👋 I'm Marcus Taylor, Founder of Venture Harbour, AMA about bootstrapping & automation.

Marcus Taylor
29 replies
I run Venture Harbour, a digital product company that builds a new, highly-automated, online business every year. We've built nine ventures to date, ranging from SaaS tools to macOS productivity software. I bootstrapped the company at 21 years old with £500 in my bank & a broken laptop, and have grown our portfolio to 7-figures with zero outside investment in 7 years. Our two latest ventures are SereneApp.com and Leadformly.com. Here to answer any and all questions about bootstrapping, automation, building products, SEO, landing pages/forms, productivity, being a young entrepreneur, Scandinavian metal, and systemising innovation.

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Founder & CEO, Hustle Crew
I have so many questions! To start with - how do you decide which products to build and launch in the market?
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@abadesi Our process is roughly: 1. We generate 40 ideas a year (normally ~10/quarter) 2. 36 of these go straight in the bin. We shoot for 1 viable idea each quarter. 3. We fill out a 'VenturePlan' for each viable idea. This document 'stress tests' the idea and gets us thinking about the problem, how we'd execute it, and the market. Most ideas crack under the pressure of the VenturePlan, but usually 1-2 get through a year. 4. The idea(s) that get through get built into MVPs (typically in a 2 week low-code prototype) 5. If we validate that the concept works and the team are behind it, we apportion a budget and timeframe to launch an MVP (typically 3 months). From there, we decide whether to go on to develop a more fully-featured 'remarkable simple viable product'. 6. 😺ProductHunt & 🤞!
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We are a bootstrapped B2B travel platform connecting travel suppliers with travel agwncies across the globe. We have acquired 800+ customers from 38 countries without a $ marketing spend. Now, we would want to scale up and acquire 10K customers in the next 1 year. Any thoughts/ advice on the same? ( other than spending a bomb participating in travel trade fairs in different countries)
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@mallapur124 Hi Narayan, I would consider where are those 10,000 customers? What platforms/communities/events are they using in common? Then, is there something you could ask of the 800 existing customers to increase your visibility in those communities. If you can leverage your existing user base to increase your visibility in the place where your future customers are you have the start of a flywheel effect.
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Software engineer
👋 Hi Marcus, Here are some of my questions: As a young entrepreneur, what is the knowledge that you should be focus on acquiring? What mistakes did you make that hold you back? When building online businesses every year, do you reuse pieces made for the previous ones? What is your process to evaluate an idea? How would you describe Scandinavian metal to someone that doesn't know it?
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@ffloriel_ ❤️ these questions! 🧠 Knowledge to focus on acquiring as a young entrepreneur - Focus on uncovering unknown unknowns that are probable to affect you in the next 2-5 years. Get into social circles where you're the least smart person in the room. Finally, follow your curiosities - the right book to read now is the best one on the topic that you're most excited about or scared about right now. 🤦Biggest mistakes - almost too many to count but the top three have to be: 1. Hiring based on gut/CV - hiring is incredibly difficult and I've made my fair share of mistakes here. The lesson learnt is to have a clear process, hire based on values, test for competence, and hire slowly. 2. Hiring cheap developers - I've come to learn that you get what you pay for with developers. When we've gone cheap we've had years of security flaws, technical debt and re-building/fixing bad code. On the other hand, where we've spent almost eye-watering amounts on developers, things move much faster and there are far fewer major incidents. 3. Not getting my legal ducks in a row - one missing 2-page contract (an IP transfer agreement) cost us a few hundred thousand pounds in professional fees to put right several years later. ♻️ Re-using pieces of previous ventures - Yes! This is a big theme at Venture Harbour this year. When we discover a process that works (e.g. using the Van Westendorp pricing model for identifying the right price for an app), we create a module like 'the Venture Harbour Guide to Pricing' and these modules get reused for new ventures. From a tech perspective, we're moving towards all ventures having similar architecture so that we can reuse a lot of components. 💡 Evaluating ideas - we have a document called 'VenturePlan' which is three pages long and has about 50 questions that help us unpick the problem, execution and solution. It's broadly based on Scaling Up's One Page Plans (https://scalingup.com/growth-tools/) 🤘Scandinavian metal - It's basically just classical music played through metal instruments. I recommend listening to this symphonic tribute to Children of Bodom (https://youtu.be/ndAOIKzI_A8?t=36) and then the original here (https://youtu.be/d8F3t-F_grc?t=42). You'll hear how melodic and intelligent the music is when you strip away all the 'noise'!
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Software engineer
@marcusataylor thanks a lot for taking the time to answer my questions!
I like making things
I'm in a similar situation, bootstrapped B2C mobile app from 0 to 5 figures with no outside investment – currently looking to take it to the next level, and therefore looking into professional branding, marketing, etc. However none of this is in my budget without taking on investments. How did you handle a similar situation or do you have any suggestions for next steps?
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@alekplay Branding - 99Design contests are a phenomenal resource. Serene's branding was a result of a $1,000 contest we ran and we received over 50 applications for the logo and styles. We recently did a smaller scale project for BrokerNotes for about $400. Marketing - Even today, we're pretty frugal on the marketing front. We've found that our most effective forms of marketing are often free, so we try to double down on those that require time or creativity rather than budget. For example, I often like to think about what free tools could I create that would be naturally shareable among my target audience? Or, what one article could I write, that if I got it to the number 1 in Google, would 10-100X the number of customers I receive every month? I think Tim Ferriss often mentions the question of "What would this look like if it were easy?" - That's an awesome question to consider from a marketing strategy perspective.
I like making things
@marcusataylor Thanks for the answer! I have been a little flustered looking at design companies and the rates they charge for branding, but will definitely look into 99Designs. Again thanks for all the insight!
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Out of the box thinker & problem solver
Hi Marcus, Tons of questions but the number one is: What is the best lesson you've had to learn the hard way?
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@ebyfield5 The same activity/business/product, in a different niche, is often the quickest way to 10-100X results. Example: My first website was a blog for musicians where I would often promote affiliate deals for products like guitar strings. On a $5 sale, I would typically earn $0.25. Even if I absolutely crushed it and made 10,000 sales/month that's just $2,500/month. My second website was in the luxury space where we promoted items like $1000 luxury pens and diamonds where I would typically earn $100 per sale. For the same amount of work I could achieve 400X the results - just by changing the niche I was operating in. We've seen the same with SaaS where just changing the niche/audience we're targeting has reduced churn rates & increased LTV by a significant factor.
Judging by the Venture Harbour portfolio, you seem to you have a preference for lead gen business models. Why do you prefer this model, which isn't recurring, versus SaaS?
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@whentheresawill These days I do prefer the SaaS model, if nothing else just for the accelerated learning. The problems to solve in SaaS are more complex and I enjoy the tangible nature of building a software product. However, the economics of SaaS companies have a few disadvantages when compared to lead generation businesses. 👎 They're relatively expensive to build/maintain 👎 They're typically slower to generate high levels of revenue 👎 They're not as passive It's also worth pointing out that my background is in SEO, so I had a slight advantage in knowing how to build sites that captured lots of traffic. Lead generation is 'the easy option' in that scenario to monetise traffic as you often don't have to build an end product, instead adding value by helping people decide which product is right for them.
Co-Founder @ PixelPass
Hi Marcus, I'm inspired by what you're building at Venture Harbour! Love the "business model", and would love to do something similar. I have a couple of questions: 1. to get the business off the ground and start making money (to live off of), what did you prioritize? 2. how did you vet your first idea to focus on? 3. what method have you seen work best for customer acquisition? (I've always done cold email sales in the early days, and had decent success with it) I appreciate any insight! :)
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@tyreljohnson Hey Tyrel, that's awesome :) 1. First, it's worth noting that I'm naturally quite risk-averse, so every 'big leap' was heavily de-risked by ensuring I still had money to live off. For example, I spent a year working part-time as an SEO consultant and part-time building up my projects before I was comfortable focusing 100% on the business. In terms of what I prioritise, the goal is always working out the fastest route to monetisation, but there are usually some hurdles that need to be overcome first. Right now with Serene, for example, we broke this down into five milestones, of which we've validated two so far. ✅ Validate that people like the idea, then ✅ Validate that people like using the product, then ❌ Validate that people use the product 3-4X a week, ❌ Validate that X% of people will upgrade to the PRO version, then ❌ Validate that Y% of people will share it. Each milestone informs our priority. For example, right now our focus is on habit formation. We recognise that no one is going to (happily) pay for a product they don't use often, so it makes sense we need to nail this before anything else. Each venture has a different series of steps to reach monetisation/profitability. 2. The very first idea (a website that sold information products to musicians) wasn't really vetted. I naively built it because I was interested in the music industry and wanted to create resources/tools that I would have found useful as a musician. Most products failed and never made more than $100, but over 2-3 years a handful took off and generated just enough revenue to live off. This small taste of success got me excited to experiment with different industries, business models and products. Most failed, but the process of consistently following my curiosity and learning from my mistakes meant that every now and then I discovered one that worked. These days, we've codified many of these lessons into a tool we use for vetting ideas called VenturePlan (happy to share if you message me), but back then it was just gut + blind naivety! 3. I think the best form of customer acquisition is the one that you're really good at, whatever that might be. For me, it's SEO and conversion rate optimisation. I have friends who kill it with AdWords, influencer marketing and video, but I've always struggled to make more than a few quid using those tactics. It's less about the tactic and more about what you're personally willing and able to invest 10,000s of hours into mastering and optimising.
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Building teams & investing in makers
All interesting questions up here! Curious to hear about Marcus feedback on your questions everyone. Will be extremely insightful and inspiring 🚀
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I like setting goals.
Hi Marcus, the story behind Venture Harbour sounds awesome! Congrats on growing into such success! Currently, I'm trying to figure out the best practices for building a user-base. For any of the tools VH created, was building a user-base a problem to be solved, and if so, how did you go about solving it? Thanks!
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@jake_dewar Thanks Jake, appreciate the kind words! Every venture has its own unique challenges around building a user base. Two things that have been useful for us are: 1) Picking a very niche audience and/or problem to begin with and broaden over time With Leadformly, we reached product-market fit almost instantly, as the problem/audience was so specific (we built high-converting lead gen forms for digital marketers). If I could go back in time, I'd refine this further to only target digital marketers working at PPC & CRO agencies. Starting with a very niche problem & audience means your conversion rates should be be exceptionally high, as your solution becomes ultra-relevant to the right audience. It's then just a case of finding the right (small communities) where those people hang out. 2) Lego block marketing I have a rule that we only invest in marketing where the work we do today will still generate results in 3 years time. This passive approach means that everything you do is cumulative and 'builds' upon what you did yesterday. That way, I don't need to constantly create marketing campaigns to maintain a certain level of acquisition or engagement, instead I can slowly but surely build things up. This has meant we've said no to a lot of traditional marketing - including most forms of social media marketing, speaking at conferences, and sponsoring events. In general, these marketing channels create spikes - which I'm not interested in. I much prefer predictable and passive marketing that snowballs over time. Hope that helps! 👍
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Software Product Enthusiast & Marketer.
Hi Marcus, quite an inspiring story behind your start up. Can you throw some light on how were you able to acquire your initial customers?
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@jerwin_joshuah Thanks Jerwin 🙏 One tactic, which has worked well across numerous ventures, is writing a small number of pieces of content that funnel people into using a product like yours and posting that content on a website with a strong SEO profile. For example, when we launched Leadformly I wrote a handful of articles like '5 Best B2B Lead Generation Strategies' and '58 Form Design Best Practices' on Venture Harbour's website (e.g. https://www.ventureharbour.com/b...) which ranked in Google for highly-searched keywords like 'B2B lead generation' and enabled us to acquire a steady stream of customers. What's great about this strategy is it doesn't cost any money (just time), there's no ongoing maintenance cost, and the results typically compound over time. Blogging platforms like Medium.com are an incredible resource if you don't already have access to a website with a strong SEO profile.
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Software Product Enthusiast & Marketer.
@marcusataylor Thank you so much for your response Marcus. I would definitely consider posting blogs on websites with strong SEO profile. Medium.com does look like a great platform to start with.
Market Researcher & Application Tester
Hello Marcus, that sounds amazing! since you have been in that field. We are a tech - startup producing cross-platform apps. Recently, we have been looking for Event Accelerators to attend in order to get feedback from. Any Event you would recommend us attending? or do you even recommend us attending tech accelerator events to gain feedback & connections? Highly inspired by your work, keep it going!
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@walid_shaar 👋 Hey Walid, Getting feedback early on is crucial, and there's no right way to go about this. We often attend events, sponsor Meetups (and give free beer in exchange for user testing) which is very effective. Another simple but effective tactic we've used recently to get feedback on Serene is giving free t-shirts in return for submitting detailed feedback surveys. I find in-person events are great for user testing and getting contextual feedback about features/improvements, but anonymous online feedback via surveys is best for soliciting brutal honest feedback (most people are unlikely to to give that to you face-to-face). So, it depends on what kind of feedback you need right now. In terms of specific events, it'll depend so much on who your audience is and where they're based. Typically though, we've found smaller Meetups to be far more fruitful for feedback than big tech events like SXSW, Techcrunch Disrupt etc. Good luck Walid 👊
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Market Researcher & Application Tester
@marcusataylor Much appreciated Marcus! Your reply is well noted, and we will act upon it for sure. Thanks again buddy!
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Investing at M31 Capital
Hey Marcus! I'm a 20 year old university student, and I'm currently conducting user problem interviews (done about 15 and will keep going), and found out that a majority of interviewees do have the same problems with what I faced (think of the solution like the hootsuite for clothing resellers, where users can post on Ebay, Etsy, Poshmark simultaneously). This encourages me to go ahead and develop an MVP, but there's a couple challenges that I'm looking to tackle to move forward. 1. I am unable to code and I'm on a university budget - I was looking at outsourcing for an MVP, but from what I read here it might not be the best idea. Would you suggest that I learn the languages myself, and start coding from the ground up? 2. Some companies do not offer API's and my friend has told me there's ways around it. When it comes down to situations like these, I know I need to research a bit more, but what might you suggest in this case? Appreciate it! Best, Kaito
CEO, VentureHarbour
@kaito_cunningham Hey Kaito, 1. I would consider a middle-ground approach by seeing if you can build a working version without code. I'm a big fan of tools like Sheetsu (https://sheetsu.com/) and Airtable (https://airtable.com) which effectively allow you to use a spreadsheet in place of a database. With tools like Zapier and IFTTT, you can then connect these to a huge variety of tools to build app-like functionality with no code and virtually no cost. They also force you to learn some very basic coding, so I find it a very practical and accessible way to learn how to build web apps. 2. There are lots of ways, and I'm sure developers reading this will have some smarter ideas, but here would be my thought process: - Could you build a macro? For example, when the user presses button X, a script follows a series of steps. While I may get a little bit told off for this recommendation, you could try using a tool like GhostInspector which has a built in Chrome macro builder that lets you record a series of steps and have them repeat on a schedule (GI is not designed for this purpose, but I love playing with their macro builder for these kinds of use cases!). - Python script (or similar) - A little out of my depth, but I know in the past we've solved similar situations using Python to build a more elegant version of what I've described above. - Contact them about building an API - in general, APIs are not too difficult to build. We have had some success in the past by just contacting the companies that we'd like an API for and on several occasions we've been provided with a private API that they either already had but didn't publicise or were happy to build to see how we'd use it (remember, you're potentially helping them create a new product offering). - Virtual assistants - depending on the scale, you could test an MVP version by hiring a virtual assistant to manually do the re-posting. For the first hundred users this may be economical and would help prove the concept, but could be challenging to scale up.
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Investing at M31 Capital
@marcusataylor I appreciate your response greatly man! The thought you put into this responses and the understanding you have of the concept honestly just gave me a ton of options to explore. Thank you :)
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CEO, VentureHarbour
@kaito_cunningham Awesome! Glad it was useful :)
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