Invest time and money in content marketing. I wish I had done more content back when we started. We’re doing great as is, but I have a feeling we could have done more. Despite what everyone says, content marketing is far from dead and the traffic and conversions we get from SEO is great. If we had started earlier, perhaps we would have made a more solid foundation in terms of content. However, SEO algorithms change almost monthly so I try not to think about what could have been done and instead, I focus on the future.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Hempenstall, CEO and Founder of Better Proposals, simple proposal software for creating beautiful, high-impact proposals in minutes. Having helped his customers win 120,000,000 dollars+ in one year, he’s launched the first Proposal Writing University where he shares business proposal best practices.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
The first business I ever had was in school when I was about 14, selling cassette tapes of wrestling theme music. I’m not entirely sure it was legal, I was clearly profiting off someone else’s copyright but I learned a lot about setbacks when I got banned from selling them during school time. I had to move my sales station to just outside the school grounds after school. Less effective but still enough to save up and buy my own computer.
I got into web design shortly after and started doing websites for bands and random little businesses and just built it up over time. Before long I was running a full-scale web agency.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
As a design agency, and then a software company we were constantly sending proposals. Being autistic, I hated the idea of doing unnecessary meetings and phone calls so I’d be constantly trying to get to a 100% conversion rate on all leads instead of speaking to 5X more people and converting 20%.
It dawned on me that I had no idea what happened once the proposals were opened so I got our development team to make a link for a proposal that was trackable. I could then see if they’d opened it, looked at the price and closed it or whether they’d spent a while looking at it. We used this internally for about 18 months and before long more people were buying our stuff saying “Can I have that proposal tool you’re using too”. We were just about smart enough to know we were getting lucky and set up a landing page for it. 24 hours later and some Twitter ads we’d had more leads for what would become Better Proposals than we’d brought in in the 12 months prior for the other business.
We knew we were onto something so began the process of building Better Proposals into a proper SaaS business and slowly closing everything else down.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Giving up wasn’t an option. Ever. It was succeed or die of starvation essentially. While the UK is pretty lenient with government support, to me it was never an option. I made this work or I was going to die trying. I made it that simple in my head so whenever things got hard I’d just ask myself “You can go to sleep and stop or you can die, your choice”. That simplistic and mental thinking got me through a lot.
A good example of this — because I never paid my bills back then I got put on this pay as you go electricity meter. I’d used my credit and I’m £4.95 into the emergency credit working on a client update to their website when boom… Lights, electricity — all gone. Fuck.
So I have zero money. Literally none so I clear out the sofa, find £4.72 after an hour. I beg the guy at the shop to take it and top up that amount and he can’t — it has to be a fiver. I need 28p, that’s it. So I just walked for 3 hours straight in a zig zag up every road around my flat looking on the floor trying to find it. Eventually I found the 28p I needed. I walked back into that little corner shop absolutely drenched, freezing and got my electricity topped up. That was a hard but incredibly proud moment. No help, no excuses, just doing what needed to be done.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today things couldn’t possibly be going better. We run a business which is great for businesses when times are good and it’s what you’d turn to when times are bad. We help people close more deals remotely so we’re well positioned. We have an amazing team and we’re growing every month.
I think when you’ve been trying different things for over 20 years you eventually run out of stuff to fail at and stuff starts working. The timing was right for Better Proposals. We understood the problem so deeply and so well, our approach to building the product was right on the money too. A few years earlier and we would have built something based on a paper sized proposal, whereas we ended up making it almost like a mini website builder which clearly was the future.
Knowing you have that 6th gear you can go to when things get hard is a nice thing to have in your back pocket. I know I can come up with a big plan and execute it by simply throwing the hours at it. Without those tough times I wouldn’t have that practice of working hard.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are a few things. We’ve been working remotely before it became cool because that’s the way I wanted to run a company — have everyone be location independent. We also have no working hours, except for our customer support team. For everyone else, they can work whenever they want to, as long as they get work done. Sometimes people work at 10 PM, sometimes it’s 7 AM, but we get things done.
Also, we have an excellent product-market fit because the founding team worked in sales for years before launching Better Proposals. We created a product to scratch our own itch and we know exactly what sales professionals need to make their lives easier. This approach makes it much easier to develop, market and sell a product.
Finally, we have one of the best customer support teams in the SaaS business and our average response time is under 15 minutes, without using any chatbots or other AI cheats. Not only do we solve customer support problems but we also give our customers tips on how to sell more, how to price their packages, how to increase their conversion rates from existing proposals and more. We believe in delivering value first.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Haha… There’s only one story I can tell here. Okay so prior to Better Proposals we’d created a digital signature tool. It was for contract signing and we’d brilliantly come up with this name. It was like Doc… You… Sign. Clever right? So we check the .co.uk domain and it’s available for £6.10 so we snap it up. Sorted!
We spent months building this thing up, got about 80 paying customers and on my birthday I received an email from an angry lawyer in Seattle representing a company that might have had the same idea as us about 10 years prior.
So long story short, I gave them docusign.co.uk for £100.
This was a publicly traded company. I could have demanded almost anything, but I thought £100 was a good return on my £6. Hilariously poor decision making on my part but funny now.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
It’s difficult to answer because I believe that everything that happened early on led me to this moment now where I have what I have worked for. If I look back and remove things or go down different paths, do I still end up here?
That said, college was a complete waste of time for me. I went for 3 years straight, bailed on the first year because it was so stupidly easy. Bailed on the second year for the same reason. Tried a different college with a different course and only actually passed because my Dad drove me there every day because the train was too much effort. I can’t think of any benefit in me going, I learned next to nothing and the things I did learn have been no help in business at all.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Hard work is essential. If you want to build anything of value, it’s not something you can skip. Every year I take a month out and go to Split, Croatia and work solidly on something — be it writing a few books in that time, a new feature, a big marketing piece — changing the scenery and really smashing out something is so much fun.
Speed of implementation — You have to be someone to put things to work quickly. When we launched Better Proposals and realised it was clearly working we knew we’d run into issues unless we made it a standalone product so within 24 hours of making this decision, back on the plane to Croatia and spent 2 months rebuilding the product from the ground up. That same product is what we use today. I can say for sure if we hadn’t done that when we did, we’d have run into serious problems along the way.
Saying no and keeping focus — The number of times I’ve been offered equity in startups in exchange for being an advisor or to start another company or another product, Better CRM or Better Project Management etc. Saying yes to any of those things would have killed our growth and focus. Keeping things simple, focused and saying no to things that aren’t directly your core business is vital if you want to build anything sustainable.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Learn how your brain and body works. I mean yours, not generally. I know I work better in projects, short 1–2 month bursts then taking a bit of a break. I don’t feel burnout because I make sure there’s a break between massive projects. That said, my contribution to those projects is to throw 110% of myself into them. Once a year for instance I write a book. That usually takes 2 months but the first 4–5 weeks of that are savage. It’s just constant coffee, sleep deprivation and hammering away but it’s for a sustained period of time so it’s manageable. Learn how your body works so you can support it by working when it wants to work and not when it doesn’t. Lastly, don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you need to work certain hours or not at other times. I routinely get up at 3am or 4am, get my work done and chill for the day. Everyone’s different.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Thinking Facebook and Instagram matter. Vanity metrics, virality on socials and looking good to other people are not essential to any sort of success. In fact, they will distract you and give you the feeling of success without ever having achieved it. Like these kids that rent mansions and a Lambo for the weekend between 80 of them and take turns pretending it’s theirs getting these shots of them all living this life as if they actually have it.
The danger is it’s giving them the dopamine hit that achieving it would give them but they haven’t actually achieved it. Doing that is like lucid dreaming and pretending you’ve made it in the real world when in reality you can just dream about it on command. In short, build a business without socials. They aren’t essential and are more of a distraction than any sort of promotional tool.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Realising that you don’t just build it once. Building Better Proposals into a 1M a year business is one kind of business with one kind of customer. Building it into a 5M a year business is different. You essentially start again, but you’re living in a nice place and not running around trying to top up your electricity meter. The hiring is different, the selling is different, the legal stuff matters more. It’s all very different and you have no training for it, you suddenly go from feeling like the absolute man to feeling like your first day at school. That’s when you get to work, you learn again and you become that person needed to take everyone to that next level. Having to do that again and again is hard work.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
There are a few things that I really wish someone told me in time:
- Whenever you’re not great at something, outsource and delegate. Don’t be afraid to grow your team, but do it sensibly. When I just started my business, I wanted to do it all myself to ensure that everything was under my control and that the job gets done well. Over time, I realized that hiring someone for a task I’m not good at will actually save me time and money so I can focus on growing my business. Also, I wish we hired one designer and one developer sooner. We were great at these areas from day one, but we could have used some help to get things done faster.
- Invest time and money in content marketing. I wish I had done more content back when we started. We’re doing great as is, but I have a feeling we could have done more. Despite what everyone says, content marketing is far from dead and the traffic and conversions we get from SEO is great. If we had started earlier, perhaps we would have made a more solid foundation in terms of content. However, SEO algorithms change almost monthly so I try not to think about what could have been done and instead, I focus on the future.
- Start acting like a CEO sooner. Have a plan to grow from where you’re at to where you want to be sooner, to make sure you have a dedicated path to follow and not to get carried away with anything. Also, be confident about the choices you make in order for everyone else to believe in you. As the company CEO, your people look up to you. Every decision you make needs to be firm and you need to be certain that you are making the right choice. Not everyone has the right answers all the time and that’s okay — just make sure to believe in the choices you make and others will follow you.
- Don’t worry about your competition (that much). Instead, focus on making your product even better to meet the needs of your customers. We realized early on that our competitors would occasionally use our ideas, be it for pricing, design, features, content or something else. At that point, we figured that trying to be ourselves and build something useful is the best path to take. Looking at the competition will rarely give you anything useful in terms of business knowledge. Build your own path and provide value to your customers and your competitors will learn from you — not the other way around.
- You don’t just hire for skills, but also for attitude. In other words, you can’t teach mindset. Hiring can be one of the toughest parts of running a business. Ultimately, you want someone who’s excellent at their job, but they also need to “click” on other fronts and one of the most important is mindset. If someone is not a hard worker, problem solver, independent thinker and a A-league player, you can’t teach them how to think in this mindset.
We lived in the agency world where we outsourced everything and the only thing that mattered was skillset. You’d find a specialist for a particular area, they’d get the job done — easy. We knew that system functioned well, so we applied the same logic to growing our team. The truth is, that path isn’t always right. There’s a significant difference in looking for a dedicated full-time, responsible team member and contracting a freelancer for a one-time project. My lesson is to look for both personality and skills. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to vet for mindset but you’ll see it very early when someone starts working for you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
Maybe it’s unrealistic but I would try to get people to stop using Facebook. It’s started to look like a new form of traditional media — bad or divisive news get the most attention which is why they’re posted a lot more than positive things. Naturally, the algorithm will boost posts that have more engagement which results in the fact that divisive, polarising content spreads a lot more than any good news. This damages people and makes them feel bad and frustrated.
There are benefits to social media, however, I think that for most people it’s become a huge waste of time. I find myself scrolling when I could be working or spending time with the people I love — just enjoying life. Just for a while, I’d want to see a world without negative news.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!