Iterating in a Startup – Part Five

With a few sales under our belt, we saw our first sign of a trend with higher education. It was the one vertical where we were able to generate several leads using PPC ads. Additionally, the types of challenges higher ed was looking to solve was uniquely suited to our application.

Our product’s special sauce is the ability to manage multiple websites, that live on multiple servers and use different operating systems, from one single product instance. It’s a hard problem. In addition, we had a simple per-CPU pricing model with unlimited sites, users, groups, and content combined with a focus on XML — before XML really hit the mainstream.

Colleges and universities typically have a collection of independent websites with little or no consistency. As you might imagine, the development of these sites happened organically and in piecemeal fashion. Different technologies like PHP, Classic ASP, ASP.NET, and ColdFusion were used to power the dynamic portions while plain HTML was used for more static section. Our software can handle each of those situations and publish files as well as to remote databases. Our product flexibility was a key differentiator.

I wish I could say we planned it that way, but we didn’t. The reason we could publish to different servers and support all the major programming languages was because of the goal we had set out with in our first, failed SaaS CMS: support all small business shared hosting accounts. With our SaaS CMS focused on small businesses, the only way to get content to their server was through FTP or SFTP. There weren’t any other options.

With our new mid-market CMS, we set out to provide all the benefits of a dynamic, database driven website with the performance and flexibility of publishing flat files. It turned out, unbeknownst to us for a couple years, that that was perfect for higher education. We now had a robust product with reference customers in a specific vertical and it was time to grow a serious business. I had now been running the business on my own for over four years, barely scraping by, but it was at that point where I knew we were onto something special. It was the start of 2005.

The new strategy was pretty simple — cold call all 4,160 two year, four year, public, and private colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. We focused on calling people with the following job titles:

  • Webmaster
  • Director/VP of IT
  • Director of University Relations
  • Web Manager
  • Communications Director

I had three full-time sales people at the time and they would call and set up web demos for me. My role on the call was to be both the sales engineer and the passionate product manager that gave the demo. It worked beautifully. Sales tripled in 2005 and more than doubled in 2006. We had finally hit our stride.

Now, in 2009, we’re still growing and have over 120 colleges and universities as clients, making us one of the top higher education CMS vendors in the world. At the end of the day, it came down to the following:

  • Neverending determination to succeed
  • Making decisions quickly and figuring out what works and doesn’t work
  • Being passionate about the product and the market opportunity

Building a company is an amazing journey and is worth every minute. In addition, being able to iterate and learn quickly is one of the most important traits of the management team. Good luck!

One thought on “Iterating in a Startup – Part Five

  1. Thanks for the article David. I like this format for your posts. I know it takes a lot more work, but that was really good stuff.

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