Moritz was one of SureSwift’s earliest founders. In 2016 he sold us Mailparser, which automatically extracts data from emails to automate repetitive business and admin tasks. Then in 2018 he sold us its sister startup, Docparser, which extracts data from PDFs. And those two acquisitions weren’t even his first. He’d previously co-founded and sold a SaaS ticketing startup to a Paris competitor.
Selling three businesses could be an easy road to a big ego and retirement for a different kind of person. But Moritz just launched a new startup called Refiner a couple months ago after working on the project for over a year, and he remains as curious, insightful, and humble as ever.
Recently we caught up to talk about his new project, how he got derailed on the way to launching it, and why he thinks one business success doesn’t guarantee your next.
An Interview with Moritz Dausinger
You’re a pretty popular guy in the bootstrapped SaaS community — Arvid Kahl and Danielle Simpson who sold us FeedbackPanda last year actually heard about SureSwift from your interview with Indie Hackers — but for people who don’t know you, tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background? How did you become an entrepreneur?
Thanks for the kind introduction! It’s just amazing how many positive things came out of this one Indie Hackers podcast I did back in 2017. I got to know so many great founders thanks to that, and what I said apparently resonated with quite a few people.
My background is in engineering and after all these years I would still consider myself primarily an engineer. I taught myself coding during high school and since then I’ve built countless small websites and apps. I studied electrical engineering, so I’m basically an auto-didact when it comes to web technologies and entrepreneurship.
I started my career as a research associate in Germany but quickly realized that I actually want to build “real” things instead of staying theoretical. So I took the leap into entrepreneurship and founded my first company together with a friend, building a ticketing software for event organizers.
We were able to bootstrap our company to profitability and got acquired by our competitors in Paris (Weezevent.com). After the acquisition, I became their CTO and we spent a couple of amazing years working there. Working in a venture-backed, high-growth startup was a great experience and I learned a ton of things there.
What followed was me becoming a “serial entrepreneur,” even though I don’t like this expression that much.
I was lucky enough to sell both of them to SureSwift Capital, Mailparser in 2016 and Docparser in 2018. After working with SureSwift for nearly a year it was time for me to start building something new though. In 2019 I started working on a new project (Refiner) which I just launched a couple of weeks ago.
That’s interesting, why don’t you like the term “serial entrepreneur?”
I think it’s overused. To me, it implies that you started a lot of businesses, but not necessarily that you had any success with them. So you could constantly be starting projects that never go anywhere, and call yourself a serial entrepreneur.
That’s totally true. Other terms feel like they sell you short though!
One of the common pieces of business advice I think we’ve all heard is that ‘you should know what problem you’re solving before you build anything.’ Do you agree with that, or do you think you just need a passion for exploring problems until you find one that has a business case?
Oh yes, I definitely agree with that when it comes to actually coding something. It just makes sense to first validate an idea by interviewing people, building mock-ups, trying to find first customers who are willing to buy even if there is no product etc. … In theory.
To be honest though, it’s not really how I work.
It’s really difficult for me not to start coding when I’m working on a new idea. For me, building something new is a lot of fun and I’m apparently not disciplined enough to only stick to market research first.
The way I was working in the past looked like this: I had a vague idea of an underserved market or an interesting technical idea. I would then try to build a really reduced first version in a short amount of time and put it online. From then on, I would iterate a lot on the idea based on real user feedback.
When working like this, I think it’s important to have a balance between keeping your ego low and listening to what your early users say, and having your own long-term vision for the product.
I think starting with the right idea is important, but first-time entrepreneurs especially tend to put too much weight on it.
I think it’s better to assume that you don’t know much about the market needs in the beginning of a project, but that you’ll become an expert over time.
In any case, I’m convinced that it’s most important that you are passionate about the project, that you show up every day, iterate, and continuously make small improvements.
Mailparser and Docparser both turned out to have a big business case. Did you ever imagine they would have the success that they have?
Definitely not! Mailparser started as a personal project without any financial goal. I liked the idea from a technical point of view and thought it would be fun to build it.
However, after launching Mailparser on Hackernews I quickly learned that there was actually a business case for it. I then started to think that Mailparser could become a nice revenue-generating side project. I was basically aiming for “a couple of hundred bucks of passive income” in the beginning.
But after a couple of months I started to realize that what I’d built had a lot of potential. A bit more than one year after launching Mailparser, I went full time on it with the goal of growing it into a real company.
Did you always think you would sell Mailparser and Docparser, or was there a specific metric you wanted to hit, or an “a-ha” moment where you just knew it was time for you to work on something else? Tell me a bit about your thought process when you were deciding to sell.
When I realized that I was sitting on a project with a lot of potential, I was definitely asking myself questions like how big this could become and what the future could look like.
Pretty early on I started reading about small- to medium-scale SaaS acquisition and thought that it would be an ideal outcome to sell the business one day.
Luckily, Mailparser and Docparser were profitable really early on which allowed me to grow the business on my own terms, knowing that I could sell them one day if it made sense.
I also never took any external investment and kept all the decision power to myself. Which meant that there was never a moment where I felt pressured to “go big or go home” as is the case for venture backed companies.
A couple of years in, my personal situation changed in a way that it made sense to think about selling at least one of the two products. The risk was also getting bigger — the bigger the businesses got, the more I had to lose.
With SureSwift, I found the perfect buyer and we agreed on a pretty special deal: You bought Mailparser in an all-cash deal and I kept on growing Docparser. Everyone told me this wouldn’t be possible and I’d have to sell the businesses together. But you got it, and it was always a win-win, “let’s go there together” approach. So I sold Mailparser, and we had a handshake deal that SureSwift would get first refusal if I wanted to sell Docparser later on. Two years later, the business was at a point where a follow-up acquisition made sense for both of us.
Tell us about your new business, Refiner.
Was Refiner a tool you wished you had when you were running Mailparser and Docparser? How did the idea start, and when did you know it was going to be your next business?
Refiner is a customer survey tool built specifically for SaaS, eCommerce and membership sites.
The idea for Refiner was born when I was still in charge of growing Docparser. At Docparser we had a very mixed bag of signups, ranging from people who just wanted to look around, to product managers with a clear purchase intent working at a Fortune 500.
Furthermore, Docparser supports a variety of use cases and we wanted to make sure to send the right kind information to the users who could benefit from it.
So we needed a simple tool that would allow us to “profile” our users on the fly by asking them simple questions. I looked at existing in-app survey solutions but ended up developing a popup form myself. This is where Refiner was born.
Is there any way that having had those earlier successes made starting a new business harder? How was starting Refiner the same or different from your previous businesses?
Oh well … I have so many thoughts about this that we could probably do another interview.
There are plenty of things that just get easier the more often you do them. You have a better idea of how long things take, how much work there is to do, and what to expect in the early days.
Being able to properly self-fund Refiner is a great position to be in. I can build Refiner on my own terms, at my own speed, and have the possibility to get outside help whenever needed. It makes things much less stressful.
However… there are also so many things that just keep being really difficult.
Especially the critical things in the beginning like understanding how a market works, what exactly you need to build, etc. stays really, really hard.
When I started with Refiner I thought it would be straightforward and easy to build another SaaS. Guess what, I was wrong about that!
I spent the better part of 2019 building something nobody needed. It took me months to realize that I somehow got derailed on the way and admitting it was not easy.
A couple of months back I decided to scrap most of the code and go back to the initial vision of Refiner. Since then, it’s been on a great trajectory.
I’m a big fan of the author, Seth Godin. He talks a lot about how hard it is for people to “ship” things and consider them done. How do you decide a product is ready for customers to use?
I’m a big believer in “done is better than perfect”. But like most creative professionals, I’m constantly struggling with this.
On the one hand, I want to ship a beautiful product that I can be proud of. I definitely have the tendency to attach my ego to what I’m building.
On the other hand, I know early feedback is crucial. Especially in B2B SaaS, building the right thing based on customer feedback is more important than tweaking color codes for another week.
My answer to this dilemma is building “small” products in terms of functionality, but always trying to make them look nice with a great UX.
You launched Refiner pretty close to the start of COVID-19. What has it been like starting a new business right now?
The timing was a bit unfortunate indeed. I wanted to ship Refiner in early March and then reward myself with a trip to FounderSummit in Mexico.
The launch on ProductHunt went pretty well and I got some great early traction thanks to it. However, a couple of days later things started to get serious around COVID.
It’s difficult to say how much COVID-19 has impacted the early growth of Refiner as I don’t know what things would have looked like without the crisis. What I can say though is that I’m happy with how things are evolving at the moment. I see a handful of signups each day, receive great feedback on the product and things seem to go in the right direction overall.
The bigger issue for me is that I have much less time available for work these days. Turns out, keeping two kids entertained all day long is a lot of work.
My to-do list is getting really, really long these days thanks to feedback I’m getting from early adopters. Obviously, I’m looking forward to when I can put in more hours again.
It’s hard to hire when you’re bootstrapping your first company because you’re quite literally taking money out of your own pocket. One of the luxuries of working on your second, third, or fourth business is hiring earlier. What did you learn about hiring from running Mailparser and Docparser that you’ll use (or have used) at Refiner?
I’m in the lucky position that I don’t need to hire a developer to get started with a new project. I really enjoy that part of the work and I think it allows me to create a lot of value early on by myself. As you know, hiring a great engineer is really difficult and also very expensive.
For Refiner I’ll probably use the same hiring approach that worked for me with Mailparser and Docparser: hire slowly and less.
I like to keep my team very small and work with people who are either already very experienced or who can grow into a role and take ownership after a couple of weeks. Personally, I hate micromanaging people and prefer working with people who can work autonomously on a topic. This is especially true for me in a remote setup.
Any closing advice for other founders out there?
One thing I would like to emphasize is that building a business is never easy, even if you’ve done it several times before.
Having the necessary skills to actually build something and be passionate about what you are doing is for sure a prerequisite. But building a SaaS business has also a lot to do with showing up every day, putting in the hours needed, keeping your ego low, and listening to what people say.
It strikes me each time how much work is involved in just launching something. And launch day is when the journey actually just begins. It’s important to keep this in mind. Building a bootstrapped SaaS business is a rather long marathon and not a quick sprint.