Nov. 10, 2022

Why Growing Your SaaS Is Like Growing Your Child with Ben Dowling of IPinfo

Why Growing Your SaaS Is Like Growing Your Child with Ben Dowling of IPinfo

In this episode of SaaS Origin Stories, Ben Dowling, Founder and CEO of IPinfo, joins Phil Alves to discuss the story behind IPinfo, how IP data can help your business, and why you should take your time to build an enduring company that you love.

What makes great SaaS companies thrive? Every business has its own story.  But there’s one thing they all share, and that is a passionate founder who wants to solve a problem or cover a need. That is the case for Ben Dowling of IPinfo, who shares his company journey with the audience.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How can IP data help your business?
  • Building a business where you love to work 
  • Bootstrapping versus funding
  • An effective hiring strategy
  • How to approach sales in SaaS

How Can IP Data Help You?

IP data has plenty of uses, from website personalization to customizing website language, and currency and in cybersecurity, attacks on your network. Effectively, IP data also helps you gather more information and make more cost-effective decisions, deliver a better customer experience, and improve business advertising.

We focus as a company on making sure our data's great and then leaving how customers want to use it to them. And there are a bunch of different use cases that it's useful for - Ben Dowling

Take Your Time

So many entrepreneurs try to move too quickly when building their businesses. Instead, try growing your company little by little, to the point where it makes enough money to support you. That allows you to create an enduring business where you love to work and don't need to rely on investors and instead can keep bootstrapping that company.

I wanted to create something that I wanted to work on, a company where I wanted to work, the environment that I wanted to work in, and I was in no rush to see how big we can make it in a couple of years - Ben Dowling

Bootstrapping Versus Funding

Raising money gives you a bunch of resources you can use. Funding can also be critical in some industries where you have well-funded competitors. However, bootstrapping allows you to grow your business slowly, experiment with different opportunities, and explore the problem you’re trying to solve.

The nice thing with going at the pace that we're going at, which is quick for a bootstrap business, is that you get to identify opportunities as you go along. You incrementally build out what you're working on, and you have more time to explore the problem - Ben Dowling

For more interviews from the SaaS Origin Stories podcast, check us out on Apple, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player!


Ben Dowling: I think I was on my lunch break at Calm, and so I'm like, fine, let me jump on the call for 10 minutes, find out what this guy really wants. He wanted to download some of our data that we put together around [unintelligible 00:00:10] names and we were showing up a showing on the website, and he said, I see that your data there is really good. Can we just buy this as a download? I thought it seems to be a huge pain. We haven't set up anything for this. I'll give him my get-lost pricing. I was like, "Fine, that'd be $1,000 a month. He's like, "Great tell me where I send the money." [music] Presenter: Welcome to SaaS Origin Stories. Tune in to hear authentic conversations with founders as they share stories from the earlier days of their SaaS startups. We'll cover painful challenges, early wins, and actionable takeaways. You'll hear firsthand the dos and don'ts of building and growing a SaaS, as well as inspirational stories to fuel you on your own SaaS journey. Here is your host Phil Alves. Phil Alves: What's up, guys? I'm excited to chat today with Ben Dowling from IPinfo. We're going to go deeper into the company story and how they become who they are today. Welcome to the show, Ben. Ben: Thanks. So great to be here. Excited to chat with you about IPinfo today. Phil: Ben, the first question I like to ask founders it's, what problem does your company solve? Ben: What we're focused on today, IPinfo is just creating tons of great contextual data around IP addresses. That includes data like geolocation. Given an IP address, where in the world is it? Is it an IP address in Seattle, in London, or wherever it might be? Then, increasingly, you're seeing the importance in additional contextual data beyond just location. Is this IP address a VPN? Is it a mobile carrier? What we focus on IPinfo is creating really great high-quality data about IP addresses and then make it easy for customers to get access to that data. Whether it's through our API that handles 100 billion HR requests a month, whether it's a data download or through partners and other services. Our data's now available in the Snowflake Data marketplace. Phil: Walk me through the use cases. I understand I'm getting out this data from the IP, someone visiting our web application or mobile application. What do I do with that information? How companies are usually using that information? Ben: Sure. Tons of different use cases. We focus, as a company, on making sure data's great and then leaving how customers want to use it to them and there's a bunch of different use cases that it's useful for. Some common ones are things like website personalization. Often people will embed call through API on their website. A visitor goes to their website, types in the address, the page loads in the user's browser. It makes a call to our API and responds with information about the user IP back to the webpage. It'll say this is a visitor from Seattle. This is their ISP and a few other details. Then the website content could be personalized based on that. It could say good afternoon in Seattle or good night in London based on the location. Could customize other things like the language or the currency of an offer or may even personalize it in terms of not making any user-visible changes, but maybe switching out a link from to depending on the user's country. The common one is website personalization. That's probably the common us case when people use our API, certainly in the browser, they'll update the content website and lots and lots of other use cases including cyber security use cases. You have someone seeing an attack on their network. They may want to say, "What's going on here? I want to find out more about this IP address that this maybe put the wrong password in 10 times. Is this an IP address that's in the location that we've seen employees log before? Maybe it's someone that's forgetful or you have someone's kids grab their laptop or whatever and is hitting the keyboard or is this coming from a foreign country where we know we have no employees and so we want to do something different with this? Content enforcement, obviously, services like Netflix and things, they'll have different content in different countries and lots of people will use VPNs to bypass that. Be able to flag is this an IP address in the US? We'll tell you if it's in the US or somewhere else. Then we give you a VPN detection dataset that says, "Is it really?" Is this actually a user that's in the US or is this a US IP that happens to be on a VPN? Content enforcement and restriction is a big one. Then things like fraud and I guess risk as a broad category. That could be payment fraud. It could be spam and abuse stuff on website forums and all sorts of different cases where there's an IP address that someone has, but they need broader context around it to be able to make a better decision or provide a better experience. Tons of really interesting different use cases. We know about new ones all the time. We had a customer we've spoken to recently that runs a CDN and they wanted to use our data to improve the efficiency and the speed response of our CDN. [unintelligible 00:04:40] new exciting use cases and interesting things people do with our data. Phil: Nice. Actually, before in my past life I was a software developer and I built something for e-commerce. It was a fraud detector. The way that work was, we got an order that was too big. We checked the IP. If the IP was weird, IP was from a VPN, it could be a fraud. Then I would send an email and ask to double-check that the credit card was real. I would just charge $0.02 off the credit card and make sure that the person was actually a real person. We would use the IP information to like, was the first thing that we used to flag as a risk account and it start from there. That's a pretty amazing product. How big are your guys today? I saw a lot of big logos on your site. Ben: We've got lots of big customers and growing customer base. In terms of our company, we're about 30 people now. We're completely remote and distributed team all over the world, have been since day one. I think just reached about 30 people working for IPinfo now. Phil: Nice. Could you mention some of your big customers that I saw in your site where people listen to the show? Ben: We've got lots and lots of big customers. We've got customers all the way from traditional big customers. We've got I think John Deere that is like you the world's biggest farm equipment manufacturer which is a fun one. We've got different automotive companies. We've got Daimler. We've got Scania. Lots of big old traditional companies. Lots of interesting technology companies. Lots of companies that make products. Datadog our customer. Tons of banks, financial service industries. A whole huge set of customers in all sorts of different industries, textiles, all sorts of interesting stuff. I think we're at a point now where if there's an industry, we've probably got some of the companies in that industry working with us, which is a really exciting place to be. Phil: That's super exciting. Now, let's talk a little bit about the origin story. We understand the business where you guys are today and how you guys are. What you were doing before you started this business? Starting with yourself, what were you before you start this? Ben: My background is software engineer, went to university, did computer science, got a job as a developer, and always wanted to hone my craft and be a better engineer, read books about best practices. One of the best ways I found to learn was just to work on side projects. Initially, that just started as a way to improve my engineering skills and just have fun building stuff. Then you have the time doing more and more side projects and wanted then to be successful. I had a couple of jobs as a software engineer and then went and start working with some startups learning about the world of startups and then had dreams of creating my own startup. You're hoping that one of my side projects would eventually become a business, launched lots of side projects with all sorts of different levels of success. Some zero success, some got some traction, some users, but no revenue, some got a little bit of revenue, some a little bit more, but none that really took off. Then IPinfo was one, strangely, that I really didn't have any ambitions for. A lot of my projects are like this is going to be the one, then nothing would happen with it. With IPinfo, that started because I had a handful of side projects on the go and needed geolocation data for them. The freely available geolocation data sets online that you can download and you'd have to set it up on a server. Maybe it been within six months, whatever, I had to set it up on a new server and it was a pain. I thought's going to be a better way to do this so we can wrap this up into an API, put it on one server and it'll make my life easier and may make other people's lives easier. Did that and it started to get a lot of traction. Lot of people started using it, and then it pulled me towards it, and ended up spending more time on it, it ended up going into a business and something that I focused on full-time. My background is an engineer, gravitated towards doing side projects and building things, and then eventually was building IPinfo and that happened to build up enough traction and demand that's where I ended up focusing on and now spending all my time on. Phil: That's awesome. Basically, you build a product for your own H. As you're building these other products, you're like, "I need this IP data," and you just didn't found anything that was maybe seamless, how you want, and you felt like if I wrap the information to API and I can use in my other products, that was the original idea. Ben: Actually, there were two different things that converged. That was the thinking of turning this into a product and stuff. The other thing that happened, the other thing that triggered this was I was staying in a hotel and I got an ad. I think I was actually staying in Seattle. I wasn't living in Seattle at the time, but I was staying in a hotel in Seattle and I saw an ad on my laptop that was for something in Texas. I thought that's really odd. Why am I seeing an ad for something in Texas? Is this bad ad targeting? What's going on here? The first thing is maybe I'm actually am on a Texas IP. What's going on here? Is the hotel wifi actually going back through Texas or is the hotel a Texas company? I was just really curious about it. I spent about an hour just Googling, show my IP address on a map. I think an hour later, I almost gave up because I hadn't found anything. I'd been working on these side projects. I had three or four that had this data on these different servers. I was like, instead of finding this website that I still can't find after an hour, I can just actually go and connect to one of these servers, look up the data in the database and find out what's going on. Even that was a pain. I was like, I know the data's there but it was a pain. That's when those two things converged. There's got to be a way where I can just quickly go and put my IP address somewhere, see it on a map, it would save me all these headaches without having to connect to these servers. That very night, I registered the domain and built the very first basic version of the website that was just it showed you your IP address and showed you on a map. It turned out the map showed me in Seattle. I was like, that's just bad ad targeting but at least now I know where I can go to check this in the future. It grew out of that. That was the very first version. Then it was actually now I can make this website have an API so that then I haven't got to go set this up in the future. Then I posted about it to Stack Overflow. I thought, there's probably other people that have been through this pain point of had to set this up and look this up. Why don't I just say, heads up, this saved me an hour. Let me save you an hour as well. Just call my API, it's free. It's just on my server. Come play with it. It might be useful for you. A couple of weeks later, it's getting a lot of traction. A lot of people were using it. I think I got an email from my cheap $5-a-month server provider saying, "You've hit your limits." I can't remember if it's traffic or CPU limits. I thought it was probably a bug in the code or something's gone wrong. I check the server logs and there are millions of requests coming through. I thought, wow, this has got some traction. Let me go upgrade the server. It continued to grow and I noticed that there were some people calling it millions of times a day. I thought it'd just be people like me that oh, I'll call it 100 times a day for my blog or something. There could be some other developers that would save some time. I was noticing that there were some people calling it millions of times a day. I thought, well, they've got a pretty big need for using this. They're certainly using it at high volumes. I've upgraded the server but is there more demand for this? I was talking to my wife. My wife likes to get full credit for the fact that she suggested the paid plans. I'm like, "Wow, this is taking off." She's like, "Just have some paid plans." I was like, "I don't know if anybody's going to pay for it." She's like, "Just try it." I launched some paid plans. I didn't know what to charge for it because it'd been this free service and I had no idea how much people would want to use it. I just created all the paid plans. I was like, maybe for $10 a month, you get some more requests. Go for $50 a month, you get even more. For $100 a month you get more. There was no enforcement. Even at this point, you could carry using it for free forever. I hadn't bothered to go build out any rate limits or anything. I just thought, put some paid plans on and see what can I build in an afternoon and see if it gets any traction. Had no high hopes for it. I just, check it out and see what happens on the great suggestion of my wife. Then I think within a week, I started getting people signing up and paying. That was like, this is interesting. Even though, at this point, it's not enforced. They don't even really have to pay. Even though beyond posting about it on Stack Overflow and a few developer forums, haven't really done any marketing or anything. The website is very bare-bones. There was clearly something there that pretty quickly it was getting some paid plans. Then I think [unintelligible 00:13:30] $100 plan, let's go with a $200 plan. That's the most anybody would pay you but surely no one will pay for it. I think within a week of putting that there, we got Tesla motors, before it was, it was, they signed up for the $200-a-month plan. I remember coming through and thinking, wow, this isn't just a small developer hobbyist thing. There's actually this need. The pain point of having to download data and keep it updated and provision a server for this isn't just a pain point that I've felt, this exists in large corporations where they've got to go to the IT department and say, "Can you provision as a server?" They've got to go and figure all this stuff out. It's just so much easier for them to say, "We'll put this on a company credit card and not have to worry about it." We had eBay signed up pretty quickly and some other companies. That's when it's like, this is worth spending some more time on. This is an interesting problem space and there's some growing demand for it. Phil: Walk me through the timeline. It's pretty amazing. You built something, it looks like you're just like, "Oh, I built something cool. I'm going to share with other developers." You didn't think that would be a business. From the time that you post that up to the time I start to get some traction, to the time that you also now start charging, how long did that whole thing take? Ben: I would say that was a matter of months. Phil: A matter of months? Ben: Yes. Phil: At that point, you didn't thought that was a business. It was just you, a developer, trying to share for the developers what you build, or did you think that could be a business at any point? Ben: I think, I, at this point, thought that the first launch [unintelligible 00:15:05] APIs, it's like, this will save some developers some time and fun. Then probably within weeks, it was getting traction so I thought I should add some paid plans. Maybe that was a month or two months. Then within weeks of launching the paid plans, people were subscribing and I added some more paid plans at higher prices and people subscribed. At that point, it was pretty clear to me that I underestimated this. This is exciting. Still, at that point, I had no idea of the scale. I thought great, I've got a few customers that have signed up and are paying. It's covering the cost of servers and it's worth a bit more of my time to keep spending time on it. I thought this is just an early wave of the first 10 customers or whatever, it won't necessarily keep going. This is just something I've knocked up in a weekend. This is not a serious business or whatever. It happens very organically the realization that there's this real need and a real defensible business here. It continued to evolve over time. First, it was we've got these customers paying but what's happening? Then a few different things were happening. One was understanding the value in the data. Initially, we were just downloading this free data that you could get online and making it easy to consume the data that existed. The value that we were creating was making that easier to consume in a very developer-friendly way and well-designed and making it really reliable. We make sure the API never went down, you could trust it, rely on it, and remove the operational headaches. Pretty soon after we started getting feedback, people were saying, I love your API. It's great but your data sucks. I would say, that's not our problem. We just download the data. Go complain to whoever makes the data. We just make sure it's a nice API. The other thing was people would say, I love that you give me a location but I want to know more. I want to know is this is this a VPN or not? Is this a household or not? Is this a university or not? Then I started looking into that sounds like a fun problem. Can we even figure that out? What can we do there and to spend more and more time into looking into. Why is the location wrong here? This customer's telling us that they know they're in Miami but we're showing them that they're in New York. How's this state even put together? Could we identify Miami and not New York? I started doing a lot of work around let's actually create our own data. Let's make sure that we got great-quality data. Let's start creating new data sets that aren't just you, is this Miami or New York? Is this a VPN or is this a mobile carrier? The another piece of data that our customers wanted to go solve their use cases, whether that be fraud or cyber security, or website personalization, the things that would be useful for them. Then started really building up a lot of expertise and quality in the data itself. Phil: As you're building that up, this is still a side project or you already left your job? For how long did it stay a side project? Ben: It stayed a side project for probably about a couple of years. It was the decision to go and shift it full time was at the point that it was already past making my salary. At this point, I think had three young kids. I had a great job in Silicon Valley. This was a side project, it was a great side project. It wasn't clear it was worth leaving my job for and everything early on. After two and a half years, it got a lot of traction. By that point, it felt like it wasn't going to slow down. It was in the early days it's like, cool, it's got customers, but is it really a big opportunity? It might slow down. After two and a half years. It was pretty clear to me, at that point, that it was picking up pace rather than slowing down. The end part of that was commuting up from Mountain View to San Francisco on the Caltrain every day. It's an hour on the train there, an hour on the train back. In the early days, I'd be doing some IPinfo work in the mornings on the train, getting to work, doing work, and then on the train home, probably do a bit of my day job work and that work in the mornings would be a bit of programming. Then, over time, in the morning I'd be answering customer support emails or sales inquiries. Then I'd get to work, do my workday job, and then I'd get the train back and do a bit of programming or whatever. Over time, by the end, on the Caltrain in the mornings that took an hour, I hadn't even gotten through all the customer emails. Then I'd be at work and then I'd be still be answering those emails on the way back. It clearly got to a crunch point where it's like, this is demanding too much of my time now. At least clear that I'm hurting IPinfo by not giving it more attention. I can either do that or not. I thought it seems to be that it's got enough potential at this point. There's a lot of momentum still building. There's clearly an opportunity to create a bigger business around it. At that point, I was like, cool, I'll go do this full-time and focus on it. Phil: Walk me through making that decision. I think you were the CTO of Calm on this time, right? Ben: Yes. Phil: I'm sure you had equity, that's a company that's growing. You have your side project, you have wife, you have kids. Walk me through make that decision to leave such a good job to go make your own thing. Also, you being a tech guy, now you're going to go become a CEO. The last thing you're going to do is write code. [laughs] Walk me through making that decision. Ben: It was an easy decision by the point I'd made it after a couple of years. Obviously, a bunch of things aligned and there was definitely a bunch of thought that had gone into it. I think a few of the things were, I'd always dreamed of running my business. I'd done all these side projects and that was the ultimate goal. To have to control my own destiny, to create my own thing. There's a lot of motivation around wanting to do that. I had this opportunity to be able to go and do that. It was very exciting. There was the trade-off. I was the CTO of Calm at the time. It was growing and just starting to be very successful and get a bunch of awareness. In my two years at Calm, we'd gone from a point where I joined where it was a fantastic idea and it started to get some good traction but it had a very buggy app and there were all sorts of issues with it. There was a tiny engineering team. At the point I was leaving, we had a really solid app, really great engineering team. I felt that like I delivered a lot of the value I could deliver. I felt I was leaving Calm in a really great place. For the hard work that needed to be done, I had done that. Sure there was tons of work ahead, but the turning around the engineering team and getting the app to a really good place has been done. The timing felt good from that perspective that I would be leaving them in a really good place. Then the timing felt good from the IPinfo perspective of like this is pulling me towards it more and more and more. I think that the timing was right on both sides of like I'm leaving Calm in a good place. IPinfo really needs me now. The other piece was, at that point, it still wasn't clear how large the opportunity was at IPinfo. Like I said, today we're 30 people. At that point, I knew that IPinfo could support me and my family and I could run it as a single person business and probably hire a few people and it could be a nice project. It wasn't clear if we could support a 30 person team or a 100 person team or however big we're going to get. It was clear that it's something I wanted to find out. That I had this opportunity to create my own thing, focus on it. It was a problem space that I really love working in. What else can we find out about IP addresses? All these diverse different use cases that people use us for. There's a real opportunity and a need to create great data around this. We kept getting this feedback, the existing data sucks. It would be so much better if we had good data, going and creating great data seems like a fun problem to solve, an interesting problem to solve, and a valuable problem to solve. One that I could get started as a one-person company and could make some progress on there. Seeing where that would get to seemed like a really fun problem and something I wanted to dedicate some time to. I think all those things aligned. I didn't jump into it. Definitely, it wasn't more like this is great, I can go do it. I really de-risked it by that point in terms of like, can this be viable? Am I going to enjoy it? Am I leaving Calm in a good place? The other thing as well was around fundraising. One thing, IPinfo is bootstrapped, had been profitable from the start, always maintain profitability. That was important to me because what I'd seen, Calm was, obviously, ventured-backed. I'd worked at other venture-backed startups and have nothing against venture-backed businesses. I think it can be a fantastic tool. One thing I wanted to do was if I'm going to leave the world of startups and go work on IPinfo, my own one, I wanted that to be what I wanted to focus on. I wanted to create something that I wanted to work on a company where I wanted to work the environment that I wanted to work in and was in no rush to let's see how big we can make it in a couple of years and then maybe we sell it or maybe whatever. It's like this seems like a really great area to work in, a really great problem to go solve, a really great business that we can create. I'm happy to do that for 10, 20 years, whatever it may be. I don't want to be in a position where we go raise a bunch of money and there's always pressure put on us and we got to figure stuff out and in five years' time we have to sell it or maybe we have to go get different jobs or whatever. I want to create a space to say, let's discover what the opportunity is, how we want to go about it, and take our time. That's what we've been doing and it's worked out well for us. I think it doesn't work well in every industry. Some of it there's a ton of competition, these different things. That was a really important thing as well. For me, it was let's just [unintelligible 00:25:15] this and take our time. We don't have to be in a rush. Let's create something that's really long-term and enduring and create really quality data that solves a really important need. We don't have to be in a huge rush about it. Phil: Yes. I love the process because, basically, you build a company on the side to the point that could support you. When it wasn't making enough money, it's okay, you had a job, and then once was making enough money to support you, now you can do without investors. You can keep bootstrapping that company. I think that's maybe a path that people could take more. Sometimes we are trying to move too quick and that doesn't help us, especially like, looks like you're trying to create also an environment where you love to work. Even if never become the company that become today, you just want to come. Even if it's a one-person company and do what you love. That was like the business was optimized for you, not for investors from the beginning, right? Ben: Yes, totally. Ben: Did you ever raise money or you're bootstrapping till today? Ben: Still bootstrapped, yes. We've had a lot of interest from investors over the years. We probably, at this point, a very investable business. You know what I mean? In those early days when it was just me, maybe not. It wasn't clear the scale we could get to. Not saying we would never raise investment but we've really got no need now. We're at the scale where we've got a great team. We're growing at a really nice pace, we've got lots of great customers. We're in control of our own destiny. We can take these long-term bets, think long-term. No need to raise investment or give away control of the business or have to worry about hitting certain milestones or whatever. Really make sure we've got that environment that everybody at the company likes and we're focused on building that long-term success instead of focusing on some short-term goals. Phil: Of course, you already touched a little bit on that, but I would like to make a little bit of a comparison because you came from like the VC-funded startups, now you are bootstrapping your company. What do you think are the main differences and what's the main reasons that you want to stay with bootstrap for now? What are the big plus for you? Ben: I think, obviously, a big advantage with raising money is you get to compress time. I've been working on IPinfo I think maybe it's, must be eight years now, maybe nine years. Now, I can connect the dots backwards. Now, I'm aware of the opportunity where we are and I can say, maybe eight or nine years ago I should just gone and raised some money and we could have compressed it down to two or three years, which may have been true, I think. For me, I certainly wasn't aware of the full opportunity. We could easily have compressed time and we'd have gone in completely the wrong direction and blown everything up after two years. I think that, obviously, raising capital gives you a bunch of resources and you can go higher faster and you accelerate timelines, which can be, obviously, helps us with things. It can be critical, I think, in some industries. If you've got a bunch of well-funded competitors as well, it can be very hard to compete if you haven't got any funding. If you are in certain environments where there are network effects or whatever where speed is really of the essence. Obviously, having more resources helps you hit your goals faster. I do think, certainly for IPinfo, I talked about how we started as an API that was free. Then we added paid plans. Then we started investing in our data and making our data really great. A huge part of our business today is licensing our data to different platforms and services and data downloads and things, which that's a new part of our business played in the past two or three years. I think the nice thing with going at the pace that we're going at, which is we're growing, I guess, quickly for a bootstrap business, but we haven't had this injection of capital to accelerate things faster is that you get to identify these opportunities as you go along. You get incrementally build out what you're working on. I think, it gives you more time for exploration of the problem space and allows you not to need a well-defined plan upfront and say, here's the opportunity we're going after and we're going to go get it. I think if you've got that, here's what we're going after and we're going to go get it and we just need money to go do it, that's great. That's what you should do. I think that's certainly not been the journey that IPinfo's been on. It's been like, we know there's value in creating this data. We know that we can do a really good job of solving these problems and we're going to go figure out the rest as we go along. We believe there's an opportunity there. We'll go figure out how big that is and all those things. I think, for me, personally, it's a really fun way to go about it. I think they're probably space for lots and lots of businesses like that. The VC path is a great path as well for people that are like, I've got this vision, I want to find out if it's going to work in the next three years or not. I want to either it be a big success or go try a different business. That's a completely sensible way to do that if that's how you want to operate. For me, I didn't want to say, let's go see if IPinfo could be big, and in three years' time, if it's not, I want to go do something else. I'm like, I really love this idea. I love building this business and I want to keep doing it. I don't want to be doing something different in three years. I want to do this and figure out how to make it work. I want time to do that and want time to learn more about our customers' problems and how we can help them more and how we can improve our data and how we can continue to expand the business in that sustainable way. That means you're going to be around long term and create something really, really valuable. Phil: For sure. I love your insight about speed because it's like when you're going fast, you could crash because you're making decisions, and if you make the wrong decision, you crash and it's over. When you're going slower, you have time to course-correct, even if you make a wrong decision. That leads to my next question. Now, you've become a one-person business, and then you go and start doing hires. Who was your first hire and how was that process of getting to the first hire after you went full-time on IPinfo? Ben: That also happened pretty organically. This is, I guess, a theme in IPinfo, how we've operated is done things very organically. In terms of spending more and more time on it, and then evolving the product, evolving the customers, the same is true of hiring. There was never this moment where it's like, now I got to go build a team. It was once I started working at it full-time for the whole first year after, I think it was mostly it was just me working at it full-time, but there were obvious places where I could get help on things. I just started hiring contractors for very specific things. First was we need a logo. I think I set up on 99designs. I'll go pay someone to make a logo. Then it was like, my front-end skills suck. We've got some basic bootstrap website that has an example of the API I had put on there. That should be better. It's like let's go on Upwork and find a contractor that we can hire for 10 hours to make our website a little bit prettier and improve the front-end stuff. Then it was I've got this database query that's really slow. Let me go find an expert that can tune up our database queries. That was initially how it grew from being me doing everything to me having some help was just very specific project-based things or logo database query, just finding contractors to chip away at these little things. Then over time, some of those were great, and it's like, oh, let me give you another project. Then over time, some of those evolved into part-time roles and then some of those to full-time. I think the bigger thresholds were go and hire my first full-time sales guy was a big one. Where it's okay I don't know if we got this sales stuff that's working, it's taking a bunch of my time. I actually want to go make the product better at this point. Can I just go get someone help with sales? That was more difficult because then I'm completely out of my comfort zone in terms of like have most of it to consumer startups and tech companies not interacting with a ton of sales guys or work with great sales guys or even know how to evaluate a great sales guy. I know I need one. I'm spending more and more my time on sales calls and it's like, there's enough time here that I could hire a full-time person. Then that's a whole process of where do I even go find sales guys? Where do I go? How do I evaluate them? What should they look like? Some hard work around that, around you learning all that different stuff. I think the team grew very organically from there's clearly a need here. It's taking up too much of my time to do sales. Let's go find a sales guy. There's the website looks rubbish. Let's go hire someone to make it look better. Here's a project with our data. Let's go hire someone to do that. A lot of those people that started the projects just did the projects, but they moved it forward and it's like maybe there's a need to go and hire a contractor to work part-time on this now, or maybe there's a need for a full-time contractor. Then some of the great full-time contractors we work with, I said, Why don't you just come work for us now? It's enough work. You enjoy doing it. You're great at it. It's evolved pretty organically like that. Obviously, we're at a point where it's like, now we've got 15 contractors. Let's go hire a couple of full-time people to take on some of that work. Then before we know it, we're 30 people all around the world. Phil: That's great. That's a great strategy. Contract to hire when do you need, not because you have to hit a number of how many people you're supposed to have in your business. You touch on sales and before you talk about how it was super organic, you post in the forum but how did it develop? Like your customer acquisition strategy until now you're having sales calls, people are not signing up anymore. How did that work? Because that's another thing the founders is, especially if they're technical like you are, like I am. I can build products all day long, but how we sell this? [chuckles] Walk us through. How did you get your customer acquisition? Ben: I love that about the hard way. Initially, when I added these paid plans, I just used the Stripe API and everything. It's all self-serve. I'm doing this as a side project. I want to jump on sales calls. It's like get your credit cut out, put in the website, you know email if you've got a problem. I had a really persistent customer. At this point, they emailed me a few times and they wanted to buy some data. They emailed me and said, "Can we jump on the phone?" I said, "No, go put your credit card on the website. You can do anything you want there." "I really wanted to jump on the phone. I've got to ask you a few questions." I think it's continued for a couple of weeks. Like, "No, we don't do phone calls. This is a side project, I'm busy at work," but they're really persistent. Eventually, I'm like, fine, they'll go away if I jump on a call and I think I was on my lunch break at Calm, and so I'm like, fine, let me jump on the call for 10 minutes, find out what this guy really wants. He wanted to download some of our data that we put together around [unintelligible 00:36:15] names and we were showing up a showing on the website, and he said, I see that your data there is really good. Can we just buy this as a download? I thought it seems to be a huge pain. We haven't set up anything for this. I'll give him my get-lost pricing. I was like, "Fine, that'd be $1,000 a month. He's like, "Great tell me where I send the money." All of a sudden I was like, "Oh, wow." Honestly, I should have asked for more because they didn't even blink. Maybe it's worth me jumping on a few more of these phone calls. Actually, my impression, and spoke to lots of other engineer founders, where the whole impression of enterprise sales and jumping on phone calls is that you're going to have these very demanding customers that want to ask you a bunch of questions, do these things, which is true, but then they just want to pay the self-serve pricing, which isn't true. They're very happy to pay more because you're solving normally real business problems for them. It's very valuable to them. I learned that on that call but it's not worth me spending a bunch of my lunch break chatting to someone that can just pay the $50 on the website, but generally, the people that want to call are trying to do something a bit custom, something a bit different. They're generally highly paid professionals in large enterprises that have got a problem that they're that is difficult to solve, which is why they're even asking you to jump on a call on your lunch break to solve it. That is normally really valuable to them. When you throw out $1,000, they're like, I'd pay 10X for that without blinking because this is going to go help our business save thousands of dollars a month or even millions of dollars a year. That was a big wake-up call for me was like, wow, I've been really reluctant to take these calls. This guy was super eager to pay $1,000 a month. I thought he was going to say, that's crazy. It's only $50 on your website. He was like, tell me where to send the money, happy to do it. From that point, I was like, wow, let's take some more calls and basically learn sales the hard way then through overshooting on pricing, undershooting. I remember some customer came to me and said, I want to do a billion API requests a day. I was like, "That'll be $1 million a month." He laughed and he's like, "How about we pay you $5,000 a month instead?" I was like, "Okay, then fine," and so we learn the pricing, everything the hard way. Phil: That's awesome. Basically, at that point, you're like, there's an enterprise sell, I want to do that. You kept going. You still have the self-service and enterprise sale to this day on your business? Ben: Yes, exactly. At that point, we were seeing more and more demand for people who would see our data on our website or on our API and come to us and say, we want to buy this data or we need-- Sometimes it was we need a custom API or we needed high volumes. Certainly, we had some people that would want to jump on calls that just wanted to talk about the $50 plan, but I would say that 95% of those calls were people at large businesses that were more than happy to pay a lot more than $1,000 a month for something that would actually solve their problem. They wanted to get on the phone to make sure are you legit? Are you a real company? If we've got a problem, we're going to come to you because we're integrating this into an important piece of what we're doing. It's important for us to know that you exist as a human, that we can call you if there's a problem that your data is good, reassure us that you're going to take us seriously as a customer and you're part of the motivation. We want to pay you enough that you are going to take it seriously if there's a problem because you're solving a real issue for us. That was getting a lot of traction. At that point, we still didn't advertise. These were the customers that would just see our data and say, we need that. We want to come to you and get it. Then we still have the same model now, but obviously, do a much better job of showing case studies and have contact sales and everything on the website. Again, that will all happen very organically. A lot of this was customer-led of them noticing we've got great data, then saying I actually need something slightly different from your standard offering that you're listing on your website, and can we talk to you about how you might be able to help us. Phil: How was people finding it? What marketing were you doing? I would imagine at this point, you're not just posting on Stack Overflow anymore. Ben: Stack Overflow was surprisingly a big driver for a long time, and still sort of is. The nice thing about Stack Overflow, I guess this applies like any content or whatever, is that you do it once and it compounds over time. I know what my Stack Overflow score is now- whatever, but it's crazy. It just keeps going up. It's all the questions that I answered that are, what's the best way to get my location from an IP address in JavaScript, or whatever these questions were. They get a lot of people searching for them on Stack Overflow and on Google going to the result and finding IPinfo and then up-voting us. We still get a lot of referrals and everything from Stack Overflow even today. The main driver, I think, for these companies wasn't the Stack Overflow driver thing. One thing we did that worked really effectively is Google SEO stuff. That wasn't for specific keyword terms, but it was for IP addresses. One way that we wanted to showcase our data and the data that we had around IP addresses was just to create pages for those IP addresses. You'd say, IP address and here this is an IP address in Seattle, it's on Comcast, and here's the data that we have around it. We did that to showcase the data we had. The really nice effect of that was we ended up with all these pages indexed in Google. Even today, if you search for random IP address, we're often the top result. Then as all the people with all the use cases-- Just imagine you're a cybersecurity analyst and you notice a bad IP address in your logs, one thing you might do is go Google it and your IPinfo will be the top result. You click on it and you're like, "Wow, this is really useful information. I want this in my job. How do I get it? Can I go get it?" and reach out to us and start that process. Phil: What's the first "oh shit" moment from the early days of your business that come to mind? Ben: There are a few. The magnitude has increased over time. I think one of the very first ones was, I think when I got that email about the server being overloaded and thinking, "That's weird," and then checking the server logs and it was like, "Oh sit, there's a lot of people using this." I thought, yes, I might have a few developer friends that might find it useful, but there's a lot of people using it, and some people were using it a lot, which was-- okay, there's a real need here. The amount of traction surprised me. That was the first one. "Okay, this is interesting." I had massively underestimated how quickly it might start getting used and how much it would get used. That was a big one. That email came out the blue and like I said, I was a bug in my code or something's going wrong. I'm like, "Oh shit, there's a lot of people using this. That's interesting." I think the next big one was when Tesla signed up for the $200 plan. I had that $200 plan and thought, "No one's going to pay $200 for this that I hacked together on a weekend. It wasn't just that it was someone paid $200, which I think would've been a low fit moment in itself. It was like, "Wow, it's Tesla." They're a company down the road from where I was living at the time that everyone was raving about the Tesla cars and Elon Musk. The company that was very much in the news, a company I admired. To know that those guys were coming up and signing up for my API, that was like wow. That was a real ton of validation, and not just using it. They're paying for it, happy to pay for our biggest product at the time. That was a huge one. They were the two big ones. There's the one we've also touched on near my lunch break where I'm like, "Ah, yes, it's $1,000 I'm expecting." He's like, "Okay, cool." Hang up on me, get mad and I get back to my lunch break. He's like, "Yes, cool, where do I send the money?" That was a huge one. They continued. It's like when we got our first bigger enterprise customer, when we get really great feedback from a customer, it's like, "Wow, your data's really blowing us away. It's helped improve our- whatever we're doing by 20%. This is a game-changer for us." Every time you get one of those new milestones, you get validation from a customer that you're really helping them, it's like, "Oh shit, this is some really good stuff we're doing here. Phil: That leads to my next question. At what point did you know this is something that would last? When you started, did you know like this is actually company that's going to last, it's going to employ people? What point did you know that? Ben: That's a good question. That's constantly evolving because I think it always seems to last at a-- the thing that keeps this dynamic keep changing is the scale that this can be. I think once I launched it, it's like, well, hey, I've still got some old websites up from the early 2000s, whatever. They can sit around and be there forever, but like in what form, right? I think once I launched the first version of the simple website, it's like, "Well, I'm probably going to keep this up." Once it started getting some revenue, it's like, "Well, cool, this will probably be a website that will make money." Once I was doing it full time, I think that's when I had some more questions of like, how long can this sustain me as a one-person company? I think we it probably can indefinitely, but how long am I going to want to work on it? How long am I going to be interested in these sorts of things? We're now well past that. I think I had some conviction in that before I left to go and do it full time. I think it's clear to me that IPinfo can be around for a long, long time. I think the question is how much more can we grow? How many more customers can we help? How big does the team need to be to support that? Very early on, it seemed like it could be around and have a lot of success, but I think the scope and the scale of that continues to evolve as we learn more and find more customers and help them more, and continue to do well. Phil: Nice. When you left your job to do this full time, what was your biggest fear? Ben: That's a good question. I think by the time I left to do it, I had eliminated any fears. I was like, well, let's be sure before I go do it. I'd just had a baby and everything, and so it was like, let's eliminate some of those risks before I do it. Some of the fears I wanted to eliminate before going to do it was, can this be an enduring thing? I don't want to go quit my successful job and then this go up in flames in six months. I wanted to get it to a point where I knew that it could be long term and enduring. I knew that it could be a reasonable size opportunity. I knew that it could be fun and interesting. I knew it was something that could keep my attention, something that I'd want to work on, and something that I'd want to focus on. The thing that got me really excited was, hey, I get to create my own business. I get to work on these fun problems. The fear was is this fleeting and can it be sustainable? I think that was what I was working on and ensuring before I made that leap. I guess by the time I did that, it still wasn't clear could it be a big enough opportunity or what these things, but it's like, okay, this is going to be fun, this is going to last. There's still a bunch of unknowns, but that's the fear that's been eliminated. This is something that can ensure. Phil: That's a great strategy. I think probably one of the biggest advantage of doing something is a side hustle. You really had time to work on- like when you left your job, you didn't have a lot of those fears that so many times when you start something, we have, because it's like at that point it's established business. It's still smaller. From the day that you got Tesla to the day you left your job, how long did it take? Ben: That was maybe 18 months to two years, I think. Phil: 18 months to two years. That's impressive because you would think that some people could overreact at that moment. "Okay, I have Tesla. This is huge. Yes, I'm leaving, I'm doing this full time and I'm going to raise a bunch of money." You just really want to wait and make sure that was something that you could bootstrap and I could live time. Ben: Yes, totally. The fear thing is a good question because I think-- and in retrospect that may have been the better move. It would've been a riskier move, but knowing what we know today, that could have been a smart move. We could say, "Hey, let's go raise some money," and you accelerate it and could have even said, "Hey, it's already making money. Let's just take a risk by entry and go grow it." I think that in some ways could have helped IPinfo. Maybe we'd be further along or all these types of things, but there was a world that existed where it did fail and oh, I got to go back, get my old job or do whatever. Yes, for me that was the most important thing was let's eliminate that risk. Let's not get carried away. This is a really exciting development. This is showing that it's got a lot of promise, but there's still a lot of risk. Yes, like you say, I had a good job. I was enjoying my day job. You hear people doing side projects like, "Oh, I hate my day job. I can't wait to break away and do my side project." I was loving my day job. It was a great job. I had a lot of interesting stuff to do. There was no rush for me. And it was, hey, I enjoy this. I want to keep doing my day job. This side project's got a ton of promise. There's no rush. This is something I want to- if it is going to be something I spend my time on, I want to spend a lot of time on it over a long time period. We don't need to rush this. We can take our time. Once I got to that point where this is clearly going to be sustainable long-term, something I can invest my time and future in, then it was the right time to make the leap. Phil: Yes. Maybe the engineering side in you. It's the risking. It's the engineer mentality, I'll make this step by step. Ben: Yes. Phil: Talking about the engineer mentality, how much do you actually get to write code nowadays? You build version one. Now you have a company of 30 people. I imagine you have developers on your team. Do you actually still participate in building the product at this stage? Ben: That's been an evolution. I would say a little bit. My engineering team might say not at all, but I think I still contribute a little bit. Obviously that first year was just me doing a bit of everything and hiring on contractors to help with stuff. Everything at that point was mostly engineering, and a bunch of sales calls. My role as CEO has shifted over time, so that's hiring on more engineers, and then I'm the only one in the whole sales team, so I'm doing more sales, and then I've got a sales team. I'm doing less sales and contributing in different ways and building out the team and that sort stuff. The first part of engineering I completely handed off was, was the website, so the front-end stuff and building out a good engineering team that can manage that. I think it was maybe about a year ago, I just turned off any GitHub notifications or anything for the website. I don't even know what the website code looks like now. For the longest time, even after I stopped writing code, I would still watch things, keep an eye on things, and follow along. No idea what the website code even looks like these days. I just [unintelligible 00:50:59] not even [unintelligible 00:51:01] there. On the data side of things, I still lead the data team. I still keep an eye on some of the stuff there. I occasionally do some prototyping or some queries to look into the data. I have less and less time for that. While I'm still involved there, I imagine that the future isn't too far away where maybe I don't even know what the data code looks like, so less and less time. I can't think how long it's been since I sat down and spent a day programming, but any queries or code I do write is certainly sporadically squeezed between a few meetings these days for sure. Phil: Where do spend most of your time now, like where the company is? Ben: It mixes, and it's varied. The past month, I spend a lot of time recruiting, bringing on more data engineers, and so you're doing a lot of interviews, onboarding new people, meetings with the data team. We actually did our first IPinfo team offsite recently, got the whole team together in Portugal, so it's time prepping for that, a bunch of follow-up stuff for that. We were working on the company vision and values and follow-up [unintelligible 00:52:12] that sort of stuff. More and more time is spent sort of on those types of activities, but it varies. It may be that this month we've got to hire a bunch of people, well, I'll jump in and we'll do a bunch of hiring or next month we're going to have to start doing something else, and so might jump in there. That's what keeps it really exciting, that it's constantly evolving. My job changes completely sort of every six months. There's a new focus, there's a new thing to get stuck into, and that keeps it really exciting. Phil: Yes, that's the most exciting part about being the founder, for sure. Always doing a new job, what's the next most important thing for me to be doing. Ben: Totally. Phil: Let's say you could go back in time, like to that day that you just publish your site for free, like you just did your final [unintelligible 00:52:57] or whatever, how you publish that live, and you go meet yourself from that day. What do you tell yourself at that moment? Ben: That's a good one. That's a really good one. The answer I want to give is nothing. It worked out great and I wouldn't want to kind change the course of history, but I think if I've been given this opportunity to have a time machine, I should probably impart some wisdom to myself. If I had a time machine and I knew what the future would be, I think it would be around the risk piece. I do think one thing is build this very iteratively to de-risk it. A lot of the worries are about risks that that turned out not to be there. I think that cautious approach is still sensible and still serves me well and serves IPinfo well, because there'll be future risks that we want to avoid, but I do think knowing what I know now nine years later, I could go back and say, okay some of these risks you're worried about aren't risks and it's great you're being cautious, but go a little bit faster maybe. Phil: Yes, that's definitely great advice. I think that's advice that applies for you and apply for other founders that are starting their SaaS right now. I like to ask that question that way, instead of what we tell other people, what you tell yourself- Ben: Yes, that's a great question. Phil: -but that applies for everybody. Of course, you want to be careful, but sometimes you can take a little bit more risk. What book do you recommend for other SaaS founders that you read that make made a difference for you in where your company is now? Phil: Yes, sure. In general, I love reading business biographies about successful businesses and founders and things like that, and the history of companies. One I recently- that a bunch of people have read- is Shoe Dog, the founding story of Nike. One thing I really took from that, and that I take from a lot of business biographies and early days of businesses is that Nike had no clue what they-- Not no clue what they were doing, but no clue what they would become. This is what feeds into my sort of bootstrap mentality and iterate and improve on things in that in the early days, they didn't manufacture [unintelligible 00:55:06] shoes. They wanted to make the world's best running shoes and they imported them. Then they made some blue shoes and they went really well with denim. Then they were getting stewed and almost died many times. I think anybody can look at a huge successful company today like Nike, and say, well, maybe someone sat down and said I'm going to create the world's biggest fashion brand and everybody will wear our clothes. That would've been a great vision for the future of Nike. Some people have those types of visions and go and raise VC money and it happens. I think it's a lot rarer than these companies that are built up iteratively and just want to go and build the world's best running shoes, and discover that actually there's a market for running shoes outside of runners. Then discover that actually that people that buy their running shoes also want to wear jogging pants, so just import and they can go manufacturing them, and that next thing you know, Nike's a hundred-billion-dollar business. I think that that is probably true of most big successful businesses. I think that I just take a lot of stock in that there are these companies like Nike where you could be like, wow how do they have this amazing vision? There's unquestionably a bunch of visionaries at Nike that have got the company to where it is, but they didn't have that on day one. They just wanted to create great running shoes, and continue to refine that, and build on that, and have created this amazing brand and amazing business. I think that the same can be done with tech companies and everything. It's an approach that has worked at a way, way smaller scale for us, and I think that one that can work well for a lot of businesses. The whole sort of VC fundraising story is very much like how can you create a billion-dollar business? It's great to think big, but I think lots and lots of billion-dollar businesses can start from much more humble beginnings. Think about, well what's a really big problem that we go? Running shoes. Let's go create great running shoes, and that can become a Nike today. I think that's probably true in lots of industries, and a great approach to creating a business. Phil: Yes, that's probably one of the best books I ever read. I like your knowledge. For you, when you read that book, you understood how that vision was building on. I love the book. For me, when I read that book, I was like, that's the reason I'm never going to build a billion-dollar company. I feel like I don't have the stomach. So many times that he almost ran the company to the ground. I can't just be on the edge like he was. I feel like the guy had nerves of steel. I'm reading a book and I'm getting-my stomach is like, "Oh my gosh, this guy's crazy." I know everything's going to turn out well because now it's a biography, but for me it was like being able to [unintelligible 00:57:54] myself, I'm like I love business, but I don't think I can take the risks that Phil Knight did. It's amazing how he kept making bets after bets, and it kept working out last minute for him. Ben: That was a rollercoaster of a book. When he is about to get sued and it all came down to like, hey, I could be bankrupt or we could be very successful. You're reading and it's painful. It all worked out, and it's great, but there are many cases where it could very easily have gone the other way. Phil: Yes. It's definitely one of those books that you get attached to the book, that you can't put it down because it's such a great story of ups and downs and things are going well. That's definitely a book that I think every founder should read too. The final question that I have for you-- Thanks very much for your time today. It's like you told me everything about the origin story of IPinfo. I would love to hear from you, how do you feel like the future looks like where guys are going now? Ben: Yes, so I think we're going to, much like Shoe Dog and Nike, continue to evolve and become more ambitious, and want to solve more problems for our customers. We remain focused on IP address contextual data. I think that we see a huge opportunity to continue to improve the quality of our data. Even though we've got great industry-leading data quality, the feedback from our customers is often, "Well, hey, if you can make this even better, it would help us even more." That's something we're committed to doing is continue to refine our data. I've been busy recruiting a bunch of great data engineers to go to work on this, and take our data that's already industry-leading to new heights. Continue to provide additional context. I'd say we tell you where an IP address is. Is it a VPN? Is it a carrier? We can see opportunities get even deeper and more granular around contextual data that we provide around IP addresses that help all our customers in all use cases. Then it's about making our data easier to access as well. That was how we started right at the start. We can download some data that's on the internet that anybody can use, but it's a huge paint to set up. We said, "Well, let's make this really easy to access through a really developer-friendly API. Today, we offer our data as a download as well, but there's use for a bunch of situations, we offer it through a bunch of data marketplaces. We see a path to integrating our data into lots of different platforms and services so that if the user just wants that context, it should just be there for them. They shouldn't have to jump through a bunch of hoops and go through pain, just like I did. The start of start of IPinfo was like, I just wanna know where this IP address is in the world. I actually don't care about data downloads or APIs or whatever. I want to see my IP address on a map. I think that's true of lots of users of our data. They actually don't care about the details of how they get it. They just want to see it in their tool, or in their solution, or wherever it might be, and get them to do their job. We're really committed as well to making it easier to access our data embedded in more platforms and services. I think that opens up our data too beyond developers and data analysts and all these things to a much broader market, people that want to just operate on it. We see a huge opportunity around that of making our data better, making it available to more customers, and just more deeply understanding the internet and IP addresses, and creating data and solutions and products around that. I think there's, yes, a huge market for that, and so continue to expand, continue to invest heavily in that, and hopefully continue to attract customers and help them with all the problems. Phil: That's great. I'm sure you will. Thank you very much for sharing your vision with us, and for sharing this story of IPinfo. Ben: Yes, thank you. Phil: Thanks for being on the show. Ben: Thanks for the opportunity. It was great sharing with you. [music] Presenter: SaaS Origin Stories is brought to you by DevSquad. To find out more about how we help entrepreneurs launch new products and help larger businesses plug in a ready-to-go development team, visit Add us to your rotation by searching for SaaS Origin Stories in Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify, or anywhere else podcasts are found. Make sure to click follow so you don't miss any future episodes. Thanks for listening. Remember, every SaaS hero has an origin story.