Driving steady organic growth on a shoestring

By Francis Moran

Many startups with aspirations of grandeur have fallen prey to the temptation to call themselves a “leading provider of …”. But at Teamly, founder and CEO Scott Allison and his team appreciate that earning the label is a “big hairy audacious goal” which takes a lot of hard work and no shortage of hustling.

Teamly is a two-year-old startup which has brought to market an innovative productivity and project management tool which it delivers through a Software-as-a-Service (Saas) model. Or, as described in the company’s vision statement, “Teamly provides online teamwork software that helps businesses be more successful through more aligned and effective people.”

It’s a compelling value proposition at a time when the typical workplace is filled with more distractions than ever which erode productivity and throw the best laid plans out the window. But productivity tools are legion and many fail to live up to their hype.

Teamly’s advantage is in its simplicity and ease of use. ( Judge for yourself; getting into the nitty gritty of the product demo isn’t our focus for this post.) The challenge, of course, was to spread the message where it would stick and have the most impact on Teamly’s target market on the marginal budget of a bootstrapped startup beginning with zero revenue. Over the past two years, Teamly has focused on three areas:

  • Qualifying influential target media and actively engaging with them through social media and other direct means
  • Google Adword campaigns and LinkedIn ads
  • Retargeting campaigns

“As the ‘business guy’ I’ve done everything except the programming at Teamly,” Allison said. “It’s definitely challenging to manage the time, jumping from one thing to another. The key is to find a routine that works for you, and balance it with all other activities.”

Creating a snowball effect

Allison is a serial entrepreneur with a background in business management and marketing. The concept for Teamly came to him while experimenting with different staff management strategies during his time as CEO of telecoms virtual network operator, abica. He understood that engaging with key media would be crucial to securing the early exposure Teamly needed to create buzz around the product and attract users. Before Teamly’s launch, he researched bloggers and journalists active on social media sites such as Twitter who wrote about SaaS, productivity tools and technology startups.

“I think a lot of people from a technical background are reluctant to do anything that isn’t directly measurable and PR is something in which you just have to invest and wait for the return,” Allison said.

After Teamly’s beta launch in the summer of 2010, Allison went to work on his media list and attracted solid hits, including a writeup on GigaOm, which had dramatic results.

“Overnight, suddenly there was this massive jump in our traffic,” he said. “We got a lot of attention. From there a lot of other blogs and other sites began picking up on Teamly as well. The key value of PR to a startup is that it really allows you to punch above your weight.”

Allison has continued to build on that momentum by continuing his media outreach, levering early customers to produce testimonials and case studies for Teamly’s website, and pursuing high-profile industry awards such as the EuropasFuture 50 and the Smarta100.

Finding the biggest bang for the buck

For a few hundred dollars a month, few startups, no matter how lean their budget, can afford to spurn the investment in some kind of online advertising. For Teamly, it has been a process of experimentation to see what generates the most value for money in terms of conversions. While Google Adwords campaigns were cheaper, Teamly found that LinkedIn ads allowed it to more effectively target specific groups, such as HR managers, or specific contacts at specific companies. Allison paid close attention to the amount of activity generated from the LinkedIn effort, and how that translated into increased traffic on Teamly’s website, to measure the return on the investment.

“It’s really easy to spend money on these services without really understanding what you’re doing,” Allison said. “It’s really worth the time to dig down into the data that’s generated to understand what real benefits you are seeing. Otherwise you’re just blindly spending money.”

Allison did the legwork himself to develop and manage these online advertising campaigns. This is a matter of choice, budget and the ability of staff to juggle this added responsibility with their other priorities. While engaging with an external specialist is the obvious alternative, Allison warns that all entrepreneurs must do their homework to find the right partner.

“This market is so crowded by these people,” he said. “You have to do your research and understand it for yourself to avoid trusting your business to someone who may have no better idea of what they are doing than you. If you do it yourself initially, you can better manage it when you start to outsource it.”

A little creepy, but effective

Appreciating that effective advertising requires hitting the market repeatedly with your message, Teamly has also engaged with a retargeting banner service that drops a cookie onto visitor’s computers. When those individuals visit another site that is using the same banner service, they will see a banner ad for Teamly. The service costs only $100 a month. While Allison admits the volume of click-throughs is modest, he believes it does have a significant impact in terms of building brand awareness.

“This is a fantastic way to get just a little more traction and catch the attention of people who may have registered for the product but have forgotten about it,” he said. “On the other hand, it can be a little creepy to see this same ad pop up on several different sites and not understand why, but people like advertising when it is relevant to them.”

The results

Since its beta launch in 2010, Teamly has achieved average monthly organic growth in its user base of 10 percent. Fifty percent of its users are in North America, 10 percent are in the UK and the remainder, from other overseas markets.

Allison founded Teamly two years ago in his native Scotland then relocated to London to be close to the city’s so-called Silicon Roundabout tech cluster. But from day one his sights have been set on Silicon Valley, which has a strong ecosystem for SaaS companies. He recently relocated to the Valley to be close to potential investors and partners.

He credits Teamly’s strong take up in North America to the size of the U.S. market, a target media list heavy with journalists and bloggers who write for popular U.S.-based publications, and the fact that Americans tend to be more open to new technologies and service delivery models such as SaaS.

What’s next?

Two years out of the gate, Teamly has reached that all-important stage where it needs an infusion of capital to build on the momentum it has created and ramp the company.

“When a startup is ready to grow you want to grow as fast as you possibly can,” Allison said. “The best way for us to grow is users inviting other users. We have a great organic growth rate and we need to fuel that with a bigger budget for marketing, advertising and PR.”

Allison has begun to hand off the communications role to a specialist so that he can focus on business development and wooing investors.

“Most of our recent press was handled by a freelance PR person, as I was just too focused on other aspects of the business by that stage,” he said. “Their job was to distribute press releases and to find media outlets that would be interested in what we’re doing. It helps to have an experienced pair of eyes looking at what we’re doing and another set of ears on the ground looking for opportunities for us to follow up on.”

This is the third article in a continuing series that will feature case studies and anecdotal stories from entrepreneurs, consultants and veteran marketers about their efforts to develop, implement and measure marketing programs to bring technology to market and grow market share. We invite your feedback.

Francis Moran
Francis Moran
Francis Moran is principal of Francis Moran & Associates, a consultancy that provides business-to-business technology ventures with the strategic counsel required to make their innovations successful in a highly competitive marketplace. Francis can be reached at [email protected].

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