NUOPTIMA > SaaS Podcast > How to Bootstrap to $2.5m ARR Whilst Travelling The World

How to Bootstrap to $2.5m ARR Whilst Travelling The World

January 30, 2024

Interviewee Introduction: Amar Ghose

Amar Ghose is the CEO and Founder of a SaaS company called ZenMaid, a software business for maid services. For just over a decade, he has bootstrapped the business, and today, he has close to $2.5 million ARR. He came up with the idea for ZenMaid after running another maid business and realizing the lack of effective software available in the industry, leading him to create his own. Amar then founded ZenMaid to offer this software solution to other maid services and took the interesting decision to bootstrap the business rather than fundraise and use VCs.

Amar grew up in Silicon Valley, Northern California, and has always had a penchant for entrepreneurial side hustles. Before working on ZenMaid full-time while traveling the world as a digital nomad, he worked as a sales executive at a tech company in Silicon Valley. Amar has a BA in Economics and Philosophy from UC Davis.

Summary 

In this episode with Amar Ghose, you’ll learn:

  • How Amar came up with the idea of ZenMaid and its first few years as a business getting off the ground.
  • How ZenMaid managed to get its first hundred customers.
  • What spurred Amar to leave his full-time job as a salesperson for a tech company to double down on ZenMaid.
  • Why Amar gave himself such a low wage at the beginning of the venture.
  • Why Amar decided to bootstrap his business instead of fundraising.
  • How Amar prioritizes certain product features over others to retain customers.
  • How Amar gets insights on his competitors.
  • How much new business comes from customers switching from another software compared to those who don’t use software.
  • The various growth methods and client acquisition strategies Amar has used and how he went about testing them.
  • How he hosts his community of maid service owners.
  • How he decides how much money to put into various marketing channels.
  • The key lessons Amar has learned that would benefit other SaaS founders.
  • Why the trend of bootstrapping has become more popular again.
  • Amar’s book recommendation for other SaaS founders, the three entrepreneurs he admires, an underrated SaaS tool Amar uses, and the best piece of advice he has ever received.

Alexej: In this episode, you will learn how to build a successful SaaS business while maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Hi, my name is Alexej and I help founders scale. My guest today is Amar Ghose, who built ZenMaid, a software business for maid service. More impressively, built and bootstrapped ZenMaid to $2.5 million ARR today.

He did that while traveling the world and living as a digital nomad. Amar bootstrapped while working full time as a sales executive at a tech company in Silicon Valley. And we find out why he decided to bootstrap and not raise from VCs despite being in the Bay Area. Enough of this introduction. Let’s dive into the episode.

Hi, Amar. Thanks so much for joining us.

Amar: Yeah. Thanks for having me. Excited to be here. 

Alexej: Cool. So for context, you’re the CEO and founder of a bootstrapped business called ZenMaid, which is a Software as a Service business for maid services, right? And you bootstrapped the business over the last 10 years and have close to $2.5 million ARR as of today.

Amar: Correct.

Alexej: That’s amazing. So tell us everything about it, right? I guess like, how did you start the business? How did you come up with the idea and, you know, how did, whatever, first two, three years look like?

Amar: Yeah, definitely. So essentially…sometime when like, just post college, I was looking for, like, just kind of entrepreneurial like side hustles. I’ve always had that kind of, like, that kind of bug. And so I came across a thread on Reddit about, what, 13 years ago at this point, that was essentially on how to start your own cleaning service without doing any cleaning. So it was essentially, like, the digital marketer’s approach to like starting a cleaning business, right? Like it could have, could have just been like named that like for, for accuracy. 

And so I did that with a friend and was running a maid service in Southern California for 12 to 14 months, somewhere like around there, and at the time, there wasn’t great software out there. We’d looked around. A lot of it was expensive. It was difficult to find anything that was designed specifically for our industry and the one that we did find looked like it was built before computers. Like it was very confusing. And so essentially we had built in our own little backend to do the scheduling, to send SMS reminders, and just a couple other really, like, basic things.

And so what happened was we didn’t particularly enjoy running the actual maid service and a couple of things led us to closing that down. And so when I closed that down, one of my friends in Northern California, where I grew up — I grew up in Silicon Valley — he approached me and was like, “hey you know, I saw what you guys were doing on the backend. I think that we can turn that into a software product that we can sell to other, like to other maid services.” 

And so it was the very typical, like, you know, he essentially came to me and was like, “we’re every VC’s like dream team of like, I can take care of the technical stuff. You know the industry and can do the sales and marketing. We should do this.” 

And so I think initially we, we had it… not like had it in our head, but I think we were open to potentially like taking funding if like, if that opportunity had like, had had arose and everything, but that was essentially how, how the company started, how the idea got off the ground. My Co-Founder spent about six months coding while I jumped on the phones and was doing cold calls and cold emailing to maid services like all over the, the US.

And, yeah, we essentially, we launched about six months later, brought on like maybe three, four customers at the beginning and the cold email and cold calling actually took us from zero to 100 customers. And then around 100 customers, we landed our first… our first partnership with a coach or like an industry, like an industry influencer. 

And so she sent us a nice amount of business that helped us to go from like maybe 100 to 150 customers, like somewhere around there. And sometime in that, in that like phase is when we began to get more of the inbound marketing working. And so, so around there, so, so it was essentially outbound for maybe the first year, year and a half, and then around 18 months in, then we began to see people coming to us, hearing about it from folks, searching on Google and all of that stuff. And then pretty much since then, it’s been all inbound marketing, which I’m sure we can, we can jump into.

Alexej: Wow. Wow. Wow. Yeah, it’s fascinating. It’s, you know, you, you presented it very, very easy and there’s a lot in there, so maybe we should unpack a few things. So yeah, it’s basically like the perfect scenario, as you mentioned, a domain expert and a technical person coming together, you know, creating a solution for a problem. They know it, which exists out there. 

There is a really… I forgot the name, but there’s this unicorn where the founders bought a barbershop to learn everything about a barbershop and then created software and then basically, you know, became a massive software player for barbershops, right? That’s cool. That’s very, very cool. 

And you, you mentioned the first 100 customers is you just being on the phone constantly calling up different maid service businesses and pitching and pitching, right? How did you deal with…. rejections, but also how did you get them to actually use you? Did you say, “Hey do you have five minutes? I just briefly show you a demo” and then you kind of like price it super low just to get them in, and then like use a Land and Expand strategy? Or how did you, you know, get to 100 customers so quickly, let’s say?

Amar: Yeah. So first of all, it was not quick at all. And just for the record, it took forever! 

Alexej: Yeah so what is forever maybe yeah as well, right? Like you’ve been 10 years building and like, how long did it actually take you, yeah, to get to 100 customers?

Amar: Well, so like right now, so I don’t remember how long it took us to get to 100 customers, but I mean, it was definitely over a year. It was probably like 18 months or like, or something like that. But I know that I’ve looked at the numbers like over time, like, I mean, it took us over three years. It took us 38 months to get to $10,000 in Monthly Recurring Revenue with the two of us, like working on it as like our main thing. I mean, granted, both of us had like full time jobs outside of that, but it was like just the two of us on there.

But in terms of like how we did… how we like got the sales and everything and how we got people on the phone… So the first thing is, I did sales in, like, in a previous life, that when I came out of college, that was my job, right? So when we started working on this company together, the first two years that we were doing it, I was doing sales for a tech startup in San Francisco and then was making these calls to maid services before I would go into the office and then when I got home I would do the marketing and like and all of like, all of that stuff. 

So of course like that, that affects like the timelines, but to your question about how I approached those, those phone calls… Because I’d run a maid service before, my goal was always to, like, add value first. And so it was more… the way that we went about doing it….so what would actually, what helped a lot was that when I first started making these calls, I didn’t have a product to show, I didn’t have a product to actually sell.  

And so because of that, I had to take a different approach to getting on the calls where it was, “Hey, like I used to run a maid service that like I recently shut down. A friend and I have started working on like scheduling software. I was wondering, like, do you have a few minutes to, to chat about kind of how you’re solving your current, like, calendar and scheduling, like, problems and then I’m happy to give you any feedback or if you have any questions about anything that I did at my maid service I’m happy while we’re on this call to just answer any questions that you have” and so my goal was to essentially add value to them in some way that wasn’t related to scheduling, that wasn’t related to our software, so that they would essentially take my calls in the future.

I figured if I did that, then I would get unlimited chances to like, to sell. And then once the product actually came out, I tried to go to more of a hard sell kind of mode, and I didn’t really like the way that it made me feel, even when we got sales. I didn’t feel like I built a relationship with the person.

And so we actually quite quickly ended up going back to almost the Customer Development type, like type model, in terms of, like, those sales calls. So it was more like being upfront and like,” I have this thing that I’m working on, but I just want to talk to you about your challenges around this problem that we’re solving.”

Yeah, oftentimes I wouldn’t give a demo until two or three calls in. But they would be quite short calls. It wasn’t like an hour call each. It might’ve been 15, 20 minutes at the most. 

Alexej: Okay. So it’s, yeah, it’s a customer research approach, right? Which basically means that their guard is much lower or, you know, non-existent, and then by building the rapport and them being, you know, also curious I guess, and, you know, trying to optimize their own work, they probably even asked you to “Hey, by the way, yeah, can we become a customer?” right, a lot of the times? 

Amar: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. They were always willing to at least check out the software, and that’s kind of been our approach to sales and marketing of like, look, like “our software might not be for you, but when you’re looking, you’re, you’re definitely going to give us a look”, right? And then from there, the software kind of has to do the work and has to do the heavy lifting, right? That like, you know, the best salesman in the world can’t sell a shit product, right? Like, so yeah.

Alexej: Yeah, yeah. That’s cool. And then you mentioned, the… was it the first three years that you still worked as a salesperson for a tech company in parallel, while building, and then I guess when you got to $10K a month, is that when you decided to leave the other job or when did you leave the other job?

Amar: No, it was actually sooner than that. So I actually left that other job… about, about two years in, about two years in, so it was definitely before we were at $10K, $10K in Monthly Recurring Revenue. If I remember correctly, I think we were about, at about $7,000 in Monthly Recurring Revenue when I, when I quit that job.

And at that point, what it was is just, we felt like we had a more validated idea, that $7,000 isn’t a lot, but it was a lot of customers of the exact same types. We were very confident that we had good enough product-market fit and at that point, there were a couple of factors, but essentially I was just realizing that I was spending so much of my mental cycle selling someone else’s product, right?

And that like, even for me, like it may not put as much money in the bank immediately, but like, for like my long-term equity and like net worth, it was worth so much more to me to sell a $50 a month subscription to the product that I own versus a $500 a month subscription for someone else, right? Just with commissions and all of that stuff.

So we, we just felt like it was like the right time to kind of double down. We hadn’t been taking any money out of the business up until that point, we hadn’t paid ourselves at all. So at that point we agreed to start paying me just a little bit of money out of the $7,000 a month that was coming in.

And then the final, like nail in the coffin for it was… I was living, like south of San Francisco at the time, was commuting an hour and a half, like two hours a day to go back and forth, like from, like from the office. But the worst thing about it was that I wasn’t even saving any money. That because, like, I would go drinking with friends on the weekends and just like, you know, rent was expensive and life was expensive and all these things. 

I was looking at it and just going, “you know what, like, I’m here to like buy time, but I’m not even getting ahead by being here anymore.” And so what I actually did was at the, at the start of 2015, we started paying me just $1,000 a month. So very, very short, like small amount of, like of money, but I jumped on a flight to Thailand, went to Chiang Mai and dropped my expenses to like, you know, $650, $700 like a month, and lived, you know, arguably better there than I was in San Francisco. And, you know, so yeah, that, that was essentially what I, what I did. So that’s a nice, nice segue into the digital nomad adventure. 

Alexej: Yeah, 100%. 100%. Yeah. And, we obviously, we’re hanging out in Chiang Mai a month ago, and I can totally see how a lot of bootstrappers go there, you know, to reduce their living expenses to, you know, $500, $600 a month to just build a business. No, that’s a really cool story. Yeah, so… But why were you paying yourself actually so little if you weren’t doing any other marketing activities apart from cold calling? Or was it already when you started, I don’t know, spending more money on, like other things?

Amar: Yeah, so we, we had a couple of expenses, but nothing, nothing crazy. I mean, I think we were making $7,000 a month. We might’ve been spending like $2K or something on like Google Ads. So we had had Google Ads running from the very beginning, that like from day one, we had about $100 a month in Google Ads. So that’s like, one click a day, right? So very, very small amount, but I’d seen that working at my maid service and it really like, just like, “okay, we know we’re going to get like five new people a day, so if we make a tweak, we can kind of like, it’s not like proper testing, but you can begin to actually see results.” It’s not like you make changes and then you have to wait three weeks to get any traffic or whatever. And I really liked the consistency of it. So we started at $100 a month and then worked our way up. 

But I think that my Co-Founder at the time was just really, really like fiscally, fiscally conservative. I definitely felt like it was a bit ridiculous, it was a bit surreal to me for us to be bringing in $7,000 a month and yet we weren’t taking any of it, of it, like home. But in hindsight, I’m really glad that we took that approach, that we were both earning our money elsewhere. He was a PhD student at Stanford and had like a, like a stipend or whatever. And then I was working like a full time job. 

So it was partly just that neither of us really needed the money. And then I don’t remember why it was so low when I, like, left, but yeah, it was just like one, one of those things. In hindsight, I’m really, really glad about it because I think it’s one of the reasons that now I, I know that I can be happy with just like way less money and that I don’t need as much, right? That like, you know, a couple of years ago, I felt like we already had like enough, you know, which is a really nice feeling.

Alexej: No, absolutely. Absolutely. Keeping a bit of a frugal lifestyle and appreciating the, you know, good things is very healthy. You know, Elon Musk just, you know, I guess not just, but you know, a while ago sold all his… basically houses, right? And assets. He’s like completely asset-light. 

Yeah, that’s cool. And I guess so, you know, for the audience out there… the decision to bootstrap and move to Thailand for a while, I guess, before you started traveling the world. And I think out of the 10 years, you’ve now been traveling eight years, right? Although now you’re actually in the UK which is not a cheap place either. But obviously, you know, family reasons now, but I guess, you know, the advice you can give to people who in your situation would have easily raised, you know, a lot of money because you had a great product, you had strong, you know, financial traction, great team.

Why did you… first of all, how did you, not get, let’s say, seduced by all the noise out there that you should be fundraising and you want to have, you know, your name on TechCrunch. You know, how did you do that? And we, you know…. like what other considerations were there to make you kind of like not fundraise?

Amar: So there’s a couple of things there. So first of all, I think that in hindsight, I think that it seems like a very, like solid kind of, like idea. It seems kind of obvious, like in hindsight, but when you look at the actual financial metrics, I mean, the reason that my Co-Founder left after four years is because we’ve been working on this and taking it very seriously as, like, our only thing like that we were doing.

And after four years, we were sitting at about $15,000 a month in, like in Recurring Revenue. And to him, that just wasn’t good enough, right? And so for him, he was like, we’ve been, we’ve spent four years of our life on this where we’re adding on average $4K a year in Monthly Recurring Revenue. Like this, just, this isn’t working, right? And I think he missed kind of like the power of compounding because in the three or four years after he left, we 10x the business, right? And so now it all looks like rainbows and sunshine. 

But I would say a couple of things.  First of all, at no point in time, have we ever had like venture-type returns, that our growth has never been that. Maybe it would have been if we had taken a bunch of money, brought in a sales team, put a bunch of money into paid advertising and like, and all of, all of like that stuff. But in terms of how we didn’t get seduced by it…. It was my first, like real company, I feel like, that the maid service felt like a side hustle. And this was something where like, this isn’t a side hustle. This is the thing, right? 

And so that I think made it a bit more serious, but I read ‘The 4-Hour Work Week’ when it first came out in like 2006, 2007. So to me, it was all about freedom, right? That freedom was the only thing that I cared about and going to Thailand was the first step of that, right? That even though I was paying myself $1,000 a month, and I had friends in Silicon Valley that were literally on salaries of $15 – $20,000 a month, I felt richer because they were jealous of me, cause I was in Thailand posting photos from the beach while working on like, on my business and stuff, right?

And so I think I always just had that like, really, like really clear, that to me especially early on, if you don’t know what you’re doing and you haven’t already experienced like a decent level of success, to me, taking on outside funding is essentially, is essentially turning it into a job, right? 

And so like, there have been multiple times in the last 10 or 11 years that if I had VCs, regardless of the results, they would not have been happy with like, you know, in some cases my behavior, in some cases how I was choosing to, like, to spend my time and like, and all of that stuff and that’s just something that like to me, that’s not, that’s not freedom and so I think that really, really kept me on like on the, the straight and narrow. 

But I do have to say that being a young entrepreneur, I think I would have had a really, really hard time if someone in those first maybe four years or something had offered us like a seven-figure check, right? I think if someone had said, “Hey, we’ll give you a million dollars for like, you know, 40% of the business” or something like early on, I think that would have been a very tough thing to say no to, but in hindsight, I’m very glad that didn’t happen because I think we would have blown through the money, right?

I think that the way that I’ve been forced to build the business and to be really fiscally responsible and that everything that’s being spent is essentially my money. I think that’s something that now I would bet on myself to go in and, like, raise VC money and like to do, like something big and I may consider that in the future depending on what sort of like shot that I want to take but I feel like that comes from a place now of like, core confidence.

I’m not concerned that I would get, like taken advantage of or sign, like bad terms or work with someone that I shouldn’t have and like when I was younger I think I would have been much more susceptible and yeah, I mean… I think, I think I would bet if I’d done that, that the business wouldn’t be around today, right? 

It also changes the success metrics. That’s the other thing, right, is to me, it’s like, if this business had only ever made $10K or $20K a month, but me and my Co-Founder could keep it up and could take out $4K a month or like, or whatever. And you’re telling me that because I raised money, it had to go to $100,000 a month or $200,000 a month or a million a month, otherwise it was a complete and total failure… that to me just doesn’t, doesn’t sit right either.

Alexej: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a book I read actually over Christmas called ‘The Founder’s Dilemma’, and it basically discusses the whole notion between, do you want to be king and be in control, or do you want to be rich but not be in control, right? Like sometimes you can probably be also king and, you know, be rich, but you know, the, the common path is that once you have VCs, you really need to spend the money because IRR is a time, you know, bound metric, return metric, right? 

So you really want to scale revenue, and we had another founder yesterday, you know, being interviewed by us and basically what he said, the moment they raised Series A, they just needed to hire a lot of developers, and in hindsight, they should have actually cleaned up a lot of the technical debt first and maybe started hiring only in six months, rather than straight away, because by hiring so many, they created just even more mess and then they ended up firing 50% of the team and basically almost running out of money versus in the bootstrapped scenario, you’re in control of the time.

And if you want to take it slower, a year, and learn some extra skills to be even more in control, you can do that, right? Versus if you have a VC, it’s very difficult to pull off. That’s, that’s, that’s fascinating. Yeah. So, and then we discussed like a while ago how client retention and, you know, the rise of competition, you know, is a bit of an issue sometimes and that you need to keep, you know, developing new product features to retain customers and really stand out, right? Maybe, could you tell us a bit more, how do you prioritize certain product features over others?

Amar: Yeah. So, I think lots of people are going to be familiar with like, the ICE framework of like impact, confidence, and effort, where you kind of like rank different things. We essentially do that, but it’s a lot less… less, like formalized. So I’m always keeping an eye like on, on competitors, right, that I think the competitors are important because they spend all day every day thinking about the same problems that you do, right? 

So whenever I hear someone that’s like, “oh yeah, I don’t care what my competitors do”, I just think that’s silly because I think that, you know, without stealing, you, you can find a lot of inspiration from your competitors, right? They’ll come up with things where, you know, like one thing that I, that I look at a lot is like, what do other competitors say that they do, that we can’t say that we do? 

Because oftentimes… like, like an example would be like QuickBooks integration, right? Is that was something that for, for a couple of years, like we, we kept losing business because people were like, “oh, you don’t have a QuickBooks integration? I’ve gotta go with this other like software”. And we finally looked at the other software. Their QuickBooks integration was such a joke. Like, I, I wanted to jump off a bridge when I saw how terrible their QuickBooks integration was, right? 

And so we essentially, like, just did that. We were just like, “oh, like, you mean to tell us that, like, this piece of crap qualifies as, like, a QuickBooks integration? Well, like, we can do that.” We just had it in our heads that we had to do this proper thing that did all of these things perfectly. And then we looked at that and we’re like, “oh, we can just knock that off.” And we immediately stopped losing business because of that, like that objection, right? And so I think that one thing I think a lot of people miss is that they think about features as like this feature and like they think that it just means this one thing in their head.

And so if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years that like, you can always redefine features, right? You can always solve a problem in less time, like, if you want to, right? The solution won’t be as good, but you can always, like do that. And so for me, when I’m looking at features, I’m looking at what do our competitors have, we’re always listening to customers to try to stay ahead of the curve, that we’ve come up with some very innovative features as well.

But we’re trying to not develop with like our heads in the sand where everything is innovative. It’s like, no, no, no. You have expectations because you’ve moved over from our competitors. We need to match those expectations and then blow them away. So, so a lot of it is like, feature parody with our competitors while also figuring out where do we have the opportunity to do more than that.

Alexej: Got it. So a lot of the insights about your competitors, do you get them from, you know, potential customers and the calls you do, or do you… you know, basically have, I don’t know, like, you know, people who test other software, or, you know, interns, internet, other businesses giving you some intel?

Amar: So we… we usually are getting the feedback from like, from customers, right, where they’ll go, “oh, hey, like my current software does this. I saw that you guys don’t” and we’ll go, “hey, can you just send us a video of like how, how you currently solve this?” That’s a really great question, is just: “can you send us a video of how you currently solve it?” And sometimes, there’s like, oftentimes you get that as a sales objective as people go, “oh, you don’t do this? Well, in that case, I’m not using you.” And we’re like, “great. How do you solve that now?” And they’re like, “oh, I don’t”. 

Well, then, then stop saying that we need to do that in order like, like… I will show you 28 different ways that our software is way better than your current program. Just because we don’t do this one thing that you also haven’t found anywhere else doesn’t mean that you’re crossing us off, like, off your list or whatever, right? So yeah, like it’s one of those things where you know… what I was saying about like, kind of like finding out from folks, like, how do you currently, like, solve this problem? 

But then the other thing that we’re gonna do is, like, we’ll also jump into competitors’ softwares, like, every, every now and again, right? Like, they do the same thing to us, right? Like, you know, there are probably some people watching that are like, “oh, that’s unethical” and it’s like, it’s a free trial, right? We’re not lying to them. I’ll sometimes put in “Amar at ZenMaid.com”. I’ve had conversations with my, with like my competition’s, like CEOs, because I saw that one of their designers like signed up or whatever, right?

Or like back in the day, I remember the biggest competitor that we had, signed up for a trial of our software, because he was just keeping an eye on new competition. And I sent him this, like a joke email about like what we were gonna, you know, do in the industry and stuff and like, he was like, “I got through about half of this and then realized it was a joke” and like, we’ve kept in touch, you know, and like he sold that business so he’s no longer a direct competitor, which is brilliant because he doesn’t care about sharing information that previously he never would have.

Alexej: How much of the new business do you get from customers switching from another software to you versus maybe people who don’t even use the software?

Amar: I don’t actually know what that metric is cause we can always see, like, who it is, like when someone signs up what they were using before, but we don’t usually track it, like, after they become a customer and then go back and run the numbers. But if I had to guess, I mean, I would think it would be close to 50/50, but probably 60/40 on the side of software, that it’s much easier to convince someone already using a software that our software is better, than to convince someone using pen and paper that they should be using software, right? Because like, usually they already know that. 

And so the reason that they’re not are oftentimes like out of our control. So I, I would, I would think, I mean, maybe it’s 70/30, but I, I wouldn’t be able to tell you with like, any confidence which way it’s actually like, it’s actually skewed.

Alexej: Mm-hmm. Got it. So maybe going back, you know, for, for a brief moment to this whole like, client acquisition strategy, right? You, you did obviously a lot of direct outreach first and alongside, you know, paid traffic and then, you know, a lot of SEO to get a lot more inbound. And I guess you’re, you run like email campaigns, et cetera, et cetera, now as well.

How did you go about testing the various different, you know, company, well, client acquisition channels and, and growth methods, like did you do it very slowly and did you test it, you know, obviously paid traffic first and, and direct outreach. How did you get to, okay, let’s do SEO, for example… what was the process and maybe any other methods you, you tried out there?

Amar: So I’m very much a believer in like the, you, you have to see someone’s like brand seven times to kind of like know, like, and trust them and be like, willing to buy so that’s always been ZenMaid’s focus. So I’ve always been trying to just get us into as many places as possible. So I would say it was a very channel-by-channel basis, right, that what I liked about paid advertising at the beginning was it’s like, okay, cool, so like I spent the time to set it up, research all the keywords and stuff. Now that it’s set up, I can just take our budget from $100 a month to $150 and we get more traffic and then to $200 and onwards, right?

And so that’s, that was almost like once I’d set up the system in place, then making the system generate more was just changing one variable, right? And so I’m always looking for things like that with all of my marketing channels. So for example, the cold email, cold email, I had a virtual assistant who would send out those emails for me. So even though I spent two years, like doing cold email, for me, it was only replying to emails once the responses came in. So for me, it was just conversation, right? And then she generated the list for me to then go and cold call and all that stuff. 

So we definitely tried to cast a wide net of like, I tried to make sure early on that we were essentially visible on every marketing platform. So whether it was Facebook, Google, Capterra, LinkedIn, we’re just trying to kind of be everywhere, right? And then from there, we began to sort of notice different patterns of like what worked and everything. 

I’m not really the best with tracking and analytics, that I’m much more of like a intuitive kind of like marketer, or almost like a blind faith marketer where I’m just like, look, like, “I don’t know how much money our community on Facebook brings us and I’ve never been able to tell you that, but we have 8,000 dedicated maid service owners in our group now and I guarantee that adds a ton of value to the business in ways that we probably like, can’t even put a number on even if we could track everything like perfectly”, right? So it’s where our writer gets all of our content ideas, right? It’s where we go when we have questions about, like building a new feature and etcetera.

So, yeah, well what’s funny that you asked that is so yesterday was literally the first day for our new Director of Demand Acquisition, so I’ve just hired help to come in and to properly track everything, make sure that things are in the right place and then to scale up the things that are working because I’ve very much had a shotgun approach for the past 10, 11 years and that’s gotten us this far, but it’s not going to get us to the next level, right?

I realized recently, I think when we were chatting in November, November, I think this might have actually come up that yeah, I just realized that I’m now at the extent of like where I can like, take the company from a marketing perspective, that I, I’ve talked out there. So like my remaining growth is on like the product side and leadership side and all that.

Alexej: And the community of maid service owners, how do you host this community? Is it like a kind of like, a, a forum online, or is it like a Slack group or WhatsApp group or…?

Amar: Just on Facebook.

Alexej: It’s a Facebook group, basically? Okay. Makes sense.

Amar: Yeah, we, we have one, one for all maid service owners and then one for, for ZenMaid like, users specifically. Yeah, Facebook is just where our audience hangs out. 

Alexej: That’s cool. Yeah, that makes so much sense. And I guess right now, so you, you, you know, you make more than $200K MRR, and, you know, $2.5 million ARR… I guess it’s a very high margin business, cause it’s, you know, what, like probably 80% gross margin, maybe 50% EBITDA margin or whatever, how do you decide how much money to put into various marketing channels?

Like you mentioned the, you know, Client Acquisition Manager, Demand Manager coming on board now and obviously that’s one of the tasks for this person. But in the past, did you just say, “look, this is X amount of cash I want to like, just put aside. And this is what I’m happy to spend on marketing.” Or was there some sort of other approach to it?

Amar: Honestly, there’s no real rhyme or reason there. If I saw, if I saw things that were working and getting us a good payback period, then I would put in more money. The margins on the business, they aren’t as high as people, as people like think. I think that I get, maybe it just depends on like how you like define margins that like theoretically there’s no cost, but like it costs a ton to keep like a team of developers, like productive and happy and like, and all of like, all of that stuff.

So we follow a Profit First model. And literally just every dollar that comes in, part of it immediately goes to taxes, part of it goes to profits. And then I’m, I’m operating the company on about 60%, I think, of like the revenue that we actually bring in is just like my total budget. And so this this is one of the places that I personally need to grow a lot as like a leader and like, as like the CEO is just getting kind of the finances a bit more systematized that we have everything like well-tracked but there’s no real rhyme or reason to like where I put in like money and stuff, right? Like this new guy was like, “cool, what’s the budget?” And I was like, “I don’t know, you know, the better you do, the more budget you get, but like, I don’t know what to tell you outside of that.”

Alexej: Awesome. Awesome. So what are the critical lessons you’ve learned to, you think would benefit other SaaS founders?

Amar: Well, so I think if you’re bootstrapped, if you’re bootstrapped, I think it’s just, don’t give up. And I think that’s very like cliche, but like at the same time, you know, I think what, what you had actually mentioned earlier in the interview, I don’t think we were too much deeper into it, but like when you take on venture capital, you’re essentially starting a timer. Whatever money that they give you, there are now expectations on when that capital is returned, how much more than that capital is going to be returned. And like, if you accomplish that five years later than what they expected, they’re not going to be happy. 

If you’re bootstrapped, you know, for me, that was the thing I think that my Co-Founder missed was he looked at it and was like, “we’re making, you know, $15K a month after four years. This is ridiculous.” Whereas I looked at it and was just like, “if you had told me at any point, at any time that I was younger in my life, that at any point I would have a business making $15,000 a month, I would never let go of that, like that asset”, right? Like that would be something that would just be so crazy and like mind-blowing.

And it might just be like, as a kid, you just have like low standards about money where like, you know, $10 is a lot, you know, or like, or whatever, like it might, it might be. But I do think that if you’re in control of your, of your business, then like you’re in control of the timelines. And so, I’m like, I’m not even interested in like getting rich per se, like I care a lot more about the freedom, but I’m very comfortable with getting rich slowly.

And I see so many people that are trying to make, you know, $100,000 trying to do all these crazy things. Whereas to me, like, blows my mind that I have a company that makes two and a half million dollars a year at any profit margin. It doesn’t even, it doesn’t even matter, right? Like if that’s profitable, that’s like amazing.

And so I think, I think that, that just like leaning into that and just like not giving up because especially if you’re bootstrapped, it might not be this thing that you’re currently working on that’s going to work, but if you stick with it for long enough, something will work. And so I think that that’s just something that if you don’t give up, eventually you’ll find something.

And, you know, we both know all sorts of stories of successful entrepreneurs that, that didn’t have an entrepreneurial bone in their body until they were 50 years old or like, or whatever. And so I think that’s the biggest thing. If you’re taking venture capital, I don’t know what to tell you, like…time isn’t real, but like work as hard as you possibly can for as long as you can, and like, I hope your investors are happy. I don’t really know.

Alexej: Yeah. To be honest, I think the trend recently of bootstrapping became bigger again, right? Like it was very big with, you know, ‘The Lean Startup’ book and obviously, you know, pre-sexy VC days. And I think in the last two years with a lot of the, let’s say VC funding activity is drying up, and also maybe some of the bad stories out there that, you know, founders who raised half a billion didn’t make a penny when they exited. A lot of that indie hacker community and SaaS founders who, yeah, want to just bootstrap…. that started being popular again, right? Cool. 

Amar: But what I, what I want is, I want to, I’m starting to find more people, but I’m looking for more people that are kind of like at our size that are, that are kind of like that good mix. And you, you know, I mean us being in the, in the DC, it’s like, that’s the best community that I’ve found for it thus far, is I’m looking for that mix of like, of lifestyle design, but also wants to take like the business seriously, right? Cause like, I’m not in a rush, right? I’m very like chill, but I’m also very, very intense, right?

Like I also very much want to see this company at $10 million a year, at $50 million a year and like, and beyond and everything. I’m just not in a rush and I’m also okay if I don’t get there, but I’m very competitive about it, right? And that’s something that I feel like, that’s where bootstrappers I feel like sometimes get like a bad, like a bad rap or whatever, because you see like a lot of them’s like, a lot of like the solo devs, they build up something to like ten thousand dollars a month. They’re okay, and they’re not striving for more and I respect that right, but I, I want people that like both want to build a $10 million company and are also okay just like taking a week off to go to the beach because like, we don’t have to do it tomorrow.

Alexej: Yeah. And I think, I think it might come in phases as well, right? And you’re part of MicroConf as well, right, with like a lot of the indie hackers and maybe it’s just like, you know, once they had their two years in Thailand, they are ready to go back and try to scale, right, maybe that’s part of that as well. 

Amar: Yeah. Well, and the other thing is like, cause I, I hope that that didn’t come across as like, as too critical because I get what those guys are doing and why they’re doing it, that in a lot of cases where I think it’s very much the right decision is for the ones that don’t want to be managers, right?

If you’re just like, you’re “Look, I just want to keep developing. And just like keep writing code and I don’t want to manage people or like build this into a company” or like, or whatever. I think that’s perfectly fine. And I respect that when people like know that… I think it’s when people try to say that they’re an entrepreneur, but it’s just, it’s just them that that’s where it kind of like rubs me the wrong way.

If it’s just like, “Hey, like you built a cool tool, you get paid a nice amount of money. But like, let’s not kid ourselves. Like you’re not striving for like, for more than this. And like, that’s okay. But like, let’s just be honest about it, right?” 

Alexej: Yeah, makes sense. Makes sense. Cool. So let’s do a quick fire, four questions for you. What book recommendation is there for other SaaS founders?

Amar: So the one…. I wasn’t sure but I was reading, I was rereading it actually this morning. And yeah thought that I, that I would throw it out there is ‘Who Not How’, I think it’s by Dan Sullivan and I forget who the Co-Author is. I was rereading it today and I’m kind of like, ah, like, I don’t know. I mean, let’s put it this way. It’s a really great concept, right? I think you could probably read like the first chapter of the book and get most of it like out. 

I think that’s true of a lot of books like these, these days, but ‘Who Not How’ I think is a really good one. And it’s exactly like the title says, it’s talking about approaching your problems from… rather than having the mindset of like, “how do I get, you know, ZenMaid from $200K MRR – $300K MRR”, it’s “who do I need to make that happen?” And that’s why like we brought in this Director of Demand Gen yesterday where it’s kind of weird where like up until now I’ve always figured out how we’re going to get to the next level. And this is the first time that I was like, “Nope, that’s his job”. Like his job is to, is to do that. So I think that that book is probably worth, worth reading. But also I might have just given you a good enough summary that you probably don’t need to.

Alexej: Yeah, exactly, right? Awesome, awesome. Okay, cool. The next question is: who’s an entrepreneur you admire?

Amar: So I wrote down three and I think it’s because they’re all, they all fit that, that mold of what, what I was just saying that… they’re like driven and like entrepreneurial driving for more, but also clearly value like lifestyle and are like balanced, right? They have truly balanced lives that like I’m jealous of and I’m not very jealous of like very many people, right? I can count on, on, you know, two hands, all the people that I’m jealous of in the world and these three probably make, make it. 

So one is Nick Gray who wrote ‘The 2-Hour Cocktail Party’. He sold a business previously, but just the way that he lives life is like, it’s really, really like quite cool and quite inspiring. Neville Medora, who’s a copywriter that has like a community of copywriters. He’s another one, great work-life balance. He’s clearly very consciously designed his life to be what he wants it to be. And you know, he’s still ambitious, but ambitious in his own way. 

And then the last one is Nathan Barry from ConvertKit, that I feel like me and him are very, very similar. He just makes 15 times more money than I do and like flies around on private jets, but is essentially like that prototypical kind of like lifestyle, like entrepreneur while also striving for more. So those, those were my, were my three.

Alexej: That’s cool. Yeah. Yeah. Very, very interesting. Yeah, usually people say, you know, Bill Gates or, you know, whatever Jeff Bezos, but it’s, it’s really interesting to, to see who the, you know, people are, who you admire. Okay. And what is a SaaS tool only you know, or like, you know, you use, but not many other people know of.

Amar: So I struggled with this one. I wrote down a mobile app that I use. I think you and I have talked about a couple of times. But I wrote down a mobile app that I use called Athena. It’s from a company called Athena Delegation, which I think like helps to like hire out VAs. I guess it’s like a free tool that they, that they offer. I think maybe they’re completely unrelated, but I can’t imagine that. I don’t know. Anyways. 

Athena Delegation is a mobile app that allows you to essentially click one button and opens up like a voice recorder, and then you click one button and it closes the app and that’s all that you have to do. And you can have that message automatically sent to like your Slack or to a couple of different things that you can set up in the settings. So for me, that’s a direct connection to my Executive Assistant. So literally I think things out loud into my phone and they start happening within my company.

At any time I’ve got a message for the CTO or anything like that, I can literally just click a button, say this thing, and then, and then just like move on. And it’s great if you have, if you have ADHD, like I do, that…. going into, into WhatsApp, for example, to like record a voice note for my Executive Assistant, I would get distracted at least half the time because I’d open up WhatsApp and have messages from you or from my other friends that were there at the top. And then I’d forget what I was even like, even in there for. And so that, that’s been an absolute lifesaver and just yeah, that single-handedly has made my quality of life much higher on a day-to-day basis.

Alexej: Amazing. Amazing. And then finally, you know, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

Amar: I think it’s probably the “don’t give up” that I, that I said like before, but like applied to everything like in life of… I don’t know if it’s even like the best, like advice that I’ve gotten, but like, one of the best things that I’ve ever done in my life was, was Brazilian jiu-jitsu, that I did that for like a while. I don’t know if I’m going to get back to it anymore because of like, because of injuries…. never even made it, you know, beyond like beyond white belt, but, I did that for like, you know, six, eight months or something where I just got crapped on like every single day, like in training until after six months someone new finally joined the gym. And then I was actually able to see all of the progress that I made, but that was something that just kind of emphasized to me. 

It’s like, if you stick with something for six months and you just keep showing up, you will get way better at it and you will likely be way better at it than like, you know, 90% of the population with just like that much, like that much time that if you practice handstands for 10 minutes a day for six months, you’ll be better than 90% of the population at like handstands, right?

And so that that’s something that I think is something that I…where, especially when I’m not in a rush and I’m not worried about time, that’s something that I think really keeps me going of just like, I know that I need to become a better manager and I have time to do that and I’m going to do that, but I’m not going to put any like, you know, time pressure on of like, I’m going to do that work consistently, but I’m not going to say I have to be this person in six months because I just don’t find that it serves.

Alexej: Cool. Cool. Yeah. Never give up. That’s a, that’s a perfect end to our interview as well. Look, I mean, it’s been super interesting and fascinating. So thanks so much for, you know, joining and giving us your time.

Amar: Yeah, definitely. If anyone wants to, wants to reach out, Twitter is the best way to, to get in contact with me. When I do podcast interviews like these, I’m always willing to jump on… to jump on quick calls. So if anyone, if you want to just DM me on, on Twitter, I’m happy to jump on like a 15, 20-minute call and talk through like whatever with other, other SaaS founders. But yeah, thanks for, thanks for having me on. This is really, really fun.

Alexej: Cool. Amazing. Thanks so much. Bye. 

Thanks for sticking around. If you want to see the show notes, please go to www.nuoptima.com/saas-podcast. Otherwise see you at the next episode. Bye.

Important Links

Book Recommendation

  1. The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferriss
  2. The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup by Noam Wasserman
  3. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries
  4. Who Not How: The Formula to Achieve Bigger Goals Through Accelerating Teamwork by Dan Sullivan and Benjamin Hardy
  5. The 2-Hour Cocktail Party: How to Build Big Relationships with Small Gatherings by Nick Gray

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