Nik Wakelin, MinuteDock

December 7, 2011

This is the next post in the Founder Centric Startups series.

When I first met Nik Wakelin he was the summer intern at one of the first ventures I invested in after Trade Me. Sadly that didn’t work out so well for either of us. But he’s a smart guy, so it’s no surprise that he’s landed on his feet and is now part of a successful software development team and also co-founder of several new ventures, including 200 Square, an online Real Estate Agency; Flatmin, a shared-living management tool; and (our primary focus for today) MinuteDock, which was their first venture and is one of the core tools that we use at Southgate Labs everyday to track our time and generate invoices.

I’m especially interested in how they are balancing paid development work and still making time to progress these ventures, which is a challenge that many technical people who aspire to work on startups have to deal with.

Over to Nik:

What’s the purpose of Minute Dock?

Death to Copy + Paste 🙂

Basically, with the explosive growth in Software as a Service (SaaS) tools for Small Businesses, there’s really no reason for these tools not to be talking to one another, and there are emergent benefits of integration - the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

What does your company do?

We do super-quick & easy time tracking.

We use a “natural language” or twitter-style log bar rather than an army of dropdowns - the idea is to get your time down and worry about categorising and slicing and dicing it later. So you just type “@client #project Design Meeting 1 hour” and it’s logged like magic.

We also send your invoices to your accounting system (or a PDF, if you really want).

We think your time tracking system should be good at time tracking and your accounting system good at, well, accounting.

The standard reporting features are there too, along with “Goals” (which I think are really cool) that let you track your progress live against budgets and targets - we use these features ourselves every day, and I love the sense of achievement when the little animation fills it up!

What is the business model?

We’re a simple SaaS product - it definitely feels like our target market “gets” this model.

We don’t make ridiculous amounts per customer, as it’s a competitive market and that drives our prices down somewhat, but we definitely make up for that in longevity.

People either love MinuteDock, and become loyal customers, or else they feel that their time tracking system really needs to track start and end times, have a workflow process and require three different approvals from four separate managers. We can point the latter group elsewhere 😉

How do potential customers learn about you?

Via integration partners, word of mouth, and also some advertising etc.

Our business was essentially founded on the shoulders of giants - so at least initially, a lot of customers came through promotion from Xero, which we are very grateful for. As they grow, so do we, so it’s a symbiotic relationship in that respect.

We’ve recently explored integration with other partners and are testing the waters there.

We also built MinuteDock for us, and as we tend to surround ourselves with people like us, it was fairly easy to strongarm our friends, colleagues and Twitter followers into becoming customers.

We’ve tried advertising and we’re still experimenting with it. We’re in quite a crowded market so the Google Adwords prices for any of the basic keywords you might try are astronomical, meaning we have to be a little clever.

We’ve also tried networks that are targeted to designers or developers, like Yoggrt or Fusion Ads, with mixed results so far.

How many customers do you have?

Not as many as we’d like, but we are growing 7-15% month-on-month, so that’s nice.

Who are the people working with you on this?

The team naturally evolved out of friends and people who were working on similar stuff around each other. It’s a pretty technical team - we have myself and Jared Armstrong (@armstrjare) working on the Rails code, and James Nisbet (@bandit) doing the design and most of the UX work. It tends to be pretty cross-disciplinary though - James isn’t afraid to get his feet wet with some Ruby and is an accomplished programmer in his own right, and we’ll all generally gather around a whiteboard to throw wireframes etc together.

How did the business get started?

James and I talked about writing a small script to send our entries from Harvest (the system we were using at the time) into Xero. We spoke to Koz at Southgate Labs and he also wanted it. Over a few beers it grew in scope, then shrunk back as we spent the next few weekends cranking out an initial version. We build everything these days based on user requests with a healthy dash of whatever we think might be fun to code and useful for us (you’ve gotta keep the spark going after all).

How have you funded your growth so far?

MinuteDock has stood up on its own two feet for a while now.

We built the initial version in the gaps between consulting work, and we continue to try to fit that in. We have a very bad habit of starting more projects than we can possibly hope to complete, so it currently shares our focus with two other projects and consulting for Wildfire over in the US.

What are the mistakes you’ve made?

Initially, we tended to artificially limit the universe of “potential customers” - for instance by only allowing you to sign up for MinuteDock if you had a Xero account. We quickly fixed that.

We also made our pricing way too cheap from the get-go, and lost a lot of potential revenue - in fact we had people asking how to pay more! Pricing feels like a pretty hard thing to get right.

On other projects we’ve definitely focused too much on building the “perfect system” rather than getting something that kinda-sorta-works out where people can start to use it and give feedback. I think this is a natural tendency for developers - or just my obsessive compulsive side showing. Thankfully we mostly managed to avoid this with MinuteDock.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?

At the moment the biggest challenge we have is in trying to find a way to really grow the company. We’ve talked about and tried a few things, from the radical to the pretty standard, but we still haven’t found a solution yet that we feel we can hit guns-blazing.

What’s your ambition for the company?

We’d like MinuteDock to grow to the point where it sustains the three of us effectively indefinitely (i.e it pays our somewhat modest salaries!)

What advice do you have for other founders?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to give “advice” as such
[ed: you’re way more qualified than you realise!]

Here are a few things I’ve learned, from both MinuteDock and other businesses I’ve been involved in.

  1. Take some time to congratulate yourselves.

Maybe this is one you don’t need if you have a really outgoing partner in your business (your resident “shiny shoes”) but it’s definitely something that we tended to forget - we’d get very depressed about a slow month, or pin all our hopes on a single mailout or advertising campaign that could never even hope to provide the return we were relying on it for. One of the best things we did is set up a live dashboard and notification system on our iPhones. The dashboard makes a noise whenever something good happens and it’s also relayed onto our phones. It’s a small thing, but it’s great when you’re lying on the couch on a Saturday morning feeling hungover and drained - sometimes that one new customer can give you the energy to open up the laptop and bang out another feature, or try a new set of ads:

  1. Focus.

I think anyone who likes to build products will always have ideas for 2-3 floating around in the back of their brain. It takes some real discipline to set them aside and make sure that you’re giving the current thing all of your energy and the best chance to succeed. This is definitely advice we’ve heard many times from other people, and we haven’t always followed it.

  1. If you’re out get out, if you’re in get in.

I’ve definitely found myself umming and aaaahing about what to do, and sometimes that thinking takes months, when most of the time it would have been much better to make a decision and run with it. I think if you’re not 100% committed to a new startup then making a it “fly” is a very hard ask. On the flipside, letting something “limp” along for a few months (or years) is a waste of everyone’s time. Better to kill it properly than to have it taking up your valuable energy. Saying that, it’s still an extremely hard decision - and one we constantly struggle with.

Other guest posts in this series: