Before Firedrop (www.firedrop.ai) even opened its virtual doors, it had more than 4,000 active users in place. The concept for the company developed in 2015, they sought out investors, secured funding and opened their doors by February of 2017, when they released the Beta version to those pre-registered users.
Firedrop Founder and CEO, Marc Crouch
Firedrop's founder and CEO, Marc Crouch, took the time to chat with us about the keys to building a successful startup – both before you start and keeping that growth going after.
Crouch has more than 20 years experience in the tech industry as an entrepreneur and writer. Crouch's beginnings are a bit unique for a techie. He recalls that he was a linguist in school. “I hold an undergrad degree in English Literature, so I'm not a typical developer.” Crouch shares that he got into tech via music.
I have been making music for over 20 years now and back in the 1990s was active on several AOL forums for amateur musicians, where I met the founder of a website that offered constructive reviews for amateur artists, written by volunteers around the world. I joined initially as an editor, ensuring the reviews were published with a high standard of English. Then one day the founder disappeared, and I took over by default as none of the other volunteers were interested.
From English Major to Owner of His First Company
Crouch went on to teach himself how to code more advanced languages. He just used a book to learn coding language. It was then that he started to realize the potential of websites. This experience proves that if you are determined, you will find the resources to learn the skills you need. Crouch managed this in the 90s, when there weren't nearly as many online MOOCs and other resources to teach yourself tech skills.
Crouch formed a company, sold advertising, and went out into the music industry to make deals. His first site grew from 8,000 monthly visitors to 3 million monthly visitors in a matter of a couple of years.
“We had a record label, events management, and artist management divisions. There were six full-time staff members and an army of volunteers. It was a fantastic time, particularly being int he music business at such a young age – my early 20s.”
Unfortunately, the Dotcom crash hit and the business ran into cash flow problems.
However, Crouch's love affair with the tech business was already fully developed. “Even when I had to get a job in sales for a while to get back on my feet financially, I always had a side project on the go in tech. It's the most exciting business there is for me.”
This just goes to show that when you need to start a business you're passionate about. That way, even with setbacks, you'll have that burning desire to keep moving forward, and that really is the key to success.
The Early Days of Firedrop
Firedrop was born while Crouch was working for another company.
It was 2015 and he was the Managing Director of Umi Digital, a hospitality design agency. Some of the large booking sites actually put his parents out of business and he began thinking through how he might help the small independent hotel or restaurant owner.
Essentially, Crouch saw a problem smaller business owners had where they didn't have the opportunity to become a presence on a portal site and he set out to create a solution, which was to allow clients to build simple sites themselves. The launch was at a trade show with a price of 20 Euros a month to start. At that very first show, they found 20 new customers.
However, it was shortly after gaining a handful of customers that the phone calls started. People didn't understand the process, or didn't know how to add content, or had a myriad of other questions.
So, by late 2015, the company knew they needed to explore ways to apply automation techniques to creating a website. They combined it with the principles of A.I. and rebranded as Firedrop.
“Initially we built a Wordpress-based template ecosphere and managed the hosting and management, which worked, but still didn't allow us to bring website costs down far enough for the smaller businesses, so in 2015 we started looking at self-serve solutions, initially a simplified drag and drop website builder like Wix or Weebly but with a massively streamlined interface.”
As they built the platform you see today, they kept telling themselves to “make it simpler.”
At first, they'd raised a small amount of seed money to build a prototype and have six months to hit the ground running. Crouch also hired his core team early on. “The early days were a lot of hard work and innovation, but at the same time a lot of excitement. Having a detailed budget in place was essential or we would have gone under very quickly.”
Crouch points out that this was his first experience being the sole founder of a company.
His previous company was started with a co-founder. Since this was the fourth business Crouch has started, he points out that he was already familiar with the stresses he'd have to deal with in building his business. He knew he'd need a strong support network of friends, family and investors. He also points to hiring the right team.
“We were hotdesking in the beginning, so you need a strong culture in the team. They are all still here.”
Before their launch, Firedrop started pretty much under the radar. But, they hit their first growth spurt in August 2016. They were picked up by Hacker News website, because he had previously paid for a listing in a newsletter called Betalist.
Firedrop went from 50 signups to more than 2,500 in one night. From there, Crouch shares that it was a steady stream of signups, which was driven mostly by blogging and social media efforts. He also put a referral scheme in place that was quite effective. By the time Firedrop Beta launched in February 2017, they had hit that more than 4,000 user mark mentioned earlier in this piece.
He mentions that their growth has been fairly steady for the last six months, with some spikes, but an overall traffic increase over time. He does try to look at the broader viewpoint instead of those sudden spikes to get a clearer picture of growth over time.
Today, Crouch shares that they now offer free initial page setup for signing up. He mentioned that it doesn't really scale, but it is getting them the traction they need and he feels this is vital as they are still in the fairly early days of their business launch. They've already grown to around 10,000 users.
Tips for Other Business Owners
Crouch had some words of advice for other business owners. In addition to having a strong support network in place, as he mentioned before, he also shared that he sees one big common mistake from first-time founders. He said that they tend to pretend they are on top of everything all the time and don't ask for help or advice from others.
“This is a huge mistake, as asking not only helps you share the burden but actually helps solve problems for you. You never know who or when a great piece of advice will come from.”
The other issue is one we've talked about before here at WHSR, and that is time management.
“There are always a million things to do and you can easily get bogged down with minutiae. My best advice here is to remember the most important thing: always focus on cash.”
Crouch points out that this can mean raising investment or getting in customers who can pay within the time frame you need them to pay. Your number one priority should be work that prioritizes cash flow.
“So, if you've got a potential meeting and you're not sure if it advances that agenda, politely decline it or ask for clarification. And, then outsource anything you're not good at, such as accounts. Don't take on everything yourself; it's just not possible.”
To get past those initial cash flow issues that many small businesses experience as they begin to grow, he suggests:
Have a strong financial plan and forecast in place, and assume everything will take longer than expected. Every business goes through cash crunches at some point or other (sometimes more than once or twice!) but the important thing is not to hide from it, and remember that EVERYBODY can be negotiated with – even the tax man. It's okay to say to a supplier that you're having cash problems and need more time, or need to spread out payments. What's not okay is to pretend everything is fine and then get angry creditors on your back.
What I Learned
It was a real pleasure to talk to Marc Crouch. He had so many tips about how to prepare for a startup and keep the momentum going. I truly enjoyed our chat. Here are a few things I learned:
- Don't be afraid to learn something new. If you are determined, you can teach yourself any skill you need to run your business.
- Plan ahead. Take the time to figure out financials and how much money you need to get started.
- Hire the best team possible to help you prepare for the launch.
- Use social media marketing and blogging to get the word out. If you can afford it, take out some ads.
- Have a great support system, because starting a new business is hard and you'll need those who love you to fill the gaps.