universal’ patterns that characterized most programs. Basically, every program had a similar build-up with slight moderations. If you had a solid foundation, it could be reused for many different projects. This was a key realization to significantly speeding up the development process.
When we started our first company 17 years ago, our goal was to apply a completely different approach to software development. It didn’t come as an epiphany to us, but was already part of our core philosophy. We first applied it to our own projects, and soon realized its value for other companies too. We founded Betty Blocks in 2012 and it’s been an exciting ride ever since!
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?
Building a low-code platform is harder than people think. It takes a lot of time and effort. Every year has its share of setbacks. There is always something that requires special attention. Sometimes it’s the product that needs improvement, at other times the sales process falls behind, or there’s a customer who is dissatisfied. I guess it’s four steps forward, then one back. It’s never — ever — smooth sailing, but that’s what makes it so interesting.
Our first hardships were felt when we had to deliver our business proposition and present a minimum viable product. Switching from a project-based to a product-selling business model was one of the biggest hurdles we faced.
Still, it’s not in my nature to give up. My mom describes my character as a bouncing ball: the harder you throw me down, the higher I bounce back up. On moments when things aren’t going the way they should, I often feel relaxed and motivated to tackle those problems head-on.
If the issue can be defined, it’s easy to do something about it. It gets difficult when there’s an impending problem that cannot be pinned down. But as long as you approach it intelligently and creatively, you’ll always find a solution.
I think my programming background has also given me some advantages in regard to process improvement, something most of my current time is spent on. An abstract mind is a big advantage in this field. As a programmer, you don’t only map out the correct path, but also take into account the exceptions. “What if someone does it differently?” In that sense, being IT-minded can help you overcome all kinds of obstacles.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going great. Early in 2019, we extended our operations from Europe into the US, where we have an office in Atlanta. Soon we’ll have teams in other US cities too, helping us to support our customers across multiple states. We’ve entered partnerships with Microsoft and Atlanta United FC, and with clients such as Norton Rose Fulbright, Clifford Chance, and EY, we see a bright future ahead of us.
When people say “quitting is not an option,” it sounds as if they have a choice. Instead, my brother and I say: “either way, we’ll have to get on with it.” Working hard and sticking to it is something we knew from a young age. The resilience was always present, the grid we learned over time. I think it now shows too — through our international success and the acknowledgement we get from independent analyst and research firms.
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?
In our previous company, we helped a lot of startups grow. My main advice to them was something along the lines of: “Focus, focus, focus! Fix your product before you start selling it,” — you know, the stories you often hear. Ironically, we didn’t stick to our own story. We tried to turn two of our companies into successes while in hindsight, it would have been better to have paid full attention to one.
While we lectured the rest of the world to do things a certain way, we didn’t stick to our own plan. So my main advice would be: Don’t just know what you should do in theory, but know what is required to realize it in practice. There is a major difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it. Many organizations know the right way to go, but still find it hard to execute.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re very proud of our company culture, here at Betty Blocks. Everyone who has done business with us will confirm that we have a different approach. First and foremost, we exist because of our clients and our employees. After that come the shareholders and investors.
Many software companies are designed for maximum profit. Generating cash is not our main focus. We are here to make our clients happy, and in turn this makes our employees happy, and the cycle continues.
Our employees are not a means to an end, they are our most important asset. We pride ourselves in ensuring that our people can be themselves and have an opportunity to grow. They have a right to success.
The average age at our Atlanta office is very low (28 years). We aim to hire people with an eye on the future. We love to see how they develop themselves. Sure, you can hire someone who has years of experience and who proves himself instantly, but we opt for a more sustainable way of recruiting our people.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would love to have those tips as well. This might sound corny, but I have two kids who help me get some distraction and relaxation. Recently, I was on a three-week business trip. After the first week, I really started missing them. Without them around, I have the urge to keep on working and working….
One of the tips I would give, is to ensure you find time to disconnect from work. Save some of your precious time for family and friends. For me, that’s the best way to prevent burn out. It also helps to put things into perspective. At the end of the day, it’s just work, and you have to remind yourself there are more important things in life.
Remember that everything is relative, like the various forms of success. You should always be grateful for the small victories as well.
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?
My brother, without a doubt. As a company we wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for him. He’s the most important person in my life. He bought my house for me and ordered my current car!
If you’d have to stereotype it: I’m more of the adventurer, while he’s the analytical genius. I have the tendency to barge in the door and see what happens, while he plans out his every move like a chess player. Together, we make a lethal combination. The compromises we make are often better than turning hard left or right.
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?
Betty Blocks is being used worldwide by 2,000 developers and 4 million end-users. It takes time to build such a community. Contributing factors are to listen closely to your clients and actively invest in your growth. Growing organically is nice, but actual business expansion never happens without putting in a lot of effort.
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 are a software delivery toolbox. That is, we provide software that enables others to make software. Our developers pay for the applications they make. Instead of charging per user — which is the case with most other vendors — you pay according to the number of building blocks you use.
We did consider other monetization options, but opted for this model because we believe that software development should be accessible to everyone. We don’t charge our millions of users for being users, but only for the pieces of software they use. It doesn’t make sense to pay a full licensing fee for our very clever software product if you only use it to build a very small application, even though that application might be used by many thousands of people.
Many vendors base their prices on the number of end-users for an application. Yet many end-users don’t necessarily equate to big impact. With Betty Blocks you can build a really small application if that’s all you need. Even if it’s then used throughout the company, you’ll just pay for the blocks you used to build it, and not for every user. Our model relies of course, on our customers stepping up from simple apps to building more complex, more strategically important ones once they’ve gained experience and trust in the product.
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. Know your market. All too often, software products are created because the developer thinks they might be useful to people. This doesn’t mean there’s a profitable market. So make sure that you actively solve a problem that people are willing to pay for. With regard to SaaS platforms, there are many who acknowledge the problem but aren’t sure whether they want to spend their resources on solving it.
2. Create a working solution that is small. In the best case scenario, you’ll create a minimum viable product (MVP) that you can build within a few months that demonstrates its value to your prospect customers. The MVP should be just powerful enough to convince your prospects they want to pay for it or invest in it.
3. The next step is to incorporate user feedback to define what you’re going to develop on a wider scale. A big mistake that organizations make is creating something they think their users will need, without actually asking them.
4. Talk to people. The best way to get inspired is to get out there and talk to people. This allows you to view the situation from multiple perspectives.
5. Arrange your funding: if you’re not able to develop software yourself and will need to pay others to do it, then it’s very important to work on your funding early. It takes time for a SaaS company to grow. Bootstrapping may help your company get off the ground, but in order to grow you’ll need good cash-flow.
Bonus tip: Set clear goals. Decide if you want to remain a local player, go national or operate on a global scale. Higher goals require a different approach. Also, if you aim high, you often achieve more than you’d initially think. Make a choice at the start, because it’s vital to how you approach things.
Also, if you think you’re already thinking big, take that outlook and multiply it by x4. You have to think outside of the box that you’re already thinking outside of!
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. 🙂
What I find interesting is, when philanthropists talk about improving the world, they usually talk at the expense of the people they aim to help. Traditionally, we’ve been giving clothing and agricultural tools to developing countries, fearing that a financial contribution would be spent on the wrong things. Research shows, however, that if you give these people money, they know exactly what to do with it. There are initiatives that give people $30 a month. It turns out these people often invest that money into entrepreneurship. For instance, they buy a sewing machine to start their own garment business.
So, if I had the choice, I would contribute to making the world of philanthropy less condescending and more effective. That would be a wonderful cause.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrisobdam/
Thank you for all of these great insights!
“5 Lessons I Learned When I Created my SAAS”, with Chris Obdam and Mitch Russo was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.