So here it is, our interview with BoostCTR’s cofounder Rob Lenderman – a 500 Startups funded company. Rob tells us how they came up with the idea for their company, bootstrapped it, and acquired their first batch of users. You’ll also get a little scoop on what it’s like to be part of 500 Startups. Some notable users of BoostCTR are Lumosity, 99 Designs, Cafepress, and Bonobos.
Tell us what your company is all about.
BoostCTR is a marketplace of professional creative individuals that provide ad creative to companies of all sizes at scale. Our software brings together advertisers, writers and artist to produce ad creative and manage the process from request to production to testing. We operate on performance and our software monitors our creative to ensure that we are outperforming as advertisers.
How did you come up with the idea for your company?
Four years ago I was working at a company where I inherited an Adwords account that needed better ads. The account used essentially the same ad in all ad groups. I didn’t have the time to produce and test what was needed so I had 10 people in the company write ad copy for me as part of a game to see who was the best. We used Excel to manage it and it turned out that it was a lot of fun and it scaled. It also turned out that I won all the contests because I had the tactical experience on how to write a better ad. My co-founder also worked there and we spent a few weeks thinking through how a service like this might work. Over the next few months another co-founder built a simple web based testing system and we started looking for beta customers to give it a try.
Can you tell us a little bit about the “early days” of Boost CTR and how you’ve progressed?
We bootstrapped the company for the first couple of years. My co-founders and I worked day jobs and did conference calls at lunch and in the evening. We would give advertisers the service for free so we could simply use their accounts to learn more about the best way to design the system and we built it based on their feedback. The idea was different enough that we had very little trouble getting a new customer but we lost most of them in the early days because we were also working day jobs. After some time we started to charge and lost fewer and fewer customers. What is interesting is that many of the customers we lost when we were still building have now come back and become Enterprise customers.
How did you acquire your first batch of users?
My co-founder was very good at working Linkedin. We identified the attributes of a company that we thought we be good fits for the service and then we worked our LinkedIn network to find the people we should contact. Since the service makes a lot of sense once you understand it we had little trouble getting people to give us a shot.
You’re part of 500 Startups, how were they important to you?
Very. There are two reasons you take on investors. The first is obviously for their money. It allows you to work full time, hire others, travel to shows, etc. That is very important but not the most important reason to take on any investor. The more important reason is that you want their advice and contacts. They help introduce you to potential customers, partners, employees etc. Money is nice but monthly sales are nicer and that is what they help you do. 500 Startups has a good internal system where companies can communicate and learn from one another as well as partner where it makes sense.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur looking to join 500 Startups?
Have a product that is easy to understand and can be tested and proven with a smaller team. If you want to build a new wireless network that requires billions of dollars they are probably not for you but if you have an idea for a consumer or B2B product that is different then they might be a great partner.
“Where” do you guys hope to be in the next year with your company (progress wise)?
Right now we are doing a lot of work with the biggest search tools and search engines to prove the scalability of our system and the level of improvement that we can deliver. We have a relationship with Marin software and in the coming months we will be expanding that relationship as well as adding new ones. In addition we are expanding the product line to better utilize our network for the production of social and mobile ads. We are also adding more Enterprise grade capabilities around reporting and ad management.
What advice would you like to give to an entrepreneur thinking about writing their first business plan?
Skip it. Just kidding. Writing a plan simply helps to make sure you have at least thought through most things. It helps avoid some big gotcha that you may not have thought about. As an example if your product relies on the Facebook Ads API and they only give it away to large companies then you need to think about a way to get around that problem first. Realistically you adjust every day and what you end up with rarely looks like what you envisioned from the start.
Any resources you’d recommend for those hoping to start up??
You have to have the right mix of founders. You rarely get very far without someone who has some experience or vision for the product and someone that can build a prototype. If you don’t have friends that can and want to fill these spots then start going to the local social startup meetups to find them.
Once you have them you need a new resource and that is a customer base to trial your product. LinkedIn helps here if you have a business product. For a consumer product you need to work on promoting it which is where partnerships can help. We have a Lean Startup approach so read about that and you will avoid going down the wrong path for too long.
What were some mistakes that you learned from?
Knowing when to scale and where to focus is difficult. We thought we had a product to scale into the Enterprise over a year ago and it turned out we were wrong. Our first Enterprise customer showed us what we were missing. At the time we tried to be both an Enterprise and SMB product. We learned that you have to focus in the early days. We stopped major development on our SMB product shortly after learning this new lesson and now the SMB product gets new features that also make sense for Enterprise. As we mature we will expand on our SMB product but it will focus on that market instead of trying to please multiple crowds. Fight one battle at a time early on and you will do a better job.
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