Craig is the founder of Votion–a SaaS for building engagement with bracket-style marketing (think March Madness). He's also the founder of Growth University.
To read the full interview with Craig check out page 95 of Kicking SaaS: 101 Founders on What it Takes to Launch a Software as a Service.
What is Votion?
Votion is an enterprise grade bracket solution for driving audience engagement. The typical use case is a company that uses our platform to build out a March Madness-style campaign that leverages the more human, competitive side of customers. You’ve got participants in the bracket sharing it out on social platforms, which creates a series of sequential growth loops that all point back to the product. The brands that run these things generally have a phenomenal ROI. It really is its own flavor of marketing. It’s a very, very niche product.
Is anyone else doing anything like this?
We’ve had competitors come and go over the years, but we’ve been the one company to kind of survive. It’s a challenging product to build because it’s a tough UX, so the actual engineering is difficult. It’s also a tough business model. You want to position it as an enterprise play, which is great, but there’s also consumer demand for it. So how do you figure out pricing? There’s an inherent challenge there. It’s also an infrequent use case. That third challenge has been really hard for companies that have tried to come in and build a $100 million dollar business with a product like this. It’s just never going to get to that point.
Are you a technical founder?
I started my career as what I would call a very bad software engi- neer. After five or six years, I moved into product management and then into growth marketing. Now I’m doing product and growth. I was the least technical of my two co-founders. Until founding Votion, I was still coding at least part of the time.
I would say I’m smack in between technical and non-technical– just enough to be dangerous. I say “dangerous” because I’m well-versed enough to put out feature requests. But then those requests turn out to take forever, and they turn out to be bad ideas.
You mentioned that this was a difficult product to engineer. How did you tackle that challenge?
I was lucky. When I lived in Encinitas (California), one of my neigh- bors was Steve Phillips, and it turns out we had a lot of shared interests. When I was spinning this company out, he was in between gigs and we just got to talking. He loved the model for Votion. Turns out, Steve is one of the best enterprise level software engineers out there. I mean, he’s absolutely phenomenal. But on the flip side, the earliest iteration didn’t really take off. I ended up taking a job in D.C. where I was hiring people to be UX/UI front end engineers, and I hired somebody at the company that became the next co-founder. We pulled him in when we really started to scale the business. His name is Seamus Leahy. It was pure coincidence and luck that I was able to find two highly technical resources like that. Both of them are still with the company.
What are the pros and cons of running a seasonal SaaS business?
I’m doing a bunch of different things outside of Votion. If you don’t fully require your niche business to be your primary means of survival, then you can opportunistically generate revenue and have some fun along the way. There’s less pressure on you as a founder to get everything right and to build a billion dollar business and scale it exponentially every single month. The con is that you have to take a long view if it’s not going to be the primary thing that you’re working on. You have to be patient.
For example, there was a while where we built a bunch of additional products and features within Votion as a suite, and it totally failed. We wanted to do that because we wanted it to be a self-sufficient business with venture scale potential. What we realized was that we couldn’t get to product market fit with those non-niche products and features. You have to be realistic with where you want it to go, and if you’re not, you find yourselves in a situation where you’re raising money off of hopes and dreams that you may never reach.
Still, I think building a niche business is especially interesting right now with the no-code movement and changes in the industry that make running a side hustle more viable. A niche business almost makes the perfect side hustle. Find something that you’re passionate about and good at. Figure out how to monetize. And you’re set. Just don’t expect it to be this massive thing that you’re going to get rich off of.
What would you say to someone who wants to start a business on the side and isn’t technical?
I would do a lot of experimentation. Resist the urge to build a whole bunch of stuff until you start to validate that there is actually demand. How do you do that? For a non-technical founder, your ability now as compared to, say, 10 years ago, is orders of magnitude easier to get something viable in front of an audience. What do you need to build an audience? You need distribution.
There’s this chicken or the egg problem. You need to build enough value into the product in an industry that has some potential to meet your financial goals, and you need to get whatever you’re building in front of people as early as possible. Go as lean as possible.
I think a lot of founders–technical and non-technical–overbuild and overengineer before they have anybody giving them feedback. You should be embarrassed by your first iteration. When I started my growth courses, I had no audience. The first time I sent an email blast, it was to like, eight people. I’m sitting there working, and wondering, How do I even justify where I’m spending all this time to my wife? But over time you talk about it, you pitch it, you get better at it. That actually helps you build a better product because, early on, you’re getting it in front of people for feedback.
To read the full interview with Craig, check out page 195 of Kicking SaaS: 101 Founders on What it Takes to Launch a Software as a Service.