On this episode of the podcast I interview Benjamin Dell and we talk about how to build a profitable SaaS business and discovering the type of founder you are.
Benjamin Dell is the founder and CEO at Missinglettr a UK-based marketing automation tool that helps users easily create social media campaigns for their blog posts. Prior to forming this company, he owned a web agency and launched numerous SaaS startups, several of which have been acquired.
He is passionate about empowering entrepreneurs and brands to achieve their goals and succeed in their industry.
Simply being busy does not mean you’re being effective.
And yet working extremely hard at the things you know you add insane value to CAN make all of the difference.
So how do we square this circle? We want to give us permission to be busy on the right things, but by the same token, stop ourselves from being busy on the wrong things.
In my experience, this takes time – so the earlier you can start the quicker you’ll get there.
As part of my journey, I spent a long time trying to be the best CEO I could be (believing that was what was expected of me). I’ve since learnt that was the wrong thing for me to aim for.
My contrarian (and at times contradictory) opinion of myself: I’m a great founder, but a terrible CEO.
And that’s OK. In fact knowing that is empowering and helps me structure my businesses moving forwards in a more impactful way.
Today I want to talk less about the business and more about you, the creator of that business, and how you think of and approach your role.
1. Work out where you add the most value / what you’re ‘excellent’ at. Think about:
– Micro: Day to day roles
– Macro: Stage of the business
2. Develop the confidence to articulate the above both internally and externally.
– Hint: This can only (truly) happen by ‘doing’ and making mistakes along the way.
– AKA the 10,000 hours principle. Except less about mastering a skill and more about mastering yourself.
3. Build a plan based on the above.
– Define the ideal structure of your future business and then work backwards from there.
– Some things will be achievable now in your current business, others won’t be.
4. Be careful about the advice you listen to – including this!
– Care deeply about forming your own conclusions about how you work most effectively.
– Learn by doing and failing, but iterate fast.
5. Rinse and repeat – this should be a lifelong obsession.
[1.04] – How did you become a founder?
He has been in business since 21 or 22, he worked for someone else for a full year and that was enough. He ran an agency in the UK for 10 years and sold it about three and a half years ago. Since then he has been full time in SaaS. He has got four companies under his belt.
He feels in the last six months he has found what not only makes him tick but also deliver the most value.
[2.14] – Tell us more about that?
We are usually being told that busy doesn’t really mean that you are effective in what you are doing. When you first build your business whether you have co-founders or whether it is just you one unifying thing from one company to another is the amount of sweat equity that you put in there.
In the last six months he realized that there is a real distinction between founder and CEO and it is important to know what those distinctions are but also where and how you play best as an individual.
He felt the common path for an entrepreneur was to come up with an idea, you grow the company, then you evolve into this impressive Time magazine sort of CEO someone that can turn up every day, wear that suit and rally around the troops, rt nitty with the finances, operations and basically be the superstar CEO
Within the last six months he discovered he is not good at being the CEO but he is a fantastic founder who is really good at coming up with ideas, identifying opportunities in the market, getting something from nothing to something.
He is good at delivering and launching stuff, getting it to market, getting the early customers and everything else but he is bad at the things after that such as running the team and doing the day to day sort of CEO stuff.
It might not be as simplistic as saying you are a founder or a CEO, it might be that you are particularly good at the financial side and bad at the marketing or something a bit more nuanced like that.
[6.25] – How do we first of all identify those strengths and our weaknesses and how do we learn to let go of things that we are not good at?
It takes time. It involves learning about yourself over a significant period of time recognizing that a certain amount of time is needed for you to observe yourself, to challenge yourself and check what you do as an individual in your business whether there are strengths or weaknesses there.
His weakness is being that sort of CEO, it doesn’t mean that you therefore have to give up something or that you have to say goodbye or not think of something as your baby, you just have to recognize that there is someone more skilled in taking it to the next stage.
You need to be tough on yourself and understand what you are good at and what you are not good at, you can’t be good at everything.
[8.39] – I clarified that being a manager and CEO are two different roles. The E-myth Revisited is a good book that founders need to read, he says there are three main hats that any company owner is wearing and that is being the leader/CEO, then being the manager and then being the door. At the beginning if you are just one person then you need to wear all three hats.
[11.13] – It took you like 13 years to really come to this conclusion. If you are not at that stage yet how do you identify where you are good at, where you are bad and just be honest with yourself.
Time is an interesting thing I don’t regret having spent those 13 years doing what I did because it gets me to where I am today and that learning is valuable.
He won’t be unable to know or apply to the degree what he is doing now if he had learnt about it in the first few years.
[12.50] – Did you have anyone helping you along the way? Did you have a coach or someone who helped you come to such conclusions or it was you?
People often talk about situations that give energy rather than take away energy. And the second he feels as if he is in a job or that he is tied to a desk or that he has a daily responsibility to turn up to and do X, Y, Z that is imposed upon him rather than when he decides to do it then it saps his energy and he is not at his best.
[14.00] – What type of founders are there?
He was reading a book called the Founders Dilemma and he only got as far as the first chapter because it posed certain distinctions such as are you this type or this type which really stumped him.
He only got as far as the first distinction which went along the line of what type of founder are you? Are you someone who wants to be keen or do you want to be rich?
The distinction being do you care about the piece of the pie as in the amount of the pie that you own and being in control of it and having the majority shares or is that irrelevant in the grand scheme of things because you just chasing the money and you don’t care if it is a 5% stake because you are betting on the future.
He often thought that he was the he was about the riches where it was about being richer in life and finding financial freedom but he discovered that he wasn’t the case. He would actually sacrifice lots of money to remain in charge of his destiny.
That doesn’t mean he has to have 90% of the company but he definitely realized that he needs to own the process.
[16.47] – So you are currently involved in four companies?
Yes he is involved in four active companies.
[16.52] – As if one is not enough?
It is not and four is not enough. He is already planning the next one. That doesn’t mean it is the right route for you but he believes it is the right route for him.
Heysummitis one of the youngest, it is 10 months old and they have got a team of 12. Rob is the CEO of the company and he removed himself from the day to day activities because there are far more capable people now doing a much better job at taking it forwards into its next chapter and that kind of structural thinking allows him to be a bit more laissez-faire with the other companies.
[18.14] – You decided that you are not really good at continually pointing the ship in the right direction so you had a co-founder or hired someone to oversee the operations.
He likes to come up with an idea and bring it to an initial point of market. If you take Heysummit as an example he established the idea, built out the first version of the platform, did all the marketing and the promotion, got all the customers and got it out to market and when it started to take off he realized that is not actually what he is here to do. He is not here to take it beyond this point.
[20.08] – How are you able to continue with your products and help it get it to the level of it getting some sales?
The more he does this the more abstracted he is from the companies earlier on. Launching the companies three years ago he was more involved for a lot longer day to day bringing it to that sort of inflection point but as the structure is being built in a slightly more sophisticated way if you will it allows him not to be involved in it much earlier on.
This is powerful because it allows him to observe the business from a different vantage point and make slightly more nuanced decisions about what is needed.
[21.45] – At what point do you start looking for someone to hire and hep you with a company?
These has two answers because there is the individual company and bringing in a CEO or a team or whomever to run it.
The other answer is building an internal team that helps him to be better at that earliest stage, this is more future planning for how he will be able to continue doing what he does but with more impact over time, you want to become more efficient and more effective with the companies that you can spin out and how you do that and how quickly you can do it.
There is no exact time you realize when it is time to bring in someone to take the reins of an individual company however it should be at least when there is a small amount of traction from a revenue standpoint.
You are bringing the person by definition because they are very good at growing it beyond the point of early traction so if you bring them early you will become distracted.
With Onboard Flow it is just him at the moment, if you hop on support he will be the one that replies. If you see an email newsletter going out on Friday, he is the one that sends it, he does the bug fixes and design. It is not at a stage where it makes sense to bring someone to take over the reins.
He needs to work out what the main levers are in the business, what is working, what is not, where the real value add is as well as working on the proper direction and vision for the company to a certain extent before investing in someone else to run it.
[24.44] – Can you take someone from another team to help you send out those emails?
You can do that but he prefers to setup each company completely independent of another, they are separate teams with separate legal status.
He decided that each company needs its own team focused on that company and to share them would be the wrong thing to do. However he has built an internal team of people that are experts at the early stage stuff.
[28.52] – What you are saying is you are hiring this people but not in the early stage where you have not done the job first. You do the job first, you identify the problems, you fix all possible problems that come up and then you are easy sailing from then on. You can hire someone and let them proceed with the job?
Whatever stage you are in life or in business there is always an element of managing risk. There is no greater burden than HR employees, employee expenses and bringing people in.
He realizes that if he brings a team in too early that could really damage you financially and slow you down as well as preventing the business from actually getting to where it needs to get to.
He looks for indicators that shows the company is in the right direction and getting to the that stage that gives him the stage to bring him a team and that has been working for him.
[30.17] – I want to share this thought with the listeners because you said hiring a team too early can damage the team. In my experience I find out that majority of founders are their own bottlenecks because they think they can do it themselves and they cannot so they continually struggle for years.
Doing all these jobs yourself take away this opportunity for you to take a whole two, three, five days to think about what you want to do with your company and the direction you want to take?
I usually recommend that founders should take at least a day off and think about their long-term goals and strategies, they often come back with so many thoughts and ideas that they would not be able to come up with being head down and working all the time.
Ben says that he makes the distinction between understanding the type of founder that you are and the stage of business that you are most effective at. His strengths are in the early stage and getting to the early traction.
At that stage in the company it allows him to go head down in terms of being fully focused doing the support, emails, marketing, webinars but knowing it is a short-lived experience, he doesn’t do this for 3 years and then realize he doesn’t have a business anymore.
He says that if you are not careful you might just resort to being busy and by the end of it you have not created a growing or sustainable business.
He usually timebox that period because the way he throws himself in the early stages is not sustainable but because it is a timeboxed affair he creates the sort of rhythm where he works obsessively but then he has a month where he will hire someone to then run that company and then another few weeks he thinks of the next thing so there is an on and off natural rhythm which is a by product of the way he has structured things.
He is not saying this is the way you should do it but it works for him right now because I has that sort of stop and start sort of approach.
[33.53] – Is there anything else you want to share with founders that listeners can find useful?
He reads and absorb knowledge to an extent however the majority of what you should be reading is not reading and absorbing content.
You should be doing the stuff in whatever way whatever that means for you and your business, your setup, your skill, your role whatever it might be. The more you are living it, doing it, the greater you will have an appreciation for the knowledge you have read prior.
[35.17] – What was the most impactful book you have read?
He loves books that inspire and ground him, the things that gives him ideas and food for thought.
He loves business biographies, he believes they are really powerful because you are reading about someone else that lives that thing. They aren’t literally telling you to how to do something, it is down to you as the reader to interpret the impact and the meaning behind it as well as whether you care about the meaning and the lessons learned. He loves Carnegie by Peter Krass.
[36.17] – I see some founders are looking for those books that are like short versions of the books. When you are reading those shortened versions I don’t think they give you the inspiration and the ideas.
He listens a lot to David Cancel who talks about idea sex which is the idea that when you are consuming content in whatever form whether it is reading biographies or interacting with people, the knowledge is just going in and it is subconscious in many ways but it is later on that these sort of various different sources of content and ideas meld together and have idea sex. That is where all this bright ideas come from because you have allowed yourself take content and ideas in different forms.
Ben on Twitter
Missinglettr – More traffic, less effort
HeySummit – Online summits, made simple
Onboard Flow – Make sense of your trial so that you can convert more of them
David Cancel on Twitter
Books mentioned on this epsiode
Smartcuts by Shane Snow
The E-myth Revisited by Michael E. GerberThe Founders Dilemmas by Noah Wasserman
Carnegie by Peter Krass