Karthik co-founded Flexiple, a freelance vetted marketplace to help top startups & companies find quality tech talent. After 4 years, they've fully bootstrapped it to $2M in annual revenue and have been growing at ~25%+ MoM in the past 5 months.
Hi Karthik! Who are you and what are you currently working on?
I am Karthik, Co-founder and CEO of Flexiple, a network of pre-vetted freelance developers & designers to help top startups & companies find quality tech talent. At Flexiple, my responsibilities include marketing and tech while my co-founders handle the more difficult job of everything freelancer & client operations-related.
Before Flexiple, I worked in JPMorgan as an Investment Banker - quite a different job & role as compared to the world of startups I am in now! However, after spending 3 years there, I realized it wasn’t for me and soon started my journey with Flexiple.
Now, after investing 4 full years into Flexiple, we have fully bootstrapped it to $2million in annual revenue and have been growing at ~25%+ m-o-m in the past 5 months. Simple business model - our freelance talent set their rates and we take a commission from clients on each project.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Immediately, after my time at JPMorgan, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do next. But, when I got through the top MBA university in India, I felt that it might give me the time to explore my next steps.
But on joining the MBA school, the noise around job placements pushed me towards starting something of my own. So, I used to carry around an idea book noting down different ideas that I felt I would enjoy working on. In the process, I recognized that B2B was the space where I would like to spend my time building a startup.
Of the many ideas, I found Flexiple to be the most interesting because:
- Most other freelance marketplaces catered to the “gig economy” - where quality is not the focus, rather the volume is. Whereas, Flexiple plays in the “talent economy” where quality is at the core of everything we do and I felt there was still a huge opportunity there.
- Further, I believed that the future would involve more & more people being focused on building individual brands vs. just being a small cog of a larger monolithic company.
- Also, tech as a functional vertical was continuing to grow massively in size - all startups have tech as their backbone. Top this with the fact that hiring in tech is just brutally painful.
So, we recognized a real problem - building a high-quality tech talent network that can help startups & companies in hiring. The question was largely about whether we could execute and make things happen.
How did you go from idea to product?
Honestly, our first two products were absolute failures. We spent $5000 to build each one and ended up throwing each into the bin. In the end, we just used a simple GoogleSheet to make our first $100k in revenue. I have written about it in detail in this thread, but let me explain our mistake briefly here.
There are largely two types of tech startups:
- “Tech-enabled”: where tech just enables you to scale. For e.g. Uber, Airbnb, etc.
- “Core-tech” where tech is part of your core offering. E.g. Dropbox, Postman, etc.
Many startups are just the former but confuse themselves to be the latter.
The consequences of this confusion are that:
- They invest way too much time building tech to solve future challenges of scale, instead of focusing on building their business and infusing tech when manual efforts have become a bottleneck
- Further, trying to build tech before experiencing the real bottlenecks means that you are trying to predict them, which hardly ever works.
We made the same mistake. Our customers - freelancers & clients - didn’t care too much about the product we had made. The former wanted quality projects and the latter, great talent. We were just forcing our product on them.
When we realized this, we just moved all our work to a simple Google sheet, with our website functioning largely for marketing purposes. All flows thereafter were manual - using emails, manually sending invoices, and so on. This allowed us to focus on actually delivering value to our customers while not being preoccupied about scaling the business from the word go.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
For the initial year, almost all the business we got was through our network. We leveraged LinkedIn to find the right person in the companies we wanted as clients and just hustled our way to get our first 10-20 clients. I wrote about the entire process in detail in this thread.
However, soon we hit a ceiling. We recognized that our target audience was startups in the US, Europe, etc. - tech startups that wanted quality tech talent and could afford them. Given our network was ZERO outside India, we realized we had to work on growing our inbound pipeline.
We found ProductHunt to be quite useful for us. Most startups only launch their primary product on PH, but we also made many “side projects”, which we launched on PH and marketed Flexiple subtly in them. More about it here.
However, it wasn’t a very reliable and stable channel. That’s when we invested heavily in SEO and that’s been a real journey. It involved:
- Build our “Domain authority” by writing many guest posts
- Then we identified keywords that had high intent. This would involve our competitor alternatives-type keywords on which we wrote focused blogs such as “Toptal alternative” which gave us many client leads.
- But beyond that, we made a ton of marketing pages targeting low-volume keywords but with very high conversion intent. E.g. A page for “Hire Freelance React Developers” => We would then just replace the word “React” with any other technology and duplicate the pages. Of course, we had to have enough unique content on each page to ensure we weren’t penalized by Google for duplicate content.
This SEO strategy laid the foundation for our inbound growth - though it took a lot of mistakes and about a year to pay off in a big way. We have since gotten even better at SEO and have ~100k people visiting our website each month.
However, one of the pleasant consequences of ensuring our customers are really happy is that a major source of revenue comes from repeat customers and customer referrals - about ~40%.
In the past 4-5 months, both my co-founder and I have become more active on Twitter & LinkedIn which has also become a great channel for new leads.
How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?
It has been a slow burn for us - it took us almost 4 years to get to $1million in annual revenue. However, in just another four months, we are $2million in annualized revenue - we have been growing at ~25%+ m-o-m in the past 5 months.
Honestly, it isn’t that we have suddenly cracked a hidden code - it is just that our efforts in the past many years are paying dividends now. Of course, we are making fewer mistakes in execution now :).
I feel, we have found what I can define as replicable success - so now our focus has shifted to consolidating this while ensuring we build a great team around us. We have laid the initial foundation of a quality team with ~20 of us in the team.
Being a fully remote team, we don’t have location constraints but still have other hiring bottlenecks and team engagement techniques to solve for. We haven’t gotten great at that yet and that’s one of my goals in the next 6 months.
Furthermore, we are big believers in remote working. Since 2018, we have been building Remote Tools and more recently, Remote Clan. While I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish with these two, we haven’t monetized them yet. I hope to change that in the coming months.
Since starting Flexiple, what have been your main lessons?
Being a first-time entrepreneur, there were many mistakes we made, and a few things I realized include:
- Don’t build for scale before you have earned a single dollar - focus on business before being obsessed with tech.
- Building in constraints is good - it ensures that you don’t have the luxury to indulge yourself in stupid decisions for long. It aligns you to do the best for your customer as that’s the only REAL way to make money.
- Start working on SEO, being active on social media and other communities as early as possible.
- There are easier ways to make money than entrepreneurship. Therefore, starting up for money is not the best idea because you will find it tough to sustain your motivation.
- Startups test your patience and the ability to do boring & repetitive things over long periods. If you can survive through it, the results are exponential.
What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?
The biggest obstacle we overcame would be the ability to generate quality inbound traffic and as a result, good leads. None of us (the three co-founders) were active on social media or knew much about marketing. I just made my social accounts last year.
Of course, one has to find the relevant channel for them to leverage, but in our case, we realized that just adding value on the mainstream social channels like Twitter and LinkedIn would help us grow our own business too.
Also, learning SEO was critical but we started too late. For a couple of years, we wrote articles that were never optimized and therefore didn’t bring us any traffic. So, in all honesty, they were wasted efforts.
We, of course, learned from our initial mistakes of building tech before actually needing it or understanding what to build. Since then, we have been gradually infusing it as we scale. Even now, ironically, all our tech is set up on NoCode tools as it gets the job done extremely well.
What tools & resources do you recommend?
- Don’t build landing pages from scratch. Use builders like Unicorn and Umso.
- Use NoCode tools like Bubble, Webflow, Adalo, etc. to validate your idea and make good money before investing heavily in tech
- For SEO, don’t use free tools. Ahrefs is worth the money
- Other than that, just get your hands dirty by actually doing things and keep googling things you don’t know or can’t understand :)