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Karthik Sridharan

How Flexiple went from $0 to $3M without code

website
Flexiple
monthly revenue
$250,000
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Flexiple is an exclusive network of top freelance developers & designers - we help startups & companies achieve their product goals by being the smartest & quickest way to scale their tech teams.

What's your personal background? What motivated you to start your own company? 

I studied engineering – electrical engineering to be specific. But like many engineers in India especially, I decided on a career in finance and joined investment banking, as an analyst in one of the ‘Big Four’ financial firms.

I worked for a couple of years in India, and then moved to London for work.

Like with any job in finance, the demand on your time and effort is extremely high. I was okay with that, but I wasn’t okay putting so much in for something I wasn’t passionate about. The hours, the effort – it didn’t feel like it had any impact at all.

I decided to quit it and do an MBA, thinking it would give me the space to decide what I could do next.

I got into the best business school in India, called IIM-Ahmedabad. Here,  I felt that it might give me the time to explore my next steps. In my first week, I was amazed at how the focus of the entire program was just about getting a job. The discussions were all centered around interviews, CVs, internships – not running a business or entrepreneurship.

I decided to bypass the entire placement program, which is a big deal because it’s the main reason people join this business school in the first place. That was my entry into entrepreneurship!

What no code tools did you use to build Flexiple and what purpose did each play in the final product?

For our business, we got the first $100,000 just by using Google Sheets! We had two sheets, one called ‘Companies’ and other, ‘Freelancers’. We used to talk to them, note down their names and details, and then manually match companies to freelancers, send them emails, make invoices and so on.

From wanting to make a very scalable product, we instead ended up with something very manual, because as I said, we decided to focus on the ‘business’ and not the product. But when these processes began getting too tedious, we decided to use no-code wherever we faced manual bottlenecks.

It started with just a little bit of automation.

We started with Airtable and Zapier, so we could collect data and move it into our CRM to trigger emails to our freelancers. This is where my no-code journey began!

But as we kept going, we started facing even more bottlenecks, especially as the scale of what we wanted to achieve was increasing.

This time, instead of committing to build a product, I just started extending our no-code stack. So we added Webflow to our stack, and freelancers would login through Memberstack and express an interest in any of the projects on our database.

It wasn’t long until the entire stack became very, very complex.

So it was Airtable, Zapier, which then moved to Integromat and then Memberstack.

There were so many touch points, which resulted in things breaking here and there. That’s when I decided to move us to Bubble so that all of this could be under one roof.

We kept Airtable for a while because of its great data visualization tools, and we had a bunch of scripts on it to shortlist freelancers.

Bubble has API workflows and we’d written scripts for Airtable which made API calls so that’s how we were operating things.

Along with this, we also built a bunch of side projects. One is called Scale, which helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs access high-quality illustrations. These are open-source. You can actually change the colors of the illustrations with a color picker, and add things on, like a COVID mask for example. All of this had been done on no-code, with a bit of code added on top of it. It was all on Webflow.

We have a few more no-code projects and the entire stack is very, very affordable. It still costs less than $100 a month and we're able to pull in a revenue of over $3 million.

It got a little complex, as I said earlier, because we had four tools interacting with one another: Airtable, Integromat, Memberstack, and Webflow. Most of the connections between Bubble and Airtable were made through API calls.

Our marketing website was built entirely on Unicorn and our pages would receive a monthly traffic of over 400k. Unicorn makes it easy to modify content as needed and we were able to build 100s of pages with ease for just $10/month. Moreover, it barely took a few minutes to design new types of pages and have them up and running.

Presently, our internal product runs entirely on Bubble. The marketing website and Scale have been moved to code now, as it allows more customization which we needed for better SEO. 

What were the initial costs to get Flexiple off the ground? 

We spent $10,000 to build a couple really sophisticated products and ended up throwing each into the bin and then successfully got Flexiple off the ground for next to nothing.

The first product was a tool that automated the entire onboarding and recommendation process through complex algorithms. Essentially, we were ready for a million projects before we had handled one, and it was so complex that even I used to get confused at times. 

The second time around, we realized that so many complexities weren’t needed and we’d tried to overachieve with the first one. So we built a beautiful new product that was easy to understand and removed some of the features from the first one. Then, we started reaching out to customers. But, people weren’t using the product at all! Most of our conversations were happening over mail, phone and LinkedIn.

We’d done our user research while making it, so what happened? Turns out, they couldn’t care less about our product. Freelancers wanted projects & companies wanted quality talent. They wanted us to first deliver on that before using our product. What happened here again is we built for scale when we don’t know what it takes to earn the 1st dollar. So this product, too, was a failure.

In the end, we just asked freelancers to fill in a simple Google form. The evaluation process was coordinated over mail and as mentioned earlier, we stored freelancer info in a Google sheet. We leveraged our personal network via LinkedIn and otherwise to get client leads, and their info was stored in another sheet. We connected freelancers and clients via mail.

The freelancers simply logged the hours worked in another sheet and we manually prepared the contracts and invoices. At this time it was just the three co-founders, and we didn’t take any salary for the first couple years of the journey.  We followed this for a while and it made us the first $100k in revenue!

We used Zoho’s CRM when the number of freelancers and clients started increasing instead of Google Sheets, and this cost us very little. Only after our bandwidth was stretched, we infused tech in some places.

What was the process of building your product from idea to launching?

After the failed products, most of our efforts were directed into getting clients and freelancers. At the start, all of our customers came from our personal networks, this is perhaps the most reliable method during the early days of your startup. Knowing you personally, they have more reason to ‘help’ you and there is inherently more trust in you and what you make. Plus, there’s a greater chance of them answering your emails or calls :)

So we started with LinkedIn. We had a list of relevant companies we wanted to target as clients and reached out to those in our personal network who were part of these. Now the first step was to form better connections with them and not pitch the startup directly. Eventually, when it came up, we would suggest how Flexiple might be useful to them. 

For those who weren’t active on LinkedIn, we took the email route. We did a lot of research and sent highly personalized mails to a lot of potential clients. Then, we carefully noted down what works and what doesn’t based on these conversations. The info collected helped quite a bit in improving the outreach to potential customers and helped us land our first few clients!

How do you attract customers?

For the initial year, almost all the business we got was through our network. We leveraged LinkedIn to find the right person in the companies we wanted as clients and just hustled our way to get our first 10-20 clients.

However, soon we hit a ceiling. We recognized that our target audience was startups in the US, Europe, etc. - tech startups that wanted quality tech talent and could afford them. Given our network was ZERO outside India, we realized we had to work on growing our inbound pipeline.

We found ProductHunt to be quite useful for us. Most startups only launch their primary product on PH, but we also made many “side projects”, which we launched on PH and marketed Flexiple subtly in them. More about it here.

However, it wasn’t a very reliable and stable channel. That’s when we invested heavily in SEO and that’s been a real journey. It involved:

  • Building our “Domain authority” by writing many guest posts
  • Then we identified keywords that had high intent. This would involve our competitor alternatives-type keywords on which we wrote focused blogs such as “Toptal alternative” which gave us many client leads.

But beyond that, we made a ton of marketing pages targeting low-volume keywords but with very high conversion intent. E.g. A page for “Hire Freelance React Developers” => We would then just replace the word “React” with any other technology and duplicate the pages. Of course, we had to have enough unique content on each page to ensure we weren’t penalized by Google for duplicate content.

This SEO strategy laid the foundation for our inbound growth - though it took a lot of mistakes and about a year to pay off in a big way. We have since gotten even better at SEO and have ~500k people visiting our website each month and it continues to be the largest source of traffic.

However, one of the pleasant consequences of ensuring our customers are really happy is that a major source of revenue comes from repeat customers and customer referrals - about ~40%.

In the past year or so, both my co-founder and I have become more active on Twitter & LinkedIn which has also become a great channel for new leads. We’ve also recently started some paid marketing initiatives to reach out to more customers.

What are the biggest challenges you've overcome building Flexiple?

The biggest obstacle we overcame would be the ability to generate quality inbound traffic and as a result, good leads. None of us (the three co-founders) were active on social media or knew much about marketing. I just made my social accounts a couple years ago.

Of course, one has to find the relevant channel for them to leverage, but in our case, we realized that just adding value on the mainstream social channels like Twitter and LinkedIn would help us grow our own business too.

Also, learning SEO was critical but we started too late. For a couple of years, we wrote articles that were never optimized and therefore didn’t bring us any traffic. So, in all honesty, they were wasted efforts.

We, of course, learned from our initial mistakes of building tech before actually needing it or understanding what to build. Since then, we have been gradually infusing it as we scale. Even now, as I mentioned earlier, our internal product runs on Bubble, a NoCode tool, as it gets the job done extremely well.

What's your advice for non-technical people who want to start a company? 

My biggest advice to other non-tech founders is to build a solution that solves a problem first and then use tech to scale it. Never get someone to build features for the heck of it.

Basically, think business model before tech.

We made two products, spending about $5,000 each on them, and eventually had to junk them both. I took a good six months out of our timeline building those products, so that wasn’t productive, but I guess I learnt a lot.

My main lesson was that tech is not everything! It’s always business before tech. Always build a solution that

  • your customers want, and
  • that works!

Then use tech to scale that particular solution. Don't start the other way. Don't build products that can scale and then test whether it actually solves the problem that you were initially trying to solve. Instead, use off-the-shelf solutions for as long as you can.

That's what pushed us towards no-code, from initially using Google Sheets, and then Airtable. No-code actually makes you think along those lines, which is business before tech.

Tech is just a means to an end. It can end up just being fancy talk that makes you sound very intelligent in the market, but you can often miss what customers really want.

I think a lot of the buzzwords these days around blockchain, AI and ML, etc. are, in fact, just buzzwords. No customer cares about them. They care about how you're solving their problem.

What are your future plans for Flexiple?

It has been a slow burn for us - it took us almost 4 years to get to $1million in annual revenue. However, in just a few more months, we reached $3mn in annual revenue and continue to do well in our m-o-m revenue.

Honestly, it isn’t that we have suddenly cracked a hidden code - it is just that our efforts in the past many years are paying dividends now. Of course, we are making fewer mistakes in execution now :).

I feel, we have found what I can define as replicable success - so now our focus has shifted to consolidating this while ensuring we build a great team around us. We have laid the initial foundation of a quality team with ~30 of us in the team.

We are also very passionate about entrepreneurship and towards the end of 2021, started a new startup called buildd.co where we share lessons on entrepreneurship that we learnt over the past years. We recently launched a free SEO course on the website and have some plans to help more people in the coming months. 

How do you think the rise of no code tools will impact entrepreneurship? 

I believe NoCode will make entrepreneurship more accessible and affordable and is possibly the right choice for 50%+ of early-stage software startups. You don’t need a developer to build basic MVPs, etc., and even non-tech founders like me can have more control and build stuff themselves.

Even if you are a tech founder, NoCode allows you to build something simple yet efficient and fast. You can then focus on the business side of things and make revenue before investing it back into the product. So it can definitely help with early success of your startup and create more successful startups in the market

Also, people often think of it as a battle between NoCode and Code and that’s not right. NoCode is not the enemy of Code and neither is vice-versa true. The enemy has always been the high costs of building a startup. As NoCode brings that down, the Code world will be one of the biggest beneficiaries with more startups in the ecosystem than ever before. More developers would eventually be hired to scale and build better products.

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Unlock premium step-by-step tutorials building real apps and websites
Easy to follow tutorials broken down into lessons between 2 to 20 minutes
A community to share what you're building, ask questions, and get support if you're stuck
Access all of this with No-Code MBA Unlimited
Unlock premium step-by-step tutorials building real apps and websites
Easy to follow tutorials broken down into lessons between 2 to 20 minutes
Get access to the community to share what you're building, ask questions, and get support if you're stuck
Friendly Tip!
Companies often reimburse No Code MBA memberships. Here's an email template to send to your manager.