Although the general rule of business nowadays seems to be to only talk about your successes, we decided to show a more realistic image and talk about the failures too. We interviewed our CEO Adam Hempenstall and got his take on which lessons you can learn from your business failures.
How Adam got his start
First, let’s start with an introduction. For those of you that don’t know, Adam and Sabrina (our CTO) used to run a digital agency. Just like in any business, proposals were a big part of their work week.
Soon they realized that their proposals were either a hit or miss so they wanted to find a better way to manage them. That’s when the idea for Better Proposals was born. The two of them wanted to know if the proposal they created and sent was even opened and how much time the reader spent on each of the different segments.
That’s how the idea for web-based proposals was born. Once you have that data, your follow-up process is much easier, because you don’t have to do a lot of guesswork.
Nowadays, Better Proposals is a company focusing on more than just business proposals. We offer a platform that can help you streamline your entire sales process, from a request for a proposal to sealing the deal.
Our pre-written proposal templates can help you create customized proposals in minutes. Furthermore, every document comes with a digital signature option and payment integrations.
This means that neither you nor your clients have to print out the proposal, sign it by hand and scan it. Our digital signatures are legally binding, trackable, and completely free of charge for your clients. All they have to do is type in their name.
The payment integrations let your clients pay their fee straight through the proposal itself. You can set up a single payment, installment, subscription model, and more, all depending on the gateway you choose.
Once your proposal is sent, you will get notifications every time they get opened, signed, forwarded, and paid.
Since our proposals are web-based, you can utilize proposal analytics which shows how much time the reader spent on different chapters of your document. That way, you’ll know exactly what to focus on in your follow-up process.
Now that you know the basics, let’s jump into Adam’s key lessons for anyone with a new business.
What is the biggest lesson you learned from a failed business venture?
Adam: I see we’re starting off strong. Well, I would have to go with the lesson of knowing the value of your work.
You see, a while back we had the idea for a digital signature platform. It would help people sign documents. So we thought of the name Docusign since it’s a doc-u-sign. Straight away, we bought the domain name docusign.co.uk and as you can imagine, we fairly quickly got a cease and desist letter from a lawyer.
We never thought to Google the name and see if anyone was using it. Of course, Docusign is a popular digital signature tool and the lawyer wanted us to remove any mention of it and to give them over the domain name.
I didn’t have a problem with removing the name, since it was my fault, but I didn’t want to just hand over the domain name. I bought it for £6.09 and I had no idea how valuable it actually was. So when the lawyer guy agreed to pay for it, he told me to name my price.
That should’ve been a sign, but I just thought that a 90% markup was a good idea and asked for £100 and he paid me in about 4 seconds. I’m still annoyed at myself for not asking for more, but when I think back, at that time, that amount of money meant that I didn’t have to worry about buying food that month.
So the key lesson here would be to realize the value of your work for other people, not just for yourself.
Now that you have more experience, do you think there are some telltale signs that a start-up is going to fail?
Adam: If I zero in on my level of expertise and stay focused on agencies and SaaS, then my answer would be – focusing on the wrong stuff.
I honestly think you can’t learn this without fucking it up. The only advice I could give for this issue would be to know you’re going to make mistakes but to look for lessons in them.
Furthermore, if you’d asked me specifically about SaaS companies, I would say that not having a co-founding team is a sure telltale sign that you’re about to fail. One of you has to be technical and someone has to have a talent for sales and marketing.
You need people that are going to care about the vision and you can only get that from a co-founder that can manage without pay for the first couple of months. So my first piece of advice would be to find a great co-founder and then just get in front of people. Talk to them and listen to their needs and wants.
That’s the best way to sell. After all, people buy from people.
Another big mistake is not focusing on the customer. Without them, you don’t have anything to sell.
What have you found to be surprising to people when you talking about starting a business?
Adam: It depends on a person’s background and experience. If you’re starting a SaaS brand, you need to focus on sales very early on. People put too much focus on the product when you should be talking to your customers and finding out how to market your platform.
And if you want a tip on increasing your conversion rate, my advice is to use your customers’ words in copywriting. When you talk to multiple customers every day, you know exactly what their needs are and the wording they use.
If you utilize that in your sales copy, you’ll get more customers because they will feel heard and seen.
When you think about it – most people start businesses because they understand the technical part of it. For example, if you’re working in a company that instals windows and you want to break free, you’ll have the knowledge and experience of fitting windows, but that’s only about 10 to 20% of the job.
There is a whole 80% that you know nothing about and you need to learn about it as you go.
What would you say is more important in the beginning, hiring a team or investing in branding?
Adam: It depends. If you’re going big straight away and have some money behind you then I would say to invest in the right team.
When we were starting out, we did it the other way around. Just because the last thing I wanted was to have a large company full of people. Now when I look at the team I truly love all of you, but I didn’t know that was going to be the case when Sabrina and I were starting.
So bottom line, if you don’t have any money, start by investing in branding and if you have some investments, then get a small, reliable team first.
Is there something that people find surprising about your previous business ventures?
I think people are surprised at how much Sabrina and I did by ourselves. I’m talking – about development, design, marketing, sales, customer support, testing, accounting, managing partners, all of it.
We used to travel a lot and I remember travelling to Frankfurt to see Axwell & Ingrosso and wanting to film a how-to video after the concert. I had all my camera gear in the car and as we were leaving the venue I saw a guy with a helmet made out of glowsticks. That inspired me to talk about standing out.
But it was soooo cold, I knew that I had to do this in one take. We were both visibly shivering, me in front of the camera and Sabrina behind. As we’re filming, a guy comes up to me and mumbles in German. I figured out he wanted a cigarette, but I didn’t have one so he left.
It turned out so funny that I didn’t even edit it out. You can’t script things like these. If you’re interested, you can watch that video here.
As Adam says, take note of what your customers are saying and shape your product accordingly. They are the best testers and they will give you the best ideas for features since they’re the ones using your product every day.
If you’re starting a business, don’t neglect sales at the start in order to focus on developing the product. The quicker you get in front of people and get a base of customers, the better your understanding of how the product needs to change will be.
The big difference is that you can have something Adam and Sabrina didn’t have when they were starting out – an amazing proposal-building software.
They had to build it from scratch, making improvements as they went.
Start a free 14-day trial and start driving those sales home.