Play podcast

How to bootstrap a startup remotely

This article was written in collaboration with Ryan Mattock, the CMO of CommissionCrowd. Building Remotely is a resource that is developed with your help - let us know if you want to share your experience or advice!

Remote work can offer more than freedom and flexibility over your working schedule and location - it can help you start a business while cutting down the costs that are usually associated with new ventures.
I'll share the story of how my two co-founders and I started CommissionCrowd, a B2B commission-only sales platform while saving on expenses by traveling and operating remotely.

Start by solving your own problems

Back in mid-2013, we were running a small, home-based Internet Marketing company in Edinburgh. Through this, we partnered up with a much larger Inc.500 American-based firm that eventually agreed to allow us to take their brand to the UK as a franchised model. We learned that our US counterparts attributed a large part of their success to building a high-performing B2B commission-based, freelance sales team. Our goals would also rely on replicating this sales model in the UK. 
However, that's where the difficulties started. Finding these sales professionals was a huge challenge, given the fragmented nature of the industry. Even when we managed to find candidates, it became evident that connecting, onboarding, training, managing and retaining our remote working sales team was next to impossible given the lack of technology available. 
Because of this, our focus had shifted almost entirely to attempting to build and run a freelance sales team, whereas, in reality, we were severely neglecting the day-to-day running and growth of our business. That's when we had our lightbulb moment - there should be a service for this. We envisioned it as an innovative software solution that would solve the problems we were encountering, not only for our company but for other companies worldwide too.
After creating a rough blueprint of the system we wanted to build, we realized that, in order for this idea to truly come to life, we would have to dedicate 100% of our time to the endeavor. This meant leaving our existing business behind.
We couldn't sit on our vision anymore; however, dropping our primary source of income was a hugely daunting prospect. Without a significant amount of savings or high-value assets to sell off to fund the journey, we tried to find another way to make this work.
Then we found house sitting
A few years prior, we had agreed to look after a friend's property while he was overseas. It was an ingenious way to cut down on living costs for a period of time. We started looking for similar opportunities i.e. caring for a property in exchange for not having to pay rent or bills. 
We used TrustedHousesitters to connect with homeowners to look after their properties, which allowed us to dedicate our time and savings to the new venture. Our first co-living & co-working property was a beautiful Millhouse in the South of France, in the Midi-Pyrenees region. It had the perfect view of the mountains on a clear day, a private fishing lake and plenty of office space. A fantastic start for our bootstrapped journey.
Apart from essentials, we had a few other expenses including software and internet-related services. We calculated that we would need to earn at least £400 per month to ensure we could continue during the early stages, so at the start we managed to persuade some of our remote consultancy clients to keep us on in the meantime. I don't need to mention that this wouldn't be possible without working remotely.

Communicate what you're building from an early stage

While the software development for CommissionCrowd was underway, we decided to start creating buzz around what we would be launching soon. We figured that if we could get people excited enough for what we're building, perhaps they would eventually be willing to pay for exclusive early access during our beta stages. 
Here's our advice on how to do this:
Create a basic website and a blog It can consist of a simple landing page and a link to our blog. The goal is to drive traffic to the landing page via our blog articles and social marketing, then capture the name and email addresses of people interested in staying up-to-date with our progress. 
You'll see in the screenshot below that our landing page was extremely basic but got the point across quickly without the visitor having to process a lot of information.
Here's what helped us convert page visitors into actual leads:
  • A clear and easy-to-understand heading that sums up your business in one sentence
  • A clear call to action, which in our case was to subscribe for pre-launch news and invitation-only beta access
  • Quotes from real people are influential trust factors on your landing page
  • We also included a list of features and benefits for both companies and sales agents so people knew what they would be getting and how we were solving their problems.
Implement a pre-launch marketing strategy Here are a few things we did to get people excited about what we're building:
  1. Publish interesting content - At the very start, we predominantly wrote about the problems companies and freelance sales agents faced and the solutions we would be presenting. Publishing targeted content regularly can be time-consuming but is hugely valuable, especially since, once you publish an article, you'll have an asset online that works for you in the long run.
  2. Provide clear value - or lead magnets, which are essentially free offerings that provide value to potential customers in exchange for their contact information. In our case, we created two ebook guides, one for companies and the other for sales agents. The one aimed at sales agents was a comprehensive "How-to guide to becoming self-employed and working as an independent sales rep". On the company side, we produced a guide for companies to better understand independent sales reps and how to successfully work with agents once they’ve connected with them.
  3. Spread the word - Use social media to your advantage! In particular, influencer marketing turned into one of our greatest success stories. It helped us drive targeted traffic to our site; our SEO was still early in the process, and we couldn't rely solely on Google's algorithm for traffic. We eventually decided to take our influencer lead generation strategy and create an additional revenue stream by teaching our method in an online course.
  4. Join online communities - This is another great lead generation tool. We became very active in forums like the UK Business Forum and 4Networking, but there are business forums for almost every country and industry so seek them out and try to engage with the communities there on a regular basis. Remember, these places don’t allow self-promotion so you’ll have to provide valuable industry insight rather than just talk about your company.
  5. Keep people informed: It's important to keep engaging with people who express an interest in your services, especially if it's going to be a while until you launch. You don't want to launch your business a year later when no one will remember who you are or why they gave you their email. Without spamming, keep people up-to-date with your progress and make sure you send them links to your blog posts and website. Keep them in the loop and make them feel like they are involved in the building process.
  6. Webinars: They're an excellent way to engage with your community directly. It helped us get a better sense of who would eventually use CommissionCrowd to build their remote sales teams. We held these on a monthly basis and focused on discussing the sales industry and the problems we were trying to solve. We also used them to give updates on our progress and expected timeline for launch, as well as allowing open Q&A sessions.
These strategies didn't just prepare us better for the launch, they also helped us build a better product. By reaching out to people in online forums, events and webinars, we had a direct link to our community and involved them in the project on a more personal level. We would ask for feedback on the proposed features we were planning to build, which helped us make sure we had a good product-market fit. We asked for honest, open feedback. We wanted to solve real problems in innovative ways, not just build a job board. 

Offer early access to your community

By this point, we were still around a year from launching CommissionCrowd; we had one sole developer who built the entire platform. Our subscriber list had grown, and engagement with our community was going well, so it felt like the right time to test the waters and see if people would be willing to actually pay for future access to our platform. Keep in mind, this was before crowdfunding sites became popular, so we had to be creative.
We knew we would have to offer something genuinely valuable and decided to start selling a one-time payment for lifetime access membership with early bird beta access to our most engaged community members (we set the price at £200).  
We understood that this was still a fairly big ask without a launched product, but we knew we only needed to sell two memberships a month to keep us operating. You can't even imagine our surprise when we sold over 100-lifetime memberships during the year before our launch! Our earliest members provided invaluable feedback on their experience of using the system.

After the launch, we finally had the opportunity to focus on the details, perfect the user experience and do some fine-tuning. Thanks to everything we did before the product even launched, we managed to start earning from it from the very start. We are very grateful to the early adopters that helped shape the features of the product from the very beginning, and our community continues to help us find new ways to improve it.

About the author

Ryan Mattock

Ryan is the Co-founder and CMO of CommissionCrowd - a platform that connects B2B independent sales reps and companies globally.