Ric Goell of PosterMyWall: “Be generous with your customers”

Be generous with your customers. If you can afford to toss it in — do. Customers don’t like to be nickeled and dimed. If you can package your product and include more at the same price — do it. We provide more free tools than our competitors do — which makes a big difference to our core audience of small businesses. […]

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Be generous with your customers. If you can afford to toss it in — do.

Customers don’t like to be nickeled and dimed. If you can package your product and include more at the same price — do it. We provide more free tools than our competitors do — which makes a big difference to our core audience of small businesses.

As a part of my series called “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ric Goell.

Ric Goell turned his childhood love of computers and technology into a career in software engineering and project management. After 30 years working for a mix of startups and stalwarts including Webvan, Apple Computer, and Oracle — and witnessing the angst (and sometimes destruction) that comes from buckling to the whims of investors — Ric focused his attention on self-funding and building his own company: PosterMyWall.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always been passionate about using technology to solve problems and create useful tools. I’ve done this throughout my career at tech companies.

The inspiration for what would become PosterMyWall came one day when I noticed my wife trying to use Photoshop to make a poster for our daughter Aimee’s soccer team. She was trying to use the team photo as the centerpiece, insert photos of the individual girls in action around that, and add copy. It was a lot of work and when she had the posters printed for the team, the quality wasn’t what she’d hoped because some of the photos were pixelated. That’s when I thought, “I bet I could build a tool that would make this a lot easier to do and get better results.”

My next thought was, “And I bet a lot of parents and kids and teams and groups and schools could use this.”

That was the original concept behind PosterMyWall — to make it easy for people to create personal photo collages. Of course we’ve pivoted since then and become a DIY graphic design tool for small businesses.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The most useful thing that happened since we started the company happened very early on. We always watch to see who is using our tool and what problems they are trying to solve. So one day, when we reviewed the designs customers had made, among the collages of school groups and kids’ sports teams, we noticed there were a few posters promoting live music events at bars. We thought, “Hmm. This is a really great use of our tool we hadn’t even thought of.”

What was so interesting was that we hadn’t marketed to the bands and bars at all — they found us. At the time, our templates were consumer focused. We couldn’t help thinking how much more the bars and bands would love us if we created new templates and features that really focused on their needs.

We began creating content targeted at bars and bands and continued to watch over the next few weeks as more event promoters found us and started using our design tools to create promotions. As we discussed what we were seeing, we realized that small businesses of all types could benefit from our solution too. So we pivoted our development and our marketing to serve small businesses.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve learned a lot of things from a lot of people — both about what works and what doesn’t work. But one person who stands out for me is Louis Borders. Louis was the founder of Borders Books, which became a national chain, and then the founder and CEO of Webvan — which built the first online grocery delivery platform back in 2000. Webvan was a brilliant concept — but unfortunately it failed because it was ahead of its time.

I had the privilege of working at Webvan where I got to see Louis in action. I admired his brilliant detail-oriented mind and his focus on the customer’s experience. I had never seen anyone quite like him before. He made a science out of engineering Webvan’s processes to give customers great experiences at scale. And when he realized that the model, as it had been built, was not going to work, he locked himself in a conference room with several other team members for a couple of weeks. When Louis and the team came out of the room, they advocated large, disrupted actions to address the issue. He wasn’t afraid to change directions if the business demanded it. .

An additional lesson I learned was the downside of taking on outside investors. Since Louis had taken large outside investment, he didn’t have the power to make the decision to implement the changes he wanted. So his revised plan wasn’t implemented. I don’t know where Louis’ pivot — if it had been implemented — would have taken the company, but I certainly would have liked to see. Perhaps Webvan, in some format, could have survived — or even thrived.

I’ve seen this in other situations. Once a company accepts VC money, the options the founders can pursue become more limited. There may be many business models that are profitable, exciting, and fulfilling for the founders — that the VCs will not accept. This is because VCs require the potential for a quick ramp to hundreds of millions in revenue. There are plenty of great businesses in the 2M dollars to 20M dollars range. But if you take outside investment, the VCs will not allow you to build one of those models.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

PosterMyWall is the #1 template-driven online DIY design platform. Our tools make it fast and fun for anyone to create professional-quality graphics and videos in-house on a minimal budget.

Our core audience is small business, organizations, and solopreneurs. For instance, restaurants, churches, and schools. Even auto mechanics and medical practices. These groups need to market, communicate, and promote just like anyone else. But they are usually under-staffed and have limited budgets to hire outside help.

This is a do-or-die situation for these companies. They need attractive social media content, fliers, emails, website graphics, banners, and even digital signage content to stand out and to compete against bigger organizations that have deeper pockets. And with our tools, they can.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes us stand out is that we are a small, self-funded business whose purpose is to help other small businesses grow. We do have some enterprise customers, but big business isn’t our core target — small business is. There is room for all sorts and scales of businesses, and we want the small business owner to have just as much likelihood of success as larger, better-funded businesses.

A big moment for me was when my wife and I were on vacation in Kauai about 10 years ago. We were in a small town — a town that had a single strip mall. And every business in that strip mall was a mom-and-pop. I mean no Starbucks or McDonalds in sight. There were a couple of restaurants, a dry cleaner, and a coffee shop — just no chains. We were walking by when I noticed that every one of those stores had posters and fliers in the windows that had been made on PosterMyWall. The small businesses we wanted to serve had found us!

I just felt so incredibly proud. Here I was 2,500 miles from home. I didn’t know these store owners, but our platform was helping them to build their businesses.

When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?

When we first started, the primary motivation was the challenge of building the tool. I wanted to know if we could create something that would solve someone else’s problem, and actually work well enough that other people would choose to use it. That’s why that moment in Kauai was so meaningful to me. It was the moment I realized that we’d succeeded.

What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?

We’re still driven by our desire to create something that solves someone else’s problem. What has evolved is that we keep expanding our definition of what that means. For instance, when we started, we were about creating graphics. Period. Now we want to provide more. We’ve added animation and video capability. And the ability to publish direct to social media — so in addition to being about the graphics, we are about ways to publish and distribute them too. We’ve also created partnerships with digital signage platforms where customers use us to create video content which they can then immediately schedule and play via the partner’s platform.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re developing additional tools that will make it easier than ever for small businesses to market themselves. We can’t share exactly what — but these tools will, like our core design tool, make it faster and easier for small businesses to reach their customers and stand out — without having to invest a lot of budget in their efforts.

The topic of this series is ‘Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue’. Congratulations! Seven figures is really a huge milestone. In your experience what was the most difficult part of being able to hit your first million-dollars in sales revenue?

When you are self-funded, as we are, getting to your first million dollars in sales may take longer. You need to be patient. You will see other companies, especially companies that are VC-funded, grow much bigger much faster by buying market share. You might feel like someone else has gotten so big there’s no room for you. It’s easy to get discouraged. But if you stay close to your customers and solve their problems, there will be a place for you.

We found the best thing to do in the beginning was to focus on the fact that we were growing — and our growth rate — rather than on total revenue numbers. This enabled us to feel positive even when our sales numbers were very small.

Could you share the number one sales strategy that you found helpful to help you reach this milestone?

When you have a salesforce, it’s the salesperson’s job to build a relationship. We are an online tool with a low price point and no sales force — so we needed to build relationships another way.

What we do is use a FREEmium model where customers can access a number of our services for free. Our strategy is to give enough away free that we can delight our customers. Once we delight them, they begin to trust us. Once they love and trust us, it’s much easier to ask them to pay for enhanced capability.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you or your team made during a sales process? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Sorry- we don’t have a sales force, so I’ve got nothing to add here.

Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

We actually don’t have a sales team. But our happy customers sometimes function as a sales team. We find that one happy customer usually spreads the word and brings us ten new customers. Just this week, one of our brand engagement team members did a demo for a dozen businesspeople. That group is now planning to introduce PosterMyWall to other colleagues.

Since we don’t have a sales force, our site has to be set up to function both as the product and a selling tool. The way we accomplish that is by studying which features our customers find addictive, then calling attention to them so new customers can find them and try them out free. It’s a great way to build preference and loyalty quickly.

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Prove you have an offering that customers care about, then worry about business model second.

In the beginning, we gave a lot away free. Nearly everything in fact. This enabled us to drive more people to try our tool so we could watch and learn how they were using it. When they wanted to do something beyond the tool’s capability, they emailed us with questions and requests — and sometimes complaints. So this gave us a clear plan in regards to who our target audience was and what capabilities we needed to develop.

Once we had enough users, the business model just sort of evolved. It became obvious that we should stick with the FREEmium model.

Facebook had a similar strategy. Get millions of users, then monetize. Of course, they’re selling data and ads — which is something we don’t do and will never do.

2. Don’t take other people’s money if you want to play the game your way.

It’s tempting to go after venture capital funding to fuel and accelerate growth. And indeed, outside investors can get you to a million dollars in revenue faster. But there is a cost. Once you invite investors in, you have to answer to them. In essence, even if you’re the CEO, you’re working for them — not yourself.

I have seen this happen to companies I’ve worked at and to friends many times. There will be a company that is viable as a small business. Perhaps eventually 10M or 20M in annual revenue. But the investors aren’t satisfied with that. They want 100M or even 1B in revenue. So, they force a direction that the founder doesn’t want — often one that risks everything on a long shot that will fuel fast growth. Then one of two things happens. Either the founder gets rich but isn’t really in charge or the company goes down in flames. Sometimes even when the company succeeds, the founder is forced out.

The point is that if the reason you started your company is to do your own thing and be in charge, it’s better to self-fund and grow more slowly than to take outside cash.

3. Watch how your customers are behaving. Learn, iterate quickly — and often.

Customers are fickle and there is a lot of competition out there. We roll out minor enhancements to our platform every week. When we see something is working well, we build on it. For instance, when we when we first rolled out the ability to add video to our templates, that was all our customers could do — add stock or their own videos. Now they can trim the video, change the opacity, add borders — make all sorts of adjustments.

Likewise, when we see something is frustrating our customers, we change it quickly. For instance, we have a masking tool that our customers can use to delete the backgrounds from their photos. But the small business customer really doesn’t want to spend time on that. So, we also added a One-click Background Remover tool that does the same thing in a single click. Within one week of roll-out, that became our most popular Premium tool.

4. Be generous with your customers. If you can afford to toss it in — do.

Customers don’t like to be nickeled and dimed. If you can package your product and include more at the same price — do it. We provide more free tools than our competitors do — which makes a big difference to our core audience of small businesses.

5. Focus on continuous growth, not homeruns.

When you are self-funded, building your company is a marathon, not a sprint. As I said, it’s important to focus on continuous growth rather than looking for overnight success. If you are looking for homeruns, you’re likely to become discouraged before your company has had a chance to really get going.

You also need to give yourself way more runway than you think you’ll need — in terms of time and even money to keep you going until you generate revenue. That way, when you make mistakes — which everyone does — you have the flexibility and time you need to adjust and pivot.

What would you advise to another business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

My advice would be to keep looking forward. That is, always have an idea or two for what your next big product or enhancement is going to be. Always be looking for new ways to make your customers’ lives better.

We’ve never introduced a good idea that wasn’t copied by our competitors within 24 months. You just have to assume this will happen — in fact it’s important you assume this will happen. That way when it does happen, rather than being upset, you barely notice because you’re already on to the next thing.

To ensure that we keep looking forward, we get together once a year to discuss goals for the following year. We make sure our list includes innovative ideas that, if successful, will lead to continued meaningful differentiation. These speculative bets help us maintain momentum going in the mid- to long-term.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Other than customer word-of-mouth, SEO has been our biggest driver of customers. People find us online through all sorts of routes, so never underestimate the value of adding titles, captions, and keywords to your content and images — and placing your content and images across a wide range of sites and platforms.

We also found that allowing our customers to create free designs with a small attribution to us was a great way to get free advertising. If a customer creates a free flyer with our name at the bottom, dozens or hundreds of their customers and contacts will find us.

Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Customer service is really important for us. Some online platforms only provide their A-level customer service to their premium users, but we provide the same level of service to our free users as our paid customers. Our customer service people work 7-days a week and we have people in a number of time zones.

I personally have worked customer service shifts since the beginning and still continue to do so. It gives me a window into how our customers think.

A funny story was that I recently helped a restaurant owner in Canada do some trouble shooting. Later, when he connected with our marketing team to create a case study about his marketing, he told the marketing associate how helpful Ric in customer service had been. He had no idea he’d been speaking with the founder.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

We find that there are certain features that, once a customer uses them, that customer is less likely to cancel their subscription. When we identify one of these features, we add to incentives to get people to try the feature — and thus lower our churn rate.

My advice to other business owners is to figure out what those features or services are for your business and offer your customers free trials or discounts. Get them hooked so they don’t want to give that feature or service up.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One of our goals for 2021 is to support some education initiatives. We hope to fund the building of schools in regions of the world where our contributions can make a tangible difference.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’d love to have lunch with Bill Gates. I’ve always been impressed with the way, post-Microsoft, he’s used his influence and money to support humanitarian causes. I’ve been particularly impressed by his efforts to bring vaccines to the developing world and to provide healthcare to children in Third World nations. The COVID pandemic has only underscored how important these efforts are.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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