How this amateur coder turned a side project into one of Europe’s fastest growing SaaS companies
This post originally appeared on blog.up.co
It all started as a side project in order to win a free t-shirt. Seriously.
In 2009, Google was celebrating the release of their Analytics API, and they held a contest looking for use cases in the Google Developer Forum. At the time, Mikael Thuneberg was a web analyst at Finnish social network Habbo Hotel looking for a way to make his own work less redundant.
He wasn’t even a coder – just a Google Sheets user with a problem to solve.
But shortly after his submission, Thuneberg logged into work from a vacation to see that Google had featured his solution on their blog, calling it the simplest one of them all. A flattering mention in Social Media Metrics for Dummies didn’t hurt, either.
Since then, Supermetrics has evolved from a simple solution, to a sustainable side hustle called Google Analytics Data Grabber, to what is now a thriving Google partner and one of Europe’s fastest-growing software companies.
It’s about so much more than the t-shirt.
Starting With a Problem to Solve
When you study the most successful startups, most of them have one thing in common: the products exist because the founder was fed up. They were customer zero, simply aiming to solve a problem in their own life, not setting out to start a world-changing business from the beginning. The bigger thinking comes later.
That’s certainly true in this case.
“I didn’t even think about becoming an entrepreneur or setting up a business at this point. I had built the solution mainly for myself,” Thuneberg remembers. “I thought it was just cool that I was contacted by Google and that I got to work with them. I thought that this could lead to a job opportunity at most, certainly not a business opportunity.”
For that first iteration of what would become Supermetrics, product development had nothing to do with market trends or revenue projections. It was focused on solving a problem in his own life.
Thuneberg’s job as a web analyst included a lot of exporting, importing, and copy-pasting data from Google Analytics to Excel. He imagined there had to be an easier way to move this data, but couldn’t find any ready-made solutions available. So despite being a novice coder, he decided taking on the challenge would be worth it.
“I am not a fan of manual repetitive work,” Mikael explained. “I rather take a bit more time to figure out how to automate something, than keep doing the work manually. I had been writing scripts previously here and there in order to automate processes in my work. And that is how I learned to code, solving one problem at a time, script by script.”
Experimenting to Find the Right Business Model
Successful businesses also are willing to experiment with different business and pricing models. The right one needs to equally serve the company and its customers.
The early days of Supermetrics were focused more on helping people than running a profitable business. Thuneberg provided advice and implementation help for free, offered worksheets for using his Excel solution, and sold access to his script as a one-time license for $49. But as he focused on building it into a scalable, SaaS-based product, he knew things needed to be simplified and refined.
For example, he let go of the one-time purchase model for his Excel solution early on. “It didn’t take long for me to realize [that] was not going to work. Customers needed support after purchase as well, and I pretty quickly switched to a SaaS pricing model,” he recalls.
Similarly, when Supermetrics became part of the Google Sheets add-on gallery in 2014, it was initially free to use.
This time, it was part of a longer-term marketing and product strategy. “I wanted to get a good user base for the connector from the get-go in order to take over the market, and to get as much user feedback I could right from the start,” explains Thuneberg. That initial traction has continued to benefit the company through rankings and discovery in the add-on gallery.
Even within the different business models Supermetrics has operated with, Thuneberg has run smaller pricing experiments to find the most sustainable and scalable model. His willingness to experiment and embrace change is one that every entrepreneur needs, along with resilience for when the early experiments fail.
Know When to Get Help
Finally, the last key to Supermetrics’s early growth is Thuneberg’s willingness to look outside himself for help. Perhaps because he was just learning to code as he built the first product, he’s always embraced a learner’s mindset in growing the company and has looked to other people for that when necessary.
The form that help has taken has varied over the years, from development help to growth hackers to investors. The first person he hired in 2015, for example, was another developer.
“It was very stressful being the only person constantly on standby in case any technical issues emerge,” recalls Thuneberg. “Also not being a professional developer, there were lots of areas where my skills were very limited.”
His next few hires were development help as well, before bringing on a growth hacker who would go on to lead the company’s marketing, and a customer success specialist to support the company’s growing audience for its products, which now allow users to connect data between additional platforms like BigQuery, Facebook Ads, Bing Ads and Data Studio.
But Thuneberg hasn’t just hired the right people below him, he’s also brought in a group of investors to support and advise the company as well. Supermetrics announced closing its Series A financing round in November 2017, and more recently, has brought on private investors from relevant industries to serve as advisors.
The smartest part? The company was growing quickly, and with a healthy profit margin, so it didn’t need funding to survive. It was simply a strategic move to bring advisors and resources into Thuneberg’s network. The results have been significant, with Supermetrics having grown from 3.3 million euro ARR in 2017 to 8.8 million euro ARR in 2018, with an impressive profit margin of 35%. Thuneberg believes that the firm is on pace to hit 20 million euro ARR by the end of 2019.
“The funding gave us additional resources to accelerate technology and product innovation and to expand quickly into new markets,” he said. “But the main reason for this funding round was to get onboard experienced and skilled people to guide us at a strategic level, help us expand to new markets, open doors and help in hiring.”
Indeed, the headcount at Supermetrics continues to boom. Supermetrics headquarters recently moved to a new high-concept office in Helsinki’s city centre, while expansion into Lithuania and New York is already underway. Nearly half of the company’s 50 team members have been hired in the past six months, and Thuneberg is aiming to double the staff again by the end of December.
Learn From Supermetrics’s Path
Because of Supermetrics’s accidental beginnings, Mikael has truly been focused on problem solving before revenue since day one. This prioritization can be hard for a founder to embody, especially when the startup is struggling.
But continuing to think and focus long-term instead of chasing revenue can ultimately lead to bigger growth.