Adam Hempy of Better Proposals

Founder Coffee episode 001

I’m Jeroen of Salesflare and this is Founder Coffee.

Every two weeks I have coffee with a different founder. We discuss life, passions, learnings, … in an intimate talk, getting to know the person behind the company.

For this first pilot episode, I was lucky to talk with Adam Hempy of Better Proposals. Since last year when Salesflare and Better Proposals were on AppSumo at the same time, we talk with each other on a regular basis and you could say we have become founder friends.

Adam is one of the most honest, authentic, and driven startup founders I know. He will never shy away from saying what’s on his mind, which makes him the perfect first guest for this series of personal founder talks.


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Jeroen: Hi Adam! Great to have you on Founder Coffee.

Adam: Happy to be here!

Jeroen: To start off, for those who don’t know Better Proposals: what do you do exactly?

Adam: Better Proposals helps freelancers, service businesses, … anybody who often writes proposals or quotes, and who sends these out with the aim of winning some business.

It saves the pain and hassle of designing the whole thing in Microsoft Word or Adobe InDesign, or using the built-in quote functionality in your invoicing software. It saves using all of that, and it sends proposals that: A, look really smart; B, save you a lot of time. And sort of lastly, it has a lot of best practices for sales already built into the templates, and into the functionality, and everything else.

It basically means that you can win work an awful lot quicker.

Jeroen: Yup.

Adam: And more of it as well.

Jeroen: So in short: it’s the best proposal tool out there?

Adam: Yeah. I’d say so. It would be stupid if I said no, wouldn’t it?

Jeroen: What made you start Better Proposals? When did it exactly happen? What were you working on?

Adam: We ran a software company at the time. We would go into companies and we’d come out with these proposals and have to spend several days writing these things.

They were absolutely massive. 30, 40, 50 thousand pounds software projects. And it was a massive deal if you won one of these things or not. Cause you only really did three or four projects in a year. If you won it, it made a huge difference to your life.

Jeroen: Got it.

Adam: I’m doing these things in, I think, InDesign at the time, and I would spend absolutely days on them. Making sure that they were right. Making sure they looked good. And making sure the copy was good.

And then I’d send it, and I’d hear nothing. I’m like, “Oh, okay. Did they get it?” I mean, it was like a 20 megabytes PDF. I mean, what happened? Did it even get there? Am I not chasing this up because I think it’s too soon? I had no visibility, no idea.

There was a bit of downtime in the company. I said to our tech team, “Look, can you just make something web based. Something that shows us who’s opened it and what they’ve looked at. That way I’ll know when they get it and I can follow up accordingly.”

We did that. Obviously early versions were very scrappy, very bad. But the concept was really good.

That was about five and a bit years ago. It just sat there as this little internal tool that we’ve used for years. About four years ago, we started it up as its own actual product, as a side project. And then two years ago we cut away everything else and focused on it full time.

Jeroen: That’s an interesting story. What did your original company do exactly?

Adam: Well, as you know, I’m completely autistic, right? I love logic, I love finding the weaknesses in things and then trying to figure out how to fix it. I really like going into different companies, finding out where their admin weaknesses were, and sort of understanding their processes. Our software company would then build something that automated all of those processes.

In the process of doing this, I wrote a book called “Automate Your Business”. That did quite well. We’d use it as a “lead magnet”. Back then, we physically printed it and actually sent it to people. Now they are PDFs. But yeah, we physically sent it to people. That did really, really well for us.

That was what we’ve been doing for several years. Just going into companies, asking them tons of different questions. Figuring out what it was that worked, what it was that didn’t, and then fixing all the broken bits.

Jeroen: Was it a SaaS product or was it on-premise software?

Adam: No, it was custom software. Custom for each client.

Jeroen: I see. You started with that.

Adam: Yes. It was fine for a bit, but it did get to a point where we were thinking, “Okay, we either need to grow this business massively, or we’re going to have to scale back, or do something to change it. Because it’s just sort of hitting the limits all over the place.” And we’re working far too hard sitting on our money.

Jeroen: Is Better Proposals your first actual SaaS company?

Adam: Um, yeah. The first one that’s done well. But I wouldn’t say it’s the first time we’ve tried to build a software product. We’ve actually built quite a few. Never really thought about it to be honest until you said it.

We built a product called AddBook, which was a really, really, really — every one of these was bad by the way, there’s no good one — really, really, really simple CRM. It was basically an address book with a notes field attached to it.

I suppose the earliest version of Better Proposals was a product called SignTick. It was literally just, I guess what you’d know as EchoSign, or DocuSign, or HelloSign today. It was purely document signing. And then we started using it for quotes and then that was that really.

Now that I think of it, we had EasySite before that. That was probably about 12 years ago. It was some kind of pre-WordPress in a way. You just had these little things and you dragged them in and made a website.

Jeroen: Cool.

Adam: Reminiscing…

Jeroen: How did you exactly get into all these startup projects? Was it through doing web design first?

Adam: Yeah, yeah, it was. I started doing websites when I was super, super, super young. And then it was just like friends’ dads that needed websites.

Jeroen: What age were you?

Adam: I would be 14.

Jeroen: That’s funny. Me too actually. I started the same way at the same age.

Adam: Really?

Jeroen: Yeah.

Adam: Hah, that’s fun. I remember playing around with, what was it called? FrontPage? Microsoft FrontPage, was that it?

Jeroen: Microsoft FrontPage, yeah.

Adam: Is that the one?

Jeroen: Yup. I personally did most of my websites in Flash back then, but I used FrontPage as well.

Adam: Yeah, I remember playing around with it. I think one of my highlights was figuring out how to do DHTML. Dynamic HTML. You could make shit fly across the page and do all sorts of ridiculous stuff. It was good fun.

Jeroen: Doing these kind of projects, it kind of grew on you, didn’t it?

Adam: I think with all of it, you do these things with the best of intentions, you know? If you’re not going into something like this with the intention of it being something remotely successful, then you’re not going to do the things you need to do in order to make it successful and actually work.

At the same time, in a weird way, I’m almost glad some of it didn’t work. Because in every way, I mean if you just take SignTick, AddBook and EasySite, those three things, without doing those three things, Better Proposals would either A, not exist; or B, if it did exist, it would be absolutely awful.

The digital signatures were a key component in SignTick, and it’s now very prominent in Better Proposals. It’s almost exactly the same technology.

AddBook really taught us about organization and structure. And about layering of information and things like that. I mean obviously you guys have gone through this a lot at Salesflare as well.

EasySite really just taught us — I’m trying to say it without it sounding awful and bad — but we dealt with clients that didn’t really know what anything was. We were the most technical people they knew. These were the kind of people that would put a drink in the CD holder, in the CD drive. They’d say, “I found the CD, the cup holder, but I haven’t found the CD drive.” That was literally our client base at the time. We were designing EasySite for people like that.

What that taught us was to really challenge and question your copy. You can’t put too much information in, you need to keep it nice and short, … all that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of learning with these things, and I wouldn’t trade any of them. Even though none of those three projects were successful, I wouldn’t trade any of them for the world.

Jeroen: I understand. With all these startup projects, were you influenced in any way by your family? What kind of family did you grow up in?

Adam: My mum’s a teacher. And my dad’s an engineer. Not a programming engineer. He fixes things for — I like to say — a “drug dealer”, because he works for a drugs company. A legal one. And yeah, he fixes and maintains the heavy duty scales and everything else like that at the company.

When I said at 15, 16 years old, “I want to start my own business.”, neither of these two had a clue of what anything other than nine to five was. It was a bit of a challenge. But I think nowadays they’re pretty convinced that I was right.

There wasn’t a lot of — there was a lot of love — but there wasn’t a lot of good education going on from a business perspective. I charged somebody 600 pounds for a website once, this was up from 300, which is my rate. My mum’s response was, “How could you charge somebody so much money? You’re such a rip off. You’re grounded.”

It was, not exactly an awful lot of positive encouragement to increase my prices. I got grounded for increasing the prices, which meant I couldn’t go on any more meetings that week.

Jeroen: Haha.

Adam: Conundrum.

Jeroen: What did you study in high school? Something related?

Adam: When I was in school, we were the last year group that didn’t have any computer anything in our education. We were the last group that never had it. They just didn’t even have a qualification for it.

I did really bad at school. I just had C’s and D’s across the board. My mum’s a teacher and I was going home with C’s and D’s. She couldn’t have been more disappointed in me. It’s quite funny when looking back.

Jeroen: Did you ever have a “real job”?

Adam: Yeah, I’ve had a couple.

My first ever real job was working at Tesco’s. It is a supermarket, to anyone that doesn’t know. Like Walmart I guess. It’s basically the biggest supermarket in the UK. I was stacking all the news and magazines and newspapers and stuff like that. Sorting all those out. That was my first job.

I got fired from Tesco’s for being too efficient. And then I went to McDonald’s for like an hour and a half. I was like, “Fuck this, no way.” I went there because I couldn’t bear to go home without another job for fear of getting shouted at. I only lasted a few hours. Left. And then I spent a few months trying to get some web design clients.

And then I had two other jobs. One was working for a signage company in sales. Shop signage. Things like that.

That was pretty interesting. It taught me a little bit about companies. The company was about 12–15 people. It was an interesting size of business. Because there was clearly a Sales Department, which was me and one other guy. Then there was the Production Team, which was split into two bits. It was quite nice to sort of see a process there. It was small enough that everybody knew everybody. There was lots of skills overlap. But it was quite interesting to see how a company grew and split up departments.

And then the only other job I’ve ever had, was about ten years ago. I spent a year working with a company called Pure. It’s an email marketing company. It was selling email marketing to enterprises in a world where MailChimp wasn’t MailChimp.

That was good fun. I learned a lot about selling there and on getting your recurring revenue up. On what makes people make decisions. And on the best ways to sell software as a service. That was very interesting.

Jeroen: I bet. Talking about making a startup successful, what other startup or founder do you look up to, and why?

Adam: Good question. I think it’s varied a lot. I find that the things that are important to me this week, are different than the things that were important to me last week. I suppose I would say the guys over at Basecamp. They probably have the most consistent message that has constantly resonated with the way that I want to run my business.

I don’t really believe in the whole VC thing. I think there’s millions of different ways of doing it, and you don’t need to do that. Obviously, there’s exceptions, but on the most part, bootstrapping is entirely possible. The idea of not needing to work 160 hours a week. Having a no list, instead of a yes list. Things like that have always been true, and I suppose if I had to look up to anybody it would be Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson over at Basecamp.

But I suppose on a slightly more macro level, it changes really frequently because the whole thing about working in a SaaS business is it changes so, so, so much. Hiring and outsourcing weren’t even a remote concern for me six to eight weeks ago. Whereas now it’s literally all I’m doing.

Jeroen: I totally understand.

Adam: It’s so amazing how quick it changes. If you’re stuck on what one person or what one company is teaching, then you might not get the things that you need to understand that. It’s good to have an open mind and bring in information as and when you need it.

Jeroen: You have a point. The way I hear it, you’re looking more to have a bootstrapped startup than a VC funded one. Is that correct?

Adam: Yeah, yeah, it is. I love the idea of control. If we decide to take our product in a slightly different direction, I don’t want to have to clear that with 16 layers of Venture Capital management.

I also don’t like the path that the VC world takes you down. If you take on funding, generally you’re signing yourself up to a certain set of things. You have to work towards getting that big exit. That means either selling the company, or going public, or it fails. And that’s pretty much it.

There isn’t any middle ground where everybody’s just happy to have a nice consistent, healthy growth. To grow your team as and when you need it. To be in a scenario in which everybody has a good life. One in which nobody works too hard, but we’re all challenging ourselves anyway.

There’s no concept of that, seemingly, in the VC world. It’s all “go hard or go home” by any means necessary, and that’s it. That doesn’t really resonate with me, maybe just because I’m an old man now… Maybe that would be cool with my 24-year-old self, but at the age of 33 I don’t want a boss anymore.

Jeroen: You choose more for lifestyle than building something big?

Adam: I think you can do both. I don’t think it’s the one or the other. I think you can have a great life, do the things you want to do, and still go do great business as well.

I mean, yeah sure, it might not be as quick. You’ve got to accept that part if you’re going to go down the bootstrapped route. It is going to be slower than if you had 10 million quid to spend. You’re obviously going to be able to do things quicker if you’ve got a huge amount of money in the bank.

But I don’t see why it needs to be a choice. I mean, something that’s incredibly important to me is making sure that I have a nice, chill summer. I enjoy festivals. I enjoy going and spending time with my friends in different parts of the world. That’s something that’s super important to me.

If I had a venture-backed company, that would pretty much be non-existent. There’s no way you can turn around any VC and be like, “Yeah, it’s cool. I’m just going to go hang out in Italy or Croatia for the summer. See you guys at the end of August.” That’s not going to happen. It’s not going to fly, and you’ve got no way of convincing anybody that’s a good way of running a business. Even though there’s nothing wrong with it.

I don’t know. That’s just me. I think you can do both.

Jeroen: So you’re looking to grow Better Proposals into a big company still?

Adam: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s not like I’m looking to sort of just keep the thing as small as possible, but I don’t want to grow unnecessarily.

I think a lot of people think of bootstrapped companies, and they think “small companies”. I don’t think that’s necessarily right. There’s tons and tons and tons of bootstrapped companies that are massive.

Perhaps two of the biggest examples would be MailChimp and Basecamp. You think “project management”, you think Basecamp. You think “email marketing”, you think MailChimp. Neither of those two have taken any funding on.

What have they got in common? They both have not changed their business. They’ve changed how they’ve done things. They’ve adapted. But they’ve not changed the fundamentals, which is “We’re an email marketing company. We’re here to make email simpler.” Email isn’t going anywhere. Running projects isn’t going anywhere.

Those two companies, I think, can be more of an inspiration to founders than we think, because they’re just sort of doing things the right way. Not growing unnecessarily quickly.

Yes, they’ve grown quickly. Yes, they’re big companies, but they haven’t grown unnecessarily fast.

Jeroen: Got it. That’s interesting.

Now, if you’d win the lottery tomorrow, would you still be working on Better Proposals?

Adam: 100%. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.

That sounds crazy, but I wouldn’t change anything. I’d probably move somewhere different, live somewhere slightly different. Maybe build my dream house and have my perfect work set-up, but I wouldn’t change my day.

I haven’t set an alarm for ages. Anytime I ever set an alarm is when I’m getting up to go on holiday somewhere. I love that freedom. I love the idea that, if I get to half ten at night, I think, “Oh, do you know what? I’m feeling a good four hours coming on here. Let’s go.” I want that to be okay and not have to think, “Oh, shit. I’ve got to get up and get into the office before eight tomorrow.”

It’s setting little rules like I don’t ever take a phone call before 11 o’clock in the morning. That’s because I know that I would never sleep in that long. And if I do decide to work late or whatever, I’m not going to be wanting anybody else up moving their schedule around.

It also allows me to get stuff done in the morning. So, yeah, I don’t know. It’s just creating little rules for yourself. You don’t have to go full-tilt with it, but I do find it good to realize that you are actually in control of your own day.

Jeroen: What do you spend most of your work time on right now? How does your day look?

Adam: The last couple of weeks, it’s been more writing instructions for other people, dishing out other tasks.

I’m a designer by trade, so I’m doing anything that involves design. Anything that involves marketing or writing generally falls to me. And my co-founder Sabrina’s pretty much on anything that’s sort of development-based and product-based. She’s doing her own thing as well.

For me, it’s mostly writing. It’s design. It’s improving things, looking at decisions that we made about six months ago and just putting it through the filter. Does this still make sense? Is this still the best way to explain that with my new understanding of what customers want and with the questions that we get every day? Is that still relevant?

For example, we just rehashed all of our templates. Every single one of them. It has cost an absolute fortune, but it’s very much worth it. It came from simply opening up the templates and just looking at them and going, “Is this the best possible advert for our company? If I was trying to sell this to somebody and all I could show them was one thing, would this be it?” And the answer was “no”. That led me to look back through and get in touch with some designers that I knew and said, “The floor is yours. Go nuts and make these things look as good as possible.”

Jeroen: Are you in a phase then where you are working on optimization now rather than really pushing the growth?

Adam: I think a lot of it is the same. I just re-hashed the homepage a couple of weekends ago, and it looks like our visitor conversion has gone up by about a percent, which is kind of good.

You just have to constantly go through and look at that stuff. Optimization and growth is kind of the same stuff. You take something that’s already there and improve it, or you look at what you’re not doing and improve that way.

The only thing that I find a little bit difficult sometimes is this “no list”. There’s always a list of things to do. Always. You can be putting yourself under that unnecessary pressure by thinking, “Oh, we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do that.” You don’t need to. Rarely is any of that actually causing you to move toward your goals. It very rarely moves the needle that much. That’s what I’m finding.

Jeroen: Between you and your co-founder, are you the one who usually puts a foot on the brake, or are you the one who is pushing the gas? The one who says no to things, or the one who says “we absolutely have to do that”?

Adam: I think it’s a bit of both. I do a lot of reading. More ideas come into my head than into Sabrina’s. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that I expose myself to things that are likely to influence the direction of the company. I read a lot of blogs. I read a couple of communities. She doesn’t do that so much. She gets my filtered version of it.

Usually, I’m the one saying, “Let’s do this. Let’s do this. Let’s do this.” Very often, if I sound excited enough, I can convince her it’s a good idea.

But it’s really good and important to have somebody pushing back on some of your ideas. Things have to earn their place. It could be a new feature, a new person in your business, a new marketing avenue … It could be anything. But if it’s something that you’ve not been doing before, it’s got to fight for its place. It has to be something that’s going to make a difference.

I think it’s really important to have somebody in your business, or close to it, that can push back. Somebody who isn’t afraid to push back on even the best ideas.

Jeroen: Talking about keeping things in balance, how do you manage work-life balance? Do you work really late? Or do you put a limit? Where do you put the limit?

Adam: I don’t have limits. I’m never really completely working or completely switched off. I’ll go snowboarding and check Intercom on the chairlift. Or I’ll be working and play FIFA at the same time. It’s stupid stuff like that.

I think it’s probably caused by the fact that I work from home. I’m working in my living room. That’s a choice, though. I could go and get an office. Last time we did that, we just didn’t find it to be any more productive than anything else. We didn’t bother anymore.

We’re a remote company. We have people in Brazil, in America, all over Europe, and wherever, so there’s no centralized place that could exist anyway.

I think my personal ability to separate my work and my leisure life is pretty poor. It’s probably one of the things I’m worst at.

The one time of the week I do actually, truly, completely separate my work and my leisure life is when I play football. That’s it. It’s the only time. I get an hour a week where I’m completely and utterly unplugged. No phone. No nothing.

Jeroen: That’s soccer to the Americans?

Adam: Yes, exactly. Soccer to the Americans. I’m standing goal most of the time getting cold.

Jeroen: You’re a goalkeeper?

Adam: I’m a goalkeeper, yeah.

Jeroen: Cool.

Adam: Yeah, I’m not fit enough to be an outfield player.

Jeroen: Is that the way you stay mentally and physically fit? Is it football? Or are there other ways you manage stress levels?

Adam: I think most causes of stress for most people are because of money. It’s the first, major cause of stress. But beyond that, I don’t know. I think that manages itself when you’ve got a business that’s profitable and when you’ve got recurring incomes.

So much has to go wrong for us to be in trouble. It’s unreal. I’m not going to say it’ll never happen, because it probably will at some point. That’s what keeps me grounded.

In terms of actually managing stress levels, I don’t really find I get stressed. I enjoy everything we’re doing. Maybe a little bit of stress would be a good thing for me, because I’d probably be pushing myself a little bit more.

Jeroen: It sounds like you set up your company in a way that minimizes stress levels, because as soon as you get venture capitalists onboard or you start hiring more people, that’s when stress really begins.

Adam: I agree completely. It’s funny. Since the last couple of weeks, I’m sitting there working on something myself, and I’m like, “Oh, I wonder what he or she is doing.” There’s all these tasks that I’ve just started to assign to people. I didn’t have those problems just three months ago. I was just doing my own thing and that was it. Whereas now, I’ve started outsourcing a lot of stuff and I’m trying to free up my own time so I could be a little bit more effective in the areas that are needed.

Even that I wouldn’t call stress, but it’s another concern. It’s another thought I didn’t have that sort of crops up every now and again. I wouldn’t call it stress, but it’s definitely another thing to think about, and I guess that’s growing. Isn’t it?

When I think of it, you made a really good point. We have just set things up in a way that doesn’t really bother. It’s sort of a stress-free environment, really.

The most stressful thing that’s happened recently was our server running out of disk space in the middle of the night. It crashed. I weirdly woke up and looked at my phone. You can turn me off for that being a bad thing, but this time it was good. I picked it up. I got an email from the hosting company saying, “Your disk space is at 95%.” Then it went straight over the limit. That’s probably the biggest piece of stress that’s happened to me in the last couple of, maybe, years, in a weird way.

Jeroen: Apart from soccer and working, what do you like to spend your time on?

Adam: I don’t know because I don’t watch films. I watch football. I’m a big Barcelona fan.

How about this one for work-life balance: I don’t do anything if it clashes with a Barça game. In my calendar, I’ve got all of Barcelona’s football games. If somebody wants a phone call, I’m not available because there’s a game on. I can’t do it. There’s no possible way that I’d miss a Barcelona game.

I actually wouldn’t mind missing the odd game. It’s something that I decide is important, and it should be that cut off point. Whether I care about that particular match or not is irrelevant. It’s more the fact that there is that time when no one can get me.

Apart from that, I do go on quite a lot of trips and holidays. That’s something that I look forward to. There’s always something in the diary.

I prefer long, good trips. I do that instead of going three days and then doing a city break or something, like when I visited you and the Salesflare team the other day. That was the shortest trip I’ve taken in ages. It was just a five-day trip. That’s pretty rare for me. Usually it’s much, much, much longer, and I make sure that I can work and do my stuff while I’m away. I try and mix the two, really.

Jeroen: If you would sell Better Proposals for a ton of money and you could spend your life the way you wanted, would you go about traveling? Or what would you do?

Adam: Yeah, see, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think I’d have to do something similar to what I’m doing now because … I don’t know.

The perfect day for me has something where I get out of the house. I have to do some meaningful work and I have to move something forward.

I also have to do something that’s completely disconnected from work. It might be 20 minutes of watching a quick TV program, or it could be playing football or watching a football game. Seeing my family, going out for coffee somewhere, something physical, something outdoors, moving work forward in one way or another, and then having some social communication with somebody, a quick chat with a friend or texting a girl. Something that’s completely not work related and is completely social.

I’m trying to get as many of those little things in a day as possible. If you go too many days in a row without any one of those things, life starts to get a little bit weird.

Jeroen: Where are you based?

Adam: I’m in Brighton.

Jeroen: What’s Brighton known for?

Adam: Brighton is known for gays. It is known for being a little bit of a weird, sort of kooky, place. It’s not completely odd to walk through the center of Brighton and having someone with green spiky hair and pink tights on and a beard. That is not that weird in Brighton.

Jeroen: It’s at the sea, right?

Adam: Yeah. For anybody that doesn’t know, if you know where London is, just draw a line from London directly down until you get to the sea. That’s Brighton.

Jeroen: Is it a good place to have your startup?

Adam: Yeah. We don’t take anywhere near as much of an advantage of it, but Brighton SEO is one of the biggest SEO conferences in the world. It takes place about eight minutes from where I live.

I’m sure there’s tons of little startup communities and things like that in Brighton that we could contribute to and get involved in, but somehow, I’m not taking advantage of it.

Jeroen: Are there any other cool startups that we should know that are based in Brighton?

Adam: There’s a media publication called Happy Startup School. Those guys run a co-working space, but then they also do conferences and things like that. Little retreats and things. It’s pretty cool.

There’s some big agencies. Fresh Egg is a big agency. They’re based in Worthing, which is about five miles the opposite direction of Brighton.

And then there’s the accounting software, Kashflow. They’ve pretty much been overtaken by Xero now. They’ve got a pink logo. They were really, really, really big a few years ago. The founder of Kashflow lives in Brighton.

Jeroen: Let’s wrap up with a few learnings.

What’s the latest good book you’ve read? Why did you choose to read it?

Adam: I haven’t read a book in ages. But my favorite business book is Rework. The book by the guys over at Basecamp. That’s by far my favorite book.

Jeroen: Why is that?

Adam: Because it’s all actionable. There is no fluff in that thing at all. It’s all short essays. It’s like reading 25 blog posts. Each one is a completely independent thought. You can either agree with it or not agree with it.

Rework is a good book. It’s focused around a simple theme of rethinking the way that you’re working. That’s it. That’s as direct as the title gets. It’s super easy to read. Quick to read. Well presented.

Jeroen: That’s really funny. Actually, when we started out with Salesflare, the first book that my co-founder, Lieven, and I read was Getting Real, also by the Basecamp guys. It was our handbook in the beginning and showed us the way we would go about starting the business.

Adam: Yeah, we do exactly the same thing. Getting Real is brilliant. And Rework’s good. They got a new book coming out soon by the way.

Jeroen: Cool, I’ve never read Rework. I’m going to have a look at it.

Adam: Do it, man. It’s a really great book. Lots of it is, if you’ve been following those guys, standard stuff.

Don’t have meetings. You do your best work where you do your best work. That kind of insights.

It probably echoes a lot of what we’ve been talking about today.

Jeroen: Is there anything you wish you’d have known when you started out?

Adam: It’s quite difficult because you only know what you know at the time. I’m a firm believer that you should know stuff when it’s right to know it. Telling you these things before is kind of unhelpful.

I mean, yeah, I don’t know. There’s lot of things that I’d look back on myself and say, “Oh, if I’d done that earlier, then that would’ve been better.”

We’ve recently started paying attention to competitor comparison pages. It would’ve been great if we’d done that a year ago. But, really, we’re only now at a point where our brand is strong enough to actually enter in the same conversations as some of those guys, so it’s kind of pointless to do it before.

It sounds really weird and kooky, but everything happens for a reason in that respect, and you learn things when it’s right to learn things. You’re moving forward all the time.

There’s certainly things you could do sooner. It’s stupid stuff, man, like: I wish I’d tagged certain things in Intercom earlier. I’ve got no idea who’s got what template. It doesn’t help me target. Little things like that. But there’s no really major things.

If somebody had said to me, “Oh, you should do X,” I probably wouldn’t have done it anyway.

Jeroen: If you’d start over, would there be anything you would do significantly differently or are you just “no regrets”?

Adam: There’s nothing that stands out that was sort of significant like, “Oh, we totally wasted a year on this or that.”

I think I’ve had a very clear idea of where I wanted to take this business right from the beginning. I knew very, very, very early on what I wanted. Automated income.

It needed to be based on people buying a product or something of that nature. That’s it. It should not be dependent on my time or anybody’s time that I’m paying. That was really, really important to me. Everything that we’ve done for the last 10 years as a business has been gearing up towards that point.

We’ve been going from designing websites to designing software, to creating the Better Proposals product, and then finally shutting everything else down.

I think if we’d done any of that any sooner, we would’ve been stupid. If we’d cut off our client services business super early, we wouldn’t have had any money to build Better Proposals the way we have. And if we hadn’t built it with the quality that we did, then it wouldn’t be the product it is today, and it wouldn’t have been able to withstand the 5000 or so people we brought on with AppSumo, and the several thousands of others we’ve done since then and before as well.

We wouldn’t have done as good of a job on anything. So yeah, I don’t want to sort of get out and be like, “Oh, we’ve never made mistakes.” Of course… But, in terms of general process, I think we’ve pretty much got it about right.

Jeroen: Final question: what’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

Adam: I don’t know if it’s any one piece of advice that any person has given me, but just don’t do shit you don’t want to do. Well, you have to sometimes, but that’d be the bigger picture of it. If you’re going to do one shit thing that’s going to lead to 10 good things, maybe that’s worth it.

Put in a better way: don’t do anything consistently you don’t want to do for any sort of length of time, because it’s just not worth it. It drains all of your creativity. It drains all of your energy. To do stuff you don’t want to do is soul-sucking.

I have absolute massive respect for anybody that’s building a side business outside of their day job. To go through the nine-to-five thing and leave work drained, and then come home and start coding or marketing a new project, or writing or whatever it is that you’re doing… to do that after getting your energy sucked out of you all day, is absolutely massive. Massive respect to anybody that’s doing that. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t at this point.

Just don’t do something you don’t want to do. That’s probably the number one thing I’d say. Everything else stems from that. Remember: it’s your life. Try not to have too many things that are pulling you in a direction you don’t want to go in.

I’ve been super lucky in that I’ve got an incredibly supportive co-founder who knows when to go along with my stupid mental ideas and when to go, “Adam, just stop being such an idiot.” Thanks to her I found that balance. Having good people around you is super important. I am super grateful for that.



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