Keeping it SaaSy: Scaling a SaaS business
Welcome to our brand new series, Keeping it SaaSy. In this series, we’re getting techy and talking with people in the SaaS (Software as a Service) space, which we know is a little strange for a business that recruits primarily in the creative space! While we help many businesses hire marketers, communicators, social media experts and more, we help with tech talent – whether that’s in the form of a product manager, developer, strategist or producer, which often leads us to work with SaaS companies.
For our very first interview, we chatted with Blake Williams, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Realtair about his experience scaling up a SaaS business.
Blake, tell us a little about yourself and Realtair
Realtair was founded in 2016 by myself and two other co-founders – I was the tech guy and the other two have a real estate background. It was born out of a passion to make doing real estate smarter through technology. It’s the only true end-to-end property sales platform that lets Australian agents access data, appraise, list and sell properties more efficiently and cost-effectively.
It was just a part time business until 2018, when we raised capital through a venture capital firm and were able to take it full time. We’ve grown massively from just the three of us to 125 employees.
What are the three biggest challenges in scaling a SaaS business?
The biggest one I’ve found, and am leaning into more now than previously, is trying to balance moving quickly and being scrappy versus making decisions that will set us up for sustainable growth. Back in the old days, we made decisions that got us early runs on the boards, but then led to problems later down the track. It’s a tricky, delicate line to tread. You do start to change your mindset and it’s not an instant 180, but more of a gradual shift. I still want to go fast and be agile and nimble like back in the early days, but now I know when we need to pull back and make sure we’re doing things right. When we make mistakes now, it impacts a lot more people than before – our whole team and our thousands of customers, rather than just us three founders and a few customers.
Being a leader, keeping customers front of mind has been a big challenge for me. I have so many priorities – business operations, keeping the cogs turning and keeping our team happy, fulfilled and productive, just to name a few – that spending time on customer problems can slip down the list. Therefore, I try to spend as much time as possible in the field talking to customers, hearing their problems and thinking about how we can solve them. Doing this really fuels product innovation and growth.
The final challenge has been establishing a customer centric culture. It was easy to have this focus when it was just our three founders and we had everything on the line – literally. But as we grew and employed people who weren’t as invested as us as this was just their 9-5, it was harder to keep this focus. This was especially true with people who sit on the board or are outside sales. What has helped is recruiting the right people – hiring people from different backgrounds and who have different perspectives and skill sets – and getting them aligned to the company vision and values. We empower them and set them up for success by keeping them across the strategy and goals of the business, and how their role contributes to these.
What do you think has been key to leading you into the position the business is in now?
An obsession with customers. It’s easy for businesses to have a bunch of numbers that look good in a strategy pack, but our success is measured by how close we are to customers and how we solve their problems. We need to hear our customers and what their problems are to come up with an effective solution. I would also add that our scrappiness and grit, which we’ve carried over from the early days has been key. We didn’t have a lot of resources, so we had to hustle and be nimble to get stuff done.
One final thing was realising when we had to stop customising our product so much. Early on as we were building and growing, we were happy to customise the product and I think it was something we had to do to break into the market and get people on board. Eventually we got to about 100 customers and such extensive customisation wasn’t feasible anymore – when everyone had a slightly different version of the product and you wanted to add a new feature, it made things very difficult as it would impact customers in so many ways. As we and our platform matured, we now just have a standard platform and offer less customisation.
What’s more important to you, brand and purpose or quality of product?
Everything starts with purpose. You need to understand the problem you’re solving for, which is especially important when you have a bigger team. Get everyone aligned, and ensure they understand the problem. This means they’ll feel connected to the purpose and mission, and be more focused when building the product. Quality of product is still important – if your product isn’t great quality, that impacts your brand as well, but I think everything starts with purpose.
Raising funds – is there an off the shelf route to success or is it different for every business?
We were really fortunate with how our journey unfolded. The market conditions were great when we were raising capital. We were able to sell the story and vision, but it would be much harder to do that now. Asia Principal Capital invested in us and they were great. They helped us mature, had big picture ideas, gave great advice for running a business and working on governance – especially important if we wanted to take Realtair in a variety of directions. Our second capital raise, we didn’t go through the venture capital route, but partnered with a corporate, REA. They were aligned strategically with us, opened up opportunities with their customer line and base and have been a distribution channel for us, as well as a massive brand advocate.
How far in advance are you planning business strategy?
It’s definitely evolved a lot. In the early days we didn’t have a strategy document, just a bunch of ideas that we then went and built! Once we got to employee number five, we had to start building a strategy and get some ideas down on paper. We used to only plan quarterly, but now have shifted to a longer term strategy. We create a two and a half year plan that guides all quarterly level planning – product development, expansion opportunities, market position etc. Having a long term strategy not only helps with alignment in vision, but also helps with quarterly OKRs and making sure our team is investing time and effort in the things that are feasible and achieve business goals.
What are the three biggest challenges for your SaaS business in the next 12 months?
As the capital markets have changed, we’ve had to shift our mindset about money. Early on, we acted naively and we were like “just spend the money and if we run out, we’ll just go raise more money”. Don’t do this. We now behave like the money in the bank is our last lot of money and act more appropriately. We probably also over invested in growth and chased short term revenue without looking at long term ROI in the early days. As we want to be more sustainable with growth now, it’s important to find a go-to market model that works for us before just throwing money at it.
International expansion is a big one for us. Currently our customer base is only Australians, but we have just launched in New Zealand. It’s essentially an extension of our Australian base as there’s a similar culture and legislation. We are looking to expand into North America as well, however we need to do it in a measured and sustainable way so we don’t burn through capital too quickly.
Finally, staying focused on execution. It’s so easy to get distracted by ideas of what else you can do or what’s next, but it’s vital to be strategic and stay focused on doing a couple of things really well.
Have there been any moments where you’ve done something and it’s felt like you’ve unlocked a magic key to a treasure chest?
The big one for us is we sold a vision – if real estate agents came to us, they would have everything they need to prospect and sell property. However it came with a lot of different logins and dashboards and wasn’t as cohesive as what we were selling. 18 months ago, we moved everything into the one place and it’s been an absolute game changer for our pricing, selling our value in the market and improving customer experience.
This was always the game plan, but it took some time, some customer feedback, a few acquisitions and building a team that focused on unifying the platform experience to make it come to life.
If you looked back on your progress, is there anything you would do differently?
There are two main things – being more deliberate and focused, rather than chasing lots of ideas. I would pick a few ideas, validate them and see if they’re solving a customer problem or not, and if they are, execute them well. We had 12 products in the market, but we’ve rationalised that, focused down, and now have three products but in one platform. We did burn some money running after ideas that we didn’t have the capacity to execute well, which meant they didn’t work in the market.
Also, being conscious of how we scale and how aggressively we do so. It’s easy to look at the money we have and think “oh, we can just do another capital raise”. I would move to a sustainable growth model earlier and have a solid go to market strategy before rolling out. Don’t throw cash at something unless you can do it in a sustainable way. Treat every other dollar like it’s your last.
Keen to chat with Blake about his experience scaling a SaaS business? You can get in touch with him on LinkedIn.
If you’re a business and you’re looking to hire tech talent, we’re here to help. Reach out at email@example.com today.