How to Bootstrap a Company to 10M – Callum McKeefery, CEO of Reviews.io

How to Bootstrap a Company to 10M – Callum McKeefery, CEO of Reviews.io

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Callum McKeefery is the co-founder and CEO of Rreviews.io, a company offering review collection and management solutions. He shared with us how he started the company 10 years ago from his kitchen table with his wife and co-founder Nikki and how they grew to 10M in revenue with no investors funding.

In this episode you’ll learn:

– How rain impacts your conversion rate
– Whatโ€™s the hottest method for customer reviews collection in 2020
–ย How you can bootstrap a company from 0 to 10M
– How to decide it’s time for international expansion
–ย  What motivates him as a founder for over a decade

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FULL TRANSCRIPT:

00:01 Desi Do you know the hottest method for collecting customer reviews in 2020? Or how rain can impact your conversion rate By knowing things like this you can bootstrap a company from 0 to 10M in less than 10 years. Callum McKeefery, the co-founder and CEO of Reviews.io shared with me how they started the company from their kitchen table, with his co-founder and wife Nikki. Here’s how they did it with zero VC funding.

00:48 Callum McKeefery I started Reviews.io, the idea came in 2011/2012. Me and my wife started the company literally from our kitchen table in Leicester. My wife is from California and she moved over to the UK. I’ve done a couple of different startups previously and we sat and thought about what we’re gonna do next where we’re gonna go. And one of the businesses that I had done previously was not directly involved in the reviews space but it was a part of the business that I really enjoyed and I thought there was a huge opportunity there to actually launch a product which was a bit more friendly than some of the other products and a bit more features filled. And how they dealt with their client base. So we launched in 2013 and we’ve been going ever since. We’re fully bootstrapped and we’re now approaching 10M in revenue. We employ just over 68 people, actually 69 as we just employed a new guy in Germany. You have built this powerful engine for generating product reviews. What was the first feature, the first vertical you started with? Our first vertical was pretty much e-commerce companies. We don’t go for the really big e-commerce companies. We started really targeting the smaller and medium size e-commerce companies. very early on. That was our big vertical We got a bit of traction within the car park, insurance and flower companies trading online. We won one client and then we bounced into another one and so for. So probably the first vertical was really e-commerce but if we narrow that down the one that we did quite well early on was flower delivery companies and then we bounced into insurance. I know they’re not really related but we won a big insurance client and that let us to several insurance companies. 

03:05 Desi “Oh, that’s interesting, flowers!” What was you go-to market strategy when you started? Or did you have any? 

03:13 Callum McKeefery “So when we started, we went to our first expo, it was in the NEC In Birmingham. We had a stand there and we really didn’t know We just put our products and stand out and we had this great reviews solutions. And we were “Who wants to use it” Just talk to people. Those early days it was really all about talking to as many potential customers as possible Just getting feedback, getting feedback, getting feedback and then we had one large flower retailer come to us and said “You know what – we really like what you’re doing, can we work with you?” So, yeah, we started working with those guys and we then kind of reached out to some of the other flower companies or they were seeing what we were doing on the market with the competitors and they were “That’s amazing We need to work with these guys.” So we kind of went in and we spread That strategy really worked for us I found the more conversation we had in those early days the more success we had. It was really about getting all our staff really talking, talking, talking to people in the marketplace whether it was an expo or just via a call a warm intro intro or just chatting on LinkedIn I’m a big advocate of that even now: The more conversations we had, the more successful we’re and it helps us to get closer to our clients. I’m a firm believer If you’re a service provider like ourselves and you’re building a product. The closer you can get to your client it’s the better. The company that’s the closest always wins Because you can hear what innovations your client is expecting from you and what problems they have and you can really have a closer understanding about how you could build your roadmap. In the early days we didn’t really have a roadmap. We built it based on client’s feedback. 

05:20 Desi “So it was literally going door to door email by email and asking people to test your product.” 

05:25 Callum McKeefery Yeah! It was really the old-fashioned way. It was quite painful Being bootstrapped, we didn’t really have this huge marketing budget which we could got out with and say “Wow, we’re here!” and people would come to us. We really had to do it the old-fashioned way. which was get one client, delight that client and build the product around them, and then hope that client would spread the word and we would bounce into another client which they know We really grew from a word of mouth instead of a huge marketing budget. Actually, that’s probably been the best thing that has ever happened to us. not rushing in and developing the solution in the wrong way. By being focused on our revenue and being focused on our customer, we managed to build a product that’s actually really a perfect fit for our target audience which is online retailers really.

06:24 Desi What was the main pain point that your product was solving in the beginning? Was the collection of reviews?

06:35 Callum McKeefery Yes, collection was a big thing. What we were trying to do originally was let our clients compete with bigger retailers. Everybody trusted Amazon, everybody trusted eBay but they weren’t really trusting the smaller online retailers and what we were trying to do is collect as many People feedback as possible from these e-commerce retailer’s customers so then we can display them on the site build trust and increase their revenue That was really the biggest pain point – collecting enough reviews, having a high enough conversion. We do a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure we hit inboxes when people are not sending sms to collect reviews, as well we make sure that our timing is perfect. What our client’s customers’ happy points are when are they most happy. Is it when they just got delivery. Is it a couple of days after they’ve used the product. When is their happy point? And we make sure we ask the review request at that point. That’s when they’ll give the highest conversion. We’ve gone even as far as looking at weather patterns. Some crazy ideas to actually see where conversion goes. On days in the UK when it was raining we would get higher conversion and then when there was a sporting event, we’d see a dip so we were holding back to send the review collection request. So it was all this technology to make sure that our clients had the highest possible conversion. That was the biggest pain point – getting the reviews originally. The second pain point was publishing these reviews on people’s website so potential customers trusted them.

08:36 Desi What’s the most popular metric for reviews performance that your clients love tracking? 

08:44 Callum McKeefery The most popular metric is literally volume it’s really the amount of reviews. We’ve got one client which is heading towards 500k reviews now, which is Sports Direct, the massive online retailer. In my opinion, this is probably a wrong metric I’m really passionate about focusing on the quality of the review. Whether it’s got an image, whether it’s got a video and looking at those other metrics now and saying look, having just thousands and thousands of reviews is not really any longer a key metric. Really the metrics you should be focusing is the quality of the review and what impact that review actually has on your sales. If it’s a product review and it’s got a video and it’s got an image and that person is an influencer, that’s really, really good quality review from a brand advocate the metric has evolved for us internally. Now it’s all about quality, not about quantity.

09:51 Desi And in terms of reviews collection method – which is the most popular one? I can see that your social proof feature is definitely taking off.

10:00 Callum McKeefery Yeah. We launched social proof towards the end of last year. I’ve never seen a product take off like our social proof feature! It was amazing, the adoption of our customer base was amazing they could turn now this quite boring-looking text review into something really interesting post them on Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn. And then we thought harder about that and that’s what brought us to video reviews. 1 in ten leaves a photo, 1 in 50 now leaves a video. We’re doing things to really increase the adoption of video reviews. We see that as the future of our business. We want to be a video-first company, we think that’s really important. The text will always be there and that’s brilliant, because we can analyse that, we can do some really clever AI and we can give our clients back metrics on how they can improve, but for me video is the future and that’s the way we’re moving, this rich media because you can’t fake videos this easy. Videos really can’t be faked as easily as a text review. We have a full RND team looking at fake reviews and we’re really good at spotting them and removing them. But even so for the industry as a whole, I think video review is gonna change the trust in reviews. When you see somebody passionately talking about shoes they bought for their child and the child is playing you’re actually trusting them a lot more, that’s increasing sales. We’ve noticed that clients that publish video reviews on site or Instagram are seeing a big uptake in conversion to sale.

12:09 Desi You’ve built quite a rich product in terms of features and functionalities. Do you have a specific process or framework that you follow for identifying what to build next or do you rely mainly on your gut instinct?

12:23 Callum McKeefery On you we did use to rely on our gut instinct but now we have quite a sold roadmap, a system we have a “build for one, give to all solution” and that’s kind of unique. If we work with a retailer and they want something a bit special we will build it, but then we’ll give it to all our client base as a free upgrade. And that has really helped us to build our roadmap because if we think it’s worth building for one client, it’s worth building for all clients it speeded up our development time, it means we can really work closely with this one client, but when we integrate it and get it live on our side, it benefits everyone we do this “build for one, give to all solution” And I think it’s quite unique.

13:21 Desi It’s almost like a service.

13:24 Callum McKeefery Yeah! Like I said at the start, I’ve always been quite passionate that the closer you’re to the customer, the more successful you are I think if more services and software business did that, then they’ll be a lot more successful.

13:46 Desi What’s the structure of your team? How quickly can you ship features?

13:50 Callum McKeefery We’re super fast, we’re really, really fast! All of our developers are based in the UK, in Leicester. We then have regional teams in different countries Berlin, LA, Sydney, as well. Those teams are really marketing Customer service and Sales. All development comes back in to the UK, to the Leicester head office. We develop everything here. As a business, we’ve always designed our business to be very Developer heavy and very Sales light. So our product really should sell itself. If a product is great, it should self itself and you shouldn’t need 200-300 selling it and cold calling and doing all these things. A really good tech product should sell itself. So we’ve always been heavy on having a really big Tech and Development team, which can develop products and get them out of the door faster, instead of focusing on a real big sales machine, which would sell a product but maybe won’t delight the customer. We’ve always been focused on having a less aggressive sales team.

15:09 Desi Do you run any growth experiments internally and would you share some interesting findings?

15:15 Callum McKeefery We have specialists in our team that do different areas we have security experts, front-end and back-end, marketing and then we have a Growth team. One of the teams I have been working a lot with is the Security team recently. So we’re looking at how we can pen test ourselves so we can do different methods of security testing on ourselves and that team has also been looking at different methods of fraud detection in the reviews space fraud is massive. It’s not massive actually, but it’s a bit talking point. The newspapers and press love talking about review fraud. We’ve working with our RND team to make better fraud detection. Some of the ones we’re working on are super clever! We’re looking at Keystroke biometrics, cause actually everybody types differently on every different keyboard. So I can call myself somebody else and switch my IP, but if I’m still typing, we now can spot that you’re not that person, because you wrote another reviews. And it’s getting quite clever and that space really interests me we’re able to make quick iterations on that the Security and Fraud team is really exciting. 

16:51 Desi I can see from your website that you have invested quite a lot in the UX of your product which is great. I’m curious – have you ever done a UX improvement or a small tweak that had a disproportionately high impact on the product considering the effort it required. A small tweak that turned into a big win?

17:11 Callum McKeefery Some of the smallest things that we’ve ever done had actually made the biggest impact from a UI point of view. We actually put a rating on our profile page that actually showed people’s reviews score in a different way as a percent, rather than as a 5 star, we still showed the star rating, but we changes that to a percent and people went crazy for that. They absolutely loved that! That was probably one of our biggest tweaks and one of our most interesting tweaks on the reviews collection side was we changed how people selected their actual rating. That UX tweak absolutely put our conversion through the roof. I think got back 300% higher conversion just by how they were selecting the star ratings. So it was really interesting. We have a really, really strong UX/UI team. When we started we had 3-4 original team members and Don on our UX/UI team, he’s just been a rockstar since day 1. He came into the business as a junior and he’s grown with us all the way through. He’s such a fantastic and valued team member. We’re really lucky to have him.

18:43 Desi What do you think is the secret to sustainable product growth?

18:48 Callum McKeefery We pretty much rely on our product we’re product-marketing let, we market around our product. Probably the biggest sustainable thing is to get the foundation right. You’ve got to get this, put your core values out there and just develop and market from there. That’s kind of what we’ve done. It’s been successful for us. I think if more businesses got their core beliefs and foundation down on paper and communicate them to all members of staff clearly and all customers and that goes through from Development and then goes into Marketing. We try and market in an ethical way. We don’t try and be heavy on the sales technique. We don’t try and lock people into those contracts. I think because we have that as our foundation we put the product before pounds notes or dollars. That really has been successful for us.

20:00 Desi How did you realise you had the foundation right? Did you need to pivot in the beginning or it’s always been a straight forward journey?

20:08 Callum McKeefery There’s a full story around that! I wrote our foundation at the cinema watching a children’s movie with my two young children at the time Ice Age 1, I was really fed up with it. I was I’m gonna do some work, I got my phone out and I looked at my notes I went on the Notes app on my phone and I literally just wrote our core values. They were really simple, they were just 4 or 5 bullet points. The next day I printed them out and I tried to get them around in the office and we tried to stick to those as much as possible. They sort of set the tone for the whole business. They set the tone for every employee and every product and they set the tone on our marketing, as well probably our biggest foundation is that. We’ve got to keep moving, we’re not a shark. As soon as we stop, we gonna die we’ve got to keep swimming forward that’s really been interesting. Development always wins. If there’s a product, we need to always be developing Ethics before money. That’s really important to us. And the reviewer always comes first. They were kind of our key ones.

21:45 Desi Has you business model changed much since you started?

21:51 Callum McKeefery We have gone more towards enterprise. We started off as SMB Bur we have moved more upstream, we’re winning a lot more enterprise clients and probably the biggest bit of the business model for me that has changed is integrations. The more integrations that we have now has definitely helped evolve the business model. So before when we started we had no integrations It was really just “send us your data and we collect the review” Not we’re integrating with people businesses much deeper through integrations with Shopify, Salesforce and so forth. That’d be the biggest change, the integrations

22:37 Desi Do you think this accelerated you a lot?

22:40 Callum McKeefery Yes, massively! We’ve been able to grow alongside the people we’re integrating with, instead of just swimming on our own It has kind of helped build an ecosystem almost We have other clients come to us and ask for advice and say: “Hey, we know you do our reviews, but do you have anyone you could recommend who can do this, as well?” We’re integrating within not just our external integration, but with our clients a bit more

23:17 Desi You’re an entirely bootstrapped company. I have huge admirations for founder who manage to make it that far without any VC money. What’s your advice to founders who want to follow your example and grow their company without any external funding? Is this actually doable in 2020?

23:37 Callum McKeefery I think more founders should follow it! It’s really about confidence. Be confident in your product, be confident in your ability. I think if you’re confident in those, you don’t really need a VC holding your hand. For far too long in the startup ecosystem we’ve seen raising money as this pat on the back. But it’s really not. It’s glamourized, raising venture capital is glamourized, when it shouldn’t be. It’s not good for a lot of companies. Yeah it’s great if you’re Amazon and you need to scale, you’re getting to this huge scale before you become profitable, but for a lot of tech startups they give away far too much in those early years and they give away far too much of the business. So if they can, I’d recommend everyone to stay bootstrapped for as long as possible. If you’re doing a startup, you’ve go to be in it for at least 10-15 years. You hear about the odd one “Oh we sold after 6 months for 30M” That’s not a common story. If you’re doing a startup, go into it expecting that you gonna be doing this for 15 years and that’s why it’s important to pick a niche that you’re passionate about. Because it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. You get these stories on TechCrunch and all these other blogs where they talk about these companies raising huge sums of money and doing huge exits within a short period of time. They’re an anomaly. They’re not the norm. The norm is that you’re running for 15 years and it’s a hard slug. There’s no easy way. Even if you’re getting VC money. VC money does not make it easy. People see the all do these celebrations “Yeah, we raised 50M” That 50M could put the fire out because when you realise how much of the business you actually own and how much you’re paying back to this VC company, you gonna be disinterested in the business. And we see a lot of that a lot of founders lose their passion because of the investment they took.

26:06 Desi What’s the one metric, product or business, you usually start your day with? What’s your North Star Metric? Honestly, there must be one!

26:17 Callum McKeefery The first thing I do I look at our Slack channel.

26:20 Desi What’s in there? Leads? 

26:23 Callum McKeefery Yeah! We look at our Slack channels how leads have come in that’s the one metric the keeps the business going. The clients keep the lights on and it’s something you’ve got to monitor and keep your eye on. The other metric that I look straight away in the morning is what’s the best content that has been created in each market. What video reviews came in for the Australia market and what photos and what social proof have been created in that market and throughout the day I will keep looking. Our Slack channels are looking what videos are coming in what social proof has been created by our clients Probably that’s my North Star – it’s content that has been created, not revenue. Revenue obviously we look at and that’s a really important metric, but it’s not the one I get up in the morning and go straight to. I’m more excited about what content came in and what content has been created by our clients. As the co-founder I developed the roadmap for the product I’m interested in – can we do this better to improve the product? I’m really product focused. That’s what I like doing, that’s the bit of the business I love So “focus on what you love” and I love the product!

27:53 Desi And I think that’s the best message to wrap it up! Thank you so much for your time, Callum! Wishing you all the best with Reviews.io

28:01 Callum McKeefery Thank you, thank you so much!

20-minute interviews with founders and product makers sharing how they hacked early growth.

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