Monitorbook — From side project to profitable company, a journey into sales

John Averi

Being good at sales is not a common trait amongst engineers. Before I was a startup founder, my mental image of a sales person was a shady car salesman trying to push you into buying a crappy overpriced car. From my perspective, if a product is really solving a problem it shouldn’t need sales people. Customers would just instantly gravitate to you because you were working on something to make their lives better. Turns out that things are not exactly that simple.

The story

Monitorbook is a website monitoring tool that alerts you whenever a specific element on a page changes. I started Monitorbook in 2014 as a side project with two of my college friends. We launched Monitorbook in late August of 2014. Just a few days after having our website online we were on Product Hunt and we got to the top position with 549 points. PH got us a total of 3800 signups with 600 of those expressing interest in getting the premium version as soon as we made it available. Two months after launching, out of those 600 people we had been able to convert 5 of them to the premium plan. That’s a pretty low number. Why was that?

We made it to the top of Product Hunt just a few days after launching

The TL;DR is that we were completely inexperienced in sales and made all the mistakes in the book. Before starting Monitorbook two of us were working as backend engineers in tech startups in the bay area and one of us was doing a PhD in Physics. We had never been on a cold call or sent out an email campaign. We didn’t know the difference between outbound and inbound sales. We didn’t know what SDR or AE meant.

We were as green as it gets and we had a lot of learning ahead of us.

Dick Costolo acknowledging our existence

After our Product Hunt launch we were ecstatic. In addition to PH we made it to the front page of Hacker News and we even had Dick Costolo (the CEO of Twitter at the time) tweet about us! Within just a few days of making our service available we already had more than 4000 people using it! All our efforts had been worth it. Now we just had to finish up our premium version and get our first paying users.

On the front page of Hacker News

We closed ourselves in our apartment and finished the Monitorbook premium version in 2 very intense weeks. It was absolutely exhausting but we were definitely excited. We sent out an email to all of our users telling them about the launch of Monitorbook Premium and got ready to start seeing the premium upgrades coming in. And… nothing happened. About 700 people opened our email, 100 clicked on the link to Monitorbook, and 0 put in their credit card to upgrade. We did get a number of replies back asking if our product was able to cater to a specific use case they wanted. We were disappointed that we didn’t yet have a paying customer but we were happy that at least some people were interested in our product. In addition, we could clearly see that we had people actively using our product even if just in the free plan.

We thought it was a good idea to try to reach out again to those 600 people that had initially showed interest in our premium product. But this time, instead of sending the same MailChimp mass email with an unsubscribe link at the bottom we decided to send them personal emails.

Our initial process to contact those 600 people was divide and conquer (there wasn’t much conquering going on). Each founder got 200 people to contact and we reached out to about 20 people every day. It took us 12 days to go thru those 600 people and at the end of those 12 days we had gotten 17 replies back. Out of those 17 replies, 3 replies were something along the lines of: “Not interested. Don’t email me again” and the rest were people that were indeed interested.

We did everything manually. Every morning I would open my inbox side by side with the spreadsheet with the contacts and send out the same email to 20 people, one by one. That would be my dose of “sales” for the day and then I would merrily go back to programming.

At the end of those 12 days we were seriously worried about whether or not we would be able to get people to pay us for our product. I sat down with my co-founders and we tried to figure out why we were having such a hard time reaching out to people. Out of that 3 hour conversation, we decided to start dedicating a lot more time to sales and learning how to do sales right.

Becoming better at sales

The first thing we wanted to improve was the reply rate to our emails. After some time reading about how to successfully run email campaigns, it was clear that we had to:

  • A/B test heavily. Namely subject lines and first touch point emails
  • Ping people multiple times when they don’t respond to the first touch point
  • Make our emails shorter and more personalized

In the process, we learned about Yesware, ToutApp, HubSpot and many other tools that help you run email campaigns. We tried out a number of them and ended up settling on Yesware. They are cheaper than most other options and have the functionality we need.

After a few weeks, the reply rates to our email campaigns went from 3% to 35%. That’s a 10x increase. Soon after we got our first paying customer, a middle age man from Germany that was paying us $45 per month for our premium plan.

We quickly realized that managing our sales process with a Google spreadsheet was not going to scale. We looked into a number of CRMs (customer relationship management tools — at the time none of us knew what CRM meant): Base, Salesforce, PipeDrive and a few others. We were surprised to learn just how expensive and complex some of these were. We ended up going with Streak, a CRM that works within Gmail. Streak is simple, flexible and free (for a team of our size). It has worked really well for us so far.

Every once in a while some customer would ask to talk on the phone with somebody from the team. After talking to a few users on the phone we quickly realized that these calls were extremely productive. It was much easier to close somebody on the phone. Out of the first 4 calls we had, we were able to get 3 of them to become paying customers. It was also a much more efficient way of interviewing users and getting their feedback about the product. From then on, we started making a conscientious effort to schedule calls with users much more frequently.

Outbound sales

Over the past year we started getting into outbound sales. Cold emailing and cold calling people represents a whole new set of challenges: Sourcing leads, finding the email of the right point of contact at the company etc. Outbound sales can also be very demoralizing as the rate of conversion is usually very low. In fact, after my first 2 days of cold calling I gained a renewed appreciation for what sales people go through. Seriously, your first few days of cold calling will likely be soul crushing. Humans are not equipped to handle that amount of rejection. Just power through it.

After a couple of months of struggling with outbound sales a friend of ours recommended we look into Amplemarket.

Since then Amplemarket has become our main tool for outbound sales. Amplemarket is a virtual sales assistant that helps you run your outbound sales. This virtual sales assistant takes care of everything for you. You give her the leads and in return you start getting new signups and sales calls scheduled on your calendar.

Behind the scenes your virtual assistant runs email campaigns for you, A/B tests different approaches, handles any questions your prospects might have and schedules calls. In addition your sales assistant can also source leads for you. You just tell her: “I’m looking to contact VPs of Marketing at Bay Area SaaS companies that have raised between 2M and 10M” and she will reach out to those people for you.

This way we have been able to vastly increase our reach without having to hire a team of sales people. Since we started using Amplemarket a few months ago our monthly revenue growth went from 7% to 34%.

We are still doing a good amount of sales ourselves, but this way we are not spending as much time in our inboxes doing repetitive tasks like replying to the same questions over and over again and scheduling calls.

Where we are now

Almost two years have passed since we launched. We are now profitable and our team has grown to 6 people. I wouldn’t say I’m a great sales rep now, but I’m definitely 100 times better than I was before I started Monitorbook. One of my biggest take aways is that there isn’t one silver bullet that will all of a sudden bring you thousands of paying customers. It’s about little victories and constantly be working on improving processes. That’s how we’ve made progress.

John Averi

Written by

love tech, cofounder of monitorbook

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade