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40 Comments

I've bootstrapped my two-sided company to $500k ARR, changed our product in 13 days during Covid, and have doubled revenue in 12mo. AMA!

Hi I’m John Doherty and I’m the founder of Credo (GetCredo.com). In the last 5.5 years we’ve gone from “a WordPress site with a Gravity Form” (how a mentor describes where I was when we met) to a more sophisticated WordPress site with Gravity Forms (don’t fix what ain’t broken) that has helped over 5,000 businesses looking for a marketing firm, made agencies over $20,000,000, and every month books $3M-$5M of sales pipeline on agency calendars.

In mid 2019 we launched a marketplace complete with vendor payments and the end-to-end of getting great digital marketing work done. The metrics were incredible (agencies who previously struggled to close work closed, clients got what they paid for when it was promised), but both sides of the market disliked it and felt constrained. The business was also very operationally intensive which does not fit the type of business my business partner and I want to run. We were paying out over $100k/mo to agencies, but when Covid hit we saw a double digit decrease in our monthly revenue which meant we were once again unprofitable.

So we sat down, talked to customers to see the real value they saw in Credo, and then over the course of 13 days cut our product in half and doubled pricing. By the time we filled up our initial Alpha with customers revenue was already higher than what it had taken a year to get to with the marketplace. We made the full shift in August 2020 and our revenue has grown 80% while stress around the business has gone down by 80%. We broke the $500k ARR mark in February 2021.

A quick bit about me:

  • My career began as a customer support specialist for an ASP.NET development shop in the Washington DC area. I’ve since worked for 2 agencies doing SEO and ran marketing and growth for two of Zillow’s nationwide rentals brands - hotpads.com and Trulia.com/rentals - for about 2 years before going out on my own.
  • I’ve been writing on the internet since about 2001 when I had a very well read Xanga blog.
  • My specialty is Search Engine Optimization, but I love all parts of digital marketing and growth and believe that growth isn’t about just picking the right channel. It’s about picking the right channel at the right time and stacking channels as you grow.
  • I self funded Credo for the first 3 years with SEO consulting for amazing brands you’ve heard of and likely used. At the start of 2019 Credo was self-sustaining and I went full time on it.
  • I’ve lived in 5 major US cities (Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, and Denver) as well as Switzerland for 2 years in a hippie commune situated in a tiny dairy village in the Alps.
  • I live in Denver, spend a lot of time in the mountains skiing and mountain biking, and I am married with a two year old daughter and our black labrador/Great Dane mix Butterbean.

Topics I’d love to discuss:

  • Bootstrapping/self-funding
  • Driving traffic via both free and paid channels
  • Hiring outside providers (how to do it right)
  • Being a solo founder
  • Bringing on a business partner who is not a cofounder
  • Hiring the right coaches to drive you forward
  • Mindset changes needed going from self-funding to growing fast

Here to help and serve!

  1. 4

    Crazy good turns John! Can you unpack the decision to hire a coach? How did you think through the investment compared to the revenue/profits you had around that time?

    Can you also share more about what the critical moment was when you realized a coach could help? Why not just figure it yourself (after all you're clearly intelligent and have built a great business even prior to the pivot). Thanks!

    1. 5

      Hey Dev, thanks for the questions!

      I hired my first coach in early 2017 after the business had grown from $3k/mo to $18k/mo in revenue in 8 months, but I was crushed with stress and work. We were profitable, but I was super unhappy. The investment wasn't small ($2,500/mo I think) but it revolutionized my business and started changing my mindset as an entrepreneur to seeing the possibilities of working in new ways (reducing a lot of the busy work, streamlining operations, being more selective about customers and charging more, etc).

      I guess I tried to do it myself, but didn't have the 1:1 support I wanted and needed as a first time entrepreneur. I've now had 3 coaches and actually work 2 concurrently right now. One is a 1:1 coach who knows me and my business well, and the other is more of a group coaching thing where I get community of fellow founders. Both are extremely useful!

      1. 1

        Is it possible to share who the coaches are? Both I and a friend of mine talked about this but never found someone that we thought could help.

      2. 1

        Thanks for sharing more about your thought process around this!

  2. 2

    Wow, this is awesome John. Nice work! I might use it to find an agency for my business. (I'm not too keen on running our Facebook Ads).

    So I'm a solo founder with a 300k ARR business and we literally need to drive more traffic to it to start scaling up (We're doing this with 7k downloads a month). This should be relatively straight forward with Facebook Ads, but there's ad creative, iOS 14.5 ATT prompt non-sense (we have 44% opt-in tho!), attribution, structuring the campaigns and constantly monitoring everything.

    I'm curious because I'm a technical founder and I've gotten the business to this point, I always thought I'd need to bring on another "founder". But at this point it's a real living breathing business. Another founder doesn't really make sense. But I could really use a business partner. Someone to strategize with, who loves the business and marketing side of things. I've been doing this Solo for a year, and I have to say I REALLY hate it solo. :/

    I did try things with a potential business partner for a time. And while I really enjoyed running the business more, the skillset wasn't a match.

    So my questions are:

    What did you end up doing to find your business partner and how did you structure that (Equity? How much?)? I'm not able to pay anyone SF marketing hire prices out the gate. But that's the catch-22 right, am I hiring this "business partner"? And does that actually make them a business partner then?

    Would love to hear how would you approach this problem and start hitting the pavement to solve it. Thanks in advance!

    1. 3

      Hey Rob, great questions! I found my business partner through a fortuitous viral LinkedIn post (not even kidding) where a VP at TrustPilot saw it, reached out, we had coffee, and after learning what I was working on intro'd me to my now business partner. We met for beers and planned to have 1. 3 beers later neither of us was in a state to drive!

      We worked on a project to redo my marketing site. Then when I decided to invest in building the marketplace, he came on and is earning his way into his part of the company. Credo also pays him. He's not full time and so it's not full time salary, which makes it affordable (though realistically we could now pay him for full time).

      I recommend reading the book How To Get Rich. I don't think you should give up equity almost ever. Hiring someone to do development does not make them a business partner. Also, why constrain yourself to SF? The world is remote, my friend! My first contract dev lives in Ohio and we still work with him. WAY cheaper than SF where I was based when I started the company.

  3. 2

    Good story and impressive turns! Could you tell us more about how you changed your product and doubled its price?

    1. 1

      Hey! I talk about it in my reply to Robert down at the bottom. Basically, we did customer research to see how our current product was not meeting needs, listened to the value they get from Credo ("What would you say is the value Credo brings to your agency?"), and then built around that. Really, we chopped the product after the introduction and communication phases and started charging for the real value (qualified warm leads) instead of optimizing towards closing deals.

      While I do believe that ultimately agencies need to get closed deals from warm leads to stick around, we needed to focus on (and sell) the leads.

  4. 2

    What do you think about Discover? Not many people outside of the SEO world talk about it, but in my opinion it's going to be huge in the next few years and drive way more traffic than social.

    1. 1

      Hey Andre! Good question that unfortunately I don't have a great answer to. I've heard from friends that it can drive a lot of traffic, but I feel like it has a long way to go and I have a hard time seeing it coming even close to eclipsing social or definitely regular keyword-based search.

  5. 2

    What was the change you made to the product and why?

    1. 2

      Hey Robert! Good to see you here. Love your stuff.

      We changed our business model from just taking a percentage of what agencies are billing (but not charging for the lead) to charging for consistent monthly sales pipeline (qualified projects that we then value based off their marketing budget) and a success kicker when they close.

      As far as the product is concerned, we basically sunsetted anything that didn't involve making the intro and scheduling and helping the agency close.

      I love that you're asking this question, because I really respect what you've done with Folyo to take agencies and freelancers how to generate their own leads. I've used some of your systems you've taught for free in the past.

  6. 1

    Hi John, what an amazing story. I'm particularly interested in how you attracted your first few clients. Also, which marketing strategies you've used along the way. Did the outcome meet your expectations, if not, why? Thanks for taking the time to share your story.

    1. 2

      Being a two sided business, I had to attract both sides.

      For the Demand side, I was already generating these leads through my own presence in the industry and my personal website. Scaling it has been a different beast.

      For the Supply side, that part was easy because I know a lot of people in the digital marketing world who are very good at what they do, and when you have the Demand you're basically selling Supply money. I just reached out to some friends and started sending deals their way.

      So, I guess I got the initial traction because of my name.

      Channels that have worked best for us since then have been SEO, content marketing, and appearing on podcasts.

  7. 1

    Nothing but respect on how you took those hurdles (both business-wise and on your personal state of mind) and kept going in this profitable and - perhaps even more important - happy state.

    Thanks for sharing your story, very inspiring 🙌🏻

    1. 2

      Cheers! It's definitely been a journey, but I have to say meditation has been a big part of my happiness in the business over the last year and before that working with my coaches and reading a few books like The Big Leap which changed my mindset towards business and life a ton.

  8. 1

    Amazing story. Very motivated story to read.
    I’m curious about your launch’s rituals ? How do structure everything up and what’s your best advice for someone launching a product for the first time as an indie hacker ?

    1. 1

      I prefer to launch early and learn as fast as I can. I'm a big fan of "doing things that don't scale" at this point, which in my case involved slinging marketing deals manually with a lot of emails boomeranging for followups and then manually sending and chasing invoices. Then we built out an MVP, then I raised prices, then we built out a bigger product, then we trimmed that back and raised prices again. But that's been a 5.5 year journey with a ton of mistakes along the way. It's still how we do new things and new products though.

      Best advice for someone launching is focus on building an audience as soon as you can, get an MVP in the market, and focus on promotion/marketing/sales. You'll learn so much focusing on promotion/marketing/sales and can save yourself a ton of time and from building something that no one wants.

      1. 1

        Nothing more to say . Just thanks 🙏 for this.

  9. 1

    Congrats on everything today, such an amazing story!

    Curious to know how you're vetting quality marketing talent. Is this a time-intensive process?

    Also curious to learn about your pricing model. Are you charging dynamic amounts based on the info you learn from initial discovery calls?

    1. 2

      We have a set process for this - https://www.getcredo.com/about/vetting/ - that we make public! Not too time intensive anymore, though it used to be.

      As far as pricing model, you can see that here - https://www.getcredo.com/pros/. The Pipeline (third) is our main revenue driver. We value each project based on their budget and what they tell us on discovery calls.

  10. 1

    This is fantastic @dohertyjf ! I'm trying to build a bootstrapped marketplace too since the last month and just got my 1st paying customer yesterday!

    1. When building, what is more important to focus on initially - Supply or Demand?
    2. How did you get your first few customers? I am emailing my ICP directly and trying to learn if this marketplace could be valuable. In that conversation, If there is an opportunity, I am trying to convert them. Is this the wrong approach?
    3. What commission is optimal? Do I need to charge both supply and demand?

    I'm sure I will have more questions, if it's easier, can we chat for a few minutes?

    1. 1

      Good questions!

      I focused on initial supply first, then demand. Demand drives everything as you're literally selling Supply money, and Demand will ALWAYS be harder to get.

      First few customers were through my network (I had about 16k Twitter followers in the SEO/digital space when we launched). I did a ProductHunt launch which helped, but also led to a Cease & Desist and I had to rebrand. So that was fun.

      If there's an opportunity to convert them, you should! No better validation than someone putting down a credit card.

      Commission depends on what you are doing and what the Supply is doing. When we were running our escrow/marketplace product we took 15% in perpetuity. This was too low. If we had wanted to make that product work and be profitable, we would have needed to up that commission.

    2. 1
      1. What is an alternative to Stripe? 2.9% +30c is not sustainable.
      1. 1

        We use Stripe. I'd rather bake that into my price than use something else. And I definitely would not recommend doing manual invoicing and therefore Accounts Payable.

        1. 1

          THANK YOU SO MUCH! This is fantastic.

          When do you think is the right time to start selling the product as compared to the approach I am taking to email my ICP and learning from them which is a very soft approach?

          1. 1

            Learning what they need is good so you don't build what they don't need. What's important though is what they want. See if they'll pay you in advance (before you create) which then lets you know that not only do they want it but also that they'll pay for it.

            1. 1

              Got it. thank you so much!

  11. 1

    Nice to see you here John, thank you for doing this AMA. Tell me a little bit more about your time in Switzerland - how did that (if it did?) change you?

    1. 1

      Ah man that was a fun time in life! I lived in a 35-ish person commune in a small village SE of Lake Geneva, off and on from 21 to 26 years old. It changed who I am a lot, though I would say the biggest thing it taught me was not to judge people. Some of the best people I know are rough around the edges, and by getting to know them as a person instead of judging them my life is a lot richer. Living that close in community also teaches you that good people do dumb and bad things, and you need to look at the whole person and not just the things they do that you don't like.

      People are people. We're all messy.

  12. 1

    Hey @dohertyjf, this is fantastic and very inspirational. This is my first wholesome comment on a post on IndieHackers, and I'm so glad I joined.

    Couple of questions:

    1. How did you know that match-making firms with marketing who're a best fit, is a good market to go for? As in, how did you know that customers would be paying $$$ for your specific service. I ask because I'm creating a marketplace as well.

    2a. When you first started this fantastic company (love it), where exactly did you look for your first 10 paying customers?
    2b. What was two of your most effective ways of outreach for those customers?

    Thanks again man, I'm stoked!

    1. 2

      Welcome to IndieHackers!

      I knew it was going to be a good market because I was already in that market consulting and working for an agency. I knew they would pay money for my service when I asked them to pay and they did :-)

      I got my first 10 paying customers through my own network. Being on major industry sites and having built a following beforehand made this pretty easy.

      I didn't do outreach. I did inbound marketing (content, SEO, etc) which is also how we've continued to grow to this point.

      1. 2

        Actually "I didn't do outreach" isn't true. I had leads coming to me looking to hire for SEO. I'd qualify them on the phone, then email an agency and see if they wanted the intro. But I wasn't cold emailing agencies I didn't know. I'd email friends who ran agencies.

        1. 1

          Hey @dohertyjf, this helps a lot. Seems like when starting off you reached out to folks within your network (both sides) for successful engagements.

          Your idea validation made sense because you yourself were in that field. Content, SEO as inbound channels is definitely something I have my eyes on for my project. Could I privately ask for your brief feedback on my project? It's very close to my heart and our objective is to match founders with advisors for their startup challenges.

  13. 1

    Hi! Thanks for doing this.

    For getting the initial customer feedback and building something for your target customer, what do you do to extract useful insight from them?

    From my experience with talking to users, they give very generic feedback and it's a lot of effort.

    Is it just a grind to get some knowledge from talking to as many people as possible? Is there a better method or strategy that you know of?

    1. 1

      Hey Albert! Good question for sure.

      To get useful insight, I like to ask open ended questions. Instead of asking "would you use..." questions, I instead ask questions about what they do and how they solve it and look for better ways to solve it. Or ask "what is your biggest pain with (THING)?" and then listen.

      It is a lot of effort for sure. But it's better than building something no one wants.

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