Many of the Founders we buy SaaS products from are selling because they already have another business they want to work on, so in my line of work I meet a lot of serial entrepreneurs. While GrowthHero Founder Mike Janeczek says he doesn’t have the next idea yet, I’d bet good money on reading another exit story about him in the future.
Mike has a unique blend of development skills and business acumen. Rather than approaching a startup with the typical idea > build an MVP > find product/market fit, he flipped the approach and set out to look for product/market fit on the Shopify platform before writing a single-line of code.
Nothing in business is a sure bet, but building your MVP based on a big data set and thorough research will definitely improve your odds of success.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Mike recently to go back over his story of founding and growing GrowthHero, and to talk about why he ultimately decided to sell the business to SureSwift.
An interview with GrowthHero Founder, Mike Janeczek
It’s nice to get to chat with you again. Could you tell our readers about your background and the story of building GrowthHero?
For me, building GrowthHero wasn’t a typical startup story where you say “Hey, I have this idea, and I’m going to try to build it.” It was more going in reverse — I knew I wanted to start my own thing and it made sense to build my own Shopify app because I had some experience working on apps for that platform as a developer.
So I did a ton of research on Shopify app categories and what was popular, and then I’d dive into what competitors were doing and where I felt like there were gaps or a niche that I could fill. I kind of had a formula in my head for figuring out how big a market there might be for a category based on reviews and some rough metrics like that.
Eventually all of that research led me to affiliate marketing, and I just thought there was an opportunity to fill that need and build something really great around it. That “something” turned into GrowthHero.
What attracted you to building GrowthHero on the Shopify platform vs. another eCommerce system, or just building a platform agnostic affiliate marketing app?
I had learned about Shopify, their API, and their customers from previous work. In terms of eCommerce, I just think their app marketplace is valued higher than others. I’ve seen apps come out for a platform like WooCommerce with a $40 price tag, and people just don’t want to pay for it — they want it for free.
But in the Shopify ecosystem it’s very standard to add apps and add-ons to your store that you pay for monthly. If the app does something specific that people need, and it makes more money for their store, they value it and they’ll pay for it.
I think for people who can’t — or don’t want to — do their own development, Shopify’s a great system because there are a lot of solid developers building apps for it, and Shopify’s been very supportive of those app developers because they know it adds value to their platform. It’s really a win for everyone.
I love that research and data-driven approach to building a company. You’re right — so many people start a business and then go out and look for a market — and you looked for the market and then built the business.
One thing I remember hearing from our VP of Acquisitions, was that he asked how you track churn — which is not easy in Shopify — and you pulled this very methodical, systematic view of all the data.
So clearly with all this research and data tracking you wanted to start a business that would bring in revenue. But did you have a specific goal in mind when you started the app? When did you realize it could turn into something big?
Well even after all that research, I knew that a big percentage of startups that are built are dead before they even get started. So my first goal was just not to do that. I didn’t want to spend half a year developing something and then find out nobody wants to use it. I wanted to build pretty quickly, and get some traffic and some real users to make sure I was building a product they wanted.
I think that’s something I really want to share with other developers out there, because so many programmers are so focused on the code and improving the code. And yeah, that’s fun. But if you want to build a business, you really want to get those first 10 customers who are paying 20 bucks or something for your product. Because even if you’re just making $200 a month, you have a real business and real people’s feedback to help you build it and improve it. You’re not just sitting around refactoring code no one is using.
So my early expectation for growth was just to build something that actually made some decent profit. And then it was, “Hey, now this can pay for my flat.” And then it was like, “Now maybe I can quit my job.” And then it was like “Maybe I can make more with this than I ever did with my job.”
You’re a bit of an outlier for a bootstrapped founder when it comes to your pricing plans, I think you’re actually the first bootstrapped Founder I’ve seen with a double-digit starting plan — your plans started at $39.99. Tell me about your pricing strategy and how it evolved? Was it hard to set a value and was that a process you stressed over at all?
When I launched, I honestly just looked at what other apps were out there for affiliate marketing and made sure I was competitive or at least in line with those. That’s the reality when you launch a new business — if there’s competition, you’re going to look at them and do something pretty similar for pricing.
As time went on though, I was doing everything on my own and I found that the number of leads coming in were driving more technical support requests than I really had time to manage.
And on Shopify lead quality can be all over the place. You can get a request for a ton of support and customization for a no- or low-revenue store that may only be around for a few months, and then you have these big brands doing hundreds of thousands in revenue who are going to be around for a long time.
Of course you want to provide great service to everyone, but it just doesn’t make sense to put a ton of time into a customer who’ll never convert to paid, or who’ll churn after one month.
So at a certain point I just decided that adding $10 to each pricing plan would lower the number of leads and technical requests I was handling to what I could manage and I’d be able to keep my revenue per install metrics steady.
Customer reviews are so important — especially on Shopify. Was your app rating or your number of reviews something you were focused on, or did that happen pretty organically?
I didn’t have any magic way of generating reviews. On Shopify I’d just noticed that something like 90% of the reviews on apps happen after someone gets help from support, so I focused on doing a good job on those early support requests.
The other things I’d say about reviews are that they’re a great place to research your competitors and it’s worth tagging or categorizing all of your own feedback and reviews to help develop your product roadmap.
On the competitor front, I checked 1-star reviews for everything in GrowthHero’s category, and you can really get some insight from those on what not to do or what to improve in your own app.
For GrowthHero, any time I got feedback I’d log it and tag it on a Trello board so if I had time to build a new feature, I could go check how many customers had mentioned it. So I had a high level of detail on why customers had uninstalled — like I would know that seven people had uninstalled because there was no multi-level marketing feature — so when we built that I could contact them and say “hey, this is now available.”
I think that’s especially important in the early stages when you have a pretty basic MVP and you’re figuring out how to improve the product and make it more competitive.
So is that how you built your whole product roadmap?
That was a part of it, but being totally honest, sometimes consumers want something that they don't actually need, or they think they want something but they really need something else.
So again, there’s no magic way of doing it. But it does help to know the things that a lot of people want, and if it’s easy to build, you can just ship it.
Something else I think it’s worth mentioning specifically for other Shopify developers is that the customers on that platform love to have features around their brand, like changing the colors and adding their own logo. So if you’re working on the Shopify platform, that’s definitely something to consider adding to your app/roadmap.
Talk to me about hiring. You had a couple of part-time team members who joined the SureSwift team. When did you know it was time to make your first hire, and what was your hiring process like?
Yeah, once we grew I figured since I’m a developer, my time was best spent on development. So I made an investment and hired a couple students who were studying IT to work on the support team.
They were both remote and a support role is a great remote job, because as long as someone can respond within your response time goals they can have a really flexible schedule and work from anywhere.
So basically when I hired them I started breaking things down into two categories of tickets. If something was really critical or really technical, I worked on it. All the basic onboarding and styling stuff I had them handle.
Tell me about selling the business. I think we actually reached out to you first. Did you know anything about SureSwift, or had you ever thought about selling before we contacted you? What was your first thought when we reached out?
Yeah, SureSwift reached out, and I actually didn’t respond at first. I was following this guide called “23 rules to run a software startup with minimum hassle.” And one of the steps basically said “no acquisitions talks — if you’re growing, you’re good.”
But I wound up changing my mind on that part, because as a solo entrepreneur, and someone with a background as a developer, all the stuff related to being a CEO — managing people, hiring people — that was something I just didn’t enjoy doing and I realized I didn’t want to do it.
So really my options were to keep it small enough that I could run it on my own and not do those things, or I could sell it to someone who has a team and wants to do those things to grow it.
SureSwift wound up reaching back out again a few months later and I decided to get back to him, and we just went from there.
Yeah, we hear that theme a lot, actually. I think there are a lot of people who hit that point where they realize the work that it’s going to take to keep growing their business is different than the work it took to build it, and they don’t actually like doing that type of work.
Yeah, and the truth is that by selling now I moved the risk of growing it to you. And that’s okay because you’re a bigger company, so that risk is smaller for you than it was for me as a solo Founder.
That’s totally true, and a great point. I know you’re probably focused on the transition and I’m guessing that’s taking up most of your mental space, but do you have any immediate plans for what’s next?
I have no idea right now to be totally honest! I’m researching my options, and thinking about what to do next and how to invest some of the money from the sale into something new with decent year-to-year profit — I’m not sure about another business yet though.
Laura Roeder is the Entrepreneur We All Want to Be
MeetEdgar Founder, Laura Roeder, talks to us about her founding story, the hard parts of running a business, what no one tells you about SaaS metrics, why she loves bootstrapping, and what she’s teaching her kids about entrepreneurship.
How Three Serial Entrepreneurs Went From Side Project to Scale to Sale
Mike Machado, Brett Owens, and Carson Gross are the founding team behind LeadDyno, and they leveraged their diverse set of talents over the course of nearly a decade to build this powerhouse of a product in the affiliate marketing space. We got to chat with the trio recently about the story behind building LeadDyno, all the way up through their decision to sell the business.