Hey-oh! 🤠 I'm Josh Founder CEO of Referral Rock AMA

Been rocking in the space of referral marketing for 5+ years. (Refer-a-friend programs, customer advocacy, affiliate programs) Referral Rock is self-funded and profitable with a 100% remote team of 18.

I’m a second time SaaS founder, where my first was in the Web 2.0 days with a notes app called UberNote. UberNote had a bit of funding but ultimately died off with bad market timing and poor strategic choices.

I’ve done a lot of things the hard way in an odd order for a bootstrapped founder. Essentially followed the customer needs/money and doubled down on what was working for us.

  1. Built the initial versions myself
  2. Started with an early self-service product (thinking it was the indiehacker dream) then I started doing inside sales calls
  3. Built a inside sales and customer success functions
  4. Built a strong SEO footprint in our space
  5. Built out dev/product team
  6. Currently looping back to improve our product (much harder with lots of customers on it) and get back to some self-service roots

I built out a foundation of multiple teams (enterprise sales, marketing, CS, product), management layers, processes, and a great culture. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes but love the path of controlling our destiny.

Feel free to ask me about anything listed above or on any of the topics below:

  • Solo Founder
  • Remote (before it was pandemic cool) + Our Functional Operating System
  • Thoughts on funding vs bootstrapping
  • Founder led sales
  • Finding key senior team members / recruiting
  • Running a startup as a parent (2 kids)

Looking forward to jamming with founders in all stages and learning plenty! I’ll be back on May 26th at 10:30 AM EST

(I’m also active on twitter.com/jlogic where I’m often talking about some of these things through threads)

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Note: This AMA is closed for questions, but you can check out the existing conversations below.

This May 26th, we’re really looking forward to hosting Referral Rock’s founder and CEO, Josh Ho. From founding an Evernote competitor (UberNote) back in 2006 (“which went through all the ups and downs”; once hitting 10K sign-ups in a day from a Lifehacker feature, “funding, various business models, failed attempts at being acquired and finally shutting down”) to running an automotive brick and mortar shop, and to finally starting and scaling a profitable, self-funded, B2B SaaS with Referral Rock, Josh has seen and learned from the wearisome, momentous, ebb-and-flow all of starting up.

AMA Index (Josh Ho’s brain-pickings) :brain:

(Hard-won insights, opinions, and observations; thoughtfully examined and articulated)

Self-reliance and being a solo founder
“I don’t think Referral Rock would have made it as a VC backed business”
Ask fun all-hands questions. Ex: “How do you visualize seasons and time? What does it look like in your head?”
Why Josh wishes that they had revisited pricing more often
Figuring early-stage sales: “You should be in the mode of ‘I’ll talk to anyone that has interest’”
Referral Rock’s Functional Operating System
Notes on setting up functional pillars
“Being remote I feel like you have to mature as an organization faster”
Balancing product-led and human-led efforts
Finding meaning in the constant struggle between a founders’ strengths and weaknesses
“I try to look for that right person who has hit a ceiling somewhere else”
Will Josh start an UberNote, today?
Deciding on raising funds? “Know the answer to the question: ‘what would I do with $X so I can get to Y faster’?”
Deliberately learning from a diverse set of founders
Pondering over rev-share vs flat subscriptions fees
Outlining a sales process by “following what the customer needed”

Further reading/listening/pondering from the interwebz :open_book:/:headphones:

(Other insightful excerpts drawn from blog posts, interviews, and conversations)

On not hiring too early:

It’s all hard and painful, but the hardest part has been hiring and building a team. Mistakes in hiring are very expensive. As Referral Rock is self-funded, time and money are both critical resources to manage as there is not much room for error.

My biggest hiring mistakes were when I brought people on too early. (Just to clarify, I don’t mean it was too early for the business because I definitely felt the pain and had the need.) The mistake I made was that it was too early for me as a leader and manager.

I’ve learned that hiring from a position of pain is not a good idea. It’s a lot like going food shopping when you’re hungry — there is a good chance of making a bad decision.

If I were to do it differently, I would tell myself to take pause and do more of the job myself first and make sure there are repeatable processes involved.

I would take the time to get a better understanding of what a successful hire looks like from all angles — not just what they would achieve but how I’d work with them on a day-to-day basis, how they took direction, and the processes and cadences necessary to be effective. You should know the ins and outs before you can effectively hire and manage a role.

It’s tough to figure that out with just a few calls and a project, but we have built a process to help us avoid mistakes and see red flags sooner. I still struggle to find the right fit for some particular roles but I have also been fortunate to find people I feel like I can build the company with.

Source: IH | 2019

On not being too close to your product:

We were proud to “dogfood” our product, but we became too attached to addressing our own personal needs. We were in love with our own vision for how note taking should be. Yes, that was the primary reason we started UberNote and building a business out of a need you can identify with is a good thing… We just stayed too close to it for too long.

Being so close to our product led us to often make decisions based on what we wanted to see vs. what our users wanted. We didn’t recognize until it was too late that we were the outliers within our market of note-takers.

At some point, you are not the ideal user for your product anymore. Once you decide that your prototype/proof of concept is supposed to transition into being a business you have to realize you are not the target customer and you are not building this just for you.

You have to see where your customers take you and use their feedback to help craft the product. You can still be visionary for your product, just not blindly.

With Referral Rock I am making a concerted effort to practice customer development. I have discussed with customers their needs and their current practices for referral marketing.

I have also discussed with them their workflows and the value a product like Referral Rock can bring them. Yes, I have my vision for Referral Rock but it has changed since the onset and I’m allowing it to be fluid as I discover more about my customer’s needs.

Source: Mojo Ho | 2015

On the many, diverse paths of starting up (and why all need founder friends):

Bootstrapping is not a religion.

Build in public isn’t for everyone.

Being a solopreneur/indie can be a phase.

How you start, may not be how you finish. (friends are still needed)

Everyone can keep learning from each other, that doesn’t change. An understanding that they have a different lens to look through should be celebrated.

It will just add diversity of thinking to your own circle. The magic is still in people sharing. When a business leaves one phase for another, it should be celebrated not ostracized.

You may not agree with their choice, that’s OK. Being respectful is a conscious choice that real friends make. Be a real friend.

Source: Twitter | 2022

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Thanks for doing this, @jlogic! :slight_smile:

Great to hear about the methodical progress you’ve charted with Referral Rock. It’ll be great to know your thoughts on the following:

  1. What are some mindsets and practices that have helped you transition to being a solo founder the second time around?
  2. People often talk about the inherent constraints of running a self-funded and profitable venture, but I’d love to know, in what ways have those choices enabled you to do more when compared to your previous venture-backed startup?
  3. And as you’ve been operating remotely long before the pandemic, what’s a favourite team ritual that you’ve continued to observe all along?
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Hey @jlogic, glad to have you on Relay! I had a chance to read your earnest account of UberNote’s eventual failure and how that has informed Referral Rock’s current resilience. Makes clear how starting up was much harder back then and how first-time founders, in general, have to struggle to find a footing. Thanks for documenting that journey! Curious to learn about your pricing strategy discoveries so far. Given that you went from a free, B2C product to a B2B product that has a $800/month plan, what has your learning curve on the pricing side been like? Anything you’d do differently there?

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Hi @jlogic ,

Thank you for doing this! I’m in the initial phases of setting up a disciplined founder-led sales process. While I’m hoping that the final product will be product-led—but I’m doing manual outreach to our ICP to get the momentum going. Apart from cold outreach, what other tips do you have to get the first 100 (company) users/20 paying customers? Any tips to expand the top of the funnel, ideally incoming leads to complement my outreach.

Thanks again for doing this!
Saps

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Hey @jlogic, thanks for doing this session. Always eager to learn how cultures and processes come together at different teams. In that regard, how have you outlined Referral Rock’s “Functional Operating System,” and at what point did you feel it was important to introduce it?

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Glad to connect with you, Josh!

It is fascinating to see you wearing multiple hats at the same time around product building, inside sales, SEO, etc. How did you manage to give the right amount of attention to each of these pillars while ensuring the other one does not suffer?

Being 100% remote, what are processes/methods/KPIs to ensure the remote teams are productive enough without any effort leakage and managing the organization culture, more around people and teams, like team building, collective responsibility/accountability aspects to cater towards the common goal of the organization.

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Hi Josh - thank you for taking out the time!

Here are a couple of questions I like asking veteran founders and getting multiple perspectives on:

a. Would love to hear your views around balancing natural product-led adoption in teams vs. a top-down traditional sales and how you manage it across the customer lifecycle (acquisition, adoption, retention).

b. What have been your personal challenges/beliefs that were the hardest to change but were most rewarding in your journey as a founder so far? Specifically interested in learning more about your transitions in the 0 to 1 phase to PMF to scaling.

Thank you!

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Hi Josh,

Thanks so much for doing this AMA with us. Referral Rock is a fantastic idea. Cant wait to sign up and get started :slight_smile:

I love how you have bootstrapped and built every aspect of your business. I have the following questions

  1. We, Kriyadocs, are a document workflow solution focused on the publishing industry. We have about 40 happy publishers as customers, looking to scale and are realizing that some of our senior resources might have hit their ceiling. I am sure you faced a similar scenario. How did you go about recruiting senior resources who better fit the evolving business and how did you explain it to incumbents?
  2. I would love to hear more about UberNote. What would you do differently if you started today? Also, have you considered a reboot of UberNote?
  3. We are also bootstrapped and want to stay independent for as long as we can. When (if at all) is a good point to consider funding?

Thanks in advance for your perspectives.
Best regards
Ravi

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I’m not sure I can help much on this one. I think inside I’ve always been a fine with going solo. Throughout my life I’ve always prided myself on being self-reliant and wanting to learn all aspects of whatever I’m involved in.

I’m happy to have friends along the way and definitely build up a team/divide and conqueror mentality, but I also know I can rely on myself.

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Not sure if I’d say “do more” but maybe less waste and being more intentional.

With self-funding we didn’t have pressure to grow, the pressure was internal vs external. When we had the external (investor backed) pressure of demo days, needing to raise… it put us in a way to be in a mode of “trying all kinds of things” to see what works. Which in itself is a great growth mentality, but too much pressure in that mode leads to desperation and waste. Maybe not enough patience to let an experiment run its course vs not thinking something is working then just moving on to the next.

Honestly, I don’t think Referral Rock would have made it as a VC backed business. A lot more was learned about our customers, market, and behaviors because of the slower pace we moved that had less pressure.

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I’d say it’s our monthly all-hands meeting, where we start it off with a fun question that everyone answers live on Zoom. I come up with the questions/curate them myself. Here are a few of the fun ones that we learn a lot about each other:

  • “Standing desk health benefits, fact or fiction?”
  • “How do you visualize seasons and time? What does it look like in your head?”
  • “Toilet paper roll direction, which is right and why?”
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I’ve got another one in mind, @jlogic! Read your thoughtful bit on how no path is fixed and “how you start, may not be how you finish.” A core why behind Relay is facilitating similar cross-path dialogue between founders. How have you attempted to keep a diverse circle? And in what ways has it influenced the Referral Rock journey?

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Most of it learning came from listening to customers by doing calls with prospects. With Referral Rock we started out priced really low $49 per month, but that only lasted about 1 month before there was a $109 plan. If I recall correctly, we jumped to $150 for our cheapest plan within 6 months and made other changes to our model within the next year.

I was personally much closer to the customers at that time and had a good pulse of what would work and what wouldn’t.

After that time period I was off building the team and scaling what was working. This has led me to be much slower to adjust, but what we had was working well and had great unit-economics with the way we sold and serviced our customers.

I’m embarrassed to say we haven’t done enough on pricing lately. Currently I am going through some pricing and packaging changes. We’ve left a lot on the table in terms of expansion revenue and confusion with our current pricing and packaging. I wish I would have revisited this a couple of years earlier.

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I’m a “SEO” guy so make sure you are planting some seeds there (may take weeks or months to “bear fruit” but lay some things down).

I’d say go to where your customers are and where the conversations are happening. Make sure you are in the conversation.

  1. Tons of communities these days Twitter, Reddit, Slack groups. You just have to be careful to learn the native language so you don’t do something off-putting. Just be helpful to people in those conversations but don’t be promotional.
  2. Look to follow up in DMs or other ways that make it more personal and ask for feedback.
  3. Make sure your product is listed like product hunt, beta list, capterra, g2, trustpilot (also helps for SEO)

Then make sure you’re super easy to contact.

  1. Simple lead form (not many fields to vet/validate)
  2. Phone number listed

You should be in a mode of “I’ll take to anyone that has interest” so make it as easy and frictionless as possible for them at this stage of your business.

Stay in full learning/listening mode on all of these things, so you can refine your product/pitch to solve their pain.

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First, “Functional Operating System," is the name I call it. Not sure anyone on the team calls it that.

It’s developed over-time with a “let’s have less tools and make sure everything has a place” mentality. I was involved with every aspect of the business, so personally I wanted to be able to lean in and operate the same way with all of my team who were doing different jobs.

At the same time standardization, efficiency, and valuing everyone’s time is important to me.

All that mixed together has had our team members be able to work the same across multiple teams. Everyone knows how to reach other members and what to expect in responses vs trying slack, email, text messages… to communicate.

So, to best answer your question it just happened organically.

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It’s changed over time, but lots of time blocking and making sure systems were in place to have them keep running when I moved to something else. In the early days my time was focused by splitting days, then sets of days, then weeks, sometimes even months.

When I leave one, I am making a decision that this pillar stops when I leave or it’s continued by other’s. SEO for example, once I had it down I was teaching my team to run it and putting in check points for them. (weekly meeting with a standardized report/format) this way I could keep up to date and steer as necessary, but was out of the “day to day” unless something big came up.

Once I built up reliable people as ICs or managers in place, weekly check-ins with them keep the pillars going. These check-ins may change over-time from daily, weekly, to monthly, to quarterly… but that’s how they don’t suffer.

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Rituals for communication, feedback, and check-ins at various levels. 1 on 1s, weekly standups (per team), monthly team-retros, monthly all-hands, quarterly OKR goal-setting… (We just started to introduce professional development check-ins with managers and ICs)

Being remote I feel like you have to mature as an organization faster. Many of these rituals we were doing with our company size at less than 10. With an office environment you may not need all the rituals and process to keep your team/culture aligned.

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This one is interesting as we have both. Really, we just keep leaning into what is working and try to have the product do as much heavy lifting as possible. At the same time making sure our sales team gets the right incentives/credit for the hard work that they do. We’re working on better incentives/credit for our CS team on the retention + adoption side.

Both our sales team and CS teams take up most of the oxygen, but we still keep investing in the product to do more for itself.

IMHO you have to figure out how much human-led vs product-led efforts you need for your product and market. We track it and make sure we know how customers want it but also balanced with what is most effective for us as a business. It also changes over-time and the scale slides more to product-led over time.

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I’d say I’ve gone through life trying to be well-rounded and not have flaws. Liked by all from a personal and product perspective. It’s the typical “trying to be something for everyone”. (UberNote was that).

It’s when I’ve leaned into strengths is when I’ve found the most success. I’ll never get 100% away from trying to be well-rounded as that is in my core being, it’s what makes me the founder I am today… but reminding myself to keep doubling down on strengths will get me further.

Seeing those strengths play out despite weaknesses has been the most rewarding. SEO, building systems (internal + in product). our product positioning, and our great service keeps paying dividends today.

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