Interview by Thomas Peham
July 8, 2015
Photos by Mike Sadowski
From founding and selling the Polish version of YouTube, to starting his SaaS career with Brand24.
Mike Sadowski managed to grow Brand24, a social monitoring tool, to 30 employees spread over multiple offices.
Besides doing marketing stunts for his business, Mike is a SaaS lover sharing some lessons learned in building a Software as a Service company.
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Hi Mike. Can share some insights on a typical day in your life?
Hi Thomas, I’m Mike Sadowski, CEO at Brand24. Normally I wake up around 8:00. It's pretty late but I stay up late, since we have a global product and there are a lot of customers who have discussions going on in late hours.
Even though we have a 24/7 helpdesk and we have people to do that, I still feel like I need to do some things by myself. I need to engage with customers myself in order to understand them better.
When I wake up I just check my iPhone and see if we have new customers on board. I also check various CRM and marketing alerts.
Then I probably log into Facebook, Slack, Twitter and I check all the notifications. After a regular breakfast I head to our office, where I spend my day until 4 or 5 pm. After that I spend some time with my family. Afterwards I do go back and do some business.
It's a hobby for me so I don't really calculate how many hours a day I spend on the topic.
Video by Brand24
Can you share what Brand24 is about?
Sure. Brand24 is a SaaS application that allows you to know what people say about your company and product online.
Whenever someone talks about any of your products, any of your brands, or your competitor, you get to know instantly what they say. We also provide some analytics so you don't waste your time on looking for every result.
More and more companies use social monitoring tools not only for engaging with their customers and potential customers, but also for leads and sales generation.
Can you share some challenges which you've faced so far by building a SaaS product?
Sure. The biggest challenge was during the beta stage. We had no money and we had no income for 10 months. We have quit our previous jobs to work on Brand24.
By the time nobody knew if it's going to work. We were not the first marketing company out there. We were probably not even the tenth marketing company in Poland.
So there were plenty of reasons for potential customers to say no.
Luckily in the first month we signed 40 customers. Within three months we signed 100 customers, and with little outside funding we got started. However, our outside funding is less than $50,000 and we had no investors or something like that.
We managed to grow the company from just two people to 30 people and seven-figure revenue only with money from the customers.
The money was difficult for the first 10 months. I was expecting my first kid by the time, so it was kind of problematic. Luckily it all went well.
The second biggest challenge we had, and I think that this is one of the biggest challenges for any startup founder, is that if you're a good startup founder you have plenty of skills. Myself, I'm a programmer. I've never done any course on marketing or sales. This is good when you start a company, when there are just two or three of you on board. You can do several things and you can do them pretty well. This is an advantage.
At some point it starts to be a disadvantage because you can’t do everything in the best possible way. Personally, I had problems with delegation. It was very difficult and it took me probably a year or even longer. This is a big takeaway for me. I still have problems with that. But in order to be able to grow, you have to grow the skills in your company as well. And some people do a way better job now than I ever did.
Can you share some tips how you managed to become better at delegating things?
Sure. I think that technology helps a lot.
Internal tools like Asana, Redmine or Slack are great tools in order to communicate easily with coworkers.
Plenty of people within our company are working remotely. Additionally, we have offices in three cities in Poland which makes things difficult in terms of the communication, but I think we have figured this out with a lot of Skype calls and Slack chats.
Has there been any moment or any big influence which laid out your career in technology?
I think that Brand24 itself is a breakthrough. We had other projects before. We did a Polish version of YouTube in 2005. We sold it for a couple of millions a year later to some huge company, and this was probably one of the major milestones in our business life.
From being just modest students on the technical university, we had become internet entrepreneurs.
Apart from selling the company we were also running it for a couple of years, so we learned a lot. However, when starting with Brand24 we had little experience with software. Our previous projects or companies were mostly into entertainment.
With the Polish version of YouTube, we were just publishers. The software business however is completely different. I’m in love with software as a service, since it enables me to analyze all the aspects of my business.
What was the reason for you to start studying at a technical university?
I hope they don’t read this interview ;-) They're lovely people and there are some pros in the university education. You improve your skills to solve problems in general.
However, I don't use any particular skill, like any programming language we’ve learnt at university. The internet technologies we used back then are out of date.
The university taught me how to solve problems. It gave me some initial network of people that I could work with in terms of creating companies.
I met my two co-founders and we work together until today. Finding a co-founder who's driven by the same things that you are is super difficult these days. Even with all these startup events. It's still very hard to find like minded people. University can help you with that.
As I said, there are some pros, but there are also a lot of cons. You're wasting time on the things you really don't need to learn, like the parallel programming or some math stuff, even though I love math.
Nobody needs this anymore. I'm all in for higher level education, but short and intense, and very specialized. Three years maximum and super specialized rather than just this Masters degree that makes you do all the things that you shouldn't really be doing.
You should be spending more time on the specific topic where you want to become a pro.
bugtrackers.io is also about tracking bugs and testing software. Can you share some insights how you handle testing at Brand24?
We obviously have production servers and the test servers, so before we release the product into the wild we do a lot of testing in the controlled environment.
With the products that are used by thousands of users, sometimes it's difficult to be able to test everything within our own environment.
Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith and just release the product.
Other than that we just use basic solutions like SVN. And we have some advanced workflow installed - Although I'm a programmer I don't have access to the code anymore. Which is very sad because I used to change little things in the CSS ;)
Is there any advice you would give yourself as a 14-year-old?
I’d tell my 14 year old to not do a masters degree at university.
Other than that I wouldn’t change anything. I’m happy today and therefore I wouldn’t change anything, not even smaller things.
If you could travel through time between the time you started Brand24 and today. Which time would you choose?
I'm super excited about the time we're in right now. We're getting close to 1,000 paying customers and we are building Brand24 as a real business. I'm super excited how things are at the moment and I wouldn't like to change this.
I might say that this is the time in my life and I don't think I've ever been happier than I am now. Finally, there's a business that works.
We've become popular in the startup community in Poland, because we did some crazy marketing stunts. Like crazy rap videos to promote the service and to share the knowledge. If someone told me a couple of years ago, that we are going to be that successful with Brand24, I would have not believed it.
Looking in the future, what do you think will be the next challenges?
Sure, so our biggest challenge at the moment is user onboarding. We've improved onboarding our users and we've doubled our conversion rate from visitors to trials in past three months.
Now we want to improve the conversion rates from the trials to trials that actually test the product. At the moment 80% of our trials don't create any keywords, they don't test our product. To be honest, this is a huge fuck up on our side.
It shows how bad we were in onboarding the customers. It also shows a great potential. If we are able to grow almost 100 customers a month now with a shitty onboarding like that, it gives me a lot of hope for the future.
Obviously we will probably have a hiring challenge as well since we’ll need more people with great skills in order to grow. We'll need to set up the helpdesk for different time zones.
And we have the churn problem, which for companies that start is not such a big deal. Since we are three years old now, it starts to become an issue. Our churn rate currently is around 5% per month. It's not huge and very, very bad, but it's still bad.
I guess there are so many things to consider around the topic of onboarding new users. From a tech perspective, as well as from a marketing, data, and sales perspective.
That's what I love about this business. If you run a street market selling fruits, there's no analytics which lets you know where your customers came from and how they perceive the product.
Here - with a SaaS business - we have all the tools we'll ever need. It's just a problem to solve.
It's like a mathematical problem. You are certain that it can be solved. Once you’ve gained product market fit, it’s just a problem on how to scale and make the experience pleasant.
Absolutely. Is there any tool or technology you find super fascinating at the moment?
Sure. Heap makes me super excited. Not only because of the funnels, but it also gives our sales reps a huge advantage when they approach customers which potentially visited the pricing page but didn't buy the product.
It almost feels like we can sit behind our customer and watch their screen and see what they are doing.
Again, Heap is one of the tools that we are now using. Another one that we are about to implement is Contact Monkey.
Exploring Google Analytics itself is a huge thing. I feel like people say they use and know about Google Analytics. But it's bullshit.
I can probably name only a few people that actually leverage all the tools, all the features that Google Analytics offers.
Even though I invest a lot of time into Google Analytics, I wouldn't call myself an expert. I wouldn't say I know the tool, because it gives so many options.
At some point, one of the biggest challenges will be to combine all the data.
I'm yet to find the technology that allows me to do that. To have one dashboard that combines all the features like Google Analytics, Heap, Totango or any other technology out there.
What kind of tool are you using for customer care or customer support?
We have written our own CRM. We also thought about using Zendesk or other tools like that, but we have our CRM has already some features for tagging the most promising leads. We already analyzed the number of logins and some additional metrics like that. It would be probably difficult to integrate with any tool like Zendesk at this point.
Do you consider Poland as a startup friendly environment?
Yes - I think so. It's probably more difficult than in the UK or the US, but there are some advantages. It's way cheaper to live here. The talent is way cheaper. We wouldn't be able to grow to 30 people if we were a company based in Silicon Valley.
I feel like there will be more and more companies which will make really good jobs from this part of Europe because we're as motivated as people in Silicon Valley.
We probably have a smaller network here, but again, there’s a huge advantage in not having to pay $150,000 a year to every developer.
And the world is getting smaller and smaller. Every few months I’m traveling to San Francisco or New York, however, I feel that people are getting used to Skype and remote collaboration. More and more companies from Europe are becoming very competitive in the tech industry.