Reverse Engineering, Side Hustles and the Green Road to SaaS Growth: Insights From GreenPal’s Bryan Clayton
· 5 min read
Bryan Clayton wasn’t always a tech guy.
In fact, he has blue-collar roots: The lawn mowing side hustle he started in high school became a landscaping business after he graduated, which then grew into one of the largest landscaping companies in all of Tennessee. After 15 years in business, Bryan had 150 employees and was making over $10 million dollars in annual revenue.
It was while Bryan was still running his landscaping company that he began to notice an opportunity in the market: as his own company grew, it was forced to give up smaller customers. Instead of leaving them hanging out to dry, he would connect them with other landscaping companies.
“In effect, we were kind of this connector service,” Bryan reflects, “connecting buyers and sellers in a very traditional, analog offline way. And so I thought, well, an app could do all this, and I set out to build it.”
That’s how GreenPal — a peer-to-peer marketplace for lawn care — was born. But how did three co-founders with no experience in tech or SaaS, and no outside capital, build a successful eight-figure company with over 300,000 customers?
You always hear the SaaS success stories, but rarely do you get to hear about the nitty gritty early work of starting a tech company. Bryan sat down with me on an episode of the SaaS Origin Stories podcast to discuss how GreenPal beat the odds to become the success it is today. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.
Growing a SaaS Company: From Idea to Reality
For Bryan, building a company was like building a brick house. In the beginning, it was just Bryan and his co-founders laying the foundation, but as the project grew in scale, so did the necessity for more experienced bricklayers — people who knew how to write code, engineer the app and develop the product.
That takes money — something the early GreenPal team didn’t have. But one thing Bryan was certain about was that he didn’t want to fundraise.
“All around me were all of these ‘Uber for X’ ideas: Uber for dry cleaning, Uber for home cleaning, Uber for laundry service,” Bryan says. But all of them were chasing the coattails of Uber’s success and assuming they could apply the same model to their own companies. And that doesn’t always work.
“All of these [startups] were raising 5, 10, 20, sometimes as much as $100 million. And in 18 months, they were gone.”
Ironically, while Bryan and his fellow colleagues didn't think 'Uber for X' was the way to go for GreenPal, they bootstrapped the company in its early days with money they made as drivers for Uber in their downtime. The side hustle gave them the needed cash flow to buy time for the developers who were building GreenPal’s first platform.
And while it may have been more affordable to outsource All his initial development needs, Bryan was wary of the approach. He advises to always make sure to “delegate by stewardship” (rather than by abdication).
Outsourcing too much in the initial stages means putting yourself at risk of losing control over development and getting something back that doesn’t work. But delegation by stewardship means you know enough to guide a developer in what you want and how you want it to function. This allows you more control over the process and will help you achieve your desired result faster.
But in order to delegate by stewardship, you need enough of a knowledge base to lead the development process, which takes us to Bryan’s next insight.
Sewing Seeds for New Skills: The 80/20 Rule
When starting a new business, you have to be a multitasker. Bryan says to expect a seven-day work week for the first few years, and get used to assuming all the roles you can’t afford to hire for yet (you’ll likely learn how to code and develop your SaaS while serving as an HR and PR manager at the same time).
“You’re always doing three things at once, whether it's for the company or for improving yourself,” Bryan says.
Doing a little bit of everything doesn’t mean you need to be an expert at everything. Use the 80/20 rule: 20 percent of expertise at a skill gets you 80 percent of the desired results.
Being 20 percent good at 30 different things as a company founder is an important first step to developing your company and knowing what you want it to look like when you are ready to begin recruiting developers.
When it comes to learning code, Bryan recommends YouTube and Envato Tuts+, a platform with thousands of free tutorials.
As for product development, the best way to build it is to learn from other platforms similar to yours. For Bryan, this meant signing up for every peer-to-peer marketplace and providing services for them: He drove for Uber and Lyft, delivered for Postmates and assembled strangers’ furniture for TaskRabbit — taking notes on how they each worked along the way.
“I was able to put to work $10 billion of venture capital, in terms of discovering excellent product design, into my own product, just by using and taking notes and reverse engineering what they were doing for similar experiences,” Bryan says.
Bootstrapping From the Ground Up
One of the biggest challenges for new SaaS companies is funding. In fact, most SaaS companies never even make it to $1 million in revenue.
So how did GreenPal reach eight figures in revenue per year without outside capital? For Bryan, revenue was the best form of funding for the business.
GreenPal was able to use that early version of its platform to recruit its first several hundred customers and start doing business right away, even as the business was still in the development stage.
Besides revenue, the only funding put into GreenPal came from the pockets of its founders via liquidated 401Ks, credit cards, checks, and personal loans — amassing just enough to cover expenses and build the first version of the app.
Still, getting GreenPal off the ground without outside investors was no walk in the park. Bryan and his co-founders worked without a salary, often up to 100 hours per week.
But after three years of “making pennies,” that model allowed them to knuckle down and eventually reach $10,000 per month in revenue. Today, that monthly number has grown tenfold.
Leveling Up: Building a Customer Base Sometimes Means Doing the Grunt Work
Building your customer base is “like a video game,” Bryan says.
“You’ve got 10 levels of Super Mario Brothers, and you just focus on getting one level at a time. And the … trap they fall into is they try to deploy a level eight, nine, 10 strategy when they're on level one.”
Many people want to skip the hands-on dirty work of early audience building, but in reality, just as you can’t skip over the early levels of a video game, you also can’t skip over the grunt work in a startup’s early days.
For Bryan, ‘level one’ involved walking the neighborhoods of Nashville, passing out flyers and door hangers advertising GreenPal — a strategy that successfully earned the company its first 100 customers.
Don’t forget to embrace those early stages while you’re in them. Your first 100 customers are crucial to your business’s success — get close with early adopters and ask them for feedback on what your product needs to be better.
“I have a belief that you should know personally your first 100 customers, [and] they should have your cell phone number,” Bryan says.
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