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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

From a Failing Referral SaaS to $25k MRR Fully Bootstrapped

Kevin Yun
Kevin Yun
May 25, 2021
Category of startup
Country of startup
United States
Revenue of startups
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

From a Failing Referral SaaS to $25k MRR Fully Bootstrapped

Kevin Yun
Kevin Yun
May 25, 2021
Category of startup
Country of startup
United States
Cause of failure of the startup

Kevin Yun co-founded GrowSurf, a referral software for tech startups. They launched as a free product but didn't get ideal customers until they rebuilt the product. They’re currently around $25k MRR and their main goal is to reach $1M ARR.



Hi Kevin! Who are you and what are you currently working on?

Hi, I’m Kevin Yun, one of the co-founders of GrowSurf. I’m 29 years old, based out of Chicago, USA.

GrowSurf is referral software for tech startups. As a founder, I wear a lot of different hats. Primarily, I handle marketing, product/design, front-end development, and everything operations. GrowSurf is a B2B SaaS business.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

GrowSurf was born after waiting for years for someone else to build it. My co-founder Derek and I had worked on a few web projects together, and that’s when I would search for referral software we could use. But none of the solutions looked like the right fit for what we were thinking of as a plug-and-play platform. Over the years, I would revisit googling referral software (and also look on Quora, Product Hunt, etc). Nothing ever really looked ideal. That’s when Derek and I started building GrowSurf. 

The original vision of GrowSurf was to build the best piece of seamless referral software that we could imagine.

With our first version of the product, we ended up strayed far away from the original vision with a lot of technical compromises. It took some time to get back to our roots and rebuild the product, but now the business is doing much better with a renewed customer focus.

How did you go from idea to product?

We built GrowSurf v1 with quick development tools like Firebase and Heroku. We were able to deploy a working version in a few short months. Because we have experience building web and mobile products, we were able to design and develop everything ourselves. Derek handled backend architecture, and I handled design and front-end.

GrowSurf Landing Page

We ran into a ton of issues. Everything from limitations of using Firebase as our main database, to just building a version 1.0 that ended up being pretty useless to users. We took challenges as they came, but during the early days, it was everything from servers crashing and trying to debug on Heroku logs, to battling unexpected costs with Firebase and rewriting code to fit the query-price paradigm.

Another challenge very specific to our product is that we are a deeply integrated platform. So we had to build web SDKs (becoming masters of query selectors, DOM manipulation, browser compatibility, anti-fraud, and much much more) and scalable APIs (eventually implemented proper tools like Redis and Kubernetes).

GrowSurf v1 was a free product. We launched everywhere we could. Product Hunt, BetaList -- the usual suspects. Like everything else in this stage, it was hard to get attention -- especially in the marketing automation space (e.g, no one likes cold emails in this space).

We got initial batches of users, but throughout the whole first year, we never got truly ideal customers. It wasn’t until we rebuilt the product and addressed our issues that we got our first 10 real customers.

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

We have done a lot. But to this day, our primary channel is organic search. We are able to show up on Google where prospects are searching for a solution like ours.

Social proof played a huge part. I remember the earlier days when it was incredibly tough because we had no logos, no case studies, no reviews. So building that all up from scratch took a long time. But now that we have some pretty decent social proof, removing that initial friction from buyers has been relieved somewhat.

The one secret to our marketing was constantly improving messaging and positioning. People would ask us what made us different from other referral software. By taking sales calls for the first year (heavily) I was able to pick up what prospects were looking for. Even though we are a self-service product with low LTV where sales don’t make sense, doing sales was crucial.

Understanding how customers spoke unlocked the language that we needed to use to sell. Now our marketing works, but only because the copy speaks to our audience. In our funnel, there are also a lot of areas we could improve in this context.

There was never really one thing that boosted traction. A combination of improving the product, updating messaging, and building up social proof is how we got to where we are today. It’s been such slow progress, but we’ve been investing more into growth recently and are ready for some faster growth.

How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?

We share all our revenue and core metrics openly at growsurf.com/open. We’re currently around $25k MRR. We just brought on a full-time CMO who can focus on growth.

Our main goal is to reach $1M ARR. We currently have some employee roles that we need to fill and are currently hiring for a Customer Success Manager.

Since starting GrowSurf, what have been your main lessons?

One of the main lessons has been focusing on the customer. That includes the messaging and copy you use on your website and landing pages.

Another big lesson is that things take time. Entrepreneurship takes a toll with its rollercoaster ups and downs, but keep on grinding. There was a time when I was listening to a startup podcast where the company had a failed product but they were able to turn things around. At this time we had 0 customers and were about a year into GrowSurf, and all I could think about was how awesome it would be if we could turn things around as they did. The road ahead would be tough ahead, but persistence did pay off.

Building a company is tough. Listening to the anecdotes of other founders is what helped remind me that it’s always tough for everyone as well and there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Look for the stories where it’s not just butterflies and rainbows.

What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?

The biggest challenge was just starting in the stage of 0 to 1. So this included everything: marketing, product, development, etc.

Not having social proof (having to build that up from scratch), not having a product that solved any customer use-cases (having to rebuild that from the ground up for one year).

Everything in this process was a learning experience. So overcoming obstacles just took a lot of time. We would improve marketing and product reactively, digging for improvements at the roots.

The biggest mistake was having a generic SaaS product and compromising on the product. This translated to 0 customers for us.

What tools & resources do you recommend?

One recommendation I have is to use a proper database. For example, using Firebase dragged our development output. Even though we built a product pretty quickly, the amount of time-fighting against Firebase overall cost us months in development time.

One book I always like to recommend is the Halo Effect. In a nutshell, people like to correlate success with different things, but causation does not equal correlation. So the book does a great job in debunking that myth.

Where can we go to learn more?

I write openly about our journey to $1MM at http://open.growsurf.com/. I also share openly on my Twitter.


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