Alex McClafferty and Dan Norris founded WP Curve, a service that provides 24-hour tech support for WordPress blogs, in July 2013, while living thousands of miles apart. McClafferty is based in San Francisco, while Norris lives in Australia—and the two have never met in person.
That distance might seem like an obstacle to scaling the business, but it hasn’t turned out to be. When McClafferty spoke with me for Forbes in March 2014, the boot-strapped business was generating $12,000 in monthly recurring revenue from 200 clients. Today, the bootstrapped company has about 400 customers and hits about $17,000 in monthly revenue—and it has spent only $180 on advertising. WP Curve grown to 15 people around the globe besides the founders–13 developers, and two administrative support team members–relying entirely on contractors for talent.
With growth picking up for many service businesses, I was curious about how they’re pulling off fast growth while staying true to their “virtual” model and keeping the business from stealing time from other pursuits, like McClafferty’s long-distance running. I never was drawn to the traditional model of scaling, where you raise a ton of money from VCs and then hire a bunch of employees to commute to a cubicle farm and sit there all day. The pressure to maintain the overhead to support operations like this, while simultaneously ensuring the investors get a good return, often leads to icky methods of squeezing “discretionary effort” (aka, unpaid time) from employees, like pressuring them to don false mustaches at the company bowling night so they will post selfies on Instagram to show other people how great is to join the cult—I mean, company.
So how have McClafferty and Booth managed to keep WP Curve growing fast while avoiding that route? In a word, discipline. To say yes to fast growth and the freedom to live the way they want, the co-founders have said no to six things:
Scope-creep. The best way to build strong relationships with customers is to figure out what services you want to offer them and those you want to avoid–something many entrepreneurs are fuzzy on. Make sure your customers understand what you’re selling them, by putting it clearly in writing, McClafferty advises. “Outline what you do—and what you don’t do—in detail,” advises McClafferty.
The company also gets very specific with customers about how long it will take its team to do things. “On business days, we’re usually done in under six hours, but we proactively advise customers if it is going to take longer,” he says.
“Yes” addiction. We all know how easy it is to go along with clients’ request for us to do something that’s a little off track. It’s natural to want to please them, but it can become a huge distraction. These entrepreneurs have resisted that temptation. “We could build dozens of websites, but that would affect our ability to provide fast support,” says McClafferty. “You will have to say no to a lot of easy revenue, but this will be worth it in the long run.”
Random calls. WP Curve decided not to offer phone support because the founders concluded it was easier to elicit the specific instructions and details their developers’ need from customers in writing. That gives their team time to focus on the parts of the business where they can bring the most value, like fixing clients’ blogs. “If you do need to talk to your clients, set a specific time aside each day to do so, but don’t stray from that,” McClafferty says.
Sometimes, he has concluded, clients may be so high-maintenance that it’s time to part ways. “Don’t be afraid to recommend they find a more suitable service,” he says.
Entropy. “For any effort you repeat more than once, create a process,” McLafferty recommends. “Your business is only as scalable as your systems and processes, so really sit down and walk step by step through each,” he says. WP Curve has, for instance, created processes for recruitment, emailing customers, fixing specific WordPress problems, finding content writers, promoting content and other tasks.
Butting heads. It’s easy for co-founders to clash if you don’t define clear roles and responsibilities. This due has taken a cue recommended by Hiten Shah, the founder of tech firm KISSMetrics, and adopted the “Batman and Robin” approach, where one of them takes the lead on any given project. In their case, McClafferty usually focuses on building relationships for the firm, while Booth does a deep dive into operations.
Isolation. Working remotely is great, but sitting alone in front of your computer can get lonely after a while, even if you chat with colleagues online. McClafferty recommends taking advantage of sites that help you stay plugged into the remote-working community like NomadList. The inspiration you need to keep scaling may be only a café away.
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