Edited transcript of the Practical Founders Podcast interview with Brad Redding, co-founder and CEO of Elevar.
Greg Head: And we’re living with Brad Redding, the CEO and founder of Elevar. Hey, Brad, welcome to the Practical Founders podcast.
Brad Redding: Thanks, Greg. Excited to be on here. And yeah, excited for our chat.
Greg Head: You’ve been doing this a long time. You’ve got a lot of deep thoughts and you’re in the middle of the scaling up game with your latest startup. It’s not your first software company. Why don’t we just start with the end here? How big is Elevar? How long has it been going? How many employees? Get us in the neighborhood?
Brad Redding: Yeah. So we’re Elevar. The way I like to describe us is “Segment for Shopify.” So we primarily work in conversion tracking and server-side tracking with Shopify, for anybody that’s in e-commerce or marketing tech. That’s generally the sandbox we play in. The company is about five and a half years old. We are 40-45 people, we’re hovering around that $5 million revenue mark and on track to continue to grow and expand as a company. I don’t see too many changes in the market. I mean, e-commerce is still growing, so I don’t see too many changes in terms of product focus, not moving outside of the realm of tracking and obviously, there are headwinds we’re facing with privacy and GDPR and all that fun stuff that’s a little bit more in our niche.
Greg Head: So you found product-market fit and now you’re in growth mode. You know who your customer is, and you know what your product platform is. And I’m sure you’re evolving both of those, but you’re not wildly thrashing about finding those.
Brad Redding: The way I look at product-market fit is that I don’t think you find it and then you are there forever. It’s something that you are constantly evolving. You need to be close to the market, close to your customer and evolve. Because especially when I look at our market, it’s very heavy, fairly technical, and tracking. It’s not a very sexy product by any means. It’s like I think about chocolate and broccoli, we’re the broccoli, we’re not the chocolate. It’s a hosting company. You only really want to talk to us if something’s not working, but if everything’s working, then you don’t need to log in or talk to us because you’re tracking you just working as expected. And our customers are focused on marketing and scaling their businesses.
Greg Head: We’ve seen with the economic downturn and the post-COVID tech deflation, the serious SaaS businesses succeed that are more like plumbing for the required infrastructure of the world are succeeding, which every year there is more and more e-commerce. You’re surfing that trend. So you mention it’s like segment D to see brands manage their data and if you include Shopify data and so forth. So that’s how you would describe it to somebody who knows ecommerce and has the big platform where they’re selling their products on the web. How would you describe it to your neighbor or somebody who isn’t in the e-commerce, e-commerce vertical, if you will?
Brad Redding: We help advertisers get more out of their money. So if they are spending a dollar and they hope to get $2, we help them turn that dollar into $3.
Greg Head: So you talk about conversion, which is close to home for anybody that’s selling anything on the Web. You don’t optimize their pages. You help them track all the data in a better way that helps them get those answers.
Brad Redding: We will help their marketing channels become more efficient. Facebook, Google ads, Tik-Tok, etc. We help those marketing machines become more efficient for the dollars and the ads that different brands are purchasing. They’re expecting to make money on those ads. And there’s a whole lot of stuff that happens underneath that for them to achieve that positive ROI, positive return on ad spend. Part of that’s creative on their side and part of it is the underlying tracking data, tracking compliance, etc.
Greg Head: Well, I thought all that data tracking just was easy and came with using Shopify and Facebook (laughs). It’s not so easy even for the big companies that spend a lot of money on ads and so many products.
Brad Redding: No. And we talked about the customer and staying close to the customer. I have a quote from a customer from a couple of years ago that’s ingrained in my brain. As they was going into the holiday season, their Google ads tracking broke, which means their cost per conversion spiked. So if they are paying $10 for a conversion, spiked up to $20 or $30, and he said, “I will gladly pay you $500 every month for the rest of my life if my tracking never breaks again.” To me, as a small business owner bootstrapped, hearing a customer describe exactly what they want and what they will pay you for can help validate decisions that you’re making in products and hiring and training and everything that goes into trying to just find product market fit and make enough money to keep the lights on.
Greg Head: Yeah, that’s right. And practical founders, I think, have to be more realistic about product-market fit. They can’t deceive themselves. How long did it take for you to hear that statement? If you prevent our Google Analytics data from breaking, I will gladly pay you. Is that what started the company or was this the epiphany two or three years in?
Brad Redding: Yeah, it was about three years in. So we started as a platform for picking back in between startups. I was at an agency where we design, build, and optimize sites for ecommerce brands and we were doing a lot of repetitive data analysis. I found a problem, Hey, pulling so much data manually month over a month is just slow, it’s repetitive, a waste of time for everybody wastes money. So we started to build a product that we can just automate this data analysis. So we brought that to market and rolled it out. And about three years after we rolled that out is when we finally realized, Hey, dirty data end means dirty data coming out. And this automated analysis. And people are more willing to pay for us to fix their dirty data going in and fix that problem. They don’t want to pay us to extract insights from dirty data coming out. So it was a slow process for us over a couple of years where we actually had two different products running in parallel for quite some time and then we ended up merging them. But to answer your question, that customer question that I received was it was almost three years in almost three years into what I call our launch date.
Greg Head: And were you full-time with Elevar? This wasn’t a part-time thing where you’re running experiments. You are all in and had a team and are spending money on building products.
Brad Redding: Yeah. Full time. Our team was at that point, probably around ten or so and you know, filling in the gaps where I could, whether it was working on the weekends. Because any dollar that comes in as a founder, you want to invest back in your team, invest back in the product, invest in the operations, and marketing, and kind of forget about yourself in the early days of paying. So it’s doing whatever it takes to keep things going and extend that runway, extend the time that you have to find product market fit, and begin to scale.
Greg Head: You bootstrapped this. So you self-funded it. You paid for the first developers. Were you a coder yourself? Did you code some of this? If I know your technical and experience in the ecommerce data world.
Brad Redding: I’m a data guy. So my technical abilities go into analytics, Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, and some API work with GA. But no, I wasn’t writing any front-end or back-end code by any means at this point. Unless you’re talking about WordPress, basic WordPress, but that has nothing to do with an actual product.
Greg Head: So you were ten years into the ecommerce world and it was expanding and you said, here’s a problem. I’m going to quit my job, build a product and go to town. Did you get to revenues pretty quickly? We have something to sell or was it crickets for a couple of years until you finally found the problem and the customer?
Brad Redding: We did have revenue, so our a beta product we charged money for and that was a direct lesson of my first SaaS business I started about 12 years ago. Now I’m 40 now, so sometimes I lose track of time. But 12 to 15 years ago I had a business again. It was focused on ecommerce and ultimately sunset it and there wasn’t this big magical exit. But I did take a lot of learning lessons from that. I also said I’ll never do a startup again after doing five years of that. It was like five years of hell, dumping your 401k and everything that that entails.
Brad Redding: But when I decided to go try it again with Elevar I took two lessons from startup number one that I committed to myself I would not make those same mistakes again. Number one, it is not an “I build it and they will come or we build it and they will come.” So I need to have a way to make money. Having a process to make money is probably the most important thing. Number two is having a brand of having a recognizable brand that someone can relate to and that you can build with over time. So we took that into our beta products. The beta product was fairly simple and we said we’re not–we are not giving this away for free. I want people to vote with their wallets, not with their mouths, whether they like this product. So we charged 50 bucks. That was our way to go to the market. It was to validate if this is a problem that people are willing to pay for. And they were. And we ended up transitioning from that. It wasn’t a vast amount of money by any means, but at least it gave us a little bit of validation of, okay, is there something here that we can continue chasing? And then that evolved again, with very, very slow revenue growth over time. And like a lot of the early bootstrap founders’ stories that you’ve probably heard, you’re not going from 0 to $1 million in any short time.
Greg Head: So you were the visionary for the product and the sales guy, probably. How many developers did you have that helped you build your first thing?
Brad Redding: We had a combination. So as my co-founder and we had two part-time front-end guys, about three of us total three and a half. If we take that into total consideration over time, we’ve never really had more than a half dozen or so working on the product. Since we’re very analytics heavy, we do have a lot of technical people on the team. But in terms of the early days, it was a couple of us in the front end, back end, and data that was pretty much, that was the core.
Greg Head: And was your co-founder the technical guy who also quit his job? So it was the two of you that were all in?
Brad Redding: Yeah. So in the early days, we were taking on contract work as well. So we would take on contract and service projects that we would honestly focus 80% of our time on to make money and then use that money to help fund the business.
Greg Head: You were a little services business.
Brad Redding: Yeah. Used that money to help pay us and then we can spend our other 20 to 30 hours a week on continuing to grow the product and build the product.
Greg Head: Your other full-time job there. How did you sell your software? Was this something you had to knock on the doors of the biggest direct-to-consumer ecommerce brands, or did you market it on the web, and people could click through and buy it? B2b sale?
Brad Redding: So in a couple of different ways. One, we started very early was content marketing. We started a blog on Medium and we were writing on topics that I knew people were searching for. So again, I have an analytics background and I was doing research on, What are our customers searching for? So try to write content around that, pull people in and get them onto a launch list and then market to those folks. And then frankly, it’s your network. So what you hear about your first 110 customers or whatever it might be is going to come from your network or professional network that you’ve built up over time. That was the second part of it. Over time, that just continued to transition into different go-to-market strategies. But I would say the first year to two years was very, very heavy on content marketing.
Greg Head: Seo Well, that’s unusual because usually, that takes a long time to get going. You were very savvy about the analytics, knowing what terms to write about. You probably had a very savvy opinion that people in the industry recognized and said, Wow, that’s interesting. Somebody is talking about a problem that I’m experiencing. So you were talking to customers and talking about their problems. Was it just keyword content marketing or was it thought leadership, an expert speaking the language of an industry?
Brad Redding: Probably both of those. But it’s like your pain. What’s the pain that your customer has and what’s their aspiration? So if you know that they have specific pain points, then write around those pain points and how to solve them. And then you have the desire, emotion, which is going to be their aspiration writing around that as well. So I can retrospect and look back and see that this is what we were doing. It wasn’t like I had this playbook written out. It was kind of like, Okay, I don’t have any money to spend on link building, so I need to write things very specific to what people are searching for. So is it that pain and desire or pain and aspiration perspective that your customers have and then going through the exercise of knowing exactly who you’re selling to, exactly what those two things are, and just write for that and not try to get too cute and fancy and write it like you’re having a podcast and talking to somebody and giving advice.
Greg Head: The hero of the story, the customer in this case is somebody that has a problem and wants something bigger. They’re striving for something, but they can’t get there. And so you just defined in the basic term the narrative model. So when did you know you were on to something as a real business and quit your services freelancing?
Brad Redding: I don’t know if there’s a point in time where that stands out. I would say to this day, a part of me is not convinced that I’m there yet. So the way that we’ve been doing quarterly meetings since there were three of us, and I remember because we’ve still tracked this over time as we looked at our revenue in a pie chart with what percentage of our revenue is from services and what’s from products. And back then it was 95% from services, 5% from products. Here’s what we’re going to do every quarter and here’s a vision for over the years. Here’s today and then here’s X number of years where we want 80% of revenue from products and 20% from services. And we would track that over time because we knew it’s not like you snap your fingers, flip a switch, and then you’re magically all product revenue. So it’s over time. And the services revenue was very hyper-focused on the problem we were trying to solve. Taking what we thought our products, what we wanted our product to do, and we built a service around that and that enabled other things that ultimately over time have helped us with staying close to the customer, making sure that they were listening to them. We were very close to understanding their pain points. But yeah, it was a long transition from that service as revenue to product revenue.
Greg Head: And where are you today? Are you at 80% product revenue, which is typical for SaaS companies?
Brad Redding: Yep. We embrace services revenue, and the way I don’t even like using that term, it’s SaaS software as a service, but I look at it as we’re providing a solution. The point about services revenue, if you think about a VP at a mid-mid-market or enterprise company, they don’t want to pay $50 a month for a tool and then have to do everything. They would much rather pay $5,000 a month to have their pain and problem solved.
Greg Head: Just do it.
Brad Redding: It’s up to you as a company. It’s like you are going to provide services for them to help enable their activation of your product. So it’s up to you whether you make money on that or not. So you’re going to provide it. You are going to have to provide whether it’s you’re going to have to provide that high service. If you start going upmarket, that’s up to you. Whether that turns into a line item for you or a cost.
Greg Head: Well, it sounds like services was very strategic for you and your customer relationships and understanding the problem. And of course, you kind of do it first manually before you automate it. Was it the product that led the growth or was it your marketing or was it something in between that helped you keep growing to where you are today?
Brad Redding: We had a very hyper-focus on the problem that we are solving and we solved that problem through a combination of our products and our services. So probably, if I had to pick one or the other, if I look at the five years as a whole, I think our services enabled us to get to where we are as a product. It allows you to beta-test things. It allows you to roll out features without having them fully rolled out again, taking learning, learning lessons from the past. It’s not that we’re going to build this from 0 to 100 and we’re going to put it out there. It’s we’re going to build those from 0 to 30% or 40%, get feedback from customers that want a beta test that isare very active and feedback and validate and then either prove this solves a problem even better than what we thought and then we roll it out. Or we say, actually this isn’t really meeting the needs, so we’re just going to kill it and we’re not going to waste time putting more money and effort into it. So are the release cycles that we’ve had over time, we coupled our release cycles by working very closely with our customers. And that doesn’t mean we listen to everything that all of our customers say, but it’s because we work hand in hand with them. Whether they know it or not, they have a very active role in our product development and our product roadmap.
Greg Head: As long as they can keep telling you about the pain. Would this work and would you pay for that? Does this solve the problem? So you do that kind of incremental product development. Maybe services lead the way, find a problem, you start to prototype, and you beta test, and you kind of get it live with somebody and get the thumbs up. What percentage of those features that you developed got rolled out or didn’t get rolled out because they didn’t meet expectations? It’s a bad thing when released everything to everybody. It’s really hard to unroll out a feature you just release to everybody and then you get a lot of feature bloat. But what percentage did you kill?
Brad Redding: Gosh, if you look at the first two years of our product to what we have today, 95% of those features are gone. So what we launched with two years ago or for the first two years of our product and our first 2 to 3 iterations of the product, they’re literally all gone. They’re all history.
Greg Head: You took them out of your product. You didn’t just build on top of it and push them back. They’re gone, I’m hearing.
Brad Redding: They’re gone.
Greg Head: Yeah, that’s amazing.
Brad Redding: So if we put something into beta, a private beta, and it works under a feature flag for certain customers. We probably end up releasing 70% of that to all customers and then 30% of it we just end up not rolling out or we’ll leave it there in case we need it in the future. But otherwise, we don’t do the front-end wrapping of that particular feature.
Greg Head: So you were doing this kind of work, you were experiencing the problem, you were talking to a lot of customers and you said, I have a vision. And yet whatever you thought it was, it mostly wasn’t. It’s mostly not what you ended up with. That must have been an epiphany. And it’s hard to explain to new founders that this is the game. You don’t know as much as you think you know or you don’t have the proof yet.
Brad Redding: Honestly, this wasn’t my wasn’t my magical idea. It’s the byproduct of having a great team and having surroundings building a company with really smart people and they can tell you what to do. And they ask, Are you sure we need to roll this feature out because you think it’s going to be the best thing ever? Or you have two customers and it’s involving the entire team in a process of going through these 15 things that we think we need to be doing. What’s the impact? So it’s like the ICE matrix. What’s the Impact of 0 to 10? How Confident are we that this is going to make a tangible improvement on the product, on the business? The Ease. What’s the ease of implementation? Is it extremely hard where it’s going to be a six-month build or is it really simple? And then you can just start ranking that and involving everyone in that process, which again, we’ve done forever with our quarterly roadmap meetings. It just allows different perspectives because founders like myself, especially as I continue to try to grow and evolve, we have blinders. And not only that, we’re trying to think about 20 different things at once versus having experts on the team and they’re not having to think about payroll and insurance and legal and your health care. Someone forgot to do something with health care. They’re not thinking about all that stuff. So they just have more freedom in their mind to think through the downstream consequences or impact extracting involving the team. And everything, I think, for us made a huge difference and continues to do so.
Greg Head: What is the main metric that everybody in your company looks at? What is success? MRR or is it usage p\or can you measure the ROI for the customers of your product? Or what’s the North Star that everybody can call BS on the Founder When you say, Hey, I got this great idea, do they look at the wall and say, Well, does it really do that?
Brad Redding: Yes, everyone in the company knows what we measure and if we are green, yellow, or red. I have a coach, Dan Martell, whom I’ve worked with for a long time. We’ve followed a weekly scorecard. So our precision scorecard, we’ve implemented a scorecard that we go through religiously every Monday and that scorecard evolves. It changes on a quarterly basis. But we are looking at our Northstar metrics as a company, which well, one caveat here, it took us 3 to 4 years to truly find what our North Star metric was. Sure, I wracked my brain for so long. I’m like, We’ve got to have this, We’ve got to have that. And I just couldn’t figure it out because this was in the time when we had our old product, the new product, and we didn’t know who we were.
Brad Redding: So in that scorecard, we have our revenue North Star metrics. Now which part of that is going to be revenue growth? And then we have our product North Star metrics. So what percentage is activating and what’s the time to activate? And then we go down into our department metrics. So our department metrics use a very simple example. I think about customer support, at one point in time we realized our knowledge base was very “underperforming.” So we had one of our themes and one of our OKRs for a quarter was we need to rapidly improve our knowledge base. So we started, we added a number of new knowledge-based articles as a KPI we tracked and the owner of CSS would report on that. We’d have a goal that we would report on a weekly basis and roll up to a month in a quarter. And that’s how we’ve been able to involve everyone into getting everyone to give everyone transparency into what we’re focusing on a business, how you can impact change on that. And you come up with the KPIs like let others come up with the KPIs. So very transparent from day one and everyone knows how we evaluate ourselves on a weekly basis.
Greg Head: What’s at the top of all of those key performance indicators, KPIs and OKRs and quarterly plans and big rocks and strategic priorities and all that? I mean, it’s a structured approach which I’m hearing, right? And I’m also hearing you’re making the turn from a scrappy startup to a scalable company. Not every practical founder continues the journey here. But what’s at the top of it? Does it all lead to revenue and growth?
Brad Redding: Revenue growth, more growth, and percentage of customers that are utilizing our value metrics. So our value metric is for us what percentage of customers are on service tracking and what percentage is at a 99% plus accuracy rate. So those are the three main levers that if I couldn’t look at anything else besides those three, that is ultimately what I would look at, because I know if we’re hitting our value metric numbers, that inherently is going to drive our revenue growth. So really you could just look at maybe those two. But anyways, to answer your question, those are the big ones we look at.
Greg Head: And those two go together. One is kind of a quantity game and the other ones are quality games, right? And so if it’s just revenue, you just push it hard and not worry about anything else. Or quality, you might not get the revenue. But you’re watching both of those close in unison. Let’s talk about your first startup, MYiLIVE, which turned into Global Fashion Brands. Were you as structured about planning and OKRs and metrics and you were just kind of winging it back then? Like, entrepreneurship 1.0, just get an idea, I’m going to get out there, quit my job and do something. And that was 2007 or 2008 something like that?
Brad Redding: Yeah, that’s about right. Not structured. Winging it. Spending money carelessly. At that point in time, I wasn’t a reader. Leaders are readers. I wasn’t a big reader back then, didn’t have a coach. Participated in some local meetups, but was very much an introvert. I’m just going to sit on my computer 16 hours a day and just try to force this thing through and everyone knows how that goes. So no, not structured at all. I think now where I am today, even the first couple of years of Elevar weren’t structured, which can be a good thing.
Greg Head: Yeah.
Brad Redding: You gotta find your way out of the forest. But still something today I’m learning and evolving as a person, as a leader, and trying to hit those next milestones as an individual as we continue to grow our compamy.
Greg Head: What was the theory behind your first startup? And you know, remember 2007 eight, the iPhone wasn’t universal and fast Internet wasn’t universal, and everybody buying things with one click is not universal. Social media wasn’t a thing yet. What was the original idea behind that startup?
Brad Redding: A little corny, but I had two friends and they started a real estate software startup. They were close friends and they started it and I just got to play wingman a little bit as they were growing. And I think that seeing them on the whiteboard with a clean slate where you just get the idea and come up with these things. That interested me. And I had a dream in the middle of the night, this is corny, but I had a dream in the middle of the night of this product, an idea, or a problem. And I woke up and wrote, started writing out a bunch of notes on it, and I said, All right, I’m doing it. I’m going for it. At that point, I was working on it while I was still full-time in sales at that point. I was doing that on the side and then said, All right, I’ve got enough of a product here to outsource the development and I’m going to cash out my 401K to give me a year and just see how it goes. Just do it. Young and dumb.
Greg Head: So how did that go and where did it end up?
Brad Redding: Well, how it went? I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t if I did not go through that. So ultimately it was a success. But after I think I ran it for three, four, or five years and white-labeled it and turned it into a Global Fashion Brands. And again, I didn’t I didn’t know what I was doing. I took those two learning lessons away and said, I’ll never do a startup ever again. And then after about five years, I said, All right, I’m ready to do it again. There were a lot of things I would do differently, but I think just looking at where we are today as a team and a company, those learning lessons, and knowing I made a lot of mistakes did a lot of things wrong. I typically learn better through failure than someone telling me exactly how to do everything. I think learning through failures for me is a good way to grow.
Greg Head: So that was an expensive lesson. And you did something in between your first start-up and Elevar. What was that?
Brad Redding: I worked at an agency here in Charleston, South Carolina, where we designed, built, and optimized sites for ecommerce. So I still stayed in e-commerce, in my niche. So I still stayed in e-commerce and just licked my wounds. I enjoyed my time there and met a lot of amazing people and we had grown it into a big business. After about almost five years, I decided it was time to try again. To go up to bat again.
Greg Head: So you rebuilt the coffers, got your savings back up, got your confidence back up. What made you want to go do it? Was the timing right? The market was finally taking off and you said, I got to go do this, or you had it with corporate life and said, I’m an entrepreneur and I think I’m a little smarter now?
Brad Redding: Probably a little competitive spirit. So even though I look at my first business as a successful failure, still, to me it was a failure. I essentially went out of business. And to me, I’m smarter now and I can do this. And so part of it was yeah, learning some things and seeing an opportunity. I think that was part of it. But I think the bigger pull for me was I’m not going down like this. I’m not going down without on my record, without having a comeback try. So that’s what I think is the bigger pull than anything.
Greg Head: Of course e-commerce, now Shopify, data and conversion data for all this online advertising, and the privacy issues around getting the data about advertising, and the conversion tracking with social media and all the platforms. This is a monstrous business now. There has been tons of funding coming into ecommerce and data businesses. Yeah, it’s a pretty sexy industry. You’re on the plumbing side of the industry. It’s a pretty sexy industry. Did you ever think about raising money once you got going? Were there offers or did you turn them down and say, Heck no, I’m not going to do that? Or did you always know you’d be bootstrapping or did it just work out that way?
Brad Redding: No, we thought about funding. My partners and I talked about it in the early days and just said, Yeah, we’re going to do it. At that point, it was well that we didn’t know any difference, that we thought that’s what you had to do to become a successful startup. And in the early days, really no products, no market, no minimal validation. So to me, the way that I describe this when I’m asked this question is, I’m not going to spend the effort and waste time on trying to raise funds. If I extract myself out and try to be objective and ask myself: If I was an investor, would I invest in this business? So until I would say yes to that question, I’m not doing it. And I feel like having a failure, to begin with, and then starting to surround myself with smart people. I feel like I had a pretty good life. I was busy being objective about it. So at that point, once I started to say yes and said I think there’s enough here as a business. Do I want to pause for 3 to 6 months on this momentum that we have going to go on this journey to raise money? And I said, No. I felt like I would leave my team behind. I would leave our customers behind. So I said, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to stop what I’m doing to try to raise for six months. And at that point, and then once we had transition there when you bootstrap your force yourself to become profitable.
Brad Redding: So then once we became profitable, you know, not like we’re 80% EBITDA or anything like that, but profitable and paying healthy salaries to everyone and myself and others in the company. At that point, it was like, Well, do I have to do that now? So it goes back to the question of I don’t want to. We’re so customer-led. We’ve talked about this, about being product-led, and where I like to look at it as customer-led. I don’t want to leave our customers and my team behind to go chase this other initiative and I think at this point that’s where we’ve ended up, where there’s just there’s a lot of momentum. I don’t know, maybe I’m just stuck in my old ways of don’t want to change, but just want to keep the focus on customers and the team and the product and just keep pushing because I know I have more direct control over that, of the business, and I don’t have direct control over the market and everything else that’s going on, over investors. I’ve never had a negative view of the funding game and obviously, a lot of my peers have gone through that. It’s just a personal thing. The way I described it, it was never that I’m not doing it because I hate X, Y, and Z. It was just me, I need to get my own house in order and make sure we’re good and not worry about external factors.
Greg Head: Now, you’ve got 40-something employees. You’re growing from $5 million to $10 million in revenues. Not every practical founder gets past startup and into building the factory to $3 to $5 million zones. They start getting offers there and they may hit their number of, okay, it’s worth this much now. Not everybody wants to grow to 100 or 200 employees. It seems like a different sport to a lot of early-stage founders. Is that what you’re trying to do is you say, Let’s keep going? It’s working The market’s big. We are solving a problem we haven’t solved at all. There are plenty of things to do. There’s plenty of growth for us here. Could you run this forever or what’s your 3-5 year plan or something like that?
Brad Redding: Yeah. We follow the traction model where you have your one year.
Greg Head: Right
Brad Redding: We have a ten-year target, a three-year vision, and what you do for next year and break that down on the quarters. But I have two young boys. I have a two-year-old boy and a three-year-old boy. So to me, the way I look at I’m 40 and as I’ve evolved as a person and I need to continue to change as a person, is understanding that selling it or doing anything substantial to the company or raising big funds for the company, whatever it may be, it’s not the end. It’s not like, Okay, you’re done in life. I think I’ve heard enough out there and other people have gone through these big phases in a business where nothing changes. And Patrick Campbell had a great podcast on that where he talked about ProfitWell. I’m summarizing here, but he said instead of going to McDonald’s, he’s going to go to Applebee’s or whatever he can afford with more expensive food now. It doesn’t change, it doesn’t change anything. So ho how can I create an environment where I can enjoy more of my life with my family, but also push and grow as a person, and as a leader?
Brad Redding: And also the way that I like to think about Elevar is I have a lot of people that are putting their trust in me, joining all of our joining us and what we’re doing. They have a lot of goals and aspirations. I want to have like a big box where everyone’s dreams and visions can come true underneath the house of Elevar, whether that’s houses or moving up in different roles or becoming VPs or financial, whatever it may be, I think that’s what I’m trying to get better at, having that as a big driver for me versus, I need this investment or whatever it might be. I need this big next step for me to feel fulfilled. And that is, I think, the very long answer to the question of I don’t know what five years looks like. I don’t know what three years look like for me. I do know that drivers for me are ensuring that I pour more into our team and to our customers, fill their cups up with what I can, but not at the same time as the sacrifice of my family is as ensuring I can build a team to help take things off of my shoulders and plate so I can spend more time with family. And the first three or four years of the business, it was 24/7/365. It was whatever it takes to keep things going.
Greg Head: Yeah. Do you have an executive team now? Do you have a complete management team that owns all of the execution in every function?
Brad Redding: Most departments? Yeah. We’re not, we don’t have KPIs in every single department, but pretty close to it. We’re working our way there. I would say that when I look at other companies that I’m friends with is that once they go through that fundraise, it’s one of their first marching orders, is to hire an executive team hire an owner for every department and then off offload that work of building the team and building the process and building that out. We haven’t had that. So it’s been kind of like one every couple of quarters. We’re going to bring in a VP of this or a head of that particular department and start to support and surround them with the tools and people that they need.
Greg Head: And where is Elevar based? In Charleston, South Carolina, in the southeast United States. Is everybody in the region or the area or are you guys all over the world fully remote?
Brad Redding: All over the world. Yeah, it’s amazing. We have almost every continent covered. And I think the ability to learn all the different nuances of different cultures and ultimately realize it wouldn’t be any different if we all lived on the same street. It’s just that we happen to live across different oceans and continents.
Greg Head: What percentage of your employees live outside the United States?
Brad Redding: 50 or 60%. Something like that. It’s at least half.
Greg Head: Wow. And so now you’re running a global company with organized, steady growth. I call it an opportunity factory. You go from survival mode and getting the product. And now your biggest challenge is growing yourself and growing your team members. To be able to be the kind of company you need to be in a couple of years, right? That’s the big epiphany of that phase there, which is exciting. How are you able to have a global remote company? Is it because you are so clear about the structure and the numbers and your plans and the metrics, or are you doing it through culture and values and the people side of things?
Brad Redding: We’ve been remote since day one. We had to be remote because we couldn’t afford an office, there was no money. So by de facto, we are remote, working out of our houses and I think we’ve had success with growing and scaling internationally. By putting people first. I think, at the end of the day, I truly believe that when folks decide to leave their current gig and come to Elevar, I take responsibility. I mean, I can’t believe someone is putting their trust in me to come to join us at Elevar. That drives me and our team to make sure we invest more in them. So it’s giving them autonomy. It’s making sure that they have specific goals that they want to meet in their lives and their professional career. They want to grow skills and make sure we help enable that. And if that means that can catapult them into different things outside of Elevar, great. If they can look back and say, man, my time in Elevar was awesome. I love that. I want them to always look back at their time. Obviously, I want everyone to stay as long as they want here, but I think taking that approach of investing more in the people and trying to build around them and build them up versus the alternative of just bringing them in and what you might see with some other companies.
Greg Head: And do you face a challenge not having big funding and overpaying with crazy salaries that you’re competing for talent in an exciting new industry?
Brad Redding: Yeah, hiring is, once you get into your, I’d say 30 plus 20 or 30 plus employees as a quote-unquote CEO or founder-CEO if you got three responsibilities. Don’t run out of money, keep the vision and culture, keep the right people and get the right people on the bus. So hiring is and recruiting is always something that’s 25% of my time. And it’s always a challenge, whether it’s impacted by what VCs or VC-backed companies have been able to throw around. I’m sure that’s a big part of it. But again, it’s trying to make our culture one where we pull people in. We use the way we share knowledge with our flywheel, using that as a magnet to pull the right people in towards us.
Greg Head: That’s awesome. So how are you evolving as no longer just the founder and the product visionary, but the CEO and the CEO of a pretty sizable company with a big impact on customers and your employees? What’s next on your journey in the next couple of years that you’ve got to stop being the old Brad, and start being the new Brad CEO, that you look at as growth challenges?
Brad Redding: Yeah, another great question. There are aspects of the company, one of them being culture and how to build up our management team and coach them up and coach our contributors and build them up into managers or whatever they want to go. Whether they want to go for breadth or depth in terms of their careers. But it is certainly evolving myself as a leader through reading. Leaders are readers. Through coaching, through surrounding yourself with other people. So if I want to take Elevar from X to Y in terms of team size or growth, I need to be learning from people that are at Y now. And then pay it back. So this type of interview to me is there have been so many people out there that have helped me and helped us as a company. I need to start paying it back. I need to start giving back instead of just keeping everything in my notebook and start giving back by sharing because there are people who’re trying to get to where Elevar is that I should be sharing and helping them and paying it forward. So that’s a big part, to me, and the way I look at is no longer can I just assume that I’m going to figure it out on my own. I need to invest in myself, invest in my leaders, invest in my brain and habits and improve everything. Not necessarily all at once, but over time.
Greg Head: Growth challenges every leader and every employee in a growing company. But not everybody goes from the do-it-yourself startup founder to CEO who says, I don’t know all the answers, I don’t have all the answers, I know what I don’t know, I got to buy the best help I can get type CEO. Right? That’s a magic trick that people don’t see that the best CEOs have the best help. Just like the best athletes. So that’s exciting for you and you’re inspired by that. You could imagine this being a much larger company with lots more employees and partners and customers.
Brad Redding: Yeah. It’s all about the team. You build the people and bring in the right team and the team is going to build. We’re going to build the business and that business is going to evolve. It’s just looking at the apples of the world. They’ve evolved and it’s no different than a smaller company. If you just stay in the game long enough and have the right team and the right people leading and you’ll follow the customers and follow the problems.
Greg Head: So do you pay competitive salaries and have great bonuses and other perks?
Brad Redding: Yes. I would say one thing with being remote is being an international, especially in the macroeconomic climate we have today, is something that three years ago we didn’t necessarily need to pay as much attention to inflation and how currencies across different countries are dropping. We do use Justworks and Deal. Justworks is for US and Deal is non-US. That is something we pay attention to, talking to folks across the team and different countries and trying to communicate with us. Part of being that transparent. The organization I mentioned earlier is going to, Keep It Real is one of our core values, to bring this up to make sure that you don’t end up in a situation where you think poorly of all of us because we are “underpaying” because of factors we didn’t necessarily pay attention to. Again, the macroeconomic factors. So that is something new that we’ve had to learn and adapt with over the last year or so.
Greg Head: Little global companies have to deal with the same issues that big global companies do. The dollar is strong right now and they’re facing inflation pressures too. So, if you’re not paying attention to that, you can get way out of whack with salaries and all of that. That’s a really exciting story here. Is there anything else you’d like to tell those practical founders out there who are just starting on their journey? Who haven’t been doing this for 15 years and had their failures and challenges and coaches and growth modes? What would you tell the ones just starting and heading in this direction?
Brad Redding: Number one, figure out how to make it an infinite game. So how do you make it a part of your life, your lifelong journey as company building? Versus build it and I want this event to happen in the next number of years and then go do whatever you want to do. So figure out what your infinite game is and what makes you happy. What drives you personally from a North Star? Two, it’s a little cliche, but brick by brick. Are you laying a new brick today? Are you making 1% progress on whatever it is you’re trying to do? So I think that’s another big thing that you just have to take a step back and just think about. You’re not going to change the world in a week or a month or even a year. It’s going to be growth compounded over a lot of very small decisions and actions that compound over time and can get you results. Three, you’ll fall to the floor of your habits. If you have bad habits, whether it’s personal or professional, etc., you’ll fall. Your ceiling isn’t your aspirations, it’s where your habits are. So auditing your habits, auditing your calendar, your time. So whatever your number one initiative is or number one challenge, look at your calendar. Do you have time focused and dedicated to that? Do you have time blocked off to focus on that?
Brad Redding: So those are a few things that I think we all deal with. But yeah, those are reading, reading a book. That’s another cliche one too. But I still talk to founders, friends, and colleagues who are not investing in reading as much. And the way I approach it is I’m attacking a problem. I’m going to talk to mentors, and other coaches and I’m going to go find the top 2 to 3 books out there that essentially are biographies of people that live their life doing this thing. And then they put it into a book that you can read in a couple of hours. And I just dive into those two or three and just give me a way to triangulate different insights and views. And that is, I think, another “growth hack” that you can do as a founder with people who are sharing learning lessons out there all the time. So use that to your advantage.
Greg Head: It’s pretty amazing. When I got started in the software business in the 90s, there weren’t books and blogs and videos and conferences and coaches and all of this. It was a handful of misfit entrepreneurs and their scrappy teams just figuring this out. And occasionally we’d see each other at trade shows and share stories. So it’s pretty amazing the resources that are available. I don’t know that it makes it any easier to go through it, but there are definitely more resources available. Well, Brad, congratulations on your progress with Elevar and the growing team and the growing market and your growing business and your own growth as a dad and, you know, a CEO into the next phase of your journey. Thanks for sharing your insights and your experiences here today on the Practical Founders podcast.
Brad Redding: Yeah, Greg, it is great, and thank you for having me. And hopefully, for those listening, they picked up at least one or two tips or insights that can help you in your business.
Greg Head: We’ll have a link to your website or your LinkedIn profile so people can find out more about Elevar and read some of your insights that you’re talking about and connect with you on LinkedIn.
Brad Redding: Awesome. Thanks, Greg. I appreciate it.
Greg Head: Thanks, Brad.
Brad Redding calls his first startup a “successful failure.” It didn’t end well, but he learned several very important lessons that helped him be more successful with his second startup, Elevar. Now the bootstrapped SaaS company is growing steadily with 45 remote employees. And Brad is learning fast to be a capable CEO of a larger SaaS software company.
Brad’s deep experience with e-commerce advertising data and conversation tracking analytics helped him find a problem to solve. He and his cofounder funded the development of the first product by providing consulting services to the same customers they were trying to serve with their new software product.
It took three years before they found product-market fit and started to grow steadily and profitably. Now Elevar is a growing SaaS business that helps 6,500 e-commerce and direct-to-consumer brands that use Shopify to ensure the accuracy of their conversion tracking data and analytics. Brad has never raised outside funding and he has no intention of raising money or selling the company.
“I am certainly evolving as a leader through reading. Leaders are readers. And through coaching and through surrounding myself with other leaders who have grown companies to the size we are growing into.
“The way I look at is that no longer can I just assume that I’m going to figure it out on my own. I need to invest in myself, invest in my leaders, invest in my brain and my habits, and improve everything. Not necessarily all at once, but over time.
“It’s all about the team. You build the people and bring in the right team and the team is going to build the business and that business is going to evolve. If you just stay in the game long enough and have the right team and the right people leading, you’ll follow the customers and solve their problems.”
In this episode, Brad explains:
- The painful lessons of his first startup that he was able to apply and do differently with Elevar, his second startup
- Why he bootstrapped Elevar instead of raising VC funding
- Why he doesn’t think of products and services as two different things when solving customers’ problems
- How he is intentionally investing in self-development to learn to be the CEO he needs to be to continue to grow the company
- Why it took three years to find product-market fit despite being a domain expert in his industry
Elevar Company Facts
- Founded: 2017
- Description: Elevar
- Practical Funding Type: Founder savings, revenue from consulting services, then customer funding from revenue growth
- Number of Employees: 45 remote employees
- Acquisition: Elevar is growing steadily as a private software company and Brad has no intention of taking outside funding or selling the business
- Location: Charleston, South Carolina
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