How to Build a No Code Startup Around Your MVP
Why do some successful startups scale smoothly while others flail and eventually fail?
In the early days of any company — the minimum viable product days — it’s a miracle just to get a working version of your product into a customer’s hands. So what happens when you eventually wind up delivering a lot of product to a lot of customers — but you’re still recording all your information on sticky notes? Or whatever the 2020 equivalent of a sticky note might be?
When I founded my first startup 20 years ago, one of the first things I did was build a system to keep track of every data point of my business. Today, I can accomplish the same thing, but with No Code options, which means I no longer need to spend dozens of hours reinventing wheels when I should be spending that time building a better product and selling more of it.
You don’t have to build a proprietary system or spend a fortune on SaaS solutions in order to scale. Not yet.
Here’s how to get started with No Code options for tracking the most important growth aspects of your business.
Why you need to track the growth of your business
It’s never been easier to start a company, and it’s never been easier to create a working product or market a new service. The options for building a sustainable business are nearly unlimited. But that lowering-of-the-bar comes with a downside — I see a lot of newly-formed companies skipping those unlimited options altogether.
In fact, I recently polled my Teaching Startup entrepreneurs about how they were monitoring the health of their business. These are serious, revenue-generating, early-to-growth-phase entrepreneurs, and their answers, on the scale from most ideal to least, was not as ideal as I would have assumed.
Almost half of these startups are only tracking sales (the 2020 equivalent of the sticky notes option). This is understandable, of course, and not a big problem. Yet. That’s going to come later.
To illustrate the impending spiral, I like to use the example of a well-financed startup I consulted for a long time ago. When I got there, the company was generating $6 million a month in revenue, and burning $7 million a month to do it. Not a rarity for a startup, for sure.
The problem was, everyone knew this was happening and no one knew how to stop it, because no one had a handle on costs and how costs and revenues broke down over customers. Costs kept rising faster than revenue. They burned through all the investor money and never recovered.
An ounce of preparation is worth months, maybe years, of painful, cash-burning cure. Here’s what you should be thinking about from the get go.
There are a lot of ways to track your customers and prospects. Here are just a few examples:
- CRM software like Salesforce.
- Marketing management software like Hubspot.
- Payment software like Stripe.
- Accounting software like Quickbooks.
Chances are you are already using one or more of these systems and hopefully tracking your customers individually in at least one. In fact, the problem most startups have is that they usually have multiple copies of a customer across several systems.
What every startup needs is a system of record for customers. This is one single source list that tracks them from initial prospect through conversion and until they leave you forever.
What most startups do instead is choose one of their customer databases from the list above, and call that their system of record.
That’s not a terrible option, but I don’t recommend it. First of all, your customers are YOUR customers. They’re not Salesforce’s, they’re not Hubspot’s, and they’re not Stripe’s. And depending on what software you’re using, your customer data in that system might not 100% belong to you or be 100% accessible outside of that system.
If you are using someone else’s database as your system of record, make sure it has the ability to create and update multiple custom fields. Also make sure it has an export/import function, so you can bring that data into a spreadsheet whenever you want, make mass changes, and import those changes back in.
The lowly but powerful spreadsheet
It’s OK to use a spreadsheet as your system of record. You can either create it as the result of an export from another system or create it manually. Each customer in your system of record should have a unique ID that you generate — don’t use Hubspot’s ID, don’t use Stripe’s ID.
Having this data in a spreadsheet is extra work, of course, especially if your company is B2C and selling to hundreds of customers per day — this is why your other systems need an import/export option.
What your system of record allows you to do is pull in data from other systems, so you can analyze how marketing is increasing sales, how sales is triggering discounts from suppliers, how suppliers are raising costs in support, and so on. Once all the data (or most of it) is in a spreadsheet, you can run all kinds of analysis to monitor the health of your business and keep it growing.
So where is the rest of that data coming from?
I’m going to poke conventional wisdom here, but in the beginning, you do not need a lot of data tracking around digital marketing until the numbers start to produce a sustained impact on sales.
Most young startups aren’t remarketing, they’re not A/B testing, and they can usually count conversions manually. There’s little need to go all-in on software to do that counting at the customer level. So until you can prove causation between a marketing campaign and a rise in sales, focus on aggregate, not granular, marketing data.
Make another spreadsheet — this time you’ll be correlating aggregate marketing activity to aggregate sales generated. In other words, if you spend $100 on a digital ad campaign, track how much that bumped sales.
Why another spreadsheet? Because in most cases, getting the truth between one system that does your marketing and another system that tracks your sales is like deciphering hieroglyphics. But also, your business is probably different enough from every other business on the planet that the default connections between those systems will result in numbers but no insights.
That said, I can use those systems, if I have access to them, to analyze cause and effect. If I can pull a customer from an ad campaign and see what I had to do to land them and what they did once they got to me, that can be super-helpful. But again, early on, that kind of analysis should be reactive, not proactive.
Money never changes hands without some kind of digital record being created. Plug into this digital record and tie that revenue back to your system of record for customers.
The key here is to keep this data as real-time as possible. Again, most startups do their “banking” once a week or even once a month. I don’t like to do banking at all, and my accountant will tell you that the thing I’m worst at is accounting.
Just about every bank’s digital offering, as well as every credit card processor and every flavor of accounting software on the market today, will allow an almost seamless connection and update to other systems.
If you don’t have an accountant, or even if you do, get some free or cheap accounting software with an import/export ability, and routinely get a sense of where your money is coming from and where it’s going. This software can serve as the system of record for sales and costs.
Again, being able to import into your accounting system from your spreadsheet — your system of record for customers — is going to cut way down on your “banking” time, as well as keep you on at least a daily monitoring cycle of the health of your business, if not real-time.
Speaking of real-time, let’s talk about Zapier. In cases where I don’t have automatic updates between systems, I can use Zapier to automate those updates for me. So when I make a sale (in Stripe), my marketing system (MailChimp) gets updated.
But what’s even better is that Zapier can update my spreadsheets too. This means I can be running constant analysis on my business, conduct experiments, and let the results store themselves in real time so I can analyze them when I’m ready without a lot of prep.
And finally, let’s talk about Slack. If I’m real time with my data, or even when I’m not, there are certain situations where real time notification and communication is critical. Slack is more than an instant messaging tool for your team, it’s an instant messaging tool between your team and your data.
When I pair Slack with Zapier, not only will my systems know when I’ve made a sale, but my sales, customer success, and support teams will too. And if something’s not right, they can all gather in the same place, immediately, without leaving where they are.
All this and I’m not spending thousands of dollars on a custom data infrastructure and monitoring system.
This is all temporary, but it’s also permanent
Of course, you’re going to pretty quickly outgrow the free-to-use variants of these no code tools. Eventually, the unique needs of your business model will even push you past the capabilities of the paid versions of these tools. Not only that, but I’m willing to bet your spreadsheets will become a heated, unusable mess before the latter happens.
So yes, you’ll have to ditch all this duct-tape mess at some point.
But here’s the thing.
20 years ago when I sat down to create my custom systems, the hardest part was figuring out how to build them to suit the unique needs of the business I was creating. When it’s time to build your own custom system, you’ll not only have figured out exactly what kind of data structure you need, you’ll have an initial set of data that goes almost all the way back to the beginning.
And it won’t all be on sticky notes.
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