7 Ways I’ve Almost Killed FreshBooks

From placing my faith in a spreadsheet to thinking we had to spend more than we did, here are seven ways I've almost killed FreshBooks.

Mike McDerment, CEO FreshBooks

I’ve often said, “Were it not for Joe and Levi, I would have run this company into the ground long ago.” The fact is, truer words have seldom been spoken. Here’s a list of the ways that I’ve almost killed FreshBooks over the years:

1. Thinking We Had to Move Faster than We Did

I remember back in 2005 feeling that if we did not blow our lights out and spend every penny we had on marketing “right now!” someone would obliterate us. I had this impending sense of doom for years based on our speed. Turns out I was wrong, and I owe Joe and Levi a world of thanks for repeatedly talking me off the ledge.

2. Placing My Faith in a Spreadsheet

Rocking a spreadsheet is important in my books—it gets you thinking about your business. But trust me, whatever numbers come out of your Excel jockeying, they’re wrong. If you saw our business plan from five years ago, you’d know what I mean.

It’s really easy to stare at a spreadsheet and say, “That’s it! I totally get this business. I understand how it all works and just look at that year five revenue!” when the reality is it will take 10 years to get there, cost you twice as much as you thought, and you’ll probably be running a totally different business by the time you get there.

All of that is OK in my books, just so long as you don’t actually delude yourself into believing what the spreadsheet tells you.

3. Thinking We Had to Spend More than We Did

There is something about the act of spending money that breeds confidence—don’t ask me why. Just because you’re spending money doesn’t mean things will work out like you modeled them, or that you’re learning a lot or being efficient. And all of these things are crucial when you’re building a business.

We like to try things and look for “signs of life” with our marketing before we increase our spend in any medium. It’s always the right approach because there are no silver bullets, so don’t kid yourself into thinking there are.

4. Placing My Faith in Consultants

Nobody cares about your business as much as you do, and frankly people who are smart—consultant/MBA smart—don’t know your business as well as you do, despite their fancy words and references to past success. You are in business because of the way you see your opportunity.

Try as you may to change this fact, no one will ever possess your unique perspective, so don’t kid yourself into thinking a consultant knows your business better than you. At the same time, stay open to their advice and take it into consideration as you make decisions, just don’t bet the farm on what they think you should do.

5. Underestimating Word of Mouth

This way is sort of tied to number one. It takes years to generate word of mouth—it’s a slow build, but slow burning fires burn the hottest. So be patient and do your best to take care of your customers/users, even if you can’t find a way to measure the ROI (return on investment).

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6. Believing We Could Not Get this Far Without Doing ‘X’

I remember talking with people back in 2004. Many believed we could not get anywhere without signing a “deal” with a “partner,” or taking “VC money” or “whatever.” Here’s my advice: Sign the right deals with the right partners at the right time for the right reasons.

You can build a business without being forced to work with the wrong people at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. The choice is yours—don’t forget it. Opportunities will present themselves if you keep your feet moving and string together a series of small successes.

You need to decide what the right deals are for your business and when they are right for your business. I’ve learned to spend 80% of my time thinking about what not to do, instead of all of my time thinking about what we can do.

7. Doubting Ourselves Too Much

Over the years I’ve met a lot of smart people and I’ve invited them to tell me what they think. For years people did not “see it” and that exacted a toll on my confidence. Doubt is born out of fatigue and loneliness, and there is a lot of both when you are running a start-up. Hang in there and keep your feet moving—there’s still a lot of time for you to change the world.

Now please don’t get me wrong—there’s still plenty of time for me to kill FreshBooks. This is a list of what I’ve learned so far and if you ask me, we’re still just getting started. That said, thinking about catastrophes I’ve almost made got me laughing and inspired this post—hopefully there is something in here for you.

Mike McDerment

Written by Mike McDerment, Chair of the Board and Co-Founder, FreshBooks

Posted on August 27, 2008