LEARN how to grow your startup

For a few years I have worked on Project Hours Time Tracking and finally some real growth is starting to happen as you can see in the diagram above. Let me list the things that worked out well or that did not work out so you can learn how to grow your startup on a low budget!

grow your startup AT low Costs

I started Project Hours because my wife couldn’t find a suitable time tracking system for the organisation she works for. As I was looking for a fun project to develop on the side next to my job at Rabobank I did not hesitate and jumped on it. Next more companies discovered Project Hours and started to use it.

So now I had some paying customers and I was asking myself the question:  “How can I grow this business without a big marketing budget?”. Well, it took some time, I tried many things, but now Project Hours is finally growing. Read more below on what did and what did not work.

Get paying customers as soon as possible

I was lucky as I had one paying customer from the start and a few more followed soon. It gave the project a sense of urgency. Also, you are forced to quit playing around and develop everything in a professional way because real people are depending on it! And it does give confirmation that people are prepared to pay for what your are building.

Ask your customers what they need

Initially I didn’t reach out to customers at all. I was glad I had some customers and occasionally a customer would ask a question or report something that didn’t work as expected and that was it. After reading some blogs about customer involvement I realized that my approach was a bit scant, to say the least.

So what I do now is to send one personal email to every organisation that signs up for Project Hours. The difference is remarkable. Often I do get feedback, positive and negative. People do come back with the things they need in their processes, whether they continue with Project Hours or not. This is immensely valuable information that I use to build new features. Important note: this is not about spending a lot of time spamming people, just one email, very little effort, and it does make a big difference.

Focus on your customer’s requests

Ok, so your customers ask for new features. Do not wait, build it now! Most of the features in Project Hours like materials registration, authorization for projects or the planning module were built on customer request. And for all these features goes that one customer asked for it and subsequently new customers are attracted by it. The one feature that I came up with myself, user groups, is hardly, if ever, used..

use free advertisement opportunities

Grab all low-hanging fruit to advertise your product. Take for instance the app stores. At first I published purely functional apps in the iPhone and Android stores. No colors, only one screenshot, the bare minimum to get those apps in the store so users had Project Hours available on their phones to track time.

Then I realized the app stores are excellent show cases at no extra costs. So I added an attractive UI design and I added great-looking screenshots. I also added landing screens in the apps so people that are interested can sign up for a trial period.

Also, the app stores offer a lot of room to describe your products. These texts and images are also used in Google search results. It goes beyond the scope of this article to dive deeper, but app stores offer an opportunity to improve your market presence at no extra costs.

Be present on software discovery websites

Get a listing on software discovery websites. At first I tried paid advertisements in Google, but this turned to be quite expensive with too little return. Then I found out about software directories like Capterra. These are commercial websites, there is nu such thing as a free lunch, but at relatively low costs, they do deliver new leads.

Advantages of software review sites

  • They are at the top of the list in Google for your software category. They are usually in the top 5 search results, for instance for keywords like ‘time tracking’. With all competition in Google, this is very difficult to achieve with your own website unless you have all the time of the world to focus on SEO.
    • High buyer intent. The people that browse these sites are actively looking for a solution for their problem. So when they see your advertisement and it meets their needs, there is a high change of success for both customer and provider.
      • These sites have very effective templates to display your product. It is easy to upload screenshots and texts and in no-time you are up-and-running with a nice landing page.
        • Keep costs low by selecting the lowest rates possible. Ok, you are not at the top of the page, but at least you have a presence and if your product has some unique features, people will find you. I found that even with low rates, some leads will come in, a nice way to start.
          • Usually there is the option for a free listing but in that case you cannot link to your site. I have one such a free ad on a site and even that produces leads once and a while.

          Reviews help to grow your startup

          It cannot be stressed enough, a list of reviews is important. Loyal customers are usually willing to write a review for you. The software directories mentioned earlier are very suitable for collecting and displaying reviews.

          You can add a review control to your apps that asks your users to submit a review. For instance Apple offers a review pop-up that is completely managed by them and that pops up occassionaly to ask users for a review. Apple manages the algorithm that decides when and how often the review pop-up appears. In this way there is as little interference with daily usage and a good chance of receiving some reviews.

          Finally, there will be some negative reviews. Always reply to these, it is an opportunity to learn and improve your product. Users are thankful for your reply, also the ones that post negative reviews.

          make efficient use of toolS

          Try to be effective with the tools you use to build and advertise your products. What I am trying to say is that it is easy to waste a lot of time and effort using tools. Usually there are low-costs alternatives that are good enough to start with.

          For instance I never created an automatic subscription process for users. So far I have taken care of this by manually sending invoices. Saves a lot of money, but eventually there will be a point in time where I will have to start using a paid subscription service.

          Also, the first years I just published code straight from Visual Studio. Now, with usage increasing, the moment has come to do something with deployment slots in Azure to prevent down-time. I guess (but haven’t looked into it yet) that costs will go up.

          Community licences for development tools

          If possible use free community licenses for tools. These are usually available for startups and small companies. An example is Syncfusion community licence. I am using their UI controls in the Project Hours web pages.

          As for landing pages, I started with a free html template that I customized manually. For a couple of years that worked fine. Only recently I changed to a wordpress site, much easier to update and extend, but more expensive and specific knowledge is required. In this case I guess I should have switched earlier, wordpress sites are relatively inexpensive these days and maintaining html pages manually took a lot of time.

          Where to Go from here

          Mind you, all of this is hard work. The next thing from here will be simply more hard work.  For instance customers asked for more features like 2 factor authentication. Also, Project Hours’ presence in organic search engine results is very poor, this needs to be improved.

          Innovation helps to grow your startup

          Continuous innovation is important. For instance, I am going to investigate if a time tracking token on the Cardano blockchain might be useful. This will help to link registered hours to invoice factoring systems or to link registered hours to health insurance systems to claim costs for care provided. I believe blockchain will continue to grow and will form the base for trusted connections between financial systems. This in turn leads to efficient and very user-friendly systems for handling financial transactions. This is not something users asked for but I must try nevertheless because in the long run, users will benefit.

          Tips and tops

          I hope you found this article useful and that some of my experiences and ideas will help you to further grow your startup. You can contact me anytime if you want to discuss some of these topics and possibilities. Finally, do not hesitate to leave some remarks or questions below!

          Bert-Jan Lappenschaar, founder of Project Hours Time Tracking