What I learned building a 9 figure company from scratch in 4 years.
I co-founded BigCommerce (a commerce platform for fast-growing brands) with my good friend and serial entrepreneur Eddie Machaalani in 2009. We ran the company as co-CEOs from 2009–2015. Today the company has well over 100,000 customers who have processed $10B+ in orders.
Last year we hired an incredible CEO, Brent Bellm, to scale the company and I moved to the board. It was an incredible ride taking an idea we had and building it into a huge company and today the company is going great.
In this post I wanted to share with you the biggest mistakes I made during my time building up the company, in the hopes that I can help you avoid them and grow your business faster and with less stress and more fun.
Lesson #1 — Spending Too Much Time Doing Things I Didn’t Like And/Or Wasn’t Good At
Initially this was because I had to, but as the company grew quickly (from 12 of us to over 300 within 4 years) I found I was stressed out more than I was happy with our progress.
When I reflected on why, it was because I spent too much time working on things I didn’t like and/or that I wasn’t good at.
I’ve written about being an artist, entrepreneur or manager before — and I’m an artist/entrepreneur hybrid.
I’m a big believer in doing more of what you like and what you’re good at and delegating the other stuff to people who are smarter and more capable than you.
I should’ve done that earlier. Two main areas of the business come to mind: running engineering and scaling operations (hiring and process).
Lesson #2 — Relying On A Single Marketing Channel For Our Leads
Spending 6 figures a month on Google AdWords isn’t a sustainable marketing strategy, but man it worked — in the early days.
As more competitors came into the space and raised a bunch of money like we did ($155M so far), they too saw great returns from AdWords.
The problem was AdWords supply started to get constrained (a lot of people started moving to social and apps for industry-specific search — such as TripAdvisor) while demand for ad inventory went up.
Like with any customer acquisition channel, that pushed prices up. So we’d spend the same amount each month to get fewer and fewer customers.
Looking back, I would’ve made a stronger push to diversify our marketing spend across multiple channels, starting with small, low-cost experiments and then scaling up the ones that had the same or better CPL and CAC as Google AdWords initially had.
Lesson #3 — Staying Out Of Silicon Valley For Too Long
We started BigCommerce in Sydney and eventually built out an office in Austin, Texas and then San Francisco, but when I look back I feel we should’ve made the move to the U.S. earlier.
When people make movies, they go to Hollywood. It’s the epicenter of film making. Silicon Valley is the same for technology companies.
Today it’s completely different and there are numerous examples of hugely successful companies with distributed teams, but if I could get in a time machine and go back to 2009, I think it would’ve made more sense to “double down” on the U.S. earlier. Both in terms of where we hired people and where I spent the majority of my time.
Lesson #4 — Being Led By Customers Instead Of Our Vision
With a team of incredible designers and engineers, I built the first version of BigCommerce. If I think back to 2009–2011, I listened to customers too much. Instead of building the platform Eddie and I had initially envisioned, I would “give in” to customers who needed features specific to their industry or line of business.
If I was in that same position again, I would first identify an industry with the biggest need and build a platform that caters specifically to them first.Only once we’d gained a significant foothold in that industry (such as apparel), would I then “broaden out” the platform to cater to other businesses.
Hindsight Is 20/20
Of course I don’t regret any of the early decisions I made — today the company is crushing it and has most importantly helped hundreds of thousands of businesses grow their sales and reach new customers, but I do think it’s important to reflect every now and then, hence this post.
I hope it serves you and helps you out on your journey!
|About Mitchell Harper
Mitch is a 7x company founder, advisor and investor. He is best known as the co-founder of BigCommerce. His companies have generated over $200,000,000 in total revenue and he is currently building an online education company and a SaaS company.