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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

How a Non-Technical SaaS Founder Built a $1.5M ARR Business Working From 30+ Countries

Amar Ghose
Amar Ghose
December 7, 2021
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
Remote
Revenue of startups
$100k-$500k/mo
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

How a Non-Technical SaaS Founder Built a $1.5M ARR Business Working From 30+ Countries

Amar Ghose
Amar Ghose
December 7, 2021
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
Remote
Cause of failure of the startup

Amar co-founded ZenMaid, a niche scheduling SaaS for maid services. The business is growing and they're at $1.5M in ARR. They have around 30 people on their team between full-time and freelancers, and their goal is to keep growing at 40% year-over-year.

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

I’m Amar Ghose, the CEO, and co-founder of ZenMaid. I also recently launched a podcast, the Surround Sound SaaS Marketing podcast, where I talk about the various things we do for marketing on ZenMaid.

I’m 34 years old, and I’m currently based in London, United Kingdom, although I've spent the last 6 years traveling the world as a digital nomad. I built ZenMaid from 33 countries over the 8 years we've been in business.

ZenMaid is a niche scheduling software for maid services. We help cleaners manage their schedules, handle communications, and automate various tasks that allow them to earn more while doing less. Our goal is to handle everything that leads up and everything that happens after the cleaning with our software.

Our business model is a typical SaaS; people pay us on a subscription basis, anywhere from $49 to $500 a month (around $220 on average).

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

Before starting ZenMaid, I worked for a company in Southern California, and I was pretty miserable there. I was working with my best friend, which was pretty much the only redeeming quality of the job.

During that time, I started a maid service called “Fast, Friendly, Spotless”. I was just trying to escape my day job, and after getting tired of both projects, I ended up moving back to where I grew up in Silicon Valley.

My previous maid service project helped shape the ZenMaid idea. I started ZenMaid with my friend Arun Devabhaktuni at the same time as I joined a startup called UserVoice. I worked at UserVoice for about two years while working on ZenMaid before and after work. And that was a lot better than my previous job. I was much happier.

I was always trying to come up with side hustles but always thinking on a very small scale and small level. If I had been thinking bigger from a younger age, I would have come across something like ZenMaid much faster.

I left the United States in 2015 and built ZenMaid while traveling to 30+ countries as a digital nomad. I spent most of the time between Bali, Thailand, and Europe (with 1-2 months in the US each year).


How did you go from idea to product?

When we were validating our idea, we started building ZenMaid simultaneously. We had already committed to the idea before doing any customer research. My co-founder was doing all the coding, and I was cold emailing maid services to talk about their scheduling issues. We realized there was a big marketing gap in the industry, which we could fill.

ZenMaid Landing Page

Designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product took us six months, and that’s when we finally got paid for it.

We got paid $1000 for lifetime access to the software. We got paid about a month before the product was fully ready to go and could be used.

Our significant weakness when we started was that neither of us were designers, and that showed for quite a long time until we did a redesign. Luckily we picked an industry where the design wasn’t too important. We weren't working with designers; we weren't working with developers. The standards were decently low as long as the software worked as expected.

When the product was ready, we felt no one would care. So, we quietly launched the product and began onboarding people as they found us. We started at $19 a month, quickly went to $29 a month. And then we went up to $49 a month. Over time the pricing strategy has changed. Now we're at usage-based pricing, so we still have the $49 based price, but it's now $9 per month per employee in addition to the owner.

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Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

I've always considered myself a marketing-first founder. Since day one, we've been running different marketing campaigns and tried many things over the years.

Any marketing channel or marketing campaign can work as long as you find the right audience and have the right offer and product.

We started with paid advertising of a hundred dollars per month to put into Google Ads for our target keyword, “maid service software”. And we slowly built that up. Now we spend about $20,000 a month on paid advertising. We also used cold email to grow to our first 100 customers.

We were listed on every directory that we could find for SaaS companies to get easy backlinks. We have focused a bit on SEO over time, but we mainly published lots of content.

We've done a ton of content marketing with lead magnets and paid/free content on our blog, as well as our YouTube channel.

We've just been so active in the industry and have been around for so long that now we rank organically for all the keywords we want to be focused on.

But the last thing to mention would be the Maid Summit, a virtual summit for maid service owners around the world to attend for free and improve their businesses.


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

The business today is growing nicely, and we're at $1.5 million in annual recurring revenue.

We have a full-time team of six people, and then we have another 20 to 25 freelancers agencies, contractors, and part-time folks.

Our goal is to keep our slow and steady growth rate. We're looking at 40% year-over-year growth as the minimum acceptable that we're looking for.


Since starting ZenMaid, what have been your main lessons?

The number one lesson is to don't give up. When I look at ZenMaid versus some of our competitors that didn't make it, it's just that we kept breaking through barriers and obstacles and wouldn't let anything get in our way.

Most of our competitors who closed didn't fail; they decided to stop trying at some point.

The other thing I would say is playing to your strengths. Focus more on your strengths rather than addressing your weaknesses. My ability to sell one-on-one is not the best, so we doubled down on marketing.

Eventually, you can get to the point where you can hire a team to do whatever is fast, and you can just pay people who are good at specific strategies that you want to put in place. But until you get to that point, focusing on what you already do best will move the needle the fastest.

Also, document everything or think about everything in terms of processes and systems. I recommend Principles by Ray Dalio, which explains why you want to have everything well-defined within your company. 

There’s a good chance that 20% of your day is creating 80% of the results within a business. In some companies, you will have 20% of your customers, making you 80% of the money. Thinking about this can help you figure out how to focus and prioritize.

It’s beneficial to revisit and reimplement all these lessons; I do it once a year or every 2 years. Every time I do it, my productivity goes up, and I get a little bit happier because I got more time to spend on the things that I love.

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

On a personal level, I'm a non-technical founder. So it’s a challenge when it comes to building a software company. My co-founder and I had almost no leadership experience, so building ZenMaid was just figuring it out as we came. We also didn't have any reputation in the industry, with no audience.

When we were cold emailing to get our first hundred customers, people weren’t responding, and our emails were going to spam because we just sounded like two random dudes from India asking them for money for software that didn’t exist yet. We had to hire a friend who had a bit more of a friendly name.

In comparison to our competition, we had no funding, which was a significant obstacle to overcome. 

We were also working remotely back in 2013 when we first started ZenMaid, although we were still in the same town. We'd see each other a couple of times a week to chat, which was also another challenge.

The final obstacle that we've overcome was picking a very challenging market. Maid services tend to be late adopters. It took us a long time to get to $10,000 in monthly recurring revenue, which wouldn't even cover their living expenses for many founders. It took us over three years to go from zero to $10k in MRR, and then another four years to go from $10k to $100k MRR. 

As for the biggest mistake that we've made in ZenMaid history, we spent over a year working on a redesign of the software and moving different things around both UI and UX changes, as well as releasing a couple of new features. We took that live and took down our system for almost three days in the middle of the week. It was in 2017 and ended up costing us between 30 and 35% of our MRR over the following six months. We were at $18k in monthly recurring revenue when we launched that redesign. And we essentially went back down to $12k. The new design was much better than the old one, but the transition was very painful.

It was poor leadership on my part and then poor communication by multiple parties within the company.


What tools & resources do you recommend?

I'm not going to recommend any tools because I think the tools change over time. Everyone should do their evaluations and figure out what's best for their company. I want to recommend some books and podcasts that have changed my thinking.

The first one is The Ultimate Sales Machine by Chet Holmes. It’s the go-to resource to rethink your sales, your marketing, your go-to-market strategy, how you're getting people to pull out their wallets and give you money.

Next up, Principles by Ray Dalio, which is the operating manual. You’ll learn how to develop processes, procedures, systems in your business that can take you to the next level.

The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. This book sells you the lifestyle of working from anywhere around the world.

The Jobs Biography on Steve jobs, the Elon Biography on Elon Musk, and the Fish that Ate the Whale, which is about an immigrant entrepreneur who came and built a massive empire. Those three books are excellent in thinking about different business challenges that life throws at you.

To recommend two quick podcasts, there's the Tropical MBA podcast for nomadic entrepreneurs or those aspiring to be nomadic entrepreneurs. There's also the more recently popular My First Million podcast with Sam Parr and Shaan Puri.

The last resource I would recommend is the Farnam street blog by Shane Parrish, which talks about decision-making and mental models.


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