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How I learned to code in 1 year, launched my SaaS and got my first users

Brian Casel is the founder of AudienceOps, a done-for-you content service. Looking for ways to make repeatable work easier, he decided to build a process-driven project management system himself. He spent 1 year learning to code, launched his SaaS and got lots of customers at +$49/month.

United States
SaaS
No Data

Brian Casel

April 1, 2020

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Hi Brian! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

My name is Brian and I'm the founder of ProcessKit, a SaaS solution for teams, especially those doing client services, who want to build out processes and use them to drive their repeatable projects, like new customer onboarding and providing clients with monthly deliverables.

I come from a background of building several bootstrapped businesses and I become more known for building productized services or taking client service businesses and turning them into productized businesses where teams just have to execute a package of services very efficiently, following defined processes that continue to work as the company scales. That's sort of what led to ProcessKit.

The other thing I run today is a productized service company called AudienceOps. We're a team of 25 people, as of today, where we do a done-for-you blog content service. We basically power the blogs of many other software and service companies. The business largely runs without me, nowadays, as I've got people running sales, the client service, etc, so that I can spend my whole time (and part of profits) building and rolling out ProcessKit.

AudienceOps

I come originally from a background as a designer and front-end web developer, doing a lot of work with WordPress. However, in recent years, I learned more about building the back-end side of things, becoming sort of a full-stack product designer. But I do come from a background more on the design side of things.


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

I went to school to study audio production and engineering, and have been a long time musician, composer, and songwriter. At that time, I started working at some odd jobs, such as waiting tables and pizza delivery, but nothing related to web design or web development. I thought I was going to spend my whole life working in recording studios. Turns out there isn’t much money in that industry, so I saw myself being forced to make a pivot into another passion I later found out, which was designing things for the web.

This is how I got into a NY web design agency, where I really brought my hack amateur web skills up to kind of a professional level. I worked there for 3 years before moving to web design freelancing work. I started doing a lot of Wordpress work for clients and built a business called Restaurant Engine, which was a web design service for restaurants and hotels (I later sold that in 2015).

Before ProcessKit and for the previous 5 years, I’ve been working on AudienceOps. My work here is what inspired the latest business. I found that existing tools to manage the business weren’t thought for client services and weren’t made for process-driven work. I was constantly duct-taping different tools to make something usable and I got to know other client-service businesses that were doing the same. That’s when I made the click.


How did you build ProcessKit?

It's kind of an interesting story as I took a really different path than most startups do.

By 2018, I got a little bit tired of not being able to build my own software ideas on the back end. As a designer, I felt like I should be able to design a product from 0 to a functioning version. I also began to think the work of a designer was all about the user experience and the user interfaces and how those pieces come together to solve a real problem.

That kind of thing in the past I'd always outsourced and hired developers to do would end in 2018, as I spent the whole year doing a deep dive into learning how to build applications using Ruby on Rails.

I had my other business, AudienceOps, running alone and being profitable, so I was able to dedicate all of my time (30-40 hours/week) to learn how to build complete applications.

I took some courses, worked with some mentors, and did a lot of both simple and complex practice projects simple. By the end of the year, I was actually able to build a very simple, but real live, software product called Sunrise KPI. It's a simple tool for gathering key metrics from different tools like Google Analytics or Stripe and pulling those into daily email reports. It was a problem that I wanted to solve for myself - I wanted to get a hold of my numbers every day while I was drinking my coffee.

Sunrise KPI

Then, as I got into the beginnings of 2019, I started to really break ground on ProcessKit. I spent from January to June 2019 building the product( Ruby on Rails, Vanilla JS with Stimulus JS, HTML, SCSS and Heroku) and since then until today, enhancing it. In June we started bringing on the very first paying customers.

ProcessKit's Code

I'm still the lead designer and developer on ProcessKit today but I do have another developer who works with me. We’re able to push the roadmap forward pretty fast these days.

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Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

Before ProcessKit, I’ve built up an audience of other client services, software, agency, and consultancy business founders. I had talked a lot with them and taught many the concept of productized services. Part of this community came from a course and community I run that’s called Productize, two podcasts about bootstrapped and productized businesses and a weekly newsletter where I give updates on what I’ve been working in.

Productize Course & Community

This audience is a perfect fit for ProcessKit, so that’s where the firsts order interest came from. That’s also where my customer research interviews, early beta testers group, and first paying customer came from.

Now that about a year in, ProcessKit is starting to grow beyond my personal audience. We have some organic traffic coming in from different sources and some word of mouth. I'm also starting to do a lot more work on the positioning of ProcessKit. I’ve recently finished doing a deep dive into a lot of customer interviews and surveys so as to really dial in the messaging and find out who this product is for. 

In the upcoming year, I plan to do more around partnerships related to working with other people who speak to client services agencies as well as process consultants (people who consult businesses on their processes), and a number of other marketing strategies like SEO and content.


What are your goals for the future?

I really enjoy what I'm doing right now, working on software every day and designing products, so I would love to continue doing that for a while.

In terms of hiring, I’ve recently hired a developer and I might, at some point, hire a customer support/success person. But one of my goals with this new business, compared to my other businesses, is to try and keep the team pretty small.

In AudienceOps, we currently are a team of 25, and growing, working remotely. That’s a really great team, but now that I'm working on software products, I would like to have more of a small but collaborative team that can get together in person a few times a year (but mostly work remotely).

I intend to continue to work on a self-funded bootstrapped basis. I would never rule out the idea of taking funding, but I just haven't seen the need for it. Now that I have a couple of businesses running profitably, I can use those profits to fund the next thing - that's been sort of the pattern that I've followed my whole career so far and I would expect that to continue in terms of projects and features.

As for ProcessKit, we want to continue evolving and driving towards that goal of getting your client services to scale and work more predictably and efficiently. Most of the core product is built so we now need to focus on the power features like automation workflows built into processes so that processes can automatically adapt to whatever project the business is working on. That's the whole idea behind process-driven projects.

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What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?

The biggest challenge faced, over my entire career, has probably been working as a solo founder.

I have worked with partners in the past and I have some smaller side projects that I run with partners, such as co-hosting a podcast and co-running a small conference. I like those kinds of small partnerships, but when it comes to my main business, I have just never really found out a great business partner to build an entire company with. I'm friends with a lot of really great talented founders, but they're all working on their other things. 

The way I've overcome working as a solo founder is by befriending and being part of communities. I travel out to conferences and I've met a lot of friends through that. Now my friends and I get together three or four times a year at small retreats where we go and do something fun, like skiing and snowboarding, and then we talk business. We even, personally and through Slack, try to advise each other on our businesses.

I would definitely recommend getting involved in some communities to anyone, whether you have partners or not. It can really do wonders for your career just meeting people and learning and sharing notes along the way.


Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?

I always feel like I'm at a bit of disadvantage of being a solo person. I have seen how partnerships can work out really well and you can get work done very efficiently, so being soles founders puts me behind the competition with a team of founders.

However, over the years, I've become much more comfortable in that role of driving everything forward myself again. I overcame that by relying pretty heavily on my advisors and friends, other founder friends and mentors.

Some of the worst mistakes are also sort of related to partnerships.

In the years ago, I partnered up with a few people with whom I didn't have a history. I think that within 30 days of meeting them, we decided to partner up on a product idea and we just didn't really see eye to eye on things. Needless to say that that partnership didn't work out.

If you are going to partner with someone, I think you need to have a prior working relationship with him/her. Of course, it also has to make sense in terms of skills and finances.

The other thing I commit a mistake with was not learning back-end technologies until 2018. I feel like I should have done it sooner in my career. I’ve always stayed away from Javascript, Ruby, databases, etc because I felt like I wasn't that type of developer for too many years. When I decided to devote my time to it, I actually learned a lot and I felt really comfortable with it. Nowadays, it’s something I really love.


What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?

My favorite podcasts:

  • BootstrappedWeb: It’s the podcast I co-host with my founder-friend Jordan Gal. I learn a lot just doing it! I also like to listen back to our show to hear where my thinking was at a week or two ago. It helps me make sense of it.
  • StartupsForTheRestofUs
  • TropicalMBA

And many others in this category that help me learn what are other entrepreneurs in similar paths doing...


Where can we go to learn more?

You can check my personal blog and newsletter.

My product, ProcessKit

My productized service company, AudienceOps.

And my course & community, Productize.

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