Using Product to Grow a Service Business

Starting a business is hard. If it were easy we’d all be entrepreneurs. Having successfully bootstrapped two profitable service-based businesses I feel I’m qualified to comment on the difficulties of getting started; specifically when it comes to finding the right kind of work.

As a small business, the task of attracting clients can be daunting. Figuring out who you are and how to talk about yourself in a way that conveys value is something we’ve all struggled with at some point. Even with a clear message it’s not easy to understand channels, how to target and focus on verticals, and where to spend your hard-earned money (or money you don’t have yet).

In 2006 when ResIM launched we had the benefit of building a runway and backlog of revenue while working elsewhere. There was risk in sustaining this, and there were a few times when it looked like it was’t going to pan out, but by-and-large the work has kept coming.

Fast-forward to 2013 and the launch of my second venture, Treble. Treble and Res where borne from very different circumstances. Treble didn’t have the benefit of a pre-launch runway beyond a month or so. There wasn’t a build-up of freelance work or an existing client base and Res wasn’t in a position to provide enough work or funding for the fledgling business to get off the ground. Treble did have a few things going for it, however:

Low operating costs. With only two full-time salaries on the payroll and no physical space we had (and still have) very low operating expenses.

An idea. Prior to launch we’d spent time planning our first products. We knew the client work wouldn’t be there at the start and a big part of our mission was to make things for ourselves.

Enter the happy accident of product as marketing. It’s nothing new, but the outcome was more than we could have hoped for.

The flexibility and agility of a business that only supports two people reduces the risk associated with taking chances on making products in-house. One of our early products, Knit, wasn’t intended to be a catalyst for Treble. It was built because we believed in the idea and knew it could be done. What we couldn’t see coming was the attention the launch of Knit was going to generate.

With reserved expectations we launched Knit in April 2014 through a few social status updates and a video we created with the help of a friend. Things started to take off from here:

The app was listed on Product Hunt. This really got things going.

Publications like FastCo Design and LifeHacker wrote about us.

Those two seemingly insignificant points pushed us to 10,000 downloads pretty quickly and caught the attention of important people who wanted to pay us to make things. Bingo, revenue.

In fact, we can track nearly 90% of all revenue generated so far to clients who found us as a result of Knit. This business is largely in the US and consists of funded start-ups and massive technology companies.

Though this really was a happy accident there are lessons to be learned:

The media aren’t interested in writing about the launch of another [insert type of company here]. You need to do something interesting, make something interesting, or have a compelling story.

Make a video. This is especially true as a means to explain how a product works. This kind of content is shareable, shows personality, conveys value, and is an excellent addition to any article.

Design matters. Everything you make had better look and work great — you can skip features but don’t ever lose sight of design.

Look under all the stones. Leads will come in; some good, some bad. Respond to them all quickly and see where it goes. Take phone calls, schedule meetings, and be persistent as you follow-up.

Lastly, the only surefire way to understand if ‘product as marketing’ is going to work for you is to try it. Start now, start small, and launch something interesting.