Brutal Honesty: The Developer CEO & Our Journey

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“great read on the evolution of @teamwork – should be required reading for every SaaS founder & funder@Davidivorsmith

“seriously, that is outstanding. Startups, listen to this guy, not that guy.”@chris_byrne

“A remarkable post from @irlTopper on how Teamwork.com grew from $0-$12mm in revenue without salespeople”@RandFish

Today, we’re sharing the speech that Peter Coppinger, our CEO, co-founder, and lead developer, made on Tuesday at MicroConf 2016 in Las Vegas. It is focused on his journey from developer to Teamwork.com CEO and the mistakes and lessons along the way. His slides are included whenever possible so you can feel like you were right there in Vegas with him!

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

 

Intro

So… who am I and why should you care about what I have to say?  Well, I’m Peter Coppinger, the co-founder and CEO of an Irish company called Teamwork.com. I also go by the nickname “Topper”.

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

 

For those of you who never heard of us, we make three products: Teamwork Projects for getting work done, Teamwork Desk for support, and Teamwork Chat for collaboration.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

The products are used by almost 400,000 companies all around the world, including some of the biggest companies in the world.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

And we are doing over $12 million in annual sales. The beautiful thing about our products is that they all integrate seamlessly.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

I’m not here to convince you to use our products (which are vastly superior to our competitors) or to brag (we have a long way to go). In fact, I want to do the opposite because I have a confession:

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

I am a terrible CEO. I’m a terrible CEO because I freakin love programming too much and I know I’m bloody good.

 

Here’s the thing: looking back now, we made just about every mistake in the book partly because my co-founder and I concentrated on product and features to the exclusion of everything else.

I’m going to walk you through our story in three parts, and list some of our biggest mistakes along the way. Hopefully, this will resonate with some of you and you can skip making these mistakes yourselves. I’m basically giving this talk to the younger me.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Part 1 – The Hamster Years

OK, back in 1999, when the <blink> tag was cool, I started a web design business called “Digital Crew” with a buddy Cormac.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Dan joined us the following year and he was the only other person I had ever met who also truly loved programming and had similar ambitions. Back then, we were naive web developers who thought three grand for a website was insane, and that we could each easily crank out four websites a week and make millions. You can’t. We didn’t.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Fast forward a few years, we transitioned to a web application development agency, built 100s of projects, and learned the hard way that consultancy sucks. Despite working 60 hours a week and having a great reputation, we felt like this hamster and we were broke. Cormac decided to move to Australia and Dan and I were depressed. We agreed that we were going to give it 12 months more or throw in the towel and “get a real job”.

 

Side note:

We had actually tried another product called cftagstore.com where we sold small software components to web developers. The market was too small and developers like us are very stingy. We made about $100,000 over five years. It helped pay the bills but was, in hindsight, a silly distraction.

Side note:

We also built an app for a local college that with their encouragement turned into a side business. For years, I hauled my ass all over Europe trying to convince colleges to buy this software. Enterprise sales is hard work and making the software isn’t fun. We eventually spun that out into a separate business and I personally got out of it. I think I have like 5% or something and these guys are doing well now. It’s fine, but not for me.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

In early 2007, I took a good hard look at our consultancy and realised that part of the problem was that we didn’t have a good way to manage all the projects, and that we were being way too nice to customers. So, with nothing to lose, we doubled our prices and started actually charging our customers for all the extras and, shockingly, they had no problem with it. We actually started turning the consultancy around. It was then that we decided that the whiteboard in the corner of the office wasn’t a very good project management system, so we went in search of a good project management system.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

I know you hear this all the time but we really did start Teamwork to scratch our own itch. Here’s what happened. We had heard of a few online project management apps and did some research to see which one might work for us. We used the leading product (that will remain nameless) for a while and were shocked that you couldn’t even set a due date or attach a file, so we couldn’t understand how it was so popular.

I emailed their support and asked if and when a due date feature might be coming. The response I got back was so curt and dismissive that it really pissed me off. I mean how can you run a business if you can’t prioritize your hundreds of tasks? Isn’t that the whole point? We also felt we were making better and more complex apps for our clients all the time.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

One day, Dan and I met for coffee in the morning as usual, and I said, “Hey, Ted (we call each other Ted), I think there’s a gap in the market here and we could make something great and, you know, maybe treat our customers with respect.” He said “Ted, I’ve been thinking the exact same thing.” And that was the full extent of our market research.

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

 

Part 1 – Key Takeaways

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog
  • Consultancy sucks – get out of it asap. If you want to be successful, you have to build products. Products make you money while you sleep. Consultancy does not.
  • Don’t target a small market!
  • Just my opinion – don’t sell software components to developers.
  • Consultancy-ware software is no fun to build or sell. Side note, it’s important to know what software world you are in. If you haven’t read everything ever written by Joel Spolsky, you need to leave.
  • If you are doing consultancy, try increasing your prices, say no to feature creep, and charge for the extras. They don’t mind, really.
  • Treat your customers like honored guests. Listen to their woes. Publish your roadmap.
  • Sometimes you’ve got to go with your gut.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Finding the time to work on Teamwork was difficult. After having the idea for weeks and making no progress, we finally decided that the only way this was going to get done was if we dedicate Fridays exclusively to it. No matter how much pressure was on, this was our priority. It was a great decision. Often we worked all weekend on it too, and slowly, over the course of three months, the product came together.

We were our ideal customer. We knew which features were lacking in the existing products out there and we knew exactly what we needed to build. We wanted to be able to come to work every day, open Teamwork, and see a prioritized list of tasks to work on, along with some time tracking and billing.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

You’ll cringe at this – we did what comes naturally to us, we opened our code editors, started a new project and started hacking on code instead of designing the product screen by screen. We did this completely the wrong way. No specs. Hackedy hack hack. The only thing that saved us was our years of experience building apps for other people.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Please, don’t do this. Use Peldi’s Balsamiq and knock up a each screen and read Joel Spolsky’s great essays on Painless Functional Specs

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

When we designed our second and third products, we did it right – we did our research, wrote up our specs, agreed on our MVP, designed every screen on paper, then designed every screen in detail.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Before we released Teamwork, we used our own product every day for two months. We filed away all the rough edges that made it cumbersome to work with on a daily basis. We’ve kept this up and still use our own products every single day and this is one of the reasons they are so strong – we fix the small issues. So, at least, we did that much right.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

When it came time to pick a domain name, unfortunately the guy who owned Teamwork.com wanted $10 million, which was a little bit outside our $100 budget. So, in the end, we went with a terrible domain name – “teamworkpm.net”. Could it be worse? Captain Hindsight says we should have called it getteamwork.com

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

When it came to launching a product, we did everything wrong – we had no private beta, we did not consult potential customers, we did not put up a launch page, we did not build a launch mailing list, we did not send any emails about it, and we did not try to get PR.

After months of work, we launched Teamworkpm.net to zero fanfare on October 4th, 2007.

We barely put a link on our own website. We gave each other a high-five and went home to bed.

Why didn’t we try to get more attention? Looking back, I think the problem was that because we were perfectionist developers, we never felt our product was good enough to brag about. It was missing some big features that we wanted and not as polished as we would like. This was a huge mistake. It did work after all.

We did a slightly better job with the launch of Teamwork Desk last year, but still have a long way to go. We’re going to do everything right with the next product launch!

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

At MicroConf Barcelona last year, Rob’s talk on Positioning really hit home with me. In a saturated market, we were selling our product purely on features and we never had any decent positioning. We’re correcting this now, but it was a huge mistake: there has to be something about your product that makes it stand out. Saying “easiest to use”, “best”, or “most full-featured” won’t work. If I could do it again, I would A/B test different messages from the start to see what resonates.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

It was hard work as Dan and I were the database designers, product designers, UI, backend and frontend engineers, marketing, sales, and support – all while holding down our full-time consultancy jobs to pay the bills. We kept our consultancy going to pay the bills, but we had no passion for it. All our dreams and aspirations were bundled up in thousands of lines of code. We kept hacking on the product all day Friday and every other spare moment we could find. Boring client work was done Monday to Thursday.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Instead of marketing our product, we did what came naturally – we kept working on features with the mantra that “if we build it they will come”. We naively thought that the best product will win. Now to some extent this is true, because project management is so critical to a business, a small percentage of customers will try every product on the market until they settle on the best one; so we did pick up some customers because we had important features like privacy, templates, and recurring tasks.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

We did only three things well:

  • We built a great product.
  • We treated our customers like honored guests.
  • We took every suggestion onboard (sometimes implementing an idea within an hour and amazing our customer). We publish our product roadmap.

We completely failed to market our product because it was a skill that was outside our comfort zone.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Now, it wasn’t all bad when it comes to marketing, we did some engineering-based marketing. 

We set up a referral scheme and we made an importer for our biggest competitor. Both have worked out well in the longer term.

The other thing we did well was publishing a monthly newsletter with feature updates consistently every month from the start. If nothing else, it gave us a push every month to get things done in time just so we had something for the newsletter. It also helps build trust and loyalty with our customers.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

In our first month, despite doing zero marketing and being listed only in the bowels of Google, it was shocking to us that, somehow, we managed to bag three customers and earned a massive $191. We were on the way! As you can see, it was very, very, very slow growth, but eventually we were doing a couple of thousand a month. 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

We had some staff and we had offices to pay for, so we decided that we needed $30k MRR to pay all the bills and have a healthy buffer. It took us three years to get there.

As we slowly scaled to $30k MRR, we were able to dedicate two working days, then three working days, four working days, and so on to the side project. Our “pizza money” side project eventually started generating more money than our consultancy work, until the consultancy became just a thorn in our side.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

In the end, we gifted our entire book of clients to another consultancy company we trusted. Our asking price was just that they keep our clients happy. We hand-held the transition by arranging meetings with our top clients to introduce the new owners of Digital Crew.

Thankfully, the guys there did a great job and this handover went really smoothly. To be honest, because we had lost interest in client work, I think our clients welcomed the changeover.

Once we were free of the shackles of consultancy, we cranked out the improvements, still focusing on features and support, and excluding everything else.

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

So, it took us three years to get to the point where we could fire our consultancy. It genuinely never even occurred to us to look for investment. It’s just not something that we’d ever really heard of way back then.

It’s annoying to me that so many developers nowadays seem to think they need funding to get a product off the ground. Here’s the thing… it has never been cheaper to make software. Our first dedicated server for Teamworkpm.net cost us €23,000 base plus hosting. Today, you get that for $100 a month.

Which brings me to another mistake – dedicated hosting and Hell Night.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

August 2012: We used dedicated servers for performance and we had several beastly dedicated servers at a big hosting company on the East  Coast. One night, I was just about to turn in when I noticed that Teamwork wasn’t loading.

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Everything was down.

Panic set in. The hosting company had gone completely dark on us, Teamworkpm.net was down. Others websites I knew were also hosted with them were also offline. The worst thing was that I couldn’t get through on the phone; even our account rep wouldn’t answer his cell phone. I sat there feeling helpless with emails and tweets pouring in. I hit refresh maybe a thousand times over the next eight hours.

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

I stayed up all night answering angry customers, apologising to them and trying to contact the hosting company. We vowed never again, and over the next two months packed everything up and carefully moved all our customers over to AWS. It’s been a great decision for us.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

We rode the long slow SaaS ramp of death until we hit $89,176.60 MRR in December 2011, 50 months after we launched. This would be over $1m in annual sales. We still had done very little marketing. We didn’t have a marketing person and our attempts were scattershot at best. We had our collective heads down building features, still thinking that features = customers.

Thankfully, these days, thanks to Twitter and blogs, we live in a world where the best product will at least get some traction. Our product really did grow by word of mouth and the occasional blog post that somebody would write about us or tweet about us.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Part 2 – Key Takeaways

  • There is never a better time to start working on your product than right now. Make time.
  • Pick a good domain name. It really matters.
  • Design the product right – Reach out to potential customers, design on paper, then mock it up.
  • Launch it right – put up a landing page, build a launch list, release an early beta.
  • Don’t compete on features alone; find your positioning.
  • Fire your day job and go “all-in” asap.
  • If possible, use your own software every day (eat-your-own-dog-food).
  • Don’t take funding. You’ll burn through the money and have a boss and, hey, it’s less fun.
  • AWS hosting for the win.
  • Be ultra serious about marketing from day one. Watch Gail Goodman, CEO of Constant Contact‘s talk “How to Negotiate the Long, Slow, SaaS Ramp of Death”. It’s epic. TLDR: Try Everything, Test Everything.
  • Publish a monthly newsletter to your customers.

 

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Part 3 – Growing Up

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

 

The single best business move we ever made was reaching out to the dude who owned Teamwork.com and over the course of a few years hassling him until he gave us a realistic price:

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog
  • Dan tried in 2011, Alec sent us to DomainValue.com Single Word which estimated $10 million. No, thanks.
    Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog
  • In 2012, I tried again and got a PFO.
    Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog
  • In 2013, I got a notion in the pub one night and offered $100k and got told “Same lowball offer
    Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog
  • So, I asked for a counter offer.
    Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog
  • Alex countered with $675k.
    I nearly wet myself with excitement.
    Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog
  • I carefully worded our agreement, even pretending that we have a board.
    Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

This was almost all our cash reserves at the time.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

So, did it make a difference or was it a waste of money? I think you already know the answer. Let’s have a look at the chart again.

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

You can clearly see the inflection point when we launched Teamwork.com. It was the best business move of my life.

Teamwork.com being a one word domain gave us instant credibility and we started getting bigger customers, more referrals, and being written about more. Everything accelerated and our vision for Teamwork.com changed because we now had a brand identify that we could build several products under.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

This is embarrassing to admit. Two years ago, I went off to New York and worked on building a new product night and day for six months. In the end, we had a sexy new framework for future products and a cutting edge new product in Teamwork Desk. However, when I took my head out of the programming sand, I realised that things back in Ireland were a little bit of a mess – our culture was undefined, marketing was haphazard, we had process problems everywhere, and we hadn’t hired a single developer while I was gone.

Dan and I had been busy doing what we loved, building product, and we had left our company rudderless. Nobody in the company could tell you what our vision for the company was. It was there floating in my head somewhere, but not written anywhere.

Steli mentioned this yesterday – it’s uncomfortable…

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

I had a moment of clarity one day when I suddenly realized that all the problems with process, communication, direction, and vision are completely my fault. I wasn’t being a CEO.

I hadn’t communicated the vision for the company to the staff and got buy in from everyone. The quarterly meetings weren’t happening magically because, hey, you know I never set them up. We weren’t putting processes in place because I didn’t put a process in place, to… well… put processes in place.

It’s shocking to look up from the codebase and realise that you have 63 employees that need direction, and the direction has to come from you. We all suffer from imposter syndrome, you just have to get over it, down tools, and be the CEO. Being just a programmer at this scale is not good enough.

And here’s the thing – I’m convinced that had I stepped up earlier, we would have gotten to $12m in sales a hell of lot faster with less stress.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Everybody hates meetings. Especially us. But one essential meeting to which I recommend every company sticks is the quarterly review. Just four times a year, just get out of the office, sit down and identify your top five problems and what you are going to do to fix them. That’s it. Had we done that earlier, we would have recognised the hiring problem, the positioning problem, our marketing problems, our lack of vision, and issues around lack of process.

I think it’s a good idea to have these outside the office to reinforce that this is not everyday work.

As a newly-awakened CEO, the first thing I wanted to fix was getting us to have have quarterly meetings. These offsite meetings have become the heartbeat of the company.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

At the first offsite, it was awkward and uncomfortable because all of this was new to us, and I guess that is just part of growing up as a company.

I remember nervously sharing my vision for the company and where we want to take it by 2020. It’s ambitious to say the least but we are on-track. Once I had buy in, we set about communicating this to the company. This is still an ongoing process. It’s the CEO’s job to reassert and drive this vision at every opportunity.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Looking back a big mistake was not hiring deliberately – we only hired somebody when they fell into our lap and seemed like a good fit, but we didn’t go looking for good people deliberately. For a long time, we didn’t even have a jobs page on our site. Today, this is our single biggest problem: finding great people is hard. It’s never too early to start the search.

Again, if we had actually stopped programming for a minute, we would have realised that hiring has become our biggest problem much sooner. A simple fix for this is to hire a HR manager as soon as you can afford to.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Culture is something that will happen to your company whether you like it or not: you can only choose to define it or you can let it evolve. For a long time we let it evolve.

In the last two years, we’ve taken the reins on this and established a happiness officer, had many more company events, allow sabbaticals, team weekends away, conference trips, publish all our values, onboard staff nicely, encourage people to lunch randomly together and put together our handbook.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

We literally have a page in our handbook called “Don’t be a dick”.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

I had a realization last year that all the stress people were encountering in the company is rooted in missing processes. For example, marketing and support didn’t know what the developers are working on. This wasn’t an issue when we had 15 people in the same area, but at 60+ staff spread over two floors we have to define a process for how the teams work together to decide on the next features to build and communicate progress. It is pretty easy in the end, once you realise that it’s needed.

I’ll give you another example. We’re in business seven years now and just last month we finally agreed our hiring process: we have three product teams now, so who gets first dibs on a great potential employee; who has final say on whether they should be hired or not;  what tests must they do; how long is the trial; will we pay for visas; can they be remote or must they move to Ireland?

We are still figuring this stuff out. When we write it down, at least it provides a starting point for improvement. When we agree a new process at a meeting taking no longer than an hour, that ship has sailed for at least six months.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

I don’t know why it took so long, but just six months ago we established a sales team, and already the effect has been monumental. After this conference, we are on our way to meet a huge enterprise customer. I have no excuse for not setting this up earlier so please learn from my mistakes.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

It’s an important realization that the CEO doesn’t have to have all the answers and that it’s OK to admit this. I think not realising this was holding me back from stepping up and running the company properly.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

In January this year, I brought Open Book Management to our company. Now all our staff can see exactly how much revenue the company is earning. It’s a ballsy move and not done lightly.

In addition to this, we’re implementing “The Great Game of Business” and, so far, it has worked really well. If  you haven’t heard of it, it’s a system for running the company where everyone in the company shares in the success of the company and is asked to think like an owner.

Every person in the company can see how well every other department is doing, and we are all working together to hit agreed targets. If the targets are hit every person has the potential to double or triple their wages.

So far, we’ve seen much better communication and collaboration between teams. It’s a huge experiment for us, and we don’t have all the answers yet, but my gut says this is going to work.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

It took way too long, but we finally have a great marketing team who are trying and testing every channel to see what works. Gail Goodman‘s talk “How to Negotiate the Long, Slow, SaaS Ramp of Death” is inspiring. We have a long way to go to follow in Gail’s shoes and are humbled by her success.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

This is one of the hardest things I have found growing the business. Dan & I can’t do everything any longer, even when we feel that we might do a better job, we have to trust staff to do it. This, for a developer CEO, is bloody hard but has to happen if you want to grow. Now, for example, when we put somebody in charge of HR, they are the God of HR and we trust them to use their best judgement; same goes for the product leads and support.

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Part 3 – Key takeaways

  • Build your marketing team early. Try every channel. Test everything.
  • Be the CEO. Stop programming (all the time).
  • Hire deliberately. Hire a HR manager asap.
  • Hold Quarterly Meetings outside the Office. Identify the Top Challenges. Fix them.
  • Define your Vision for the Company. Repeat at every opportunity.
  • Establish Your Culture. Don’t let it establish itself.
  • Identify that your problems are rooted in missing processes and establish them one-by-one.
  • Establish a customer success sales team ASAP.
  • As CEO, you don’t have to have all the answers.
  • Try the Great Game of Business.
  • Trust others and Let Go.
Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

So, here’s the thing: for any developer CEOs, you have to learn to trust others, stop coding every now and then, and think objectively about your business. Step up and be a real CEO, share your vision, put processes in place, fix the big problems… and you’ll get to over $10m in sales in a fraction of the time it took us.. because we did make every mistake in the book.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this: Be so good they can’t ignore you.

 

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

Last year, we gave away 55 free-for-life Teamwork Projects accounts at MicroConf Europe.

Peter Coppinger on the Developer:CEO Role and How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes He Did | Teamwork.com High Performance Blog

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43 Comments

Brian O'Connor

Great post, really gives a great insight into the issues faced by start ups as they try to figure stuff out.

thanks
Brian

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Peter Coppinger

Thanks Brian. I was nervous when Evin told me she wanted to publish my talk but I’m glad I did now as it seems to have resonated with people.

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Jason Morgan

Great talk Peter. We were one of the first users of the Teamwork API I recall. I see you all as our “twin” company overseas. Your story is just about spot on as to how my partner and I grew our company… tripping over many of the same obstacles… and even starting around the same time! It’s refreshing to hear we were not alone. We eventually plopped a CEO in between us 🙂 Loved watching you all grow over the years, and you truly do put focus on the customer. I wish you all the best of luck!

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Daniel Payette

This post was great. It takes courage to admit mistakes, let alone for a CEO. As a customer of Teamwork Projects, I’m glad the heads of the organization are always learning and trying to solve the problems they meet. Again, great article.

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Peter Coppinger

Cheers Daniel! It does indeed and I was nervous to do so, but for the Microconf audience I felt it was a good admission. Thanks for being a customer.

ps. we’ve some big improvements coming your way soon 😉

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Colette Quinn

One of the best posts I’ve ever come across. Should be required reading for all start-ups. Refreshing to see such honesty & love your innovative approach to employee engagement. Delighted to see ye doing so well – so well deserved. Wishing ye all continued success! Looking forward to your next suite of products 🙂

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Peter Coppinger

Cheers Collette, I really appreciate you taking the time to leave that comment.

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Chanel Carlascio

I love this article. As a CEO of a small company, I can really relate. Thanks for being so transparent and relatable.

And congratulations on all your hard work!

I just signed up with your product a couple of weeks ago, and I love it so far. 🙂

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Peter Coppinger

Hey Chanel,

🙂 Thank you, I was nervous about being so honest but it seems to have resonated with people and got us great traction – must be a lesson there.

Which product, Teamwork Desk or Teamwork Projects? Glad you are enjoying it anyhow and both have some big improvements so if you enjoy it now, you’ll going to be blown away soon.

Thanks again.

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Derek Gallagher

What a fantastic and ballsy speech. Well done Peter. It’s like a post-mortem of a business while it’s not only alive, but firing on all cylinders.
It’s tough as hell to admit your mistakes to yourself never mind speak it to a room and post it on your company website. You guys have every right to stand up and brag, so to stand up and be humble and honest instead is very admirable.
Well done and much respect.
Derek

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Corey

Very interesting post. Thanks for this.

P.S. Such a CEO blog post. Breaking all the rules! Haha

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Peter Coppinger

Hey Cory, you are welcome, I hope it helps. Rules are made to be broken 😉

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Peldi Guilizzoni

Hi Peter! I can definitely see myself in a lot of this. I’m bummed we won’t meet at BoS Europe this year, but I’m hopeful our paths will cross at some point soon.

Couple of questions:
– what does your HR person do all day?
– the quarterly meetings: does the whole company go to them, or just some?
– do you have a layer of management, and when did you put that in place?

I’m sure I’ll have more. Ping me privately if you’d like.

P.S.Thanks for the mention! 🙂

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Peter Coppinger

Wow Peldi, my hero thanks for commenting. I went the completely honestly route because I was inspired by your past talks.

– What does your HR person do all day?
A lot of interviews. She makes sure the job candidates have good english, are able to hold a conversation, are nice people and runs them through a series of very basic javascript tests that serve as a first line of defense. Then advertising, managing out intern program, taking care of paperwork (visas etc), and any internal programs such Teamwork Legends. She’s kept well busy.

– the quarterly meetings: does the whole company go to them, or just some?
There are just for the senior team which means Me, Dan, Billy, Emmet and Drew (CEO, CTO, CFO, CSO and CMO). This is high level strategy stuff so we don’t want too many people. The book Startup CEO recommended has some great stuff in there.

– do you have a layer of management, and when did you put that in place?
Hmmm, yes and no. There’s no layer of management per se but we have definitely got more organised – I like to think we have team leaders. We have nobody who does just management and doesn’t get his hands dirty. eg. The head of support answers as many support questions as every one else and the Teamwork Desk Product Lead does as much programming as anyone. We do have a bi-weekly meeting between the Heads of Department now every two weeks since starting this Great Game of Business stuff.

Happy to answer and further questions here or privately. It would be good to catch up at some stage all-right. I’m sure I’ll have loads of questions for you. 😉

Cheers Peldi.

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Dave McKillen

Peter – you and I have emailed back and forth a few times by now on a variety of topics. You have built a great product AND I feel represent CEOdom very well in that it’s clearly not just about money for you. You treat people well, you are accessible to your client base and frankly even 4000 miles from home running my own little company, I somehow feel like part of the Teamwork family :).

Nice job man, you make Ireland proud!

Dave

http://www.basebuildguys.com

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Peter Coppinger

It’s definitely not just about the money for me Dave – what drives me is that I want to look back on my career when I’m 80 and be proud of what we achieved. That and I want an Audi R8 buy wife-to-be says I’ll look like a knob 😉

That’s exactly what we want, you to feel like you are part of the Teamwork family even in Asheville. You are part of it and thank you for that.

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Oriol

Hey Peter,

I’m so happy to see teamwork where it is today. I still remember the feeling of dumping the “nameless” competitor for teamwork 5 years ago. All those features! All that customer support!

That was an intense read. In retrospect mistakes always feel like that but what’s important is to identify them and learn which clearly you did. Take a second to pat yourself in the back for an amazing journey. You made it!

Keep up the good work.

Cheers

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Peter Coppinger

Hi Oriel, thanks for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it.

lol. Yeah I debated naming them but yeah I guessed many people would figure it out. Imagine that, features that you actually need to run a real business and people who listen to your concerns.

I wouldn’t say we identified the mistakes early – it feels like it took us a very long time to realize the error of our ways. Hopefully going ahead we can be more reflective.

A second to pat myself on the back… hmmm… I won’t – we must rally against complacency and we have a long way to go. But thanks for the sentiment. Big improvements coming.

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Anthony M.

First off, we love Teamwork! Next, thank you for being so open about the mistakes you made and how you overcame them. This was extremely valuable to me not only as a road map, but also as proof that not every error we make as founders is fatal. Also refreshing to hear from a company that grew and flourished without VC money. Respect!

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Peter Coppinger

😀 Thank you Anthony, you have no idea how much we love to hear that – say it again!

The main thing is to make a great product, right. Everything else can be fixed.

Unless you are doing a moon-shot and want to success/fail quickly, screw VC money; it’s just a new boss and addiction and there are too many horror stories about founders getting screwed.

Anthony, thanks for taking the time to comment and for being a customer.

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Kamal Syed

Great article and great job owning your mistakes and learning from them. I’m a happy TeamWork customer (still very small!) and very happy with your product. I hope to use your other projects soon.

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Peter Coppinger

Hi Kamel, cheers for that. Yeah it was hard to admit my/our mistakes in public but looking at other talks, honestly is what resonates with people so I said screw it. I was nervous when Evin suggested that we put my talk here as a blog post but after getting comments like yours, I’m glad we did. Thanks for that again and thanks for being a Happy Teamwork customer.

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Tim Cadenbach

Hey Peter,
while reading that i suddenly realized that my wife got angry…i was so focused on your text that i totaly ignored her… my fault 🙂

I really loved your story and i know that admitting mistakes isn´t an easy task and even harder to make it in such a generous way.
Really looking forward on how the story continues.

Most CEO´s i know are hard to get…you either must pay them a huge amount of money or be one of their top customer´s to get in touch with them. My experience with you two has always been great! Always a pleassure to talk to you.

And to be honest… i´d always prefer a CEO that isn´t the perfect leader but really knows what i am doing instead of a CEO that expects impossible stuff as he just has no clue of what a developer does all day.

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Peter Coppinger

Hey Tim, I can relate to that. lol
Thanks for the bud. The way I see it the story is only beginning and it’s great to have you part of it. I’m definitely not the perfect leader but I am doggedly determined and I couldn’t do this journey without Dan. Talk soon.

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Nadine N. Bone

I started using TeamWorkPM in late 2012 simply because the app allowed me to get down to business without having to first subscribe to a “cult-like” following (understand hype) around the web app brand. I went through 3 major business evolutions in the last 4 years where I went from offering virtual assistance services to online business management, web design, brand consulting and now planning for a magazine launch.

Though one of my biggest fears as a service professional was that my project management tool wouldn’t be able to keep up with my business growth, it turned out that I could never outgrow the TeamWorkPM platform to manage my ever-growing, global team members and clients across multiple projects of different scopes. Now, that’s value.

The mistakes you made as a CEO speak volumes about the integrity of your work and your core concern for producing a quality product. My personal pet peeve is that today, the majority of business literature encourages people to trump a quality product with a quality brand.

But the truth is that no matter how good your brand is, it is a poor cover up for a product that doesn’t evolve based on its customers’ feedback, that offers sloppy customer service, and that is neglected because its startup allocates more resources to deliver inspirational talks and publish inspirational books than to serve its customers base.

I say – the mistakes you made were a benefit for all of us, TeamWork loyal customers. And judging from the insights they delivered you, you’ll grow beyond them just fine 🙂

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Peter Coppinger

HI Nadine,

Yeah I had to laugh when I read “cult-like”, good way to describe it.
Wow you’ve been busy; best of luck with the magazine launch!

Thanks for being a loyal customer these last few years and I’m delighted we were able to match your needs.

I hear you. Definitely having an excellent product and excellent support is at the core of everything we do and all the other mistakes are fixable.

Thank you! Seriously appreciated.

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Rick Dolishny

Thanks Peter for sharing. I’m building two startups and will use this document as a valuable roadmap.

Of course, we’re using Teamwork the entire way.

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Peter Coppinger

Cheers Risk – As we say in Irelad “sound” (which means you are a great guy) as always. 😀

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Michelle Philbrook

Love this.

“I am a terrible CEO. I’m a terrible CEO because I freakin love programming too much and I know I’m bloody good.”

Substitute writing and designing for programming and you’re me.

Fortunately, Teamwork takes the stress out of my to-do list (I’m all in — in addition to work stuff, I have a project called LIFE that reminds me to buy groceries and my husband to mow the lawn, among other things), freeing up time and headspace for less urgent tasks like training my team, marketing my business, and deciding whether I should be a creative or a CEO.

Conceptually I know the answer, but it’s tough to let go of the little details when you love doing the work.

I’m so glad to hear things are going well with the company, and wish you (somewhat selfishly) much continued success!

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Peter Coppinger

Here you go –
Michelle Philbrook: “I am a terrible CEO. I’m a terrible CEO because I freakin love writing and designing too much and I know I’m bloody good.” lol

Good to hear I’m not the only one who made/is-making these mistakes. You know what you must do!

Sincerely – Thanks for taking the time to comment and for been a customer.

ps. I your husband assigns “mow the lawn” back to you every now and then 😉

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Pashmina Lalchandani

Dude. First off mad respect for your tenacity and what you’ve done with Teamwork. It’s amazing and you deserve all the success. And you’ve helped me move to a decision that has been nagging me for 2 years, that I absolutely need to change my business name.

But I have a bone to pick with your company. At one point you say: “We took every suggestion onboard (sometimes implementing an idea within an hour and amazing our customer).” I MISS THOSE DAYS. I understand, that doing that at the size you are now, doesn’t scale.

But PLEASE find someone in your organization to champion what I call “leaky faucet” bugs/suggestions. A while ago I was a UX enhancement champion at a mature software company. I’d go through the backlog – (years) of suggestions/bugs and compile and combine stuff, then prioritize them to get handled. I fought for the resources and made it happen. Some of the things we had fixed made great impact, and the actual time spent was minimal.

IMHO every good software hits this maturity point where you start having “Leaky Faucet Syndrome.” Freshbooks and Teamwork are suffering from this BIG time. It’s like this: I’ve got a beautiful house, and things are good. You decide: wouldn’t it be amazing if you added a sun deck?? Why yes it would! (These are large endeavor features or new products (ahem) Chat.) So you get to work. While you go focus on that, my faucet in the kitchen starts leaking. Can you please fix that I say? It will only take a moment. But you’re staring at the gaping hole you made for the sun deck so you can’t get to it. 7 months later, I’ve been dealing with that drip, drip sound and it’s driving me bonkers! I don’t care about the sun deck. That’s what my last year has been like with Teamwork.

Here’s a simple “leaky faucet” bug that drives me nuts on an (almost) daily basis: The modal popup window to login when I’m kicked out of Teamwork does NOT have Google sign in. I can’t sign in. I have to refresh the window to get the main sign in screen to login in.

More long and complex, the inefficiencies and blatant disregard for Fitt’s Law is astounding. The functionality, and not the interface has kept me on Teamwork, with me (not so) silently hoping that one day you’ll hire the right designer who will fix these flaws.

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Peter Coppinger

Thank you Pashmina! I’m not sure how I helped you with that decision but I’m glad I helped.

Here’s my promise to you. I hear you. We will fix the leaky faucet. We have just spend 5 months on a top-secret project that will allow us to get back to making improvements and fixes quickly and will also allow us to radically overhaul the ui. Email me directly at peter@teamwork.com and i’ll explain more. Shhhh…. I’ve said too much.

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Michael Hollauf

Awesome post, Peter. I found myself and the mistakes we’ve made with MindMeister more than a few times in your story – we even had the exact same 30k MRR goal about 3 years in!! I’m still guilty of some of the crimes though, such as coding too much instead of being the CEO, but hey … life’s short 😉

One question: the hockey stick in your growth curve after buying teamwork.com is quite impressive, but you’ve had a great name right from the start, just the domain kinda sucked. Naming is a pet peeve of mine, and while our second product MeisterTask (launched last year, not a competitor … well not really) has the .com domain, I’m not super happy with the name itself. So to get to the question: how much do you feel the name helped your company / success? I mean in addition to building a great product. Thanks!

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Peter Coppinger

Cheers Michael,

I’ve used mindmeister in the past and enjoyed it. Nice work. That’s pretty cool that you had the exact same 30k MRR goal.
Yeah I’m also still programming way too much to be honest; it’s difficult, especially when we are short-staffed.

I’m not sure we had a great name from the start because “teamwork” is very generic and we have loads of competitors who have “teamwork” in their names; without owning the .com, we didn’t ‘own’ the word. Once we owned the .com, yes I feel the package of the name, the domain and the product all worked together to achieve the hockey stick growth. In general I feel the name of a product really does contribute to it’s success. If facebook had stayed “the facebook”, would it be as successful? I think it wouldn’t.

Must meet you in person some time to hear your story, I expect we’d get on. And yes you are a competitor :p But hey, it’s a crowded space anyhow.

Thanks for commenting!

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Nick

370k customers? Holy Cow!

Absolutely love “Back then, we were naive web developers who thought three grand for a website was insane, and that we could each easily crank out four websites a week and make millions. You can’t. We didn’t.” I feel like that soldier!

“we have to trust staff to do it” this reminds me of leaving Stephen taking over our project management and him implementing teamwork, I witnessed it on my small scale with my best month ever this “January” when we started using Teamwork Projects and I stepped away but on a big scale like a 60 person company like Teamwork.com, I can really imagine it made a huge difference.

I for one appreciate the fact that you focused on features and customers, I think you guys evolved naturally at the right pace, I’d hate to live without some of my favourite teamwork features! Well done!

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Peter Coppinger

That’s great that you can relate to that Nick. It’s tough being a web development agency: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell 😉
I recommend any agency making the move into Productized Services to stay sane.

Thanks for being a customer and for your kind works, it means a lot.

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Prabhul Sankar

Great post and an honest one! I clearly understand and resonate with some of the situations you’ve gone through like charging customers more and making your service a premium. I reduced the no. of clients we serve and limited ourselves to a few high-quality clients. And yes consultancy is a less desirable industry! That’s why I started building products. My first attempt failed (obviously), I build a viral marketing game creation platform that didn’t work out the way I intended. Lost some time and money on it. I am now on to my next product First Mockup, which is tad bit complex as it involves some AI development (our unique positioning). Being an experienced developer myself and a business owner for the past 9 years, your post is going to help me to avoid some mistakes. Thank you for sharing this! Hope we can connect in future to share some insights.

P.S. Or are we already connected in LinkedIn?

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Oscar Rocha Aragón

THE LESSONS – Hey Peter, Thanks for sharing this valuable experience & tips. You give me some ideas with this article.

TRUE QUOTE –> Be so good they can’t ignore you.

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Finbarr

Nice one Peter & Dan. Well done guys great achievement by you both. Great speach Peter telling it like it is. Ye guys deserve the breaks & business you are getting now for all the long hours put into your own business. You reap what you sow relly is a good story for anyone in life really. Onwards and upwards.

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