March 23, 2023

Why This SaaS Founder Doesn’t Use Paid Marketing with Jon Darbyshire of SmartSuite

Why This SaaS Founder Doesn’t Use Paid Marketing with Jon Darbyshire of SmartSuite
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Episode Summary:

In this episode of SaaS Origin Stories, Phil speaks with Jon Darbyshire, CEO of SmartSuite, a platform that helps coordinate workflow across all levels of an organization to ensure that team members have the information they need to accomplish their best work. Previously, he was the Executive Chairman at The Archer Foundation. He is also the Founder and the previous CEO of Archer Integrated Risk Management.

They dive head first into how long it can take to build a SaaS product, why SmartSuite chose to have no paid marketing, why you need to keep a transparent and trusting relationship with your customers, and the importance of building a community within a SaaS business. Jon also talks about his unique and fortunate journey into building SmartSuite, delving into why it needed to be perfect before even announcing it.

Guest at a Glance:

Name: Jon Darbyshire

About Jon: Jon Darbyshire is the CEO of SmartSuite, a platform that helps coordinate workflow across all levels of an organization to ensure that team members have the information they need to accomplish their best work. Previously, he was the Executive Chairman of The Archer Foundation. He is also the Founder and the previous CEO of Archer Integrated Risk Management.

A previous colleague at Archer described him as “Visionary, disciplined, focused, family, mentor. These are terms that come to mind when I reflect on my time working for Jon at Archer.”

Jon on LinkedIn

SmartSuite on LinkedIn

SmartSuite’s Website

Topics we cover:

  • How SmartSuite helps businesses run their workload
  • The long, drawn-out time frame of building a SaaS product
  • Why SmartSuite chose to have no paid marketing
  • Building a SaaS community 
  • The importance of transparency with your customers
  • Managing workload
  • The democratic process for SmartSuite features
  • Taking accountability for bad decisions

Key Takeaways:

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

Any sort of product or service, especially in SaaS, will take an incredibly long time to build and polish. Jon acknowledges this, claiming that SmartSuite took about two years to complete, even with the help of a hundred different developers. But don’t let this long, drawn-out time frame discourage you from your craft. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day; in fact, most disruptive and revolutionary creations weren’t.

“We did something that was quite unique: we hired about a hundred developers, and we spent the next two years building the core platform before we made any announcements about what the company would do [...] I was in a unique position in that I had the funding personally to be able to build the company without needing to raise any capital.” 

The Power of Just a Few LinkedIn Posts

When Jon first released SmartSuite into the world, he chose not to do any sort of paid marketing. Instead, he opted to make just a few LinkedIn posts to get people talking. As they gained traction and a few customers came in, they were able to engage with them more and find out what worked for them. Now, much larger companies are coming in, proving that you don’t always need to rely on paid marketing for the success of your platform.

That being said, Jon admits that they willindulge in paid marketing and invest in a marketing team eventually, but right now they have no use for it.

“We kinda went into a beta programme, but we didn’t announce that. The only thing we did was we turned on our website. We have no paid marketing—even to this point—we just made some announcements on LinkedIn. And our first customer came in, a single user in the Northeast, and that’s how it all started.”

Community: A Core Part of the SaaS DNA

A core part of SaaS DNA is community. Jon talks about how, at SmartSuite, this is definitely put into consideration. With so many people working to make a product great, it’s important that there is a sense of community where employees feel as though they can share ideas with each other without being judged. 

This doesn’t just apply to employees, as they also have a ‘User Group Chairman’: a customer that speaks on behalf of other customers. It’s extremely good practice to make sure you listen to your customers just as much as you would your team; they are the ones who use your product, and you need to make sure you know what they think.

“We feel that is our number one feature as a company. We provide a great product with a lot of features, but people love the community aspect of getting to know each other, sharing their successes and sometimes failures, what’s working and what’s not, and just building relationships. That’s a core part of what we’re trying to do.”

The Importance of Transparency with Your Customers

A lot of the time, businesses don’t tend to communicate with their customers about what they’re working on and the roadmap of the product. And sometimes, even when a customer reaches out with a problem, they might not get a response until the next day, or even a couple of days later. It’s incredibly important to Jon and the SmartSuite team that they communicate transparently with their user-base so that they’re always kept in the loop which is a surefire way to keep up customer loyalty and trust.

“It makes it more fun, too. They’re getting to know our customers and interacting with them in a way that makes it more personal, so they don’t just know them as customers, they get to know them as people. And that’s helping build the culture of our company.”

Be Prepared for the Workload

When you’re first getting started with your SaaS platform, it’s easy to forget just how much work you will one day have to manage, should your company blow up. Jon talks about how his team, having already been worn out from just how much time and effort they were putting into the product, were shocked when they realized how many customers they were suddenly attracting, transitioning from five thousand customers to a hundred thousand!

Because of this, they had to make sure they were prepared for more workload and stay at the top of their game. And over time, they dealt with it and have a good grip on the situation.


There's new and unique challenges that pop up each day, and it's still stressful at times. I don't think as an entrepreneur, building something, you can get away from that part, and you just have to figure things out to be able to move to the next step. 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 do's 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. Today I have John D'Abrichari. Welcome to the show, John.

Oh, it's a pleasure, Phil. I appreciate you having me on today.

John, the first question I would like to ask you, you're the CEO of Smart Suite.

What problem does your company solve?

That's a great intro. I think the problem that we're working to solve is that we're trying to bring together five or six traditional products that you've seen in the SaaS space into one core product that allows organizations to manage their business without the need to have these five or six different products integrated and working together for that.

For us, we're all about managing business processes and projects in a company on a single platform. We serve customers from one or two users up to thousands of customers on the Fortune 1000 side, or thousands of users on the Fortune 1000 side.

The way that we look at Smart Suite, or the way we looked at Smart Suite when we started was we looked at all the different technology that was in the tech stack for a company to run their business each day, starting at the lowest level with just form providers. Maybe they used job form or 123 form builder types of products.

We built form type capabilities in the product, then we built collaboration type capabilities in. Maybe think of a Slack or email. It's kind of built in by default. Then think of project management tools like on Monday, Asana, ClickUp, where you're managing projects and tasks and you have assignments and due dates. Then more relational database types of products where you're managing business processes, maybe like a ServiceNow or a Vindex or an Airtable.

Then on top of that, you have integration tools like a Zapier or a Make that allow you to bring data back and forth. We built some of those core capabilities in. Then at the top of the stack is really business analytics where you're using dashboards to gain insights into the data and different processes that you have.

That's kind of the core of what Smart Suite is, is one place to manage your business on a single platform. That's great. Later in the show, I want to dive deep on deciding which features you build and how you decide what to prioritize. But before we go there, because you have a product that replaces many products, so I imagine prioritization was a big deal for you guys.

But before you go there, I would like to talk a little bit about your background. Where did you come from and how did you get to where you are and maybe even how you came up with the idea to build this product. I'll give you a quick two minutes on just my background. I grew up in a small town in Kansas, so I'm a small town person.

But out of college, I went to the West Coast for the first time and started my career there. Early on in my career, I was able to be a direct admit partner at Ernst & Young, had the opportunity to run one of their global practices in cybersecurity. We had about 1,500 people around the world in that practice that I had the chance to manage for about three and a half years.

And Ernst & Young had a big impact on my career. They taught me a lot about process and people and how to manage things, how to scale things. It was just a great learning experience while I was there. And I left that position to found my first startup company called Archer Technologies based in Kansas City. And that company was a no-code platform that focused on what became the governance risk and compliance space.

29 of the top 30 financial service companies were customers of Archer in the first three and a half, four years. Then we moved into telecom and healthcare and tech, and it really exploded. We had about 75 of the Fortune 100. We sold that company in 2010 or 2011 to EMC. And at that point, that company today does around 700, 750 million in recurring revenue.

So it turned out to be a pretty big company, the dominant player in the GRC space. So once we sold that, I thought I was retiring at a young age. And the truth is, I did a lot of investing and I started a family foundation. We did a lot of cool things for a period of about six or seven, maybe eight years.

Truth is, I got bored. I missed building software, which is what my passion is that I learned. And I missed working with all of the people involved in that process, whether they be the people internal to our team or customers that we're interacting with daily. So about four years ago, I took a look at the market across those topics that I just mentioned, all those different segments.

I analyzed about 400 data points on maybe 20 companies that were in that space to see if I thought there was a need for a product like Smart Suite to solve this problem. And then we did something that was quite unique at that point. We hired about 100 developers and we spent the next two and a half years building the core platform before we ever made any announcements about what the company would do.

And the reason for that is that we felt that a traditional MVP was not the right path for this type of product because we had to solve the problem. It wasn't good enough to solve 40 or 50 percent of the problem. Like you had to solve the problem with the architecture, with the capabilities that we provided.

And I was in a unique position and then I had the funding personally to be able to build the company over those two and a half years without needing to raise any capital that was there. So we were able to really build out the core of the product before we went to market.

And part of the thought process behind that as well was we didn't feel that we could enter the space and be below our competitors, where people are always looking at us saying, they're really great, but they're catching up with these other companies. We felt that if that happened, we would always get stuck at that level.

So we wanted to be on par or above kind of the core people, the core products that were in that space when we launched. That's an amazing story. That's a huge bet.

Of course, you had your first exit, but you say you hired a hundred developers and you paid their salary out of pocket for two and a half years to build this product.

We did, yeah. And that was, it was a blessing. And at the same time, it was a heartache at the same time.

And, you know, there was, as you're in that two-year journey and you're building the product, it'd be great if we were going to market sooner. And you just knew that I had to get all of this done before we could actually launch. So it was maybe a year and a half in, there were some long nights of thinking, uh-oh, like we have another year left to really build what we want.

And that was just a long time to get it. But we're past that and now our core infrastructure of our product and capabilities is done. And it's fun to see the kind of the fruits of that labor with the customers that we're bringing on.

Did you even have beta testers all along or how are you doing any kind of tests for two and a half years as you're building this product?

We didn't, which sounds really, really odd, but I'll tell you why. When we founded Archer, we had the chance to work with just the biggest and the best of the Fortune X customers. So I knew the enterprise space really well. I knew the no-code space really well. I knew the types of features that these companies needed to be able to manage processes in their company.

So I was in a unique position and then I had a lot of that information that was there.

Now, I had lots of conversations with people, but we didn't have beta testers until the platform was in, it was really in February of last year that we let the first customer actually come in and touch it and see it that was there.

That's a very cool story because again, I feel like best practices, if you look at best practices, what everyone is doing, we don't want to do what everyone is doing. You want to do something different. And I also see building products and making bets.

And being a second time founder that had a big exit, you just, you weren't in a position where you could place like a very big bet and go after those big companies and build that tool set. Let's compare that just to compare with the first company that you built.

How big was the bet the first time when you built that company that you sold?

I really like to talk about your current company, but just to compare things here and for people to understand what you do in different stages of your entrepreneurial life.

Yeah, it's not any different. So in the first company, I had an idea. I sat down for three or four months and sketched that idea out. And then I approached who became our first customer, which was EDS in Plano, Texas. They were a very large consulting company, about 130,000 people in the company that provided technology services to like the Fortune 100.

And I approached them with an idea and a diskette that and on the diskette was HTML prototype back then. And we were going in their boardroom. I put in the diskette. I showed them like, here's a new way for you to manage processes around governance, risk and compliance, like how to track the assets that you needed to manage and how secure they were, the people involved in that process.

It was a big, big problem to solve. And so they signed up as our first customer before we ever wrote a line of code. Right. It's a very different approach. They also signed a three year contract at about a million dollars a year. So I had three million dollars guaranteed. I put in about 700, my wife and I put in about seven hundred fifty thousand dollars to start the company.

And we were profitable every year for nine years, nine and a half years until we sold the company. And we we didn't hire new employees unless we had the capital to be able to pay them for a year. So each new enterprise customer was really a new employee that we hired.

And very different than today's world of of, you know, a PLG model and bringing on free accounts and really growing or trying to grow way ahead of the revenue that you have. You're always hiring way more people than, you know, than what you did back then. It makes sense. And I think that's just different stages that you are as an entrepreneur. Right.

Like in that stage, if you don't raise money, you have to somehow stay profitable and then you might not grow as much. But your company end up growing a lot after you sold. But in the second stage, when you either fund it or you have like some of your own money, you can afford to lose money because that's the reality.

SAS, you lose money for a long time unless you are super strategic.

What can we do like bringing the first customer to smart sweat and you touch on PLG?

Like what was the customer acquisition strategy for your product?

Yeah, so we have a couple of different phases or what we in our strategy that we have on the PLG side.

You know, in February of last year, we kind of went into a beta program. We didn't announce that. The only thing that we did was we turned on our website. We turned on we have no marketing that we've done even to this point, no paid marketing. And we just made some announcements on LinkedIn. And our first customer came in, which was a single user in the Northeast.

And that's how it all started. It was that simple. We had no direct outreach at that time on the sales side. It was 100 percent PLG. And as customers came in, then we just we engaged with them, make sure that we took care of them. And not until just last month or two months ago, we've really started engaging more with customers that come in.

We're seeing a lot of much larger companies coming in through our PLG strategy. And that's kind of the hook for our first conversation with them. That then leads to much larger deals for us. Got it. So you guys just take PLG for the first year and kind of like organic. And as you're seeing those big, big companies coming in, now you're doing PLG together with a sales approach.

Where like after you see the right signs, then you reach out and then you start to try to walk those enterprises into become customers.

Is that correct?

It is. And there's one other problem to that strategy that's even been better for us, which is we have what we call a partner first strategy. So as we were building the company, we started reaching out to partners around the world that we knew could provide services around our product to customers. And that they were probably implementing other products that were similar to Smart Suite.

So we identified about 300 partners and we identified about a thousand affiliates. So in the first three to four months, we signed up four or five hundred affiliates, meaning these are people that get paid 50 percent of the first year revenue for any lead they send us that converts to a paid deal. And our products in 15 languages. So it allowed us to go global very quickly because of the affiliates promotion with no salespeople.

And then the service partners, they started 50 percent of the first year revenue. But in our top tier, we pay them two years. So 40 percent of the first year, 30 percent of the second year revenue. And we have about 55 or 60 of those companies that have come on as partners. And about 90 percent of the customers that we have today have come through that partner network, either through the affiliate or the service provider via PLG.

And then it hits our website. They do a free trial. And then that's how we move forward. But an interesting fact is that we have no marketing staff. A lot of people find that really interesting. We do post on social media. We do a lot of videos through YouTube. SmartSuite has just kind of caught on and been viral.

And we're we're just struggling to catch up with all the leads that are coming our way from that. And it's just been nice not to have to take the traditional approach to marketing just yet. We will. But we haven't yet. That's definitely a good problem to have. Right.

Oh, we have too many customers that want to use us. And you also use a community approach as part of your strategy to build this company.

Could you tell us a little bit about how that works?

Yeah, sure. I think that a lesson that we learned at Archer Technologies early on was the power of community. We had two of our largest customers, American Express and Wells Fargo, came to us in about a year into that company and said, Hey, we know we know we're both customers, but we don't know how we're using your product. We'd like to get together and have a discussion with our teams.

Would you host that at this location?

So we did an event in Phoenix for just those two teams, about 20 people. That turned into an annual conference that now I'm going to guess is in the thousands. But at the time I was there was maybe five, five hundred people would show up for a three day event to talk about the product and how they're using it.

But what it turned into was the connections that were made within the industry of cybersecurity and GRC professionals to interact and get to know each other, to share ideas. And we supported that with the online community where they could interact while they weren't in person as well. So at SmartSuite, we're doing the same thing. That's just a core part of our DNA is community.

So we bring in our customers, our partners, our prospects, industry experts into our online community and then work to facilitate communications between them and sharing ideas, not just about how to use our product, but just things in general in the no code space and around business processes. We have a user group chairman that is responsible for the user group that's not from SmartSuite.

It's one of our customers that kind of is the voice of the customer. And then we have about 25 people that are on a leadership team for the community that spans about nine or ten different countries and every type of company that provides the core input on what the community should be.

And we feel that that is our number one feature as a company, because we provide a great product with lots of features. But people love the community aspect of getting to know each other, sharing in their successes and sometimes failures, you know, what's working, what's not. And just building relationships is there. So that's a core part of what we're trying to do at SmartSuite. That's cool.

But I would imagine running a community, I don't think it's easy, right?

So how, what tips do you have for other SaaS founders that are thinking about doing a community around their customers?

So like they all talk about a specific problem, like you have a community manager.

How do you get that out start?

Yeah, so we do a couple of things that helps promote the community. So we have a community manager who is responsible for just ensuring that when people ask questions and have comments that they're getting answered, or we reach out to people to answer those questions that we know are good, you know, the right resource that's there.

As a company, we all jump in each day for a period of our time just to make sure we're interacting and learning from customers and their ideas that are in there.

And then from a technology perspective, you know, if you go back five or six years ago, you had to, in most cases, build your own software to be able to have a full fledged community or use like discourse, you know, or type product that wasn't great, didn't look great. But in the last couple years, that's really changed.

There's products that are on the market that support community as a product, as a SaaS product that are pretty great. And you so you don't have to spend all your time building that you can just configure that makes it super easy. That's a great insight for SaaS founders. It looks like you also make part of our company culture that you guys spend time in the community that you guys help.

It's not only here's something whether it has an effect in your culture, too. Right. It does. And it's the first thing that you'll notice is we have lots of customers that send us notes back to saying this is different. Like I'm having an experience with interacting with your team that's different than other products.

You're actually responding the same day that I have the request or you're listening to our, you know, the feature request and being we're very transparent with our roadmap. It's all in our community. We tell you every feature that we're working on with dates and we tell you, you know, when those are going to be delivered. If we're missing a date, we communicate that in advance, which we hopefully don't do very often.

But that does happen as a software company. And on the employee side, I think it makes work fun.

You know, they're they're getting to know our customers and interacting with them in a way that makes it more personal. So they don't just know them as a customer. They get to know them as people. And that's helping build the culture of our company, of just the interactions that are taking place. That's awesome. So moving on, but that's such a great insight.

What is kind of like the first moment that come to mind from your journey as a founder in smart suit?

There's a couple of them. The first one was, you know, we were just getting started. And for the first year and a half, things were really fun. We're hiring lots of people and just putting in the structure around our development processes that were there.

But, you know, I mentioned earlier about a year and a half in it was just we were all a little bit tired.

Like, we've just been working, working, working.

And we, you know, we look at the projections and we were about a year away from being where we needed to be to release. So that was kind of the first oh shit moment was it's going to take another year.

And how do we keep people motivated and on track?

And how do we make sure that, you know, it's not a year and a half that we stay focused to get that done with no customers, right?

Where it was just you're just working all day, which is a blessing at the same time because you didn't have distractions.

You know, we didn't have anything else to do other than to build the product. So that was a blessing, but it was also hard to get through that. And then the other oh shit moment just happened a couple months ago, which is the volume of customers coming in with just went boom.

Like we just got flooded because of our PLG strategy and just looking at our AWS infrastructure and how do we scale and accounting for the growth that needed to take place. Realizing that, you know, we're going to have hundreds of thousands of customers very quickly on our infrastructure.

How do we scale from five or ten thousand to a hundred thousand that's in there?

And we've moved past that now, but that was a big moment for us as a company to realize scaling is probably our number one feature across our customer base. Sure.

As you're having all those customers coming in, like what are your feedback with the product?

Because it's very normal that you build a product and the users come and they like the product, but they start to give you a bunch of feedback. So things that you should have, especially because you are not talking to customers for two and a half years. Like you took a really big risk there and it's amazing that everything worked out.

But how is like their feedback about their product and how is the backlog evolving now they have users to also give you feedback?


Yeah, as part of our community, we have a feature, the ability for people to submit feature requests and then it allows other people to vote on that. And that information is then tied back to the customer so I can see based on the plan and how much revenue they spend. I can actually see the top features both from a number of votes and from the revenue that's associated with those.

So we can make intelligent decisions on which features and what order that we should implement those. And all of that is 100 percent transparent to our customers. So they see exactly what's in development and what's on the roadmap, but not in process yet. And I spend a portion of every day with customers talking about those. I have a top 20 board right here on the left here.

You can't see, but those are the top 20 things that customers have said that they need in our product. And I spend my majority of my time focused on those with use cases and just really understanding the why that they need the feature.

And a lot of times I try to pull back from the feature and just talk about, all right, let's talk about the use case, like what you're trying to accomplish, which then allows us to understand the best way to build the features to support that that are in place.

But that's the part of software development that I enjoy the most is and that's where my passion is at, is just having the opportunity to talk with so many people about what they need and then us as a team figuring out how do we deliver on that as fast as possible. Makes sense. And I like what you say when you talk with the customers.

It's not so much about the feature, but what problem was this, what I'm trying to solve for. And then you internally decide how you're going to solve that problem. It's not your customer responsibility to decide that.

So could you share a very smart decision that you made in the early days of your business?

Sure. I'll go back to we've done it here at SmartSuite, but we also did it at Archer Technologies as well. And I learned this at Ernst & Young that your company and your culture is only as good as the people you hire. And you need to take the time and attention to hire the right people. And you have different types of players that are on your team with different skill sets.

And it's not OK just to hire people in general. They need to fit into different roles and to kind of mold into the overall team. So we probably spend more time than most companies of just finding and attracting the right people to the company. But that pays big dividends.

And that's what I learned at Archer Technologies in that when you get the right team and the right people together, really special things can happen. And they feel privileged to kind of to know that you took the time to hire them and the way that they fit in. That's there.

And you don't have to have those hard discussions when you have to let people go because you made a bad decision at the beginning. And a lot of time you have a you kind of know that and you're just filling a gap that's there. So we take a lot of pride in at Archer. We had just super low turnover ever for that company over nine and a half years.

And we have zero turnover to date at SmartSuite. That's awesome.

Why are you hiring those people?

It's everyone in California hiring across the globe.

So how are you doing that?

Yeah, it's across the globe. When we started SmartSuite, we had what we thought was a novel idea. This was six months before COVID hit. The idea was a typical software company hires people about 30 miles around where that company is based. So all your talent comes from that area that's there. But it's hard to get talent for all the different skill sets that you need from one geography typically.

So we thought we're going to look low. So our lead designer is in Bulgaria. Our business analyst, product manager is in Spain or Portugal. We have a large number of developers in Ukraine, in Brazil, across the UK, and then across the US. So we're a remote team.

We spend the first two hours of every day on calls like this, video calls, where I speak with our work with each individual team for 30 minutes. And those teams are mainly developers, when I'm saying that, that are working on different aspects of the product that's there. We have a lot of people that work from home.

Well, we're probably 50-50. People work from home versus offices that we have in different locations that they work from. But that's a very different model than I'd ever worked on prior. But the fun part is we have so many interesting people with different narratives. They come from different cultures. It just makes things fun for everybody to get to know new people like that. That's awesome.

Yeah, for sure. And of course, everyone was forced to do that after COVID. And it's cool to see how companies are opening their mind. But that wasn't very common before.

And how about like a decision that you made that turned out to not be the greatest decision, like maybe a mistake that you could share and maybe help people avoid that mistake?

I think early on in our PLG strategy here at Smart Suite, we didn't put enough thought into how to continue to reach back out to people once they came in. It's easy to bring in that 8 to 10% of people that just love your product the minute they put their hands on the keyboard. But then there's a segment of people that are a little intimidated.

They just need a little different approach for you to reach out. They want you to reach out, but they don't want you to try to sell them. They want more help.

Like, how do I do things?

So understanding when to reach out and then the best methods to reach out.

Is it a non-intrusive video that we send that's getting started?

Is it a personal video from Loom where we know that they're interested in this part and we just describe how to use that?

But never do we use the words we're trying to sell to you. And that's what we've learned on the PLG site. It's more of an education. And what we all often say, try our free trial until you love it.


And if you don't love it and you're not sure, convert to our free plan for three users, it's free forever. And then if you love that, then you can move into one of our paid plans that's there. So it took us maybe four or six months to figure that out with the group of people that were coming in and signing up for trials. Makes sense.

And what kind of talent do you need to hire to do the nursing and do the education and help those people?

And also, yeah, that's the first question. We've had a lot of luck in hiring people, really smart people right out of college where they don't have a perception yet of how to do things. So you have the opportunity to kind of mold them in the way that you want to treat customers that are there. And it's easy to learn our products.

And if you have a lot of aptitude, you can get really good. But it's really the connection that we want our what we call our onboarding specialists to have with the customer. That's what we pay attention to. That's there. They have to have the aptitude. But then we look at just the personality.

You know, is it easy for them to interact or do they feel stressed in that situation?

We're looking for the people that that's just easy for them.

OK, so to solve that problem of people that come to your product to product growth, but they were not actually staying, you bought this onboarding specialist and that person you didn't require them to have any experience. You got them out of college. You just need them to kind of like be tech savvy and to work with your culture.

But you didn't have like, oh, this person has to have that job before you actually growing that person in house.

Yeah, and we do a couple of things. The first one is we didn't want a salesperson like we're not trying to sell you. We're trying to educate you. Right. And we didn't want them to have that. It have that background of being a BDR or an SDR or a sales engineer prior. We wanted them to just kind of come in new. That's there.

And then it's just it's just the report that we want them to be able to have. And then one of the things that we do with our onboarding specialist is that in the first year they're with us, they get to work in three to four different parts of the organization. Right.

So they get a chance to not just do a little bit of the onboarding, but they'll do some marketing, some products, some community stuff, some professional services, and they'll get to learn the business. And then they can pick their career path kind of in those areas in the company. But the value is they've learned those processes in the first year. They've made connections with people in the different departments.

So when they make their decision to kind of move into a specialty area, they have all that knowledge. Like when they need help with somebody, like if they're a marketing person and they need to talk with someone in product or professional services, they've already met them. They know them. It's an easy conversation. That's awesome.

And how is the company doing today?

Like, what can you share about the size of the company, like where the company is today?

Yeah. So we're we still have no external funding. We're just just funded by myself and my wife. Personally, I give you some numbers. We don't share revenue as a company since we're private, but we brought on about eleven hundred and fifty new customers in December and about fourteen hundred new customers in January. So I give you an idea of the volume that's starting to come in. That's amazing.

So you're getting more than ten thousand customers every month. And on the funding route, you say it's still just my wife and I funding this business.

Do you think that's going to change in the future or you plan to keep this a full bootstrap company?

No. So we're actually we're in discussions now or just kind of at the beginning of discussions with quite a number of people for a formal Series A. And we definitely want to bring in the capital, but it's more than the capital that we're looking for.

It's the it's the knowledge, the relationships that the outside venture firms could bring to help us continue to expand and grow, not just here in the U.S., but abroad as well. That's awesome. So you think like the investors, they're going to bring kind of like not only the money, but their expertise so you guys can keep growing. And I imagine then you're trying to build this into a unicorn.

You're going to be a very big company. Yeah. Yeah. I think what the venture community can bring to us that we're most excited about is the relationships with the other companies that they've invested in. That's that's went down this path a few years before us and have figured out and solve some of the problems that we're going to run into as we begin to scale.

So we just have more people to talk to about the journey.

You know, how did you get from this number to this number?

And how many people did you have to scale?

And how did you structure the company when you got to 300 people versus 100 people?

And those discussions are really interesting for us. We have connections for that. But inside of the venture group, it's just a different level. That makes sense.

And what does the future look like for the company?

In your opinion, like, like, I love to hear like your vision of where you guys are going. Sure.

Yeah, we want to be like a business operating system for an organization, meaning, you know, you think about you have a you have an iPhone that has an operating system with all these different apps that are on that operating system. And you use that phone to do all kinds of things each day.

Think of Smart Suite as a as a business operating system or a work management platform that allows you just to model out and build the processes that you need to run your business, whether you're we have customers that are, you know, law companies and marketing firms and marketing agencies and churches and real estate firms, construction companies. All of those are just processes. Right. And they're using our platform to manage that.

So we want to be that one stop shop. But we also know that larger companies may have like a Salesforce or HubSpot that they've used for years that they just like credits. And we provide integration from our core platform natively in the product to those platforms so we can sync data very easily. But we want to be that one stop shop that's there for business processes and projects. That makes total sense.

And if you could go back in time and meet yourself like from four years ago when you decide to come out of retirement and start this business, what would you tell yourself?

I tell you what, if I would have known four years ago how much time and effort that I would need to put into this, I might have said, I'll just stay retired. That's there. Right. But I think that's that's the great thing about being an entrepreneur sometimes is being a little naive and not knowing. And you just you have a good work ethic and you just work and get stuff done.

And if you really understood what it was going to take, that might be a harder decision. That's there. But if I did look back four years ago, I would probably say it's going to be a little harder and a little more challenging than what I thought it would be. That makes total sense.

I believe coming from like an exit and you probably were very confident starting this business without the background that you had of where you would be in the following years. Right.

Yeah, it's interesting. I think you're a little more comfortable because you've been there. You've kind of done a lot of the things before. You can not make the same mistakes again. That's there. So I was more comfortable to start, but I have to say that there's new and unique challenges that pop up each day. And it's still it's still stressful at times.

I don't think as an entrepreneur and building something, you can get away from that part. And you just have to figure things out to be able to move to the next step. And the hardest part of scaling a SaaS company is just as you grow all the internal processes that need to be documented and put in place so that people know exactly what they're working on, what their roles are.

You have to build that infrastructure. So it's not just about the product. It's about all the internal things that you have to do at the same time. For sure. For sure.

But would you say you were less stressed the second time around than the first time around, like making a comparison, you versus the first company versus you doing the second company now?

What would you say?

Probably a little less stressed than the first time because of the financial side. The first time was we had everything that we owned in the business and it could have went south and it could have been very destructive. But that was also like the biggest motivating factor was to work harder was that that could happen. So you had to work so hard not to have it happen.

So I in the first company, I felt the financial stress maybe more than I feel it where we're at today. That's why I sometimes talk to people and I say SaaS probably shouldn't be your first business. It's very hard. It's going to take a lot of money. I think if you do something else first and then you go into SaaS, you're going to be better off.

And because we look at like the most famous founders there, Al Young, but actually if you look in general, like the most successful founders, they're over 40. They have done that before. They know their team. And so that's why I say, hey, SaaS is not for amateurs. Be careful. Probably shouldn't be your first business.

Yeah, that's true. I think when you're younger, you just don't know what you don't know. And when you kind of hit that age 40, I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell and his book Outliers. I don't know if you've seen that in the 10,000 hours concept that he has. And once you kind of get to that point and become kind of an expert in that area, everything else is easier.

That's why I feel like so good when I see entrepreneurs like yourself that are back in the game, because I think you have so much to add. You didn't have to be in the game. You don't have to be running a business. But the impact that you can give it back to the world, like generating jobs and creating things, because you already had the 10,000 hours, it's amazing.

And that's because you could just stay as an investor, but you're back in the game and you're bringing out your experience. And I really like when I see entrepreneurs like yourself doing that, because I know you have the 10,000 hours and it's going to be different for your people around you. They're going to suffer less, not only you, but everyone that's around you is going to be in a better place.


Yeah, that's true. And I'll say as well that, you know, for me and my wife, Tara, who runs the sales part of our business as well, she did the same at Archer.

It's the relationships with the people is part of what we missed when we sold the company, like with the customers and just we still keep those relationships, but it's not the same as when we had a professional and a personal relationship together. So it's fun to get back in and to have those relationships again.

And what book do you recommend for every SaaS founder?

I've got a couple on my shelf. I don't know if you can see them back here. Product-led onboarding, product-led growth, low code by Phil Simon. Those are the last three books that I've read. And then I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell and Outliers. That's something that I keep close and reread quite often. Malcolm went through and looked at, I don't know, eight to ten different types of people that were successful.

And he really went in to understand the why that was there. And in most cases, it's not what you think.

And he really gets into, you know, was it timing?

Was it knowledge and timing?

Like, why were these people successful?

Yeah, I think what I learned from the book is that being successful is about increasing your odds. Exactly. And there's things that you can do to increase your odds. There's nothing, never going to be a guarantee. But if you do something for so long, there's odds and you can play them in your favor. It doesn't matter so much like things like people think, oh, maybe you come from money or not.

It's about things that you can do to get your odds to play in your favor. It's one of my favorite books, too. I call them opportunities. And I talk with people quite often to say you have to find ways to generate more opportunities that are there. And at the same time, you have to be smart enough to recognize that an opportunity is presenting itself that you might want to take advantage of.

Yeah, so sure. Thank you very much for your time today, John. I think that's pretty good to learn about your company.

If people want to kind of know more about you and follow you, what's the best way to do?

Yeah, you know, the best way is I'm on LinkedIn, which is probably my platform of choice. It's just John Darbyshire. You can follow me there or you can go to our website,, and you can click on contact us and you can see me on the bio page as well to connect with me there. That's great.

Again, thank you very much for sharing your amazing origin story. All right. Thanks a lot. It was a pleasure. SaaS Origin Stories is brought to you by Dev Squad. 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

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