How TestLodge's founder bootstrapped his user base

Scott Sherwood
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TestLodge is a cloud-based software testing tool that enables its users to document and manage their testing efforts with ease. Today, our software supports thousands of users across more than 180 countries and is regarded as one of the top emerging software testing tools to come out of the UK.

By its nature, our software has to be agile with the ability to quickly adapt to user demand. Given the complexity of software testing, our customers regularly comment on the need for responsiveness, with every delay in testing potentially having a knock-on effect on workload.

By making consumer feedback a core facet of our business, we are meeting the demand for a modern and fluid testing platform, which is reflected in the rate of our sign-ups. This user-first ethos has resulted in a tripling of our revenue since 2014 and means we have a healthy user-base with over 300 subscribed companies made up of thousands of paying users to offer feedback on our product.

However, this didn’t happen overnight and took a great deal of planning, design and discipline to be able to turn an idea into something that users were willing to pay for.

Getting it started

Before I started TestLodge I was working as a software developer for an agency. This gave me a decent understanding of the industry and paid the bills, but I wanted something a bit more involving; something I could really sink my teeth into and put my own personal stamp on.

I think first and foremost listening to your users is paramount.

After reading the book ReWork by David Hansson and Jason Fried, the founder of the project management platform Basecamp, I was inspired.

The book illustrates how one can start a business without outlaying large amounts of cash, and that by building and growing a business steadily you can grow into a strong position organically. Crucially, this meant that I was able to maintain my vision of TestLodge, dedicated to the users, rather than that of potential investors. To date, we’ve used no loans or outside investment. I invested £500 over the first few months to pay for servers, initial basic design costs etc. when there was no revenue from subscriptions.

Building early software and revenue

In the early stages, I kept things as simple as possible, working part-time and developing the platform. I made the tool available for people for free at first, so that I could get useful feedback and develop the product further.

This also kept me focussed and I’d advise anyone who has a product or a tool to allow as many people to test it as possible. An active user-base means that you have to keep evolving and refining your product and that acts as a natural motivator, pushing your productivity into avenues that will improve your overall service.

Eventually, as the user base grew, so did our costs. One of the greatest costs starting up was the web hosting. As a cloud-based software testing platform that wanted to trade globally, we knew we had to have reliable and widely accessible hosting. This should be one of the key concerns to any startup that is looking to trade online: if a customer cannot access your platform at any time, how are they going to trust your product?

Additional costs then came from merchant services, payment gateways, accounting services etc. This meant the business was quickly reaching a point where there was a clear demand for the service and therefore necessitated further investment, but needed more paying users in order to finance this investment.   

The tipping point

Once I had reached this tipping point of needing more improvements to increase the user base, but needing more users to afford the improvements, I knew that there was going to be a point where I had to take a risk.

I had already proven that there was a market for the tool, but as I wanted to maintain total control over TestLodge, I didn’t want to seek external funding. Instead, I cut as many costs as possible, doing my own bookkeeping, and limiting paid for services as much as possible.

No matter how good an idea is, if you aren’t always shaping and evolving to suit your users you will eventually be overtaken by someone who is.

Fortunately, as a developer, this meant I had the skills to continue much of the tool building myself, and with a basic knowledge, was able to work on SEO and user experience design. This got me by initially, until I could afford the more experienced personnel I have today.

Early customer acquisition was the result of a lot of this work. I focussed a lot of time on SEO to gain high rankings for niche keywords that competitors were not focusing on. Though this meant that sometimes I wasn’t in the mix as it were for the more popular keywords, it meant more people searching for hyper focussed but less popular keywords found me. The net benefit of this in terms of users was greater than trying to compete with companies that, at the time, were larger than TestLodge.

I also reached out to the online QA (Quality Assurance) community, where fortunately many blog owners saw the benefits of the tool and published some early reviews. That combined with organic customer referrals and a very small amount of Adwords meant that the foundations were already set, and it wasn’t long before I managed to convert enough users into full-feature paying customers.

The importance of early adopters

I think first and foremost listening to your users is paramount. Many businesses that fail don’t factor in user feedback as part of their vision. No matter how good an idea is, if you aren’t always shaping and evolving to suit your users you will eventually be overtaken by someone who is.

Those who pay for your tool or service early are some of your most important influencers, as they clearly see the benefit of your product and have actively invested in it. That being said, it’s important not to over promise on features, it’s better to wow users with extra functionality than under-deliver on promised additions you are unable to implement.

It’s also important not to panic in the early stages of building a user-base. Those first ten or twenty users may be perhaps the hardest to attract. Keep to your vision, request feedback, listen, and adapt. If you keep improving your product on the feedback, the growth rate will steadily increase.

Finally, make use of cost-efficient third-party systems where you can. For example, I use Recurly to handle all payment related functionality. This saves time and effort as I don’t need to build or maintain a payment function, leaving me more time to continue improving my actual product - TestLodge.



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