Josh Pigford’s company, Baremetrics, has been growing steadily since launching in 2013. All told, they’ve brought in more than $3M — on just $800,000 in outside funding.
Not too shabby in the software world, where it’s often the other way around.
But five years after starting up, Josh is facing down a problem that comes for businesses of all shapes and sizes sooner or later:
The growth has started to slow down.
“It’s still positive growth, but not anything that we’ve had before,” says Josh.
And that brings with it all kinds of problems, from derailing product development plans, to forcing layoffs — not to mention the metric ton of pressure it puts on the shoulders of the man in charge of it all, Josh Pigford himself.
Josh knows all of this. He sees all of it coming.
There’s just one small problem:
He doesn’t actually want to deal with it.
After five years of being CEO and de facto Chief Growth Officer of Baremetrics — the only person on his team who is focused on marketing the business — Josh Pigford is kind of burned out on growth.
And that isn’t some carefully guarded company secret.
This paradox that Josh is facing — “X needs to happen to keep my business growing, but I can’t be the one to make X happen” — is one that every entrepreneur has to stare down sooner or later. And it’s a painful one.
But in a culture where talking about your numbers is taboo — especially when the news around those numbers isn’t great — talking about growth problems just isn’t done.
Clearly, Josh Pigford doesn’t have a problem with breaking the taboo. He’s giving us an inside look at Baremetrics’s growth problem — including a look at the business’s numbers that you almost never get to see. And he’s sharing what he’s doing to get growth at Baremetrics back on track — and get himself back to the work that is the reason he started the business to begin with.
When what was working doesn’t work anymore
Baremetrics is a software platform that lets users (other businesses, mostly) track, analyze, and forecast numbers coming in from business tools like Stripe, Braintree, and Recurly.
Josh first made Baremetrics for himself as a hobby. As it turned out, lots of other founders needed the same kind of visibility into their businesses — and growth took off from there.
The fact that the company’s target audience was mostly people like Josh is part of what made the marketing part of the equation so intuitive for such a long time.
“The content side of things has always come pretty naturally to me, because I’m just writing what I’m learning as a founder — things that I’m thinking about, or that I’m struggling with,” Josh says. “And because our target market has always been other founders, that has worked really well.”
“But we’re reaching a point where founders aren’t necessarily our target as much as they were,” Josh says. “So the thing that was working so well for such a long time … it’s not working as well anymore.”
Josh points out that this isn’t a uniquely Baremetrics thing. Or a uniquely SaaS thing, or a uniquely $3M-in-revenue thing. Companies of all shapes and sizes get to a point where the thing that has worked up until now doesn’t work anymore — and then they have to figure out what to do next.
“I was listening to this series on [the podcast] Freakonomics Radio with the CEOs of these huge companies — Facebook, Pepsi, Microsoft. And I specifically remember the CEOs of Pepsi and Microsoft talking about examples of having to reinvent themselves,” Josh says.
“Pepsi had to learn how to make healthy food. Microsoft has to figure out the whole mobile thing. That’s the case for big companies, and that’s certainly the case for small companies, and every size company in between. Things might work for a really long time, but there’s going to come a point where something shifts and you have to figure out how to adapt.”
Getting to the root of the problem
The problem for Baremetrics isn’t holding onto the customers they have — it’s getting new customers into the fold.
In marketing terms, this is a “top of funnel” problem — Baremetrics isn’t bringing in as many new prospects as it used to. And fewer prospects at the top of the funnel means fewer people trickling down into the funnel and becoming Baremetrics customers.
There are two possible reasons that this could be the case:
- Baremetrics has already found everyone and anyone that could ever be a customer for their product.
- The marketing strategy that has worked for Josh up to his point — blogging about his experience as a founder and trusting that that will resonate enough with people to get them to stick around and learn more about Baremetrics and ultimately buy their product — is not working anymore.
I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the first one.
“The reality is, internet business growth is up, so we should be maintaining a lot of new customer growth,” Josh explains. “When we know that the market itself is still massive, that’s a symptom that the problem is a marketing problem. We’re not connecting as well as we should be with the people who could use us. It’s a problem with getting people in the door.”
When your company’s growth problem is a you problem
The good news is that the world is Baremetrics’s playground when it comes to new things to try to get growth trending upward again.
“We have so much low hanging fruit on the marketing side, because we’ve only done one thing for five years,” Josh says.
But that one thing — that was the thing Josh was good at.
“It’s getting to the point where we should probably at least test out doing some traditional sales stuff, or try other types of marketing. And that’s completely outside of my element.”
Not only is marketing not Josh’s strong suit — it’s taking him away from the stuff that is. “I’ve missed doing product stuff,” he says. “That’s the part that I’ve always loved. That’s why I do this in the first place.”
And, finally, the real kicker: “It’s becoming a bad use of my time. The CEO spending 30 percent of his time on writing articles? That just doesn’t make sense. There are other things that I need to be doing that are going to move the needle more and be more important to the business than writing this blog post.”
Letting go is hard to do — but it has to be done
At this point, it’s becoming pretty clear what Josh needs to do. There’s a kind of checklist you can run through with any given task as a founder.
- You’re not an expert at it
- It’s not a good use of your time
- Somebody else could do it better
- You don’t enjoy it that much
“I think, when you’re a CEO, there’s a certain amount of ego that goes into it,” says Josh. “Early on, you have the mentality of ‘I can do anything.’ And not in the way your mom tells you you can do anything you set your mind to. From a legit standpoint of, ‘There’s a thousand things that need to get done, and I don’t have anybody to do them, so it falls to me.’”
That’s a great attitude for entrepreneurs to have when they’re starting out, when you really are the only person who can get it done.
“But there comes a point where you just start realizing you’re not the right person for the job anymore,” says Josh. “I think the more you hire people, the more you realize how terrible you are at most things. Because you start hiring people who actually know what they’re doing and you realize, ‘Man, I was a terrible, terrible engineer,’ or ‘Man, I am actually not a good designer.’ Because you actually have hired someone who’s a good designer.”
When it comes to marketing, Josh says, he’s just been a bit slower to see the writing on the wall than he has been in other areas. “Clearly, I am not an amazing marketer who should be a marketer full time. But I’ve been treating it as though that’s the case, when actually I should just be hiring it out to someone who’s actually really good at it.”
And they all grew happily ever after
So that’s what Josh is doing: he’s handing the marketing reigns of Baremetrics over to someone who genuinely loves marketing — and knows it inside and out.
The role comes with a clear mandate. “We finally got profitable, so we have to stay profitable,” explains Josh. “So that role, initially, is essentially about paying for itself as quickly as possible.”
And now that it’s not resting solely, or even primarily, on his shoulders, Josh is actually looking forward to the process of figuring out the marketing tactics that are going to fuel the next era of growth at Baremetrics.
“To me, that’s the really fun part: when you can just throw a bunch of stuff out there, see what sticks, and then chase down the things that actually do.”
It really is a win-win scenario: Baremetrics gets to keep growing, Josh gets to bring on a new team member who eats, sleeps, and dreams growth — and Josh gets to go back to the parts of his business that he genuinely loves and can make the biggest impact on: the product and the team.
And it’s important to note that that last one isn’t just an afterthought.
“I think people try to remove their personal feelings from building a business too much,” says Josh. “They think there’s only one way to do it, so I have to do it this way, because that’s just how it’s done. But if you’re starting a business — it’s your business. Do whatever you want. I’m building the business that I want to have, and that I want to work for, and that the people I want to work with also want to work for.
“The last thing I want to do is get stuck having to do things that I don’t want to do for years on end, and then look back and have hated it. I’ve got three kids that are nine, 13, and 15. And they’re fully aware of what I do — if I’ve had a hard day, if I enjoy my work or not. The last thing I want is for my kids to think that the way you build a business is to be unhappy for a few years. Because I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think you have to be unhappy. And I’d rather show them that there’s a way that you can build a business and have fun along the way.”