Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Launching and Growing a SaaS after 2 Years of Development

Artur Maklyarevsky
Artur Maklyarevsky
December 29, 2020
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
Argentina
Revenue of startups
No Data
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Launching and Growing a SaaS after 2 Years of Development

Artur Maklyarevsky
Artur Maklyarevsky
December 29, 2020
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
Argentina
Cause of failure of the startup

Artur and Luciano are the founders of VisualSitemaps, a SaaS that autogenerates visual sitemaps from any website. It was 2 years in the making, as it required getting creative with the development and trying new technologies. Since launched, the startup has been growing at +9%/month.

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

My name is Artur and I’m the CEO and co-founder of VisualSitemaps, a platform that automatically generates beautiful visual sitemaps of any public or private website. I’m currently based in Bariloche, Argentina. Originally born in Ukraine, and grew up in NYC since 1979, where I survived the internet bubble and almost died on 9/11.

VisualSitempas prototype

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

My NYU background is in digital animation and graphic design. When HTML 1.0 surged in 1995, I jumped into it fast, and within a few weeks, it got me the dubious title of “Mr.Internet” at Doremus, a banking agency in NYC. It was a very exciting time to work in technology.

In 2006, after working all over Silicon Alley, I co-launched Design2Dev, an “agile digital agency”, along with a very talented tech partner who at the time was one of the most talented flash devs I’ve ever met.

While there, I came up with our first SaaS idea to provide modern portfolio solutions for creative professionals. It was a flash-based application and there was nothing high-end out there at the time, so we thought we could make a decent offering.

It took us more than 1.5 years to launch the product. We were both perfectionists and we were always wanting to add more features, instead of releasing something quickly and validate our idea. By the time we launched, Flash was already dying out fast! The timing was horrible and we sadly had to shut down the business.

If you can’t beat them .. join them!
Having all this Flash know-how helped us figure out a way to opportunistically take advantage of the tech-void Flash left behind. So we built a productized service called ConvertMyFlash, which semi-auto-converted Flash websites into WordPress themes... in just 72 hours.

ConvertMyFlash

On the outside looked like a fully automated product, but on the backend, it was my agile dev team that performed semi-automated actions to quickly create these custom WP themes. We had decent success for more than a year, and the most important part was that I proved to myself that I could pivot and find success much faster.

One year later, I was losing that burst of inspiration. The business was essentially becoming a tedious factory-style process..and our market-window for this service was closing. So this time I decided to jump into a completely different idea..something closer to my heart... ART.

This led me to build a social-marketplace called Juicy Canvas, which was a very new way for people to consume art and even design their own lifestyle products (read our manifesto). We got into an accelerator called Startup Chile and had some early success. Sadly two years later, we decided to pivot, as we ran out of runway and there were too many mega-large embedded competitors fighting for the same consumers.

The new product we created was called Pop Team and it was an on-demand service we provide to companies who wanted to celebrate their team while sprucing up their boring office decor.

Pop Team

This idea had enormous success as we managed to validate it in just 1 week!.
This simple solution killed 2 birds at once. It creatively demonstrated that the CEO cared about their team while sprucing up the office/team vibe, matching any decor they had.

Our main acquisition channel was mostly email and Instagram which performed really well at a very low cost. Two years later, my cofounder and wife fired me as the CEO and she felt more confident and empowered to run the business her way. It was a smart move, as it made our relationship a lot easier.

This liberation gave me enough time to work on new products and my agency, https://Design2Dev.com. While working with clients there, I kept having to create visual sitemaps which took up a lot of my precious time..so we decided to automate this manual process, as it was how VisualSitemaps’ idea came up and the business was born.

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How did you go from idea to product?

The best products come from solving your pain-points.

As a +20 year product designer, I wanted to solve my own problem.

Every time I had a new web project, I kept having to manually create a visual sitemap for myself and my clients just to get an idea of the scope and page flow. I also had to manually take screenshots of key pages to later use for reference and in my proposals.

I looked for a modern solution that would provide the same professional output I was used to making, and there was just nothing out there. So we built it. It took almost 2 years.

There are some markets in which consumers demand a lot but are willing to give little in return (by not being constructive, providing feedback, etc). That was, fortunately, not our case. This product is catering to web professionals who are creating other incredible products, so they truly understand and are willing to provide very detailed product feedback when we reach them. And that’s how we were able to quickly validate our ideas and assumptions. The next major break was to confirm the technical feasibility of the automation I had in mind to build the product, so after some deep due-diligence on the state of browser-cloud-crawling technology...it was clear the time was ripe..but there was a key missing piece. 

For this startup, I wanted a complimentary talented co-founder & CTO. In previous businesses, I was the solo-founder and I hired developers as I had enough development knowledge to hire and manage them. However, at the time of starting VisualSitemaps, I understand that being a solo-founder would limit me. I was now a dad and I had to better think about my time and energy needs.

I was very lucky when I started looking out for a CTO to find that a friend of mine (Luciano Panaro), who I had always kept track of what he was doing, was available. He was one of the few Argentine developers at that time that had got into a forward-thinking technology early on and had stuck with it. Because of that, he got himself into four startups in San Francisco. That made him work at a totally different level than most of the developers that I was working with locally in Argentina.

VisualSitemaps was one of these things that required a very experienced and creative CTO, who was not afraid to look at newer technologies and try them, but at the same time, who was mature enough to avoid getting us into technical debt, which would hurt the business as we started to grow. Luciano was a perfect fit. He, fortunately, joined me and has since done an amazing job.

One of the challenges we had from the beginning, for example, was that all websites are built with different technologies and so it was difficult to make the tool work on all of the cases. We managed to build a product, anyway, that worked in at least 95% of the cases.

As for the business model, we decided to go with a monthly subscription as we thought that businesses that had monthly recurring revenue were the best ones to have. In the beginning, it was very difficult for us to sell a monthly subscription model because when we launched the MVP, it didn't offer enough MoM value at the time. A lot of first adopters saw it as a pay-per-unit 1x sale. So we had to look way past just the sitemap generation feature to validate the long-term recurring model we were aspiring to.

VisualSitemaps' pricing

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

We do marketing on a small personal scale and with the highest quality. For example, we frequently send highly targeted personalized emails or LinkedIn messages to agencies, along with an example of one of their clients’ websites’ visual sitemaps.

99% of the time they don’t need the service immediately, but they might over time, so we try to nurture those relationships through emails and meetings we have with decision-makers of the agencies.

Our launch on Product Hunt was also really huge for us. We made the Top-10 most upvoted product of the year.

Google Search has also been performing well.

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

On the product side, we plan on evolving our UX a lot to make our tool even easier to use while improving data organization and search. We are also looking into a plethora of integrations like GA and other performance, technical audit tools to add more informed data to the crawls. At some point, we may rebrand the platform once we go past just ‘sitemaps’.

We've been growing quite well month over month (around 7%), even though the pandemic.

We may plan on pursuing a seed round in late 2021. Meanwhile, we have enough runway to get ourselves sorted, with growing MoM traction.

What were the biggest obstacles you overcame?

The biggest obstacle was convincing my wife that after one year into it, we should double-down and pursue this startup more aggressively.

We had plans to move from a big city to a tiny town in Bariloche as our 7yr old was starting 1st grade and it was an opportunity to start fresh. But she thought it would be more opportune time to take a long pause on the project and recover from our past startup deficits, as the first year was quite time-consuming and I had to sacrifice a lot of my family time.

I had to convince her that pausing our momentum = Death. That the momentum we gained from our past year to build was our only asset today to leverage, and that we had to double down on our focus and see where we would net out one year later. Perhaps If I didn't have a co-founder, I could have been open to making that choice, but I also felt compelled to keep my commitment to him as well and follow-through on phase 2 of our product roadmap.
I’m really glad I listened to my instinct. 1 year later we doubled our ARR.

What were your worst mistakes?

Probably not putting enough early focus on content marketing and SEO. But as we had very little resources starting, I felt more compelled to double down on product quality and let that speak for itself. I've also been told by a close advisor that I should have stopped building more features, and switched to 1:1 sales much earlier. About 6-months earlier. But my gut told me to stay on the product as it felt more compelling at the time. 

Making the switch is not for the faint of heart as it is so time-consuming and you inevitably lose product-focus. I just felt I couldn't start selling until it was beyond just OK, because for me when you do sales you kind of just have 1 shot in making your first impression, and our target is other high-caliber end-users who were used to seeing mature products..so it felt useless wasting their time until I could knock them out of their seats.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can check VisualSitemaps and my digital studio, Design2Dev.

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