Peter Coppinger on Going From Happy Consultant Developer to Unhappy Product CEO

Peter Coppinger has cited BoS talks as “changing his company”. He made the leap from BoS regular attendee to BoS speaker in 2016.

Peter has done a few uncommon things in his career. He built a product business out of a consulting business, he has built a company to $12 million ARR without external funding, as a developer, he has consistently undervalued the other elements a business needs to be successful. Though it has turned out OK, Peter discusses some of the challenges of making the jump from consulting to a product business and consider some of the key things that he wished he had done sooner as he built

Find Peter’s talk video, slides, notes, transcript, and more from Peter below.

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  • Part 1: The Hamster Years
    • 2007 – Getting more organized
      • Doubled our prices and no one cared!
      • Whiteboard just wasn’t enough
      • We started Teamwork to scratch our own itch.
    • The Idea Was Born – The leading product didn’t have basic features and didn’t treat me well when I tried to make suggestions / ask about features. It pissed me off.
    • Take-Aways
      • Consultancy sucks. increase your prices & charge for the extras
      • Don’t target a small market!
      • Don’t sell software components to developers.
      • Consultancy-ware software is no fun to build or sell.
      • Treat your customers with respect and listen to their suggestions.
      • Trust your gut!
  • Part 2:
    • Finding the time… decided to focus one day per week on teamwork while continuing work on boring consultancy projects to pay the bills.
    • Preparing for launch
      • Used our product all the time .
      • We wanted to call the product Teamwork…
      • Should have picked
    • Worst product launch
      • Didn’t solicit feedback,
      • No launch website / email list.
      • Didn’t try to get any PR.
      • We were perfectionists… which was a HUGE mistake.
    • No Unique Positioning
      • “Product management made easy” … means nothing.
      • best / top / most etc doesn’t mean anything to anyone. You have to make your product stand out.
    • Marketing? Who needs marketing anyway?
      • We were software guys and were scared to do this.
      • We did only 3 things right
        • We built a great product.
        • We treated our customers like honored guests.
        • We took every suggestion onboard.
    • Engineering as Marketing
      • Referral scheme
      • Made an importer from our biggest competitor
      • We created a monthly newsletter.
    • Riding the Long Slow SAAS Ramp of Death
      • Sales in Year 1 = 13k
      • Sales in Year 2: 100k
    • Our Magic Number = $30k MRR
  • Web Dev Business for Sale
    • We finally got to a place where we didn’t need the consultancy.
    • Price: Don’t drop the ball.
    • Side Note on Self-Funding: It has never been cheaper to make software!!
  • Hell Night (August 2012)
    • The data center went dark and I couldn’t get ahold of them?!!?!?!?!
    • We were down for 8 hours… and I vowed that would NEVER happen again.
  • Hitting $1mil ARR – 50 months after we launches.
  • Take aways
    • Make the time to build your product. Start right now.
    • Start with research and design, not code.
    • Launch it right.
    • positioning – stand out, be different.
    • Fire your day job and go all-in asap
    • Eat your own dog food
    • Don’t take funding
    • Amazon AWS ARR
  • Part 3: Growing Up
    • Hockey Stick Event: Buying
      • The squatter tried to get millions for the domain name… eventually settled on 675k.
      • Co-Founders were really resistant. Peter made his Martin Luther King speech.
      • They finally agreed to purchase… which is good because it was already done.
    • Did it make a difference?
      • Hell… yeah!!!
      • The single-word domain name gives instant credibility.
      • It proves you aren’t a fly-by-night.
      • We instantly got more referrals, articles, etc.
    • Be the CEO
      • I hadn’t embraced the role of CEO.
      • Had about 40 people at this stage.
      • “Aha! It’s my job”… all the stress and problems were completely my fault because I was the CEO.
    • Meetings Suck… but get over it.
      • Quarterly meetings … get out of the office, identify the top 5 biggest problems and what you are going to do to fix them.
    • Set the Vision… and communicate it to everyone.
    • Mistake #783: Not Hiring Deliberately
      • We hired a HR person and started posting jobs.
      • We are now up to 70 people.
      • It is never too early to start hiring!
    • Sculpting Our Culture
      • This is happens in every company… 2 options:
        • 1: let it happen
          • It happens regardless….
        • 2. sculpt it
          • Set vision
          • Started allowing people to go to conferences
          • Allowed sabbaticals.
          • Created a company manual
          • “Don’t be a dick.”
  • Mistake #386: No Marketing Team
    • Try everything, test everything.
  • Mistake #1038: We Don’t Need a Sales Team
    • We finally hired sales people and it made a HUGE impact.
  • Process Pains
    • All the stress is because of missing processes.
    • When people are spread out around the world…you have to be incredibly intentional about connecting people.
    • After 9 years… just last month we created a hiring process.
    • Once it is written down… you can have a discussion
  • NOBODY has ALL the Answers [including the CEO]
    • It’s ok and important to admit you don’t have the answers and will make mistakes
  • Trust Others & Let Go
    • We have to realize we have to trust others, even if we think we could do a better job
  • Part 3 Takeaways!
    • Be the CEO.
    • Hold quarterly meetings.
    • Set the vision.
    • Establish your culture.
    • Establish your processes.
    • You don’t have to have all the answers.
    • Trust others and let go.
  • Questions
  • What would you have done differently if you had done more upfront definition
    • We would have focused more on product definition… we would have had a much better product.
  • As you scale the company… what are your grand plans if you don’t want outside money?
    • At the moment we have a couple million in the bank.
    • Our biggest problem is the rate at which we get people in the company.
    • If we got an infusion of capital, we’d probably over and incorrectly spend.
    • It’s a pride thing too… we’ve gotten this far. I’d rather do it my way that have to deal with outside investors.
  • It’s cheaper than ever to make software… do you lose sleep about competition coming in and replacing you?
    • I don’t worry about this… it’s an inevitability, but…
    • We compete on our support services, our suite, our features, our we engage customers.
    • People aren’t going to be able to keep up with us.
  • How do you pull yourself back and stop focusing on micro stuff…
    • I don’t… I still work in the software. I spend about 30% being a CEO.
    • I love programming and still do it. I get an endorphin rush when creating… I don’t get that from being a CEO.
    • I don’t know… this needs to change… ask me in a year.
  • How do you manage your product backlog?
    • We stay very very engaged with the support staff.
    • We’ve started ranking requests and tagging them…
    • Weekly meetings with head of support + sales + product… they have votes for product
      • We use google sheets
  • How do you encourage virality and adoption?
    • Our customers customers are on the project… which helps drive that.
    • Referral scheme… 25% of annual referral.
    • Why don’t you ask your customers to tweet about you?
      • OH YEA! – We added that to our product newsletter
  • When do you win?
    • We’ve had a couple offers to buy the company. Not really interested in doing that… you only live once, I’m going to blow this up as big as I can go.
    • I don’t have a better idea… if we sold, I’d take a month off and then be bored!
  • What about freemium?
    • It’s worked really well for us.
    • We found small groups in a big company try and that is an in to more of the company.
  • Generic with Broad Market vs. Narrow
    • We deliberately focused on the broad market.
    • E.g.: Customers asked for helpdesk ticket number, which appeals to more technical people and could compete with JIRA… We chose to not go this route and instead focus more widely.
    • There’s a lot to say about niche vs. not… pros and cons either way.
  • You integrate with a large number of other people’s products…how does this impact your product strategy.
    • That’s tough… we are going to make an amazing integration, but still make a better product AND will absolutely have better integration across our products… this is our key differentiator. We can do beautiful integrations that no one else can do.
  • A free year for startups…
    • We look quickly
    • Can’t have more than 100k invested
    • Must have less than 12 people.

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Peter Coppinger: And thank you Rand and Bridget! I thought your talks are amazing! Unfortunately, you said half of everything I wanted to say. So, Mark helped me with this title, from happy consultant developer to unhappy product CEO.

Today I will tell you a story about how two struggling self-employed web developers almost packed it all in and a few years later despite doing everything wrong as you will see, managed to run a $12 million a year SaaS business.

So, my name is Peter Coppinger, and I’m the co-founder and CEO of a company called And we’re based in the south of Ireland in a place called Cork as Mark just mentioned.

For those of you that don’t know us we make three products. And our flagship product is teamwork projects and it helps you get work done, something like basecamp on steroids. Our second product is teamwork desk which helps you run your helpdesk and it’s like zendesk on steroids. That’s about a year old and it’s amazing. Check it out! And our third product is teamwork chat and it’s completely free and it’s slack on steroids. And the amazing thing about all our 3 products is they integrate so when a ticket comes in, you can add a task over here and complete it and so on.

And it worked well for us. We’re doing $12 million and that is the old slide. We have 370,000 customers using our products but a lot of them are on the free plan and we give our products completely free to start-ups for one year. No questions asked, if any start-ups here want to check it out. We have 22000 paying customers around the world including some of the biggest names in the world. Disney signed up, came to us and asked for an enterprise plan which is really cool. I’m not here today to convince you to use our products, but you should check them out [laughter] or to brag because frankly we’re still a small fish compared to Rand, we have a long way to go.

I’m here to do the opposite because I have a confession, I am a terrible CEO. Why am I a terrible CEO? Because I freaking love programming and my co-founder Dan also loves programming too. And the two of us, looking back now, we have made every mistake in the book because we concentrated on features and product development to the exclusion of almost everything else. It’s amazing we’ve done as well as we have.

So, I will tell you our story in three parts. I will tell you about all the mistakes I made along the way some of the lessons we learned and hopefully you can avoid making the same mistakes wherever you are in your journey and you can learn some of the lessons and avoid making them and you will get to $10-12 million sales much faster that we did.

Part 1 – The Hamster Years

So, part 1 is what I like to call the hamster years, you will see why in a minute. So back in 1999, when the blink tag was cool and we just out of college. Can anyone remember it? It was cool! We started a web development agency called Digital Crew and I started it with a buddy and a year later Dan came on board and Dan is the other person that I met that truly loved programming and he also had similar ambitions. Back then we thought that $3000 for a website was insane and we thought we can easily pump out 4 sites a week and make millions [laughter]. Well you can’t and we didn’t. It took us a long time to learn that.

Fast forward 6 years later and we transitioned to becoming a web app development company and we made hundreds of applications for companies in Cork, we were pumping out applications for them and we were pretty happy developers, right? We felt like this hamster in the wheel, we were constantly peddling working 60 hours a week, working really hard but we were getting nowhere. The other thing is we were broke.

So, it’s about this time that originally I started a company with him. He decided he wants off and move to Australia and try something else and he left the company and it was then that myself and Dan decided to take a good, hard look at where we were and the company was. We were starting to get on, a bit old in the tooth and we realised that our model was kind of broken and we knew that something had to give. I remember turning to Dan and said buddy, let’s give it 12 more months or pack this in because it’s not working. Just 12 more months or we will give up and go get a real job!

So, I will just tell you 2 side stories, we did actually try something called where we sold small software components to developers and what we learned is that developers like us are miserable stingy people. We don’t like to pay for things, we’d rather copy or build it ourselves. And the other is the market was just too small and we wasted over the course of 5 years 100,000 off this and it was a bit of a silly distraction in hindsight.

Another side project we did was we made software for local college called Akari with their encouragement we turned it into a product. And for a couple of years I hauled my ass all over Europe trying to convince colleges and universities to buy the software off us and we had some success but what I learnt here is that enterprise sales software completely sucks! And it was not what I wanted to do in my life, I didn’t want to be a sales man and work in this crap. So eventually I was able to get myself out of it and spin the company off. They’re doing quite well now but I’m glad to have nothing to do with it. Come back to that.

So January 2007 with nothing to lose, 12 months runway left, we decided – I took a good hard look at the business and realised that we had 2 major problems. One was that we were just completely disorganised with all our projects and the second thing is we were being too nice to our clients. Any time they asked for extra features we were like no problem and added them on, we never charged them for these things. With nothing to lose, because we literally had 12 months left, overnight we decided to double our prices, just right there and there. January 2007, we were suddenly 50% more expensive and we also started to charge our clients any time they wanted extra work and here is the amazing thing. Nobody cared! They were all happy to pay! And suddenly we started turning our consultancy around, so that’s a big tip there for any people that do consultancy in the room and inter-product development. Just try doubling your prices, you have nothing to lose!

So, the next thing we wanted to tackle was getting more organised. So, we had a white board in the corner of the office and we had all our projects listing on it and which customers are screaming at us the most and time tracking and what not. It was a tiny white board and a chaotic mess. So, we really knew that we needed to fix this. I know that every company in this space says this but this is true we genuinely started teamwork to scratch our own itch!

So, here’s the story of what happened. Back in January 2007 there was a couple fledgling online project management systems that we’d heard of and we decided to check them out to see if any of them could help us run our business. We ended up settling on the market leading product which will remain nameless and we gave it a go for a few weeks and after a few weeks of using it, we were shocked at how bad it was. You couldn’t put a due date on a task, was the killer for me. So, we had thousands of tasks, some are due in March, some next week, some are due today, some are late, but in their system, they were just all existing together. And the other thing is you couldn’t put a file on a task and we were like how is this so popular? How are they doing so well? We felt we were making better software than this every day of the week for our customers in Cork. But the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when I emailed their support and I said – I asked them if and when they might consider adding a due date feature to tasks, a reasonable ask. And the response I got back was so rude and dismissive to my needs as a customer, that it really pissed me off. And that was when the idea was born.

I remember after kind of sleepless nights coming into my co-founders Dan, for coffee one morning, we’d meet every morning at coffee in the same place and I said hey, Ted, cause we call each other Ted for some reason [laughter]. I think there’s a gap in the market here and I think we could make a much better product and I think we could maybe actually treat our customers with a bit of respect. And he said Ted, I’ve been thinking the exact same thing [laughter] and that was the full extent of the market research. So, that’s part 1. Key takeaways: consultancy sucks, if you’re doing just try jacking up your prices, you have nothing to do! Charge for the extras, feature creep is what kills every product, don’t be afraid to charge! Don’t target a small market, needless to say,. Don’t sell software components to developers, that’s my own personal feeling. We’re miserable, alright? Consultancy for software is no fun to build or sell. So, any enterprise software – actually Joel Polski who is a hero of mine, has an amazing article called 5 worlds and if anybody here who’s at the business of software conference hasn’t read every single thing ever written by him, you need to leave. Cause he really does have some amazing stuff! Treat your customers with respect and listen to their suggestions, not that hard. And sometimes, you just got to go with your gut, right?

Part 2 – If You Build it, They will Come

So, part 2, if you build it they will come, right? So, finding the time to work in teamwork with all these other clients was actually really hard, so even after we got the idea 4 weeks passed and we had made zero progress. Now remember we met for coffee one time and were like how we were gonna get this bloody thing out of the ground and get out of the consultancy mess that we found ourselves in? And we decided that the only way if we ever made it work is if we dedicated 1 day a week to work exclusively on the product. So, we decided Friday was going to be that day. So Friday no matter how much stress and pressure and whatever else was on from customers and they were screaming at us, we decided that this was our one true priority. So, we worked on teamwork on Fridays, all weekend sometimes, the evenings and slowly over the course of a few months, the product started to come together.

One thing – we sat out to design a product actually, I said we did everything wrong, right? This is how we designed a product, we opened co-editors, started a new project and we got stuck in. So it was the wrong way, there was no design, no specs. We just tore into it. I think in hindsight the only thing that saved us here was our years of experience building applications for other people so a terrible mistake.

Preparing for launch. One thing we did well was we used our own product every day for 2 months to run our consultancy before we launched it. That’s something we’ve kept up to this day and it helped us to file away all the rough edges, the little annoyances that make it cumbersome to use the product every day. We got rid of them and it’s something we maintained and we’ve 3 products we’re a long way down the road. We use our products every day and we’re the biggest users of our products. And that’s one of the reasons I think they’re so good and I think that’s standard of us.

When it came time to picking a domain name for the business, as we can see we wanted teamworkPM.NET. The worst possible domain name in the universe, right? And this came about because we wanted teamwork, we knew we wanted to call the product team work from day 1 but obviously, we couldn’t get the so someone snapped it up. More on that later. But could we have picked a worse name? We should have called it which I checked and is still available [laughter]. It just shows how bad we were at marketing – probably still are.

So, and to top that off, not only did we pick the worst possible domain name in the universe, we followed that up with the world’s worst product launch ever!

So, we did everything wrong, we didn’t do any of the standard things, we didn’t put out a close bid, solicit any feedback from potential customers, we didn’t put up a launch website or build a launch email list, we didn’t send a single email about the product and we didn’t try to get any PR. Everything wrong! So, after 4-5 months of hard work on 4th of October 2007 we put the website online, we put a link up on the website and gave each other a high five and went home to bed.

And looking back now, why didn’t we try to get more PR about a product to build up a main launch mail list or try to do something more? I think looking back is because we were perfectionists and we felt the product was missing a couple of key features and not quite as polished as it should be. We didn’t have a UX design, we just hacked it ourselves. But it did do the job and we using it to run our own consultancy and this, looking back now, was a huge mistake! You got to brag about your product a little bit.

Another thing we made a huge mistake with – our original website said project management made easy which means nothing right? And I kind of learned that from Rob’s talk in Barcelona. His talk on positioning really hit home with me, made me realise that saying things like most full featured, best features, top in class, that crap doesn’t mean anything to anyone, you have to find something to make your product stand out. And this is something we’re still struggling with and our 3 products if you use them together there’s the most beautiful integration in the world and that is a unique selling point that we will get our marketing around.

So, after launching the product Friday, we tipped away over the weekend and then Monday morning rolls on and we went back to real work. And this was horrible because we’re the product designers and front-end and back-end developers, the UX, we were support, testing, marketing to some extent, all rolled into one. And on top of that, we had to do our day job to pay the bills. So, we kind of had to keep working on boring client work Monday to Friday while we built teamwork up. And we did absolutely no marketing, we were just I suppose because our skillset was being product developers, we were terrified of marketing and we kind of – it wasn’t in our comfort zone so we just stayed away from it.

The only thing we did right was we built a great product, we treated any customers who did stumble on our product like honoured guests and we listened to everything they had to say. Sometimes when they gave us a suggestion, we would implement their idea in a manner of minutes or hours and blow it away, make a customer for life! When it comes to marketing, we did 2 to 3 bits of engineering as marketing. We did our referral scheme which in the long term worked out well for us. We made an importer from our biggest competitor – which will remain nameless. And the third thing we did was every month from the start we created a monthly newsletter where we listed features that we worked out during the month. And if nothing else, this gave us a kick to just get something done for the newsletter every month so I highly recommend that.

So, we rode the long slow SaaS ramp of death for 3 years, as a reference to Gail Goodman’s absolutely amazing business of software talk. In our first month where we had the product out there, despite only being listed deep in the bowels of Google, we somehow managed to have 3 people sign up for our product and pay us and we made a massive $191. We were on the way! In our first year we made $13,000 in our second year we made $100,000. Imagine this after 2 years of blood sweat and tears, working on the product morning, noon and night with Dan and doing our consultancy work, we made $113,000.

It took us 3 years to kind of get to our magic number and what is our magic number? We had decided that 30,000 MRR was conservatively the magic number we needed to get to pay our bills, have some staff, pay some office that we had and be able to fire our consultancy. It took us 3 years to get here and I suppose as we were headed towards 30,000 MRR we were able to spend 2 days a week working on the product and bring other staff in to help us on the product. And the consultancy business finally became just a thorn in our side and we were making more money from the business and product than we were from a consultancy so we decided it was time for the consultancy to go.

So, our price was just that we could find a company who would take their existing client base and just look after them and they wouldn’t drop the ball because we had a pretty good reputation down in Cork and we didn’t want to lose that. So, we found another web development agency and we worked with them, we gifted them our entire book of clients and we sat down with all the clients and explained what’s happening and slowly we handed the digital crew business to these guys. Massive gift for those guys but we were just happy they looked over our customers and it worked out really well. It was a lot of stress but I’m really happy with how that worked.

A side note here on self-funding, it genuinely – we were some what a bit naïve, it never occurred to us once to look for investment, it’s just something we probably never heard of and looking back now I’m kind of glad for that. And I kind of feel very strongly about this, what everyone knows, I think there’s too many developers nowadays who are trying – who think that they need to take funding. And here’s the thing, it’s never been cheaper to make software or for servers or dedicated servers that we had to get back then. They cost us 23000 for a server plus hosting of 200 a month. You could get that server now for $100 a month, it’s never been cheaper to build software. So, I just hate the thought of developers out there thinking that they need money, unless you’re first in the market – Rand’s talk earlier on when he mentioned that he wouldn’t take investment again, that’s an occurring theme I hear over and over again. Who wants to answer to a board?

That brings me conveniently to August 2012, a night I will never forget. Hell Night. So, it’s about 2 o’clock one night and I was about to turn in for the night and luckily I happened to reload, I think I noticed a tweet or something and it didn’t load, everything was down. We were doing quite well at this stage, panic set in, of course I tried contacting the servers, couldn’t get through, I tried contacting our hosting company couldn’t get through. I tried other websites I knew were hosted with this big hosting provider, which was seemingly professional and everything was down, all their clients were offline. But the worst thing was I couldn’t get through to anybody, not even to our account rep, the phone just rang out. I remember sitting there tweets and emails flooding in, slating our service was being offline and we just like were on the verge of tears, apologising to our customers, texting them and tweeting and emailing back on my own. I couldn’t get through to anyone and it was just a horrible night. And we’d been down for about 8 hours and when we came online, we vowed never again! Slowly over the course of a couple months we moved to Amazon web services and that’s been a fantastic decision for us, we’ve never looked back and I think we had 2 hours’ downtime max over the lifespan of the product since we moved. So, we rolled the long slow SaaS ramp of death until we finally hit 90000 MRR, 50 months after we launched, in December 2011. So, I remember it was a fantastic feeling, we felt we finally made it!

That’s the end of part 2. Couple of key notes here is make the time to build your product. If there’s anybody here thinking about building your product, then there’s no better time to start than right now. Start with research and design, not the code. But launch it right, don’t do what we did. Find your position, stand out, be different. Find out what’s gonna make you stand out in a saturated market, fire your day job and go all in as soon as you can and eat your own dog food, that’s pretty standard advice. And please don’t take funding! Screw those guys!

Part 3 – Growing Up!

So, part 3, is growing up. So, we had a hockey stick event in the history of our company – that’s where your sales graphs goes like a hockey stick and you can probably guess what it is, right? it was reaching out to the guy who owned and buying the domain. We tried to buy the domain a couple times over the years, back in 2011, my co-founder Dan sent an email to the guy who owned the domain and he sent back this reply Hello, I never heard of this organisation so I was surprised to receive your inquiry. I haven’t offered to sell this domain so there is no asking price for it. We’re currently using this domain – which is rubbish because they were not – squatting under the domain and our continued use is anticipated. Purely I feel that the generic term and the value of this domain is comparable to these reported transactions. Link. So we took a look – holy s! So has just gone for 16 million, for 13 million, for 11 million as well and so on. So this was just completely out of our price range so we left the goal for a while. Following years as our business was building in 2012 I emailed him again and he sent back this pretty curt email – we already discussed this matter. See attached! So it pissed me off a bit but I got over it.

And then the following year, whilst my girlfriend Claire who’s sitting over there, we were in a bar in Cork and she was taking too long in a bathroom, as you do. And I’m sitting there and somehow it popped in my head that I would love because we had a good product with crappy marketing and I knew that this would help us. So I just on a whim after a few pints I just sent the guy an email saying would you consider 100,000? And he sent back the same dismissive reply: same lowball offer? No thanks! So I instantly shot back still in the pub while waiting for my girlfriend, please make me a counter-offer, you douche? And he instantly sent back I’d consider 675k. And guys, I nearly wet myself! Because that sounds like a lot of money but this guy must have been in a bar in America and I think he made a mistake cause I knew this could be the thing that really transformed our business. So carefully two days later I carefully worded my reply, I even pretended we had a board. And I offered him the 675,000 he’s looking for and the rest is history. He accepted it and so on.

Then I had the arduous task of going to my co-founder Dan and our CFO Billy and try to convince them to buy So, I remember it was – we had – this is about €500k, we had about 600k euro in the bank at the time and I asked them and said I really think we should do this, it would be great and they were resistant to it. It’s every penny we have, let’s wait in a couple years when we’re bigger, maybe we could try a different domain name or change our name. Lots of alternative options. It was then I gave what I consider my MLK speech, I was like guys, I don’t know about you but I only live once and I don’t mind you taking a punt and failing but I don’t want to be 80 years old on my deathbed and regretting not making this move. And with that they went – Dan looked to me and said let’s do it. Which was a good thing cause it was already done [laughter].

So did it make a difference? I think you already know the answer, hell yeah! That is in the wrong place. How did this happen? This was here, I swear but you can see the inflection point when things took off from us. Mark, did you not use the latest slides? The latest slides have this over here, it’s Mark’s fault. But you can clearly see where things really took off for us and why did work out for us over the .net? I think it’s because the single word domain name gave us credibility. You’re hosting people’s projects and files, they want to know you will be around for a while, that’s really important to them and having a one word domain name gave us instant credibility. We instantly overnight started getting more referrals, articles written about us and things just started to take off. Yeah, these are the wrong slides.

So as things started to take off for us as a company but I’ve got a – I still wasn’t being a CEO and this is back to the title, as things took off for us I started feeling a lot of stress about being CEO and I was an unhappy CEO because I hadn’t embraced the role of being a CEO, I was still a developer.

And an embarrassing story 2 years ago myself and my girlfriend decided to head off to NY for 6 months because we wanted to live there for 6 months, something different to living in Cork. And I worked night and day on our new product for 6 months, heads down night and day for 6 months and at the end I looked up and we had a beautiful new product and some cutting edge technology we could use for the future I think. But when I looked at the things in Cork, the company was in a bit of a mess. Our culture, we were hiring people and we hadn’t hired anybody for 6 months, our culture was undefined, things were a bit of a mess, we had problems everywhere. We had 40 people at this stage and it was just a bit crazy. And I had this moment of clarity one day when I realised that all these problems around lack of communication and so on and all the stress in the company was my fault, I wasn’t being a CEO. And I realised that I needed to fix this and I went back to Cork and put systems in place to fix the company.

The first thing I needed to fix was getting us to have quarterly meetings. So we hate meetings, every company hates them, but one meeting I highly recommend that every company does is 4 times of the year, get out of the office and have a quarterly meeting and identify your top 5 things wrong with the company – this won’t be obvious with older companies and identify the 5 worst things in your company and what you’re gonna do to fix them. That’s it and that’s all you need to do. Had we done this earlier, we would have identified our problems around the process and lack of hiring.

Next thing I said was setting divisions in the company and communicate it to everybody. I remember very nervously just 2 years ago, sharing my vision for where I wanted to take the company by 2020 with my co-founder and CFO and once I got buy in from them, we set about communicating it to the rest of the company. We have a very huge vision for where we’re taking the company. I can tell anybody later, we have three products now and they will run your entire business and I realised that it’s the CEO’s job to communicate this to everyone and they reassert this at every opportunity they get.

Next thing was not hiring deliberately. When I was in NY for 6 months, we hadn’t hired a single person so we finally hired somebody to help us with hiring, a HR person, and we started getting really deliberate about this, we put a jobs page on our website, we started with stack overflow has worked really well for us. We were now up to 70 people and we realised that this was our number 1 problem, it’s never too early to start your hiring. Cause good people are just really hard to find, right? Next thing we fixed, the clicker is not working. Help! Can anyone help? I’m good now [laughter]. You’re trying to slow me down!

So culture is obviously something that happens in every company and you have three choices, you can let it happen, let it evolve or you can sculpt it. And for a long time we just let it happen and it was a bit of a mess. So for the last years we started fixing this and doing things like having company sabbaticals, we sponsored people to go to any conference in the world they want, we put and identified our vision, values, we put together a company mnual and it worked great. We literally have a page in our manual called don’t be a dick! And the goal of the rule, never argue via chat, IM, SMS or email. Just talk to someone face to face and all your problems will disappear.

Another thing we fixed is we didn’t have a marketing team until 2.5 years ago. There’s no excuse for that, it was just completely silly on our behalf and it’s fixed now. If you never watched any other talk on marketing in software business, watch Gail Goodman’s business of software talk, I think it was in 2012. It is just monumentally the best SaaS business talk I have ever seen. If you’re too lazy it basically boils down to try everything, test everything. And we’re kind of getting there now and it’s getting traction.

Another mistake we’ve actually only fixed about 7 months ago which I’m embarrassed to say is we didn’t have a sales team. And why didn’t we have a sales team – because I’m a terrible CEO. We finally have 3 people working in sales now and the effect was monumental. We signed Disney as a customer! Our tiny company in Cork now has Disney as our customer. It’s just mind blowing for me. And we’re getting a lot of traction and we’re about to ramp on more people and get things going and excited about what this is gonna do for us.

Process pains, so again I just had a moment of clarity. Just last year we realised that there’s a lot of stress in the company and where is it coming from? I realised all of the stress is because of missing processes. An example here is that the marketing and sales team didn’t have a clue what the product team were working on and this wasn’t a big deal and there was 15 people in the area and it happened naturally but when people are spread around the world and across different floors in the company, we need a process in place to fix this and it’s pretty simple once you realise you need these processes to fix it. And we solved it by having a meeting every month with the sales, marketing and the sport and product lead work together to decide what’s the future we should be working on and just communicate that.

Another example, we’re in business 9 years now and just last month we identified what our hiring process is, for that was just a mess. So we now had three product teams and when we find a great developer, which one of the teams gets first dibs? And what’s our testing process like, our interview process? Do we hire people outside the EU or within the EU? If we hire people in Russia are we gonna pay for their visas, must they move to Ireland or can they work remotely? We didn’t establish all that until recently. And when we do identify a process we need to fix now, we write it down, we have a meeting. Whatever we agreed on that meeting, the ship has sales for 6 months, we don’t want to hear about it for 6 months, that’s it! That’s something I got from the Hubspot CEO Brian Halligan in Dublin last year. When they agree on a process, that ship has sailed for a year. So write down the processes and continually improve them. And once you start with something you can have discussion around it, right?

And this is something that held me back from being a CEO, I thought that the CEO needs to have all the answers and that you can’t admit that you don’t know. I realise now that that’s not true, it’s ok to admit that you don’t have all the answers and you will make mistakes and that’s ok and I think that’s really allowed me to step up so don’t be afraid to be the CEO.

Finally, it’s been really hard as a developer CEO to learn to trust others and let go. So myself and Dan used to do everything and now that we’re bigger we realise we can’t do everything anymore and we have to trust other people and let go. Even when we feel we could do a better job, we need to trust other people. And now when we make somebody in charge of HR for example, they are the god of HR and we’re gonna trust that they make the right decisions and that’s been really hard.

So that’s part 3, key takeaways, be a CEO – I suppose I didn’t mention it, but we all have this impostor syndrome that I mentioned earlier on, you just have to get over it, down tools and be the CEO. Hold you quarterly meetings, set the visions for the company, establish your culture and processes, you don’t have to have all the answers and trust others and let go. And you too can go from being a happy developer to finally being a happy CEO. That’s it! Thank you for your time [clapping]!

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Mark Littlewood: Fantastic! Curse free as well! Who would have thought? It’s possible, Peter! Questions?

Audience Question: You identified not doing research and design as being a problem early on. What would you have done differently had you done the research and design? Cause it seems you done really well!

Peter Coppinger: Our first version of the product probably wasn’t that great, if we had just spent one day in something like Balsamiq mock-ups we would have gotten the flow and wording of the product a lot better and it would have been a better product. Balsamiq Mockups is really good because it’s just a wireframe design, and you don’t think too much about the final UI, you’re just getting how the flow works together so I highly recommend that!

Audience Question: You mentioned your enthusiasm for taking outside investment. As you scale the company and you have grand plans, if it turns out that you can’t self-fund your grand plans, is your compromise going to be to scale back your plans or take outside money?

Peter Coppinger: Interesting question! At the moment, we have a couple of million in the bank and doing quite well and our biggest problem is the rate at which we can get people into the company. If we took the money and not exactly sure how we spend it and I’m pretty sure as Rand mentioned it earlier, we would spend it pretty badly and we’d have a board of investors and monthly meetings and then I would be pissed off. I hate the idea of that. We’re lean and agile, we can turn the ship really nimbly, go this way and see we’re doing the wrong thing and then go this way. And I think the investors would have a different agenda to us anyway so I’m really against taking investment and also it’s a kind of pride thing. We got this far without it, even if we have to grow at a slightly slower rate than I would like, I would rather do that!

Audience Question: Hi! That was a great talk! You said that it’s never been cheaper to make software and I think this is great particularly you see the global thing going on, more connectivity, places like Cork and Bedford can compete with Silicon Valley. The barriers are really dropping, so people can do what we do easier and easier. That trend is gonna continue presumably, in the future more tools make the sort of problems we’re talking about here become fixable, we can put more solutions in the cloud. The ability to solve problems with cloud becomes easier. Do you lose sleep about other people working out to do what you do in the future? The competition coming in and saying that looks like a very straight forward solution, I will do the same thing.

Peter Coppinger: I don’t really! There’s a company in Italy, a 2-man operation and they are literally copying our entire UI bit by bit, the words we use, the English phrases we use and that’s just gonna happen. I don’t believe in software patents I think they’re a disaster. I think we should compete in our support services, in who we are, on the suite of products that we offer is gonna be a really distinguishing feature. We have 3 products and they’re really good, we’re gonna have 5 next year and we’ll be able to run an entire company. That’s our vision and I think that’s gonna be hard for others to compete with us. If we rested on our laurels and we were complacent, I think other companies could catch us up. We’re not gonna let that happen, we will just go full steam ahead and keep improving our products and I welcome anyone to take us on!

Audience Question: Hi, Peter! Thanks for the talk! I was interested around, you mentioned that especially at the early stages of the company, you just dived in with the development and you wanted to get stuck in your – and I’m in that vein as well so what I would be really interested in is how you both manage yourself and also the company so you put in the processes that everything isn’t just dived into our actioned against – it’s more structured.

Peter Coppinger: As my girlfriend would tell you, I still do. She says there’s 3 of us in the relationship. Me, her and my laptop and I stay up till 4 o’clock to help with the product. And I do realise that I probably spend like 30% at the moment being the CEO. I arrange meetings and dedicate it one day a week to working on the business. Over time I’m hoping we need to get a few more people on board and myself and co-founder will scale out of that. And we’re going to be doing things like writing the white paper or writing the design of the new feature that we need and thinking about those implemented. We still have a long way to go and I’m still…the lure of the code is strong and I’m pulled to the dark side [laughter]. I love programming and there’s just something satisfying to using your brain to solve a problem and you get a kick out of that endorphin rush, you don’t get that being the CEO of a company. I will always be programming but if we want to scale the company – me and my co-founder will have to take a step back. So we haven’t figured it out yet but ask me again in a year.

Audience Question: Quick one as well! Now we see that you’re creating 3 products in the next 5. There’s a problem in developing software in which how you decide what new features you’re gonna build – now you have more customers and they ask for new features – how would you decide which one has to be in and which one not be in?

Peter Coppinger: Our support guys are the best for this because they can tell us straight away you guys like…we have a new version of the product about to launch and our customers for the last 5 years have been asking us for a week view and day view on our calendar. We only ever had a month view and they are screaming at us for this feature for the last 5 years. They just say guys you just need to add the bloody week view and day view. Those guys know better than us because they are dealing with the customers every day of the week. Simple as that! There’s more to it than that, we started doing things like we rank all the requests now, we tag them all in teamwork desk, we tag all the different requests with feature requests and then we can run reports to see how many feature requests we get for this, for this, how many enterprise customers are looking for this and we can make intelligent decisions now and we now bring a support team leader comes into the product feature meeting every month. So you’ve got the team lead from support, the head of marketing and head of product and we put a simple process in place where they all get three votes on which feature they want to develop next. And so the head of sales might decide that we need translations and he might say I will put my votes in this, because this is what the company really needs to do and the head of support the clients would really like a month view, day view and a week view and I am putting my votes in that. Then the product lead says I think we need to get the calendar first and it has 2 votes and this one a vote. At the end they have a very simple google sheet where it says this is the number 1 feature we need to work on.

Audience Question: Really interesting talk! I find it fascinating! I love your bit about how you kind of hood winked your co-founder – [laughter] I mean you can tell me what his reaction to the thing that you actually bought the domain without actually him or his prior approval, that would be interesting in gauging his feedback. My question is more about how’d you encourage the virality that drives kind of the need for your particular service?

Peter Coppinger: Well one of the things that’s really good for us when you’re using teamwork projects. We have a lot of web developers and marketing engineers using our product and they naturally put their customers on teamwork projects so their customers in turn can log in and they can see a view of how the project is going and you can give them full access or just view only access so inevitably they will go what is this thing? We have powered by in the bottom and natural curiosity will get us there. Another thing that works for us is referral scheme we put in place. We say to anybody anyone that you refer – it’s a link to the referral page – we say here is your link and pre-written tweets and stuff, if you put this out there, you will get 25% of the annual referral and that’s worked well for us in the longer term. The third thing is we simply ask – I’ve seen this somewhere a couple years ago why don’t you just simply ask your customers to tweet about you? Because they love your products. So we started doing that in our monthly newsletter, we have a love feature for the product and if you really love the product, please help us grow, tweet or write a blog post about us and to some extent that’s been great for us!

Mark Littlewood: When do you win? When do you think teamwork, done, move on?

Peter Coppinger: I’m looking at my girlfriend now [laughter] cause she’s asked me the same thing. We’ve had a couple of offers recently to buy the company. Kind of veiled offers and some public offers and to take some chips off the table, not really interested in doing that. You only live once and I will blow it up as big as I can go. So the other thing I now I think if I quit today and sold the company, I would take a month off and then be bored on the beach and think about the next product. I don’t have a better idea than right now. When I do, maybe someday we can sell it. For the next 10 years we are full steam ahead in this baby! So never [clapping]. Thank you!

Audience Question: You said you had a couple of million dollars in the bank. You’re not sure what – my domain is available just now.

Peter Coppinger: Really?

Audience Question: Yeah, should we talk after this?

Peter Coppinger: Yeah, I will definitely get you 2 pints for that.

Audience Question: Brilliant! Sold [laughter].

Audience Question: Great talk by the way! Very interested in your use of freemium because it’s getting mixed reviews around is it the right strategy? Particularly if you can’t convert freemium into paid so you mentioned some figures earlier and I’m interested in your thoughts about your upcoming products.

Peter Coppinger: It costs me and running servers is dirt cheap, right? If you plug into another server, it’s another 100 a month. Support, yeah I guess that’s been a big cost. It’s worked really well for us and even the likes of Disney, how we got them. You don’t go to a big enterprise organisation and say do you want this? What typically happens is a small group in the company will try the freemium version and they will pay for it and word will get out inside the company and you stealth into the company land and expand and it’s worked well for us, that’s all I can say.

Audience Question: Your product seems to be a generic project management product if I may say so. What are your ideas on building a generic product with a broad market versus something that is targeted towards a more easily identifiable niche?

Peter Coppinger: I have some thoughts on this. We deliberately kept our product generic even though the customers asked if we do things like have a number identified with every ticket and make it a more technical product that would appeal probably more to developers, to turn it into like an Agira type thing and we deliberately stayed away from that because everything from wedding planners and Disney and everything in between and we like that. The difficulty with that is say our content marketing strategy that we fired up last year, I mean where do we go after? We’re trying to appeal to everybody so it’s very hard to have a focused content marketing strategy. When you look at the likes of Intercom, it’s much easier for those guys cause their target is owners of web based products, it’s pretty simple for them and they can identify this niche and they make some amazing content for that niche. It has been pretty hard for us; the flipside is you’re selling to these guys as well as these guys. So we cast this really broad net and it’s been slow growth but now we got this rolling ball and more people are hearing about us and it’s working really well for us now. So there’s a lot to be said for going with a niche, especially if there’s nobody else in that niche so there are pros and cons either way.

Audience Question: Hi! You integrate with a large number of other people’s products and you said you want to be in control of or people using your product singularly to control their business. How does that resonate with people you’re gonna be competitors with?

Peter Coppinger: So yeah, that’s a tough one. So an example would be we’re asked for slack integration all the time cause that is the big thing at the moment and we have competing products on teamdesk. We’re still gonna make an amazing integration with slack so we’re not gonna lock you in to using only our products but what we’re saying is that if you do use our products, you will have this much more beautiful integration than any 2 separate products on the web could have. An example could be our ticket system. When you’re in teamwork desk and a task comes in, you can instantly create a task right there, that needs to be done and you send it to the customer saying we’re working on that and close the ticket. Then you can go over to the task and complete it and if you need to, you can see that it’s linked to the help desk and you can pick the ticket and see the details and history, it opens up a full view of everything whereas if that was 2 separate products ran by 2 separate companies, the integration would be at best modelled or opened a link in a new window. It wouldn’t be real-time. So we can do these beautiful integrations that no one else can do and we’re still gonna put it all together.

Audience Question: You said you offer free year to start-ups. What are the qualifications people have to meet for that?

Peter Coppinger: Just be a start-up. So we – if you go to we have a couple rules there. I think it’s things like you can’t have more than 100k invested in your company, more than 12 people in your company. To be truthful we kind of police that very lightly. There’s just an application form, you put in your details, we take a quick look on your website, have these guys taken investments? If you haven’t, we’re good to go. That’s it! Thank you very much, guys [clapping]! Thank you!

Mark Littlewood: Thank you!

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Peter Coppinger

Peter Coppinger, Teamwork
Peter Coppinger

Peter has done a few uncommon things in his career. He built a product business out of a consulting business, he has built a company to $12 million ARR without external funding, as a developer, he has consistently undervalued the other elements a business needs to be successful. Though it has turned out OK, Peter discusses some of the challenges of making the jump from consulting to a product business and consider some of the key things that he wished he had done sooner as he built

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