Kevin O'Keeffe ESTEEM '15
In my last post I discussed the startup phase of getting a new venture off the ground for somebody starting with zero experience in founding new companies. I covered some of the most important tasks including setting expectations for the work you will share with partners on the business, the research phase and the early execution phase. This post will cover the scaling phase – that period after securing a few customers where the structures and systems of a larger business begin to take shape. In many ways this is the most exciting time period for a new venture. As a founder you can ride the wave of energy and enthusiasm generated by realizing that there are people out there willing to part with their cash for what you are offering, and this can be exhilarating. For us, the moment when we captured our first credit card payment from a customer and saw the balance pop up on Stripe was a key moment of success and pride, we even saved and framed the screenshot to remind us of the moment. It would later fuel our motivation to expand into other markets including opening our second location, HappyCleans, in Oklahoma City.
The first aspect of scaling to get right is picking the beachhead markets for your fledgling venture. Most business models can work to some extent in any geographical market and can be piloted in smaller markets for testing purposes before being transposed into larger markets. We decided to conduct our proof of concept testing in South Bend, since we had both recently graduated from ESTEEM and had an extensive network in the area. This was an easy decision for us as our business model is a mixture of B2C and B2B facing business units. Choosing South Bend meant we could test our B2C product-market fit within a pool of potential clients that were friendly toward us and our idea, people who were happy to offer constructive feedback as well as act as early adopters without too much convincing. This proved to be crucial in the early stages and informed our business plan going forward. One of the most helpful aspects of getting involved in the ESTEEM program is the access a student gets to the University of Notre Dame network. The University boasts one of the strongest and best organized professional alumni networks in the country (with over 140,000 alumni listed on Linkedin as I write this). Alumni and students have lifelong access to a private database containing names and graduation years of all of these alumni, along with up to date contact information. Additionally, the university itself is major contributor to the local economy and alumni are well respected within the community. All of these factors together make the region an ideal testing ground for entrepreneurs affiliated with the University of Notre Dame and the ESTEEM program. Almost any member of the community will already be familiar with the University of Notre Dame and therefore no call is a cold call within this community, which is a major help to any startup. Many of our early customers included university faculty and students who helped us believe in the business model and gave us the platform we needed for further expansion.
Beachhead markets are rarely suitable for sustainable growth and our case was no exception. In order to maintain growth, your marketing channels must be well evaluated for ROI and expanded. Many of our early customers had been won through personal outreach to Notre Dame affiliated staff and students but in order to scale, we knew our marketing channels would need to shift to target a wider audience and a larger population center. With this in mind, we began testing marketing channels for reach and ROI across multiple US cities. Being primarily web based with most customers finding us online, SEO is our primary marketing tool, however we use a mixture of channels which allow us to stay agile, should the landscape shift. Agility here means adopting new channels as they become available and making sure budget is flexible enough to test ROI in a meaningful way. Organic traffic accounts for the majority of our leads historically and currently (this will always be the case as SEO matures). Attracting that traffic means ranking your website on the first page of Google for the search terms associated with your business. In our case, since our businesses are local services – we focus on hyper local SEO to rank our websites for people searching our cities. This type of marketing is a long game, as SEO can take years to see ROI. Patience is always rewarded, and once SEO is delivering, it not only returns a solid profit but also augments other forms of online marketing. They key delivery of SEO is brand placement which can increase greatly the credibility of your business in the eyes of the customer. When selecting our markets, we had several criteria to consider which included population and competitive landscape analysis of the search rankings in the markets. There are many consultants who can help with such studies but, in our case, we relied on publicly available data and our own findings from our launch in the beachhead. Google Analytics is an excellent toolkit for this kind of testing as you can easily access the information needed and it is free to use. We finally settled on Indianapolis as our expansion market and began to invest heavily in that city.
As sales grew steadily, the bottleneck became our ability to handle all of these customers and we began to hire. One of the first additions to the team was a third partner, Will Cotter. Adding Will to the team allowed Finn and I to focus on certain tasks that had been neglected, while also bringing in new expertise – Will is an SEO and digital marketing expert with extensive career experience in this area. Hiring staff to handle the day to day operations was the next step and as a fully remote business, we were ideally positioned to recruit from a global talent pool. Even before the events of 2020, technology and a shifting work culture was making the workplace more globalized and in taking advantage of this trend we were able to recruit a team spread across several time zones which made it easier for us to cover our staffing hours. Team cohesion can at times be challenging with such large distances separating the individual team members, but the technology now available offset these challenges. Slack allows for easy communication internally, with searchable threads, chat rooms and calling features. Every message can be searched and located which makes the sharing of information easy. Google suites is another tool that is affordable and scales well with teams – working from the same email accounts and calendars is critical to remote businesses. International payments were once expensive and required prohibitive amounts of paperwork but services like TransferWise and Revolut have made these payments affordable and fast, allowing for international payrolls to be easier in some cases than domestic payrolls. As our team expanded, we added more tools and processes to make the remote management of the business run smoother. This focus on a remotely run operation made adjusting to a global pandemic much easier than expected.
In my next post I will explore some of the challenges the business has faced in 2020 and talk about some of the opportunities that can also present themselves during times of adversity.
Kevin O’Keeffe (ESTEEM '15) hails from Ireland where he was awarded a B.E. in Chemical Engineering before emigrating to the US and completing the ESTEEM Program at the University of Notre Dame. Currently based in San Francisco, he is co-founder of an expanding local service company serving Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Louisville and Oklahoma City.
If you enjoyed learning about Kevin's journey in entrepreneurship, read more about these other ESTEEM Alumni:
- Ashley Kalinauskas '13, CEO of Torigen Pharmaceuticals and recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30
- Marissa Kosielski '18, CEO of Enlighten Mobility and featured in a "What Would You Fight For?" video
- Dustin Mix '13, co-founder of INVANTI and the Initiator's Guild
- Ellen Joyce '20, building an edtech company
- Jack O'Meara '16, saving lives with genomic medicine