How We're Gaining on Big Competitors by Serving Small Niches

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

Hi, my name is Veselin Stoilov and I have a long history of building web apps. I co-founded PHPJabbers.com 12 years ago, and since then my team and I have sold our apps to more than 40,000 clients from all over the world, generating more than $10 million in revenue.

More recently, I’ve been working on VEVS.com — an e-commerce website builder. VEVS sites are designed and developed to meet the needs of multiple industry niches and are equipped with relevant software for doing business online, such as rental software, appointment systems, classified listings and more.

It took us four years to be where we are now. For the first couple of years, we created three different major versions for the CMS, and in the last 12 months, we managed to finally offer a product that is well-designed, scalable, and user-friendly. It's great to see how the number of clients increases weekly, and we get a lot of positive feedback.

What motivated you to get started with VEVS?

After gaining experience building web apps for 10+ years, we had the chance to work with thousands of web developers and small design agencies who built websites for their clients.

VEVS home

We've seen our web apps integrated into all kinds of different sites, but I often didn’t like the sites themselves. They were either unresponsive, unattractive, or lacked key functionality. That made us think that we should offer something more to our customers than just web applications. This is where we got the idea to create a site builder.

Of course, the market for site builders is very competitive. There are a number of huge players who spend millions on advertising. In order to compete with them we couldn’t just make a good product — we had to offer a complete service from A to Z.

The biggest challenge was to build a scalable product that we could easily adapt to each industry. With PHPJabbers we had a portfolio of 75 different web applications, and it became difficult to manage all of them. This time we had to carefully consider how the core of the VEVS platform should be built. The first three years were basically trial and error, and with that came a lot of internal growth and insight into how things should be structured going into the future.

What went into building the initial product?

We had a long list of things we knew we should offer, but we also knew we couldn’t do everything from the beginning. We had to make a compromise between the perfect product and the resources we had to build it. Unfortunately, resources were few and far between. The initial team we started with consisted of six people: back-end and front-end developers, product owner, content writer, graphic designer, and QA.

In order to compete… we couldn’t just make a good product — we had to offer a complete service from A to Z.

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It took us four to five months from start to finish to develop the framework, launch our site, and launch the first five vertical-market solutions. We used our own PHP scripts and framework as a basis for the VEVS products. Since then, we haven’t stopped developing the platform and all its products.

VEVS didn’t start as a website builder, because our CMS was quite limited at the time. Instead it started as a website solution for verticals. Our core idea was to serve e-commerce industries where there were no options for ready-made websites or where building a custom site was too expensive. So we focused on the industry-specific "business software" and built it into each of our solutions to let the market validate our idea. The results were more than promising, and we decided to go further.

VEVS has since evolved into the site-building platform it is today. Our feature roadmap is mostly driven by clients' feedback, and we’ve radically improved the CMS and added a lot more features within the back-end UI. As of today, we've launched 16 vertical market solutions and a general business website.

How have you attracted users and grown VEVS?

We launched in December 2015 and acquired our first two clients that same month. The first step we took to attract visitors and leads was to advertise VEVS on PHPJabbers.com. We also presented the new service to our regular customers. Though VEVS and PHPJabbers provide different services, they’re still within the same industry areas. That provided us with a much-needed SEO boost and helped us snowball our client acquisition.

We've also done the following:

  • Cold emails: We research and locate companies with poor websites and send them a number of emails pointing out how we can improve their presence and help grow their business online. We've even created trial installations with company data from their current sites.
  • Email marketing: We send out newsletters and promotional material to people who’ve done free trials. This includes email follow-ups, news about updates on our products, features they might be interested in and general tips and knowledge articles.
  • Product-listing sites: We listed VEVS on listing and review sites. We also listed our vertical solutions in some niche websites.

The intensity of all of our marketing activities (besides SEO) has fluctuated over the years, with some becoming more of a priority than others. Having limited resources means we can’t do everything all the time. It’s more like a ‘test and evaluate’ process where we only repeat activities that provide feasible and consistent results.

I'm lucky to say that throughout the years we’ve always relied on two key things: happy customers and word of mouth. Out of the $10 million revenue we’ve generated, I don’t think we actually spent more than $50,000 for marketing.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

We generate revenue from two main sources:

  • Subscriptions: We charge a recurring subscription payment with three different price tiers.
  • Custom modifications: We offer a "Design & Development" service to those of our clients that need something more unique or specific. We charge one-off fees for that service.

We charged for our services from day one, but we’ve changed our pricing plans a couple of times to find out the best market price for us. We did have a free plan for a little while, but chose to get rid of it.

What helped us in growing our revenue was finding our pricing “sweet spot” — the exact amount our target customers and target audience are willing to pay for what we offer. Once we found and agreed on that figure, we were able to scale our revenue faster and more efficiently.

Throughout all the changes and testing, we continuously found out that companies that are ready to put in some effort and get their websites into shape are also happy to pay us a fair price.

A good piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs when it comes to your business model and growing revenue is to focus on one thing and do it well. We focus on helping industries where there are no ready-made alternatives, and we strive to be the best at that. Figure out what your number one service is and focus your efforts on perfecting it, rather than being the best at everything.

We now average around $25k MRR from a total of over 350 paying companies.

VEVS pricing

What are your goals for the future?

We recently reached an important milestone: 500 new clients over the last 12 months!

Currently, we are considering funding to help us accelerate our growth and propel us to the next stage. Considering the traction we have so far, I have no doubt we are going to increase the revenue with at least 50% year-on-year with the current resources we already have. But the market potential is a lot bigger, and my main focus right now is to figure out how to fund our future growth.

And there is so much more we plan to do:

1. Marketing and sales: Since launching 4 years ago, we have mostly focused on proving our concept and developing a scalable product that clients will love. It is time to streamline the marketing and sales process, increase our budgets and build a success driven team to increase our brand and sales.

2. Product Updates

  • Add more payment processors
  • Launch more vertical-market solutions
  • Develop an e-shop solution
  • Deliver channel integrations and third-party software-managing processes
  • Improve the vertical-market software to serve more nuanced business needs

3. Service: We want to add extra services and go a few steps further in delivering a complete and integrated digital marketing service.

We’re expecting more roadblocks, but we believe in the old adage: “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.”

What are the biggest challenges you've faced?

We had to optimize all the internal processes and really focus on systematization, because we didn’t want our team wasting time on repeating tasks. And as with any startup, the processes change every month or two, and we had to change with them in order to handle them.

Focus on one thing and do it well.

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Self-funding was, of course, another challenge. But we’re extremely proud of how we’ve been able to overcome this difficulty and build a business that serves as many clients as we currently do.

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

Some of the decisions we made back in the beginning may seem wrong now, but considering all the other factors, I think we did well.

We built a total of three different versions of the CMS until we managed to get it to a level that was both stable and scalable. I know that if we'd spent more time planning, and more time strategizing, we could have probably gotten that figure down to one or two versions. However, this would have delayed the release and validation of our idea. We decided to make an educated decision to launch, test and improve the CMS until we got it right, and we decided that real customer feedback to do it.

One of our biggest missed opportunities is not spending more resources on user growth. In the beginning, the majority of our resources were invested in product development, but if we invested more in user growth, we would have been able to achieve what we have much faster.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Your team is important. There comes a point in every business where you are simply unable to do it all yourself and you have to bring on help. You have to create a team of people that understand your mission and will help propel the business forward.

I know that people are the #1 asset in any business and trust is key. We have a full crew of highly experienced and dedicated web developers, web designers, SEO technicians, sales and marketing specialists, and professionals across the entire spectrum of business. I never sacrifice my core values for anything, which is one of the reasons people stay with my business.

Your idea is important, hard work is important, but most of all, being lucky is important! And as a business owner, you need to learn to create your own luck. :)

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

Don’t waste time waiting until you’re 100% ready, because you'll never be! Rather than wasting time trying to get things perfect on the first try, focus your efforts on starting and testing in order to maximize your productivity.

There is a famous quote that explains this well, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.” You don’t need to have everything planned out and ready, you just need to have enough to start.

VEVS product

A book I would recommend to anyone who is just starting out is Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. It’s an astounding business book that offers lessons on mental attitude and fundamental principles of business.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you would like to learn more, please visit our website and more specifically our blog, where we share useful resources.

If you have any questions, please contact us: [email protected].

Veselin Stoilov , Founder of VEVS.com

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