You can also find Amar’s interview on YouTube.
1. Hello! Who are you and what is your business?
I’m Amar Ghose, the CEO and cofounder of ZenMaid, which is a software company for maid services to manage their schedule and communicate with their clients and their employees.
They can do that with pen and paper and phone; they can do that with Google calendar on a variety of tools. But ZenMaid is a very specialized option that is out there. This is something that we have been doing for almost seven years now, which is really crazy to think about.
I grew up in California, in Silicon Valley, right next to Stanford university and about 20 minutes from Google HQ and LinkedIn and Facebook and all of those which I feel like makes software kind of an obvious place for me to have gone, but ironically I studied economics and philosophy in college. My dad was an engineer in Silicon Valley for HP and Intel and for some of those` big companies and both me and my sister sort of rebelled against him – we’re not into science, mathematics, development, or anything like that. My sister went and became a writer and I ended up doing tech sales. And the long story short is fast forward a couple of years.
My sister has reinvented herself as a developer after going through an awesome dev boot camp at hand in San Francisco. I started a software company about 7 years ago using my sales skills. So we actually both ended up in technology.
I had read the Four Hour Work Week a long time ago and had this vision being able to travel the world on starting the company so that I could earn money from anywhere. I’ve been trying quite a few different things and I stumbled across a post on Reddit about starting a maid service. That’s not traditionally a business that you can run remotely, but I was confident that there would be a good experience.
Fast forward 14 months, that didn’t work out. We ended up shutting down the main service. But another friend of mine approached me about developing a software to help maid services with their scheduling because from talking to me, he had noticed that we were struggling with that – so why don’t we make our own solution?
And that’s essentially how ZenMaid came to be.
That was about six and a half years ago. We started development on that in April 2013.
We followed a course called The Foundation which is on how to start your own software business when you’re nontechnical. I partnered with my friend and he built the initial version of ZenMaid that we used until late 2017. It was an ongoing project, but we rebuilt it from the ground up in late 2017. He was the one who built the MVP.
Out-of-pocket costs to get started where we started out paying about a hundred dollars a month to Google ad words to send us consistent traffic. Other than that we paid for website hosting, servers, and everything else in the beginning of ZenMaid was all sweat equity (hard work).
My co-founder was not a developer. He was a PhD student at Stanford university doing systems biology. He knew Python that he’d done some Python coding. But after we decided to move forward with this and he was the one that proposed it. He essentially taught himself Ruby On Rails in approximately a week while being a full time student at Stanford university and started coding on our project 7 or 8 days after we had this conversation.
ZenMaid currently makes just over $65,000 a month in recurring revenue, which I believe puts us close to the 800,000 annual recurring revenue. We’re growing at a pretty nice pace and we’re on track to break the $1 million annual mark sometime before June of 2020, which is a massive milestone that we’re very excited for.
Our pricing changed in January of this year. We have your typical software or SAAS recurring revenue model where everyone pays us monthly. We do not offer annual plans and everything is usage based. So it’s $49 a month plus $9 per employee per month. That allows us to grow with our customer base – the more employees that someone has, the more value they’re going to get from the software, and our system makes communication really easy.
Growing our revenue essentially consisted of investing in both the product and our customers. Investing in our customers has gone a really long way – and we do that in a wide variety of ways that don’t oftentimes involve our software. Being heavily invested in our customer success is really what’s helped us to continue to grow. We’ve only fallen in revenue one time in the 6 years that we’ve been in business. We’ve never had insane growth, but we have had very consistent growth.
In 2017 when we went from our MVP product and did our big redesign and rebuild of the product, the new version was insanely better. It was the culmination of years of expertise that we had gained in the industry. But the initial launch was a horrific nightmare that cost us about 40% of our recurring revenue over the following 3-6 months as people transitioned to other systems. That’s the one time that we’ve gone backwards in company history and it was pretty scary and pretty significant.
In terms of hiring, we do things a bit differently at ZenMaid. We only have 3 or 4 full time people on the team and we have another 15 or so that are freelancers, independent contractors and part time. And we go out of our way to ‘hire; our customers. Our support and our sales teams are made up of 6 maid service owners that use our software day in and day out.
Thus far it’s been a couple of years of me traveling the world and being decently well paid, but it is like a job. When, when push comes to shove that will be changing in 2020, we’re expecting to have about a 10% profit margin in 2020 and then increasing to 15-20% in 2021. We’ve got a solid strategic plan to get there.
2. How do you attract and retain your customers?
We got our first 50 users using cold email and cold calling. We sent a basic, quick question in cold email to a bunch of maid service owners who we found on Yelp and then just reached out to them. I spent maybe two hours in the mornings on the weekdays before going into my full time job at the time, cold calling the East coast of the United States and then spent all day Saturdays just cold calling. I was probably doing that for maybe a year or so to get the company off the ground. It probably took us about a year to get our first 50 users.
We are very active on the marketing side of things. We’re not looking for 1,000 customers. We’re looking for 10,000 customers. So it’s difficult to just have one channel that’s going to get us there. We do a lot of paid marketing. We spend well over $5,000 a month on paid marketing, including a lot of retargeting. We do a lot of organic marketing with content, YouTube, our podcast and more. We spend a lot of money promoting our blog posts. And we do a lot of partnership marketing.
We hosted a maid summit that had 44 industry experts from the cleaning industry that all gave 15-90 minute presentations on a wide variety of topics. That’s the single biggest marketing campaign that we’ve ever done. But all of these things play a part into our success and our ongoing growth.
The community of customers that we built on Facebook has been absolutely invaluable for our customer retention. It allows us to do Facebook Lives where we can have our customers jump on and give us feedback on a new feature that we’re working on, or help us to define various things.
We built the community around our product and that makes us a lot more informed on why people are leaving, why people are signing up, what they want to see next. It keeps us closer to our customers, more so than the vast majority of software companies out there.
3. What were your challenges and obstacles of growing your business?
Being bootstrapped was a big challenge for us because we did not jump out of the gates with a ton of revenue. It took us almost 3 years to get to $10,000 MRR. It was slow growth.
For the first couple of years there were times where I felt like I had good ideas to move the business forward, but I didn’t have the skill set to make those things a reality and we didn’t have the funds to pay someone else to do that.
It took a long time to get out of that situation. But now that we have the resources behind us, it is much easier to get things done.
The other thing was not being able to reinvest as much as we wanted to in the product. When my co founders began to step out, we only had one part time developer that was working on it and it was difficult to pay them to do more hours. While we were happy with the consistent improvements and growth that we were making, it was very slow growing. If we’re being honest, we definitely considered quitting many times in the first 4 years that we were in business.
Overcoming those challenges took patience and continuing to play to our strengths that I personally was on the phone, still doing calls 3 years later because we were still closing in on that $10,000 MRR. Because we weren’t making much money, we had been working full time jobs – and when we decided not to and instead focus on ZenMaid full time despite the fact that we were making less than $10,000 a month, we up and left the U.S. I went to Thailand and was living on $1,000 a month because that’s what was necessary to give this company a chance. In hindsight that might seem obvious, but at the time it was a huge financial risk. I definitely heard that from my parents a lot.
The biggest mistake that we’ve made was when we did our big redesign and relaunch – there was not enough testing that went on. There were a lot of problems all with our internal communications. But the biggest thing I’ve learned from all of that is to be accountable for everything and be continuously asking myself what can go wrong. And not in a negative way.
It’s something that Tim Ferriss talks about in The Four Hour Work Week, basically worst-case scenario planning. Until we had this redesign go horrifically wrong, I had that concept in my head without actually applying it. We would have been much better prepared for not only what happened, but for a wide variety of contingency plans that we should have had in place.
I think that taking that accountability and realizing that as the CEO of ZenMaid, if someone has a poor customer experience, that’s my fault. Right?
That doesn’t necessarily mean that I did anything wrong, but that I could have done more at some point in training with the sales team or a wide variety of other actions that could have been taken in the past. When I really started taking that to heart, I think that’s when I grew as an entrepreneur, as a person – and the business has not been the same since.
The quality of customer experience that we’re able to deliver now in 2019 compared to 2014 or 2015 is on a completely different level.
4. What has been helpful to help you to grow your business?
The main tools for our business are Slack, Intercom, Active Campaign on the nontechnical side. For courses that have helped us: thefoundation.io by Dane Maxwell and Andy Dresch on starting a software company. We’ve been featured on their blog and podcast a couple times. Jordan Bell Ford’s course, The Straight Line Persuasion really helped me take my sales game to the next level. The Machine by Ryan Deiss is our email marketing funnel that does quite well; Authority Hacker, another great course that that goes through building authority sites, which we applied to our marketing.
We built multiple authority sites for maid services and then use those sites to attract people to our software.
I’m a huge reader. I’ve got about a thousand books that I own in my audible library and I probably listen to 2-3 books a week. Principles by Ray Dalio is the kind of book that I think my mom and every person on the planet should read. Jobs by Walter Isaacson completely shifted my approach to building the company and customer experiences.
My life Bible is The Four Hour Workweek, which I’m sure all the digital nomads out there and lots of entrepreneurs have heard of. That book completely changed my life.
I read it in early 2006 and it took nine years after that for me to make it with the dream the book planted in my head. I even got to meet Tim Ferriss along the way on a random encounter, which was pretty cool.
People have helped me to grow my business. That’s it.
I definitely want to give a shout out to the guys in my software mastermind that I’ve been meeting with for two years now, every single week to talk about our challenges and what’s going on. Also, shoutout to Jeremy of quickmail.io for any of you guys that need to to send a cold email.
There’s Brett from CardStack, which helps with card abandonment; we’ve got Chad for A-Text-To-Give, which is an awesome charitable giving platform, working with churches and nonprofits. And then of course, my friend Dave Costello who runs Jetpack Workflow, an accounting software.
These guys have definitely been key ones in person, plus lots of communities out there. The Dynamite Circle for nomads, which has some of the highest levels of entrepreneurs that I’ve seen. Lots of Facebook, SAAS groups. I could probably go on thanking people for ever like my team, my mother.
Good decisions that we’ve made along the way would be hiring our customers that after a while I wasn’t as close to our customers anymore but were people that were more involved in our industry on a day to day basis was definitely a big thing. The other thing was the community that we built, we built the ZenMaid Mastermind – I think it’s the third or fourth biggest Facebook group for cleaning business owners on Facebook. It built like a true online community for our audience. We have almost 5,000 maid service owners in that group but only about 1,000 customers. We’ve gone a long way to grow just from the attention that we have. I’m half there.
The small, consistent actions that I probably spent six or eight months primarily focused on email marketing (and that wasn’t writing out massive campaigns and building out this insanely complex thing or planning/doing it) is one of the biggest things that helped me grow. It was eight months that I was doing everything else in the business to keep our head above water. Every single day was just putting in a little bit of time to add one more piece to our marketing funnel, to our emails sequence, setting up one AB test on one page and doing the really small consistent actions. Now, 6-7 years later, it seems like we just get leads from nowhere. We’ve got so many built up processes that have just accumulated over time that now we have that nice consistent flow that every business is after.
5. What is your advice for those starting a SaaS business?
The single biggest learning is to just stick with it until it works. And that doesn’t mean doing the same thing, but it does mean not giving up. ZenMaid is a perfect example. 6 years in, it’s only in the past year maybe that my personal pay from this company has out done what I was earning before in my previous life and I think that there were plenty of opportunities for us to stop or to quit.
I think the big mistake that I see a lot of people making is not taking a long enough term view on things – that too many people are evaluating campaigns. If you’re a B2B business, there’s a good chance that people aren’t really evaluating new software solutions right now. There’s the lack of long-term perspective – you should be working on things that will continue to pay you, ongoing and building up those systems. That’s something that I see too many people missing – they focus on big launches and one-time promotions, but not that evergreen funnel.
If I could go back 6-7 years ago, I would tell myself to create more content and document more things. I think that would’ve accelerated everything in ZenMaid, from informing our product better to improving our marketing to be more effective at sales and support and all of that jazz.
6. What are your plans for the future?
Continuing to market ZenMaid and have as many maid service owners as possible, continuing to grow the company is going to be the primary focus. But what’s really cool now is that we’re getting to the point where we have more money to reinvest into the product or to check a longer term view on things – instead of putting out bugs or building basic features that we’ve already mostly covered. Now we’ve got a lot more sort of futuristic-type features in mind.
The first goal is to just get us to $1 million a year and to get us to a 20% profit margin. I’ve been doing the digital nomad thing. I’ve been traveling the world for almost five years now. So I’m looking at settling down pretty soon and traveling quite a bit less, probably focusing on the business, although it’s already been a full time focus. Start helping other SaaS entrepreneurs with their marketing and use some of my experiences to help them help others
7. Where can we learn more about you?
I’d love to see what the Productized Startup community are doing and see if it’s possible for ZenMaid to white label that or something along those lines. If you’re a productized startup or service that’s working with SaaS businesses, we have done really well by hiring companies like yours as opposed to doing a lot of stuff in-house. If you’ve read or watched this entire interview and you think that you can help us go from 1 million in annual revenue to 2 million or 10 million, don’t hesitate to reach out! Just let me know where you saw this interview and maybe we can work together.