I founded a $10M ARR SaaS and made $40M in sales over 10 years

Hey everyone - I'm Aleem Mawani and I started Streak, a CRM in Gmail.

Love the IH community and we'd like to think of ourselves as accidental members. We started Streak on the venture path with a seed round from notable SV investors, but since then we've been growing on profit and haven't raised more. We've managed to grow to $10M ARR.

I'd love to spend some time and share whats worked, but probably most interesting is all the failures, all the obstacles that were hard to get through, and some of the problems we still have.

Feel free to ask away, I'll be here all day!

  1. 4

    How did you manage your existing investors from the Seed round? Wouldn't they have asked for an exit by now?

    1. 2

      Different investors have different time horizons. So for some investors it made sense to exit their position while for others they were happy to carry on and see where the company goes.

      For those that wanted to exit, we had the company buy their equity.

      1. 5

        Thanks Aleem, this was useful!

        How did you agree on an exit price with them? Was there just a fair valuation agreed upon?

  2. 3

    Hi Aleem, thanks for doing this! My questions:

    1. If you could do things over, would you still take VC seed capital, or bootstrap, or something else (e.g. friends and family, angels, indie-focused investors) and why?
    2. What's your current end-game: IPO, strategic exit, no-exit-and-run-for-profit, or wait-and-see? Did this change from the beginning and if so, why?
    1. 2

      No problem.

      1. Depends on my goal. Our goal at the time was to go big or go home, so I'm glad we took money. If I were to start another company I'd probably bootstrap to start to just keep optionality open and only raise if a) it was a type of business that could only be successful with scale and b) I wanted to spend at least a decade working on it.

      2. We're in a lucky position where we don't need to decide on an end game now. If we had take more institutional rounds of funding we'd probably only have one option - big ol' exit. The thing we optimize for internally is building something of value. Our formula for that is value of streak = # of customers x value we deliver each customer. Everything we do is trying to increase one of those two factors.

      1. 3

        Ahh forgot the "did this change" part. I think it did. Before, all we wanted was to be a billion company. Now we intentionally think about being a $10M company, then a $50M company, then a $100M company - we're more conscientious of all the steps along the way and just focusing on achieving that next level up.

        1. 1

          Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. I'm glad Streak is in a good spot where it can continue to grow thoughtfully instead of "unicorn or bust". Best of luck to you in the future!

  3. 2

    What are some of the biggest failures so far ? What did you learn from those failures ? If you could go back in time, what would you do differently ?

    1. 4

      I think there were a few:

      1. Hiring -> we underinvested in hiring early on. We didn't realize the scale of the number of hires we'd need to make and so we mostly approached it as an ad hoc process. It meant we didn't hire fast enough when we needed to which delayed some of our progress. We eventually got there, it just took more time. Specifically, we should have built out an in house recruiting team earlier. We also stopped and started hiring based on market conditions / our progress. This was a mistake, it's important to continuously keep the hiring pipeline fresh even if you are slowing your hiring. It's really hard to restart. This is what we're doing now because we're looking for great people across the company (biz ops, customer success, engineering, etc).

      2. Not understanding founder/company fit - > any successful company is going to take many many years. The wants/needs/intentions of founders when first starting out change over time. We didn't communicate enough when our hopes for the company changed.

      3. Long product cycles -> with a small team we naturally scoped down the size of all of our product features and got the bare minimum out as fast as we could. As we grew, we got more ambitious (a good thing) and that exploded the scope of some of our projects. We had more than 1 project that took more than a year to launch. We've corrected it since, mostly by adopting the Basecamp shape up methodology. We have much shorter shipping cycles now.

      1. 1

        Thank you for the response. I agree that hiring is one of the things that we all get wrong as founders. I have been there myself so I feel your pain :).

  4. 2

    Thanks Aleem!

    Could you describe your journey of getting from $0 to $1000 MRR?

    • How was that like?
    • What did you do?
    • Why did you do those things?
    • What worked and what failed?
    • Hindsight's 20/20, would you do those things again (even the failures), why / why not?
    1. 4

      Great question. So zero to $1K happened in like 2 days. But not for the reason you'd expect.

      We initially launched as a completely free product. Our rationale was that CRM was a well known category that people were used to paying serious $$$ for (i.e. Salesforce). And we didn't really want to start working on billing, plans, price optimization, etc.

      So we ended up being free for the first 3 years and just focused on building the best product and getting "users". We were able to do this only because we kept our burn super low (only hired like 1-2 ppl). Eventually, with a dwindling bank balance, we decided to introduce paid plans and start charging our free users and got to $30K MRR in the first few weeks. Since then we've been growing on our revenue.

      Would I have done the same thing again? It's really hard to say. Probably not. Yes our users were used to paying for CRM software so there wasn't monetization risk, but in retrospect we would have built a better product if we started charging earlier. We had gotten a little distracted building things that were a little afield - some panned out and others didn't.

      Most importantly, I think we would have gotten more aggressive about hiring sooner if we had revenue sooner. Hiring is the hardest part about a business and we should have been more aggressive.

      1. 3

        I just realized that I kind of brushed under the rug how we got all those free users that we could eventually convert to paid users.

        Our first set of users were just other founders in our network. Because we were building a product we ourselves needed, we also knew a bunch of people like us (mostly from YC). That helped shape the product a lot - it's why the product is sort of generic in being able to handle multiple founder use cases (hiring, sales, fundraising, etc.)

        After that, we got lucky in finding an underutilized distribution channel - the Chrome Web Store. At the time it was where you published extensions like ours but there weren't very many. Also, a link to the store would appear on every new tab page for all 500M chrome users (at the time). So we got a lot of traffic that way. It eventually got crowded and dried up but it was a great way to start.

  5. 2

    Thanks for doing this, Aleem!

    I know it's been a while since you were a new SaaS founder yourself, but: What's something you think new SaaS founders are likely to assume incorrectly about the journey? Or about the "payoff" at the end?

    1. 4

      Thanks for the question!

      Everyone says this but it's really hard not to make this mistake yourself - the first bit of the journey is building a differentiated product, but after that it's all about building the machinery of a business - hiring, sales, marketing, etc.

      For first time engineer founders like myself it's really easy to get caught in the trap of just keep building product because thats what we enjoy. But the highest leverage thing you'll be doing as a founder after the first part of the journey is not building the actual product.

  6. 1

    I have been using your product for the past 2 days.
    Great product.

  7. 1

    @aloo given your experience, if you would start again, where you would look for your first 100 and after 1000 customers?

    1. 1

      Depends on the product. For ours specifically, I would have focused more on in person referrals.

      We had initially built the product for founders like ourselves and since we were in YC we had a really strong founder network. They were our initial users and we made the product better for them. I wished we had asked for referrals once we made those initial users happy. I think we would have had better product feedback if we better got to know that next wave of users. Instead , It kind of spread by word of mouth but we didn't have as close of a relationship to them.

  8. 1

    EDIT: double posted sorry!

  9. 1

    Really loved the product to the point I've also considered applying to work for Streak a couple of times but never did.

    Was a Streak CRM user in 2017, PAID user. Thanks for your work!

    The only reason I stopped using Streak was that I moved on to another job and I didn't have to deal with CRMs anymore.

    I think the key thing about Streak was the fact that it's built within Gmail and literally everyone has had Gmail/Google for Work. I've recommended small companies and individuals to use Streak as their first CRM many times, a couple of people listened to me and thanked me later on in their journey about the recommendation.

    What are the next 5 years looking like for Streak...exit?

    1. 1

      Thanks for being an awesome customer!

      You should def apply - we have roles across the board (customer roles, biz ops, eng, marketing) . Feel free to reach out directly to me (aleem at streak).

      The great thing about being profitable (and growing) is that there are ton of options on the table and we don't necessarily need to optimize for any single one of them. The thing we optimize for is total value delivered (# of users times the value we give to each user). We really only focus on improving those two factors.

  10. 1

    Take us back to your early days,
    How long did it take you to find first customers, and how

    1. 1

      See this reply for how we found our first set of customers.

      As for timing, we had roughly 50 users for the first 8 months but we focused on them pretty relentlessly.

  11. 1

    Did you have any advisors who helped you make key decisions in determining product market fit?

    What were the key decisions you made in determining product market fit (if any)?

    1. 1

      For product decisions we always listened to our users or our gut (because we were users to).

      Almost all the product advice we got from non-users was bad.

  12. 1

    Hey thanks a lot for doing this!

    How did you decide to do another CRM? Specifically, at a high level, what was your process for figuring out what you wanted to build? For example, did you follow your passions/personal pain points? Did you pre-decide to go B2B? Once you had the idea, did you do any research before building an MVP and if so, what information were you looking for and how did you use that information to determine to move forward?

    1. 2

      At first we just needed it ourselves. We got into YC with another idea that didn't end up working out. But as part of it, we needed a CRM. We tried the incumbents and were shocked how bad they were. We wanted something directly tied to our email because that's where we were working out of, but also as flexible as a spreadsheet.

      We didn't do much research other than knowing there were lots of competitors and they were all bad and they were all charging a lot of money. It kind of felt like the CRM space needed what Dropbox was to the online backup space.

  13. 1

    Thanks Aleem, you rock!

    How did you go about finding early customers? And how has the customer acquisition process evolved over time?

    1. 1

      Tbh we weren't the greatest at this and still aren't. But we're getting better. See this reply for what we did right in the beginning.

      Since then we've primarily grown via word of mouth - people telling others about a good product they use. We do have an inbound sales team that helps educate users during their trial and a success team that helps make sure those users are successful with the product over time.

      We're just starting to experiment with paid acquisition channels but haven't seen any massive success as of yet.

      One unique thing we do is offer power tools like email tracking and mail merge that can be used independently of our CRM and for free. The idea is that we use this as lead gen for our paid CRM product. Currently 10% of our revenue came from users who started off just using our email tracking tool for free for several months before transitioning to our CRM.

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