My Journey So Far as a SaaS Founder

February 11, 2016

I went into college adamant on entering the investment banking world. I can't recall what drove this desire besides money. Fortunately, I realized that I wanted something else for my life.

After switching gears before graduating I quickly became enamored with web development and the idea of web-based software. Today everyone knows this as SaaS, but this term wasn’t widely adopted at the time. The entrepreneurial culture, creative outlet, and joy of building something from scratch was what sold me. After reading Getting Real by Jason Fried and DHH I was truly hooked. The following 6 years of my life have been a journey in self-taught software development and bootstrapping businesses.

I started ZoomShift while in school as a showcase project. The idea gained steam as it won a few business plan competitions and attracted early customers. Fast forward 6 months, ZoomShift was part of an accelerator program and had funding from a local angel investor. Jump another 4 months ahead, our funding was pulled when our angel filed for bankruptcy after losing his fortune high-frequency trading.

When I’m asked about losing funding so early on I always say that it was one of the best things that could’ve happened. This experience afforded me the taste of funding without actually being trapped as a funded founder. When I “had funding” the type of company that ZoomShift needed to be was not the type of company I wanted to build. The small seed investment that we had for a short while was enough to make me hesitant about taking money in the future. I got lucky, and in the process turned into a bootstrapped founder.

Tailwind Creative, a development consulting agency, was born as a way to self-fund ZoomShift. My partner, Jon Hainstock, and I founded the agency. He and I and are now partners in ZoomShift as well. While running Tailwind we had the privilege of working on some exciting projects. We built a content sharing and up-voting platform from scratch for Through Dharmesh Shah we worked on an internal tool for HubSpot, and we helped EatStreet rebrand and design their mobile food ordering experience.

While working on client work we maintained ZoomShift and made sure that it could run on “auto-pilot” as much as possible. The idea was to use the agency as cash-flow so that we could eventually switch back to focusing on ZoomShift full-time. After running Tailwind for about 2 years we made this switch. ZoomShift had gained enough customers to support Jon and myself so we slowly shut the doors on the agency.

As I write this, we have been working full-time on ZoomShift for about 18 months. I love being able to do what I do every day despite the ups and downs that come with it. The fact that our customers rely on what we’ve built to run their businesses is gratifying and humbling. I get a high from developing new features, deploying them, and then seeing them get used by people every day. I believe this is what fuels many developers.

The switch back to ZoomShift presented an opportunity to strengthen our skills as developers. We rebuilt ZoomShift to enhance it, and also to stretch our development skills. The product came out improved, but our experience as developers grew even more so. This process took a grueling 8 months, but in the end, we had a completely new technology stack and a newfound love for Ruby, Rails, and Angular. While I wish this process moved faster I would never trade the time spent for the knowledge gained.

Today, ZoomShift is bootstrapped, profitable, and growing steadily. However, we find ourselves in an awkward position as we struggle to get to the next level. We don’t have the advertising budget to match our funded competitors or the capital to hire more team members. Our product is solid, and our customers speak to that, but our exposure is lacking. As I look back, we failed to balance product development and customer growth. This is such a well-known mistake, but it’s much easier to spot after you’ve made it than while you’re in the process.

After realizing this mistake we’ve spent the last 5 months focusing more on the growth side of the business. In this time we’ve seen a 30% increase in MRR, despite many of our experiments failing. This is not the growth rate we are looking for, but it is at least trending in the right direction. I’m optimistic that as we find our groove we will see our growth rate continue to climb.

The next chapter in this journey has yet to be written, but it will likely be a pivotal one. Unlocking customer growth is our next challenge, and probably the biggest one we’ve faced yet. Time will tell whether we find traction or not, but in the meantime, I’m trying to enjoy the ride and keep a (somewhat) balanced lifestyle.

I wrote this article as a record of the past few years of my life. I didn’t have a particular reason for doing so other than to simply share. If you’re a friend or random reader I hope you learned a bit about me. Most importantly, I hope you learned something that’s relevant to your journey.

January 2020: We recently finalized the sale of ZoomShift, and I've closed this chapter of my journey.

Ben Bartling

Ben Bartling

I'm an indie maker, full-stack developer, believer in product-led growth, and somewhat of a designer. I've been an entrepreneur my entire life. I built, grew, and sold my bootstrapped SaaS business – ZoomShift. I'm currently building my next venture and helping others do the same via Recurium. Reach out if I can help.

I write as a personal outlet, and I publish what may be helpful for others. I live in Milwaukee with my wife, son, and daughter on the way.

Feel free to contact me by email or on Twitter. 👋