1. Hello! Who are you and what is your business?
I’m Paul, I run a company called The Church Co. It’s a website builder for churches. The key difference being that, compared to other website builders out there (building your own), we build the websites for the church in 7 days and then hand it over for them to maintain. We think that maintaining a website and building a website are two different skill sets.
I got my degree in digital media in The Internet and Interactive Design back in 2007. Then I decided to go to Bible school. I moved to Sydney, Australia (where I went to Bible school) and ended up getting hired at a church there, going back and doing web design. During that process, I started learning about using my skills together and combining two of the passions that I had. I started The Church Co years later, which is ultimately the combination of both of those things.
I had some friends that worked at different churches and was able to reach out to them to trial it. We ran it for free for a year and a half before ever taking payments. We lost half of our customers the day we turned the payments on, and then just started building them back. It all grew word of mouth via happy customers and Facebook groups.
The Church Co makes $30k-32k a month in subscriptions. We have optional add-ons like custom themes, sermon and blog imports. If you need more than the 15 pages that will do for free in the build. There are one-time fees which accounts for around $3,000 a month in addition to the subscriptions.
Our pricing plans start at $20 for basic, $50 at premium, and ultimate for $199. The basic plan is simply everything you need for a standard website: web pages, blogs, sermons (which are podcast events systems). The premium plan has nice church features that we’ve added that are geared towards interaction with members that come to your church. One example is a sermon note-taker where the pastor can outline their sermon notes and you can follow along via your phone, add your own notes, and then compile and send them to yourself. We also have a small group locator, which shows small groups that meet in the community that are all part of your church. We’ve got options for live streams, chats, and online giving/donations through stripe.
These features are all niche-targeted features that make it easier to manage and get more interactions. From here, we incentivize people to upgrade as well. The ultimate plan has all the same features as premium, but we manage your content for you. You’ll basically never have to log into your website — just email us and tell us to do something for Christmas and we’ll spin up a page for you.
For expenses, we vary between like $9k-11k each month. This includes salaries, servers, intercom, etc. We pay contractors in addition to our full-time people (myself and one other individual) that we have to build other websites for the churches. This varies with how many people sign up and how many hours it takes them to build the sites.
Before COVID I would’ve considered a customer a day (totaling about 30 for the month) to be a great month. Then we started doing the same amount in a week when stay-at-home orders came to the point of gaining 100 new customers in a month — which was wild! We spend a lot of time on customer support and brought on a lot of contractors to kind of help get that done.
It was mind-blowing that there were so many fully functioning organizations that had never had websites. It was an unfortunate event that was bad for a lot of people, but it really pushed many into a digital space, which we were prepared for. In the last three months, we did the equivalent of how many sites we did all of last year, so it scaled quickly. And luckily the processes were all in place to make that happen.
2. How do you attract and retain your customers?
The main way we’ve grown is word of mouth, especially through really niche Facebook groups. My background from working in the communications role at a church helped me get involved in those groups, just to be a help to other people. I never spammed my product (nor did I ever have to). We haven’t invested money into any ads except maybe a few dollars for some Google ads and a few dollars for some retargeting Facebook ads.
As far as retaining customers, one of the beauties of websites is, you don’t change them that often. We work really hard to get you on your domain name, and once you’re on that, then you’re typically going to stay for 3+ years. We do a lot of work in the beginning stages to onboard people, build their site, and get them up through launching. What makes it different to most SaaS products is that you can see if someone stops logging in — that’s when they churn. But for us, that’s when they’re happy, and good to go. Really happy customers could log in once a week just to add a new event or upload a podcast from the weekend.
One of the reasons that we found why organizations churn is when they get a new volunteer that is familiar with another website builder. We ensure they stick around by separating the data from the design, which means you can change your theme at any time and it auto adjusts the layout.
We release new themes every year. The goal is that if you’ve been on the platform for 5 or so years, and want a new look, you can just browse our theme library, preview and activate without needing additional work.
This is the big focus: getting people onto the domain and then making sure we’re releasing new features. It’s helped with keeping customers.
3. What were your challenges and obstacles of growing your business?
When I started this company, I thought people would see the website and think that it’s much better than what they could build themselves. I realized that you’re not actually selling the final product — it’s the experience of making the product.
It was within the first 6 weeks with our first trial customer that I realized people were not going to build their own websites (or they’d take 6 months to do it, which was way too long of a sales cycle). I thought, well, I built the system, I can do it pretty quick. So we started offering our done-for-you website building, which was a game changer. It ran great for a while when we did it all for free (but requested payment for site launch).
Then we burned out a few times. So we started asking for credit card information first, as a commitment to do this, and we would build a website — which worked great until we got websites that requested 500 pages. That would take us a month to build, and there’s no way it was sustainable.
This was iterated down to the point we are today: we start building the website which is a free 15 pages, (about the average size of a church website). Making money was never the goal.
Before I had contractors I used to get up at 5am and go to a coffee shop, build three websites and go to my day job for 8 hours. Then I’d come home, have some family time and then, after everyone’s asleep, jump back on and build more websites. It wasn’t the most fun in that stage, and it continued that way until it scaled enough with revenue to hire people to do that for me. I think a lot of people quit when they hit that first wall, instead of thinking: what’s the wildest solution to this (even if it’s not like a fun one)?
We pivoted from my original idea, in that I thought people would build their own websites (which was not the case). Currently, I’m in the middle of a bit of a pivot as well, adding design to our service.
We’ve never been a design tool. We’re no code and we’re no design. Our ideal customer is a church that doesn’t have a creative staff member. and the value is on the content. We convert about 25% of trials into customers, which is pretty high; but the feedback we get from the other 75% are usually about design related things (i.e. they have a design in mind they wanted to implement). Part of the big push on version 2 is adding more design capabilities and flexibility for the people that want it.
There were a lot of assumptions I made around design in the initial version that looking back, I would have done a little bit more research: i.e. surveying a few people working in churches that weren’t my friends to see what they were struggling with and what they needed.
I would have also made strategic partnerships earlier (I was very anti-affiliates for a long time). I would see 10 people spamming affiliate links in the Facebook groups and would immediately be biased against the products because it needs affiliates to sell. While I don’t think we suffered from refusing to do affiliates, a lot of competitors did which kept paired them up with influencers in the space. We ended up caving and now have an affiliate plan.
Another challenge was letting go of control on intercom, but it needed to happen. It’s the only communication we have; there’s no phone line. Anyone who gets the role needs to be well vetted in communication skills and sales, the ability to convert someone that’s just browsing into a paying customer.
I was a bit too close to the product. I’m more prone to talk about specific technical things that customers would simply not understand. Handing the role off to someone else has made more sales and has overall been one of the best moves I’ve made.
4. What has been helpful to help you to grow your business?
The Indie Hackers community. I think having really ‘switched-on’ people that are willing to give you constructive and honest feedback is really valuable. I suppose it’s a bit like having a life coach. It’s gotten us to where we are today.
When we added a chat to the dashboard, it helped drive sales (despite chat being the bane of my existence). You can’t log into any of the major competitors’ sites (that I know of), and live chat with a web developer to ask them questions. We do, and it was a tool that really helped us move forward in the early days and it continues to scale now.
Other tools that we use:
- Slack – for communication and all our notifications.
- Zapier – we’ve set up automation to send us slack messages (which got out of hand two weeks ago because there were so many signups and cancellations). We drive everything into Slack through Zapier.
- Asana – the task manager. When a new sale happens, a new task is automatically added and automatically assigned, as well as follow-ups that need to be done with customers, etc.
- fly.io – we’ve recently started using this startup that does edge servers, edge computing, and they’ve been amazing to work with. We use them for things like SSL and caching.
- Google Analytics
- Stripe – our payment gateway. It’s been incredible to us.
Other helpful things for the business comes down to just working unbelievably hard, as much as I didn’t want to. That was ultimately the best decision. I knew that it was going to be a short period of time, but it just had to be done. That year and a half where I was getting up at 5am was worth it, because now we can cruise at our own pace.
I’m not happy about the COVID pandemic, but it did drive some incredible growth. I think it also helped the churches themselves accelerate their growth, especially since they are usually out of date as far as tech goes. It pushed many of them to upgrade their systems and reach people more in a digital space, which I believe has been really good not only for us, but for them. If there is a silver lining to COVID at all, it would be that we’re moving more towards getting to connect more with people as well by being online.
Much of our success is also credited to those Facebook groups. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The fact that these groups have 20,000+ people in a group that are all in charge of their website for the churches meant we had a network and even customers — all without having to advertise or spam.
5. What is your advice for those who are starting productized services?
When you hit a wall, think of the best solution to it, no matter how hard or ridiculous it sounds – and then just try it. Also, get into the habit of just shipping things — if we’d waited to build our entire product where it is today, we still wouldn’t have launched. So, start simple and build from there. Don’t just give up. Definitely do things that don’t scale, and then figure out how to scale them.
I think the biggest mistake people make is not being disciplined and not shipping. So many people would have app ideas and samples, but they don’t work on them. There’s no game plan. You’d have to be very disciplined about it and have the end goal in sight. For me, that was always to work for myself and be my own boss. I worked the extra hours to get to that point.
6. What are your plans for the future?
I’m hoping to finish Version 2 (as I previously mentioned) before the end of the year. It’s a massive project– we’re rebuilding everything that we’ve built in the last five years. We want to get more into the space of allowing for more people to design their own sites, instead of being limited to the themes that we have.
We’re also aiming for more strategic partnerships, and adding a few more features to the things we currently have that are more CRM-based (like sending an email to the people that are registered to your account). Not trying to be a full CRM in any way, but maybe a lite version of one.
The other biggest thing that everyone requests is a native app, but I’m on the fence about it. It might be something we add in the future, but as of now I’m still undecided. With all the new API’s that we’ll build in Version 2, the app would be a lot easier to build. Perhaps when we hire another software engineer.
Within the church space, we have a few competitors that have done proper seed rounds and have VC backing and it’s a little hard to compete on against their advertising. But the thing is, we’ve discovered that the word of mouth is so much stronger in our community than the ad spend.
From my perspective, within the groups of our target audience, we’re recommended the most out of any kind of website platform out there. The potential blocker is a lot of the funded church platforms that could probably outbid us on all marketing.
If you read through like Facebook reviews, the one thing that everyone says about us is that we have the best customer service. I think that is just a massive selling point for people. People have been skeptical about the lack of contact through a phone line, but after a little bit of conversation and explaining that:
- The lack of phone number means we can afford to charge $20/month because we don’t have to hire out a call center, and
- If the site crashes, everyone’s site crashes, and we’ll be immediately notified and be working on it (although a site crash has never happened),
they’re at ease and comfortable with working with us. The simple fact that they talk with us and they can see through intercom that we are responding very quickly goes a long way. Treat your customer well, they’re the ones that are paying you. Having happy customers brings us more.
7. Where can we learn more about you?
I’m generally not too active on social media. But you can find more about me at PaulJosephCox, on Twitter and Instagram. Although my Instagram is probably overrun with photos of drums and my daughter.
We are @TheChurchCo on all social media platforms.
You can also find me on Indie Hackers. I’ve been posting everything on The Church Co product there. I’m happy to connect with anyone there and chat — it would be great to meet a few more people.
For the Productized Community: I know almost nothing about marketing and advertising. If anyone has anything that they know is working really well as far as segmenting and targeting people, I’m all ears. Also, if anyone wants to look at our website and offer some feedback or suggestions, by all means! I’m also happy to run some Google Optimize AV testing and report back on the results of those if you want to test an idea, and you’re curious if it works.
If anyone has questions, you can definitely reach out to me and I can tell you about our process. It might not be the same for you.