Adii Pienaar

Josh Pigford on June 26, 2017


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This week I talk with Adii Pienaar, founder of WooCommerce and Conversio. We discuss growing up in Cape Town, how Adii’s entrepreneurial father and teacher mother influenced his career path, how entrepreneurship gave him a sense of belonging and so much more. Enjoy!

Josh Pigford: All right, thanks for joining me Adii.

Adii Pienaar: Thanks for having me Josh.

Josh Pigford: So I would love to … I guess to kind of kick things off here, I would love to kind of get your backstory. Like you as a kid.

Adii Pienaar: Well, let’s uh …

Josh Pigford: Way back.

Adii Pienaar: Exactly, well I’m not that old but that is quite a while back. So I guess, kinda simple things dude. I think I had a wholesome kind of childhood. Very little part of suburbia. My dad was an entrepreneur since I can remember. He was working on his own stuff. Some would relate it to computers. And kind of finances back in the day. Finding some kind of hybrid of those things. My mum’s a teacher. So um, kind of looking back at those things, I think I had to access to two great worlds. On my dad’s side, sort of business stuff. And for my mum’s side, both the kind of teaching background. I think I learned a lot about people and emotion intelligence. So yeah, I guess parents, wholesome living. I have two younger sisters, which is interesting. So they were in the house and all of this, and I think I was a terror to them. Even though today, I want to believe they love me a little bit.

I kind of I think I had a very safe childhood to some extent. Even though kind of looking back at it now, I never quite fit in anywhere until I would say university where I probably re-discovered business and kind of this thing called entrepreneurship which I think was the first time I really felt I had something in my life that was identity. So yeah, I think that’s I mean skipping over a couple of things. But that’s childhood mainly.

Josh Pigford: So what, you mentioned your dad was an entrepreneur. Do you feel like early on, did he involve you in that stuff or was it just sort of like, hey I know Dad does stuff like that?

Adii Pienaar: Mostly definitely involve me. He involved me in two ways. The one was the part which was the not too much which was just since he was kind of at the intersection of like computers and finance or financing systems [inaudible 00:02:57]. He had me do a lot of data capturing for him on things. For which he didn’t pay me, and I got it in the goals if I was happy for lunch which to a 10, 11 year-old, that was pretty cool. But the thing that he did though that I will, to this day remember is even though the bulk of that data capturing work was silly monkey work, right? Repetitive monkey work. Whenever I would capture something, and I would ask him like, Dad what is this? He would always take the time to explain this to me, right? Even if it was just kind of even simple invoice that I was capturing in the comm software, and there was maybe something different. Maybe the text was different, or maybe there was multiple line items that was out of ordinary, and he would explain those things to me.

And I think what he did that was a least nurture that curiosity I had about all the cogs that drive a business. And he nurtures the kind of stuff that happens on the outside or the stuff that he can see from the outside. But the kind of cogs that kind of sit below that. So definitely think he entertained those questions. And he was always kind of engaging when I had those questions.

Josh Pigford: Did you grow up in Cape Town?

Adii Pienaar: I did born in Cape Town, and I still live here.

Josh Pigford: Gotcha. So what was, obvious I assume as a kid you didn’t, you weren’t like up on, hey is there some sort of entrepreneurial scene going on here? But now, is that something that you’ve seen grown there? I guess pros and cons of growing up in Cape Town.

Adii Pienaar: Yeah. So I guess you could say kind of tech and startup perspective, that’s changed a lot. So if you consider, I mean I launched the very first kind of thing that became Woothemes 10 years ago this year. So if you consider the kind of the start of the ecosystem in Cape Town back then, it was nonexistent. Almost nonexistent. And it’s a very different space today. There’s multiple kind of tech stores as a local integration of their accelerator stuff, so it’s a very much kind of growing or developing tech ecosystem tech hybrid in that sense. But to the extent, I always feel like, it’s interesting, this opportunity and I, I’m born free, right?

Because I’m gonna reference a part right here. I’m born free in the sense that kind of the … part of that didn’t really affect me. So probably just before the classification of proper born-frees. But the reality of that was is my perspective about all race in Africa is due to a poor type and the sanctions that our international community imposed onto Africa. [inaudible 00:05:33], that actually meant that many people for various reasons had to find their own way in life, whether it meant, back in the day you weren’t gonna get kind of help from the international community circle. We had to figure out how to do things. Which meant that South African doctor in Cape Town was the first to do the first heart transplant. So we … There’s always kind of been that entrepreneurial spirit, and even today we’re … We have great kind of poverty in our country and I see many many young entrepreneurs that have this hunger that unfortunately kind of the corporate and economic system in South Africa isn’t conducive to everyone having jobs. So people have to find their ways, you know, other means of kind of making living. So these … I think in terms of that, the core of entrepreneurs’ spirits is definitely there. And in my experience, what it is is that it’s at least been there forever.

Josh Pigford: Yeah. And I think it’s a really great point that there’s obviously a lot of depth that goes into the whole like hey there’s not enough jobs to go around, but at the same time, I think there’s also something to be said of like of peoples’ … Their ability to take something like that and say well, I’ll figure it out and like, I can’t rely on the government to figure it out for me or provide anything for me. So like, I will do it myself.

Adii Pienaar: And yeah, exactly man. And it’s not kind of just talking well about something well like a [inaudible 00:07:04]. That is pure oppression honestly, but I mean, like we’re beyond that now. It’s something, it’s past events and nobody can go back and erase that. So I really feel it’s about resilience and taking what you have today and kind of figuring out a way forward regardless of kind of the hand you’ve been dealt in the past.

Josh Pigford: Yep. So you’ve mentioned university and felt like that’s kind of when you maybe found your niche in entrepreneurship. So where … You went to like full finish school there or just a little bit of time at university?

Adii Pienaar: No, so I spent four years at the university. I did it by two years in accounting to become a charted accountant and auditor. And I actually hated every day there of. I …

Josh Pigford: Why did you pick accounting?

Adii Pienaar: So our school system in high school did the two closest subjects that I could take that related to business was accounting and what you would call Business Economics, so it’s not macro economics, it’s more like business management, is a better term to explain it. And I just really excelled at accounting, mostly maybe [inaudible 00:08:17] would know. And it’s kinda ecological by nature, but it got me close to business. I think that was the important thing, so I really love this. But going from like school accounting, which is accounting fundamentals to university accounting, and it’s all kinda tax systems, and it’s just a bunch of stuff. But nobody really needs to know. Like you can pay consultants to help you with that kind of stuff.

At least it wasn’t for me. I guess I went the completely opposite route in terms of working on my own stuff. Making my own stuff. And not being stuck in that rigidity of like, here’s 10 rules and you have to apply them and if the supply’s whatever … That was just too rigid for me.

Josh Pigford: Yup. So did WooThemes come about while you were in university?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah. So in my final year of university, I’m able to figure out a way of paying for my studies cause my Dad and I had a disagreement about what I was supposed to study in kind of my post-graduate year. And so I had to figure out a way to pay for my final year. And that kind of led me into doing consulting for WordPress initially. And by then of that year, I built the very first theme that back then was called Premium News Theme. But that kind of sparked a lot of things that kind of allowed me to meet up with my eventual co-founders, Magnus and Mark about six, seven months later. We brand the thing that is WooThemes.

Josh Pigford: So at that point in time … What year was that?

Adii Pienaar: That’s November 2007.

Josh Pigford: 2007. Wow that’s a long time ago. At that stage … WordPress had been around for still at that point, quite a while already. But, what was the sort of theme landscape at that point? I guess more specifically, what was sort of the premium theme landscape at that point?

Adii Pienaar: So it just goes forward. Like I said, you trace it back and you ask everyone in the system. That first theme that I released alongside another guy called Brian Gardner. And I think there was one other individual who’s name I completely forgot now. The three of us kind of released the first kind of premium stuff at about the same time. Premium themes as kind of know, as we know today don’t really exist at that stage. There was a massive gap between kind of the free stuff that was out there, that most people, myself included kind of did as legion kind of stuff. And then the industry around kind of consulting for WordPress was flourishing. And just started flourishing already. But there wasn’t that kind of go between of like selling products on WordPress.

Josh Pigford: Yeah. So how did you … That first theme, how did you even get that out there when there’s not … That isn’t sort of the standard, like oh of course, I’ll pay for a really nice WordPress theme?

Adii Pienaar: You’re probably touching on one of my biggest regrets. Not that I kind of I … I don’t think about life in terms of regrets too often. That’s too harsh a word. So back in the day … The simple answer is I know so completely off my own blog, and kind of the context of that is, my blog was getting about 30,000 uniques a day at that stage. Which was pretty … I mean it was my Britain writing because I wasn’t … Even today I’m not a brilliant writer. But it was completely off of free themes and so free themes back then … the space was originally small when WordPress started to blow up. So kind of the I was the only mover in that space, which meant that if you put on quality Fiesta, you would just get a hell of a lot of traffic. Kind of today, my blog doesn’t do close to that. Nobody knew about building email lists, except maybe Noah Kagan probably knew that. That’s his game. But nobody else knew that back in 2007. So yeah, completely off my blog.

Josh Pigford: At that point, was it even called WooThemes with that first theme? [crosstalk 00:12:18]

Adii Pienaar: No, and the first theme was called Premium News Theme and wasn’t even … Like the idea was never to have multiple themes either. But yes, the theme was called Premium News Theme when Magnus and Mark joined shortly thereafter. When we started doing a few other themes and we brand slightly to Premium News Themes using the kind of plural there. And then in July I believe the next year, we rebranded something that was more kind of … It allows [inaudible 00:12:47], which was ultimately WooThemes.

Josh Pigford: Gotcha. So do you consider yourself a designer or?

Adii Pienaar: I’m a lover of beautiful things Josh. So when I … I guess I understand some design principles, and obviously back in the day I dabbled. And I still would call myself as creative, but I lack the technical ability to put what I have in mind onto screen or any other form for that matter. Or many other forms. So even though I did a lot of design back in the day, I was never a great designer. Nor was I a great dev either. I just got … Both of those skills, I was able to do enough of them to get the initial products out there and to grow the business. And today, I obviously do none of those. I focus on stuff that I’m actually good at.

Josh Pigford: So, WooThemes, 2008, you guys I guess at that point decide that hey, this should be a thing. And let’s put a lot more effort into it. Is 2008, you start putting out additional themes?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah, so by the time we rebrand WooThemes, we really had I think six, seven products. So six, seven different themes. And yeah, we definitely kind of had this hunch that WooThemes was gonna continue growing. But I think it wasn’t until a year or so after that, where Magnus and Mark actually came on board full time, they kept their … Magnus had kind of a full time gig, and Mark was still doing a lot of freelancing, I was learning full-time person, working on WooThemes at the time. Cause I think there was more a sense of destiny, right? Where you’re somebody doing this thing which is seemingly pretty easy, putting out work, [inaudible 00:14:36] work and you’re getting paid for it kind of thing and you’re doing nice work. No real time clients with deadlines kind of shouting at us and that kind of thing. And it just kept growing initially. And I want to claim that we were these great entrepreneurs that did these great things but I think at least for that first year or so, we were literally just riding the wave of kind of WordPress growth. Trying to figure out what this is, what we’re actually working on.

Josh Pigford: So you guys just keep kicking out themes for a few years, and then at some point you guys start doing plugins as well?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah. That came a lot later. And not because we necessarily kind of wanted to but we had a few almost 18 months where we tried to work on a plug in, and a precursor for commerce. And nothing panned out. Cause we never really had a strong development and technical background in most of them. And Magnus and Mark were much stronger designers, and they were at least in devs, front and developing they were great at, but the kind of the stuff behind the scenes, none of us were great at. And I don’t think we had a culture of being great at those things. Which meant that for about 18 months we tried different avenues, from kind of partnering to outsourcing to get new commerce up and running.

And it wasn’t until 2011 where we ultimately met two guys out of the UK, Jay Koster and Mike Jolly, and they had been working on a separate new commerce, well we weren’t new commerce at the time, more pretty commerce plugin called Juice Up. And we fell in love with the code. We fell in love with what they were doing, and we tried to buy the product unsuccessfully from the company that they were working for. Which meant that our plan b was just working at … We thought that it was open source and we made Jay and Mike an offer to join us, and lead the project on our side.

Josh Pigford: And so they did that, and you guys … Is Woo Commerce one of those things that sort of fundamentally changed the business?

Adii Pienaar: Within about a year, Woo Commerce made up 90% of our revenue. So it completely changed it. I think many entrepreneurs in this world who aren’t humble enough in terms of how things change and how they never kind of plan for things. The reality kind of for us is that we build Woo Commerce initially because we wanted to build more themes.

Josh Pigford: Sure.

Adii Pienaar: And what we also stumble on, and kind of the biggest part of the Woo Commerce created the revenue and these three quarters ended up being this add on, sort of this extension eco-system. And that wasn’t something that we had planned when we kind of when we started working at Woo Commerce with Jay and Mike. I mean that was a model that they had created with Jigger Shop, this other company that they had worked for. And we literally just adopted it. We kind of fell into that. We owe a great deal of success just to, I wouldn’t necessarily call it luck, but at least our acceptance that maybe there was something else out there and we’re gonna give this a go. Not because this was our initial plan. That was just the status quo at the time, and we jumped into the deep end, and almost kind of optimized from there on in. Not knowing that there was gonna even be something that we could optimize.

Josh Pigford: So you guys are doing Woo Commerce. You’ve got the theme stuff going. And then at some point you decide to leave. Correct?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah. So almost two years later from Woo Commerce … So this is mid 2013 … And I think I just got to a point where I wanted a new challenge, and the thing interestingly enough was the kind of idea that I wanted to pursue at the time, was a host adversion of Woo Commerce. So I really, apart from finding a way where we were a proper platform that was hosted and where we had kind of proper, direct, and consistent connection with the stores and the people that were using our software, which we obviously didn’t have with Woo Commerce itself. It was done out of a product. I really wanted to get into that. Plus, I just interestingly I, just pressing as an entrepreneur, just got to point where this is just incremental now and we’ve been profitable since forever, and this just wasn’t challenging. And at that stage, I didn’t feel … I mean Magnus and Mark felt that they wanted to go a different direction with the business, and I felt that it was just time to kind of cut the cord and try to recreate all of this.

So I ultimately sold out and I restarted the process about mid-2013 and by the end of 2013, I had made a deal with Magnus and Mark to buy back my equity.

Josh Pigford: I mean that seems, I don’t know, two years is I guess, not a long time, but to leave something that your name makes up 90% of the revenue within a year of building Woo Commerce, was there any temptation to stay around only because it’s like holy moly, we’ve got a rocket ship here? Or was it really just, eh I’m a little bored?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah. So a bit of both, and I think … again, regret is such a harsh word but kind of my personal, if I look at my personal development and what I know about myself today and what I didn’t recognize then, and then took me another three years from then to sort of know this about me. But the way that I sort of built my identity as an entrepreneur is based on the fight or flight mode. Which basically meant that I had all that related to control issues, and kind of always this fighting or flight, kind of like flying away which meant that I was never gonna be a … I feared being a passive person, and a part kind of passive party in running this business. So that’s ultimately why I felt the safest thing to do was to leave completely and properly. Which again, in hindsight now, maybe that wasn’t necessary. Maybe that wasn’t a way for me to kind of exit in a different way. Not sell my equity, not sell all of my equity. All of those things.

But I was … On one hand, that was part of it, but on the other hand I was definitely driven by this desire to have a new challenge. And also to prove myself. Which again I know now is part of fight or flight mode. This kind of idea that okay, I have to prove myself constantly. Mostly to myself. But that was definitely kind of … That was the head space I was in. Yeah.

Josh Pigford: What do you think that comes from? The whole fight, flight, or freeze kind of thing is a natural human response, but where do you think that comes from for you? For that being so strong at that point in time that you’re like, I’m done. I just have to cut all ties. I’m done. And move on.

Adii Pienaar: Yeah, so I won’t go too deep. But I mean many experiences in my childhood got me to a point of whether its not feeling worthy or not feeling good enough, or being told that I could do better, meant that I never had a … I don’t think that I ever had a good relationship with just being content.

Josh Pigford: Sure.

Adii Pienaar: And that kind of internal validation is something that I’ve only in the last year, I’ve learned to in a wholesome way, I think I’ve always had internal validation to some extent, I don’t think I would’ve been able to be involved with creating businesses if I hadn’t had that internal validation, but that was also very much kind of f you world, I’ll show you kind of thing. Which is more of a unified response than just this internal contentment about I’m doing this thing, I’m proud of myself. I’m happy with what I’m doing. All those kinds of things. But yeah, it’s definitely kind of childhood experiences. At least that’s what my therapist tells me.

Josh Pigford: Sure, sure. So you’ve cut ties with Woo Themes and the next product you decide to start is public beta. Is that right?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah. That’s it.

Josh Pigford: So I remember public beta because of a specific product validation experiment that you did.

Adii Pienaar: Yes.

Josh Pigford: Can you talk about that?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah, so for anyone listening that didn’t know what public beta was, the idea initially was some kind of entrepreneurial community, community of founders. And then we tried to do, almost to kind of reference something else, trying to do a treehouse for entrepreneurs. So through the years, through WooThemes, I had met many great entrepreneurs, and I kind of got loads of them to these short little video courses on the side. And then you would kind of pay membership to be part of the community and get the content.

So for the testing the idea and validating that there was something there, what I basically did was after agreeing with all these entrepreneurs, we had set up these courses, or at least outlines thereof. But the challenge in that sense to produce high quality video, obviously very capital intensive thing. So basically we launched the website that promoted this whole library of content, had a full blown kind of stripe integration to do, you know credit card processing. And we got you to basically sign up, go through a whole process, get a pre-oath on your credit card to prove that you really wanted this thing, but then we never charged you. And at that stage we basically told you, you’ve been added to a queue because that was the thing that was popular back then. And we did that, obviously not having a lot of content or the product, and we explained that to people in the two weeks after we ran the experiment, but the goal with that was, and the goal that we achieved was, we wanted to validate that people wanted to pay for this before we started kind of producing the content. And if I remember correctly, I think we got beyond 1K in MRR just running your theoretical MRR obviously. Based off of that experiment.

Josh Pigford: So the thing that rubbed people the wrong way was that they had put in their credit card info, correct? And then ultimately got nothing?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah.

Josh Pigford: Do you feel … I mean hindsight, obviously there’s, when you talk about a landing page, or a lot of people say that just drop your email address and then they take the number of email addresses as being validation that somebody wants something. Which isn’t true, but then there’s the other extreme of it is like asking people for money as another side of it, and you like … You picked something sort of in between there. But from a psychology perspective, there was a little bit of like, deception’s a strong word here, but you acted like this stuff was there and so that you could really test the idea. Which I think is kind of fascinating. At the end of the day, were many people upset about that or kind of like were they intrigued by it? Or what was the overall response to this faux credit card charging?

Adii Pienaar: I think as most things that happen online, you’re gonna find that some people were upset, and those that were upset were very vocal in that. Interestingly enough, the people that actually added their credit card, I think we literally had one or two that were really upset. Whereas the people that were upset were mostly people looking from the outside in. To this thing. Which I want to say it’s fascinating. I think it’s actually just very prevalent on the internet. For me though … I guess the reality is, I wouldn’t do that again. Because I do agree, well deception is probably again too strong word as you said, there is dishonesty in that. And what I’ve learned since is those kind of wins are relatively short term. And I think at the time as well, it felt good. It felt like this like I was kind of hustling, and I had proven this thing. But in hindsight, I look back at that and again I regret not too much, but it just doesn’t feel good. I look at it, and I’m like, no it’s not something that I would repeat. I didn’t really learn anything about myself. Or about life from that. Yeah.

Josh Pigford: So you run the test. You mentioned what, a thousand dollars in MRR? Or theoretical MRR?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah.

Josh Pigford: Ultimately you didn’t launch Public Beta, so is it for you … Because that test didn’t prove enough or what happened?

Adii Pienaar: We kind of hit a whole bunch of stumbling blocks beyond that. So what I never knew beforehand, was that kind of getting someone to give me a theoretical yes and say, Adii, I will produce this content with you to actually getting them to block off half a day of their time to do the content, to create the content with this was gonna be a whole nother ball game. We got into a bit of that. And we tried to pivot out of that by prioritizing the community aspect of that first. And I think we had some great ideas in terms of literally … I think at one stage we were trying for the angle of groundskeeper for founders. Having not just a bit of community, to not just discussion forum, but literally having some kind of accountability system built in. And I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, and a lot of stuff there that I’m very passionate about, but we ultimately kind of were chopping and changing stuff so quickly, it was just difficult.

Which meant that we never found traction on one thing. Within a couple of months, before we ever properly launched, I had just reached burn out. The context or the subplot to all of this was, whilst we were going through this six month phase of working on this, that was also the exact six months that I was negotiating my exit which was a challenging exit from WooThemes. By the end of that, I was just … I was like screw it.

Josh Pigford: You were done.

Adii Pienaar: I was done. I was like this is it.

Josh Pigford: Yeah. So you decided to shut it down on public beta, and then at what point did you transition from Public Beta to starting what was originally called Receiptful?

Adii Pienaar: So there’s been about a five, six month gap there. The intention was for me to take off a little more time. But at that stage, I only knew myself as Adii the entrepreneur so not working on something left this big void in my life, even though there was always so many different things going on when I was … I was a young father at the time. It’s interesting. There was stuff that I could’ve done. But there was about six months, I stumbled onto an article that spoke about the missed marketing opportunities via email receipts. Which then kind of sparked, this is … Let me get the timeline correct, Public Beta shut down at the end of 2013. And then like April, May the next year of 2014 I stumbled onto this article. And then started building Receiptful for initially the kind of idea was to move onto the stripe.

And I have to say Josh, you were at that early stage, I think you had just passed 10k in MRR Baremetrics. And you had taken the whole world by storm. Nobody, none of us knew that the Stripe, cause it never existed. That was a big part of the initial emphasis for what I had hoped to do with Receiptful. And I think almost the business way, you ended up being our very first beta tester for that MVP as well.

Josh Pigford: Yup. Yup. So the Receiptful thing … I remember … I think it was that article you were talking about referenced Squared a good bit I feel like, or there was something with like Jack Dorsey and like Squared doing these really interesting receipts. I could be way off there.

Adii Pienaar: No, no. He was … There was another article at the time, Jack Dorsey and Squared was, I think it was still pretty IPO or just post IPO, and what I can remember, and I can’t remember the exact quote, but he spoke about kind of email receipts being a publishing medium in itself. And how they were kind of doing interesting stuff with their receipts with Squared merchants at least. So we took a lot of in that article I read, and I took a lot of inspiration from that. The kind of subsequent versions that we try to build, and we definitely referred to a lot about what Squared was doing.

Josh Pigford: Yeah. So you initially … I know you tried it just on Stripe, but ultimately you backed away from that. Was it a Woo Commerce integration? Was that the big play or?

Adii Pienaar: [00:32:00] Yeah so, basically what happened was we, with Stripe, we realized, with Stripe it wasn’t just the pin underneath. The focus of that stage was also building receipt technology for other SaaS figures. And what we found was that we could get engagement on receipts. So in terms of kind of open rates and click rates weren’t bad for MVP products, but there was no kind of subsequent follow through, or real measurable benefit. Which I realize that this is gonna be hard. But we had all this kind of data or data reference points. So we could kind of point to the likes of Amazon and see that they’ve been including product recommendations in their receipts forever. So if they’re doing it, there must be a reason why they’re doing it right? So that’s why we really plummeted from focusing on SaaS figures to e-commerce store. And with my background with commerce, I had hoped to leverage kind of Woo Commerce as our first integration, as our first platform.

So a couple months, basically based off of that MVP we ran off Stripe, which I felt was enough validation. I basically took a plunge. I hired my first team members. Three team members, and they started … they ripped out a lot of the code. Which today I’m very grateful for, but they ripped out a lot of the code from the MVP, and we rebuilt to a first version on top of Woo Commerce which we released publicly in November of that year.

Josh Pigford: So you decide to kind of move away from Stripe’s house into e-commerce really. Which in hindsight makes a ton of sense, given Woo Commerce and the success that that had had. But you had mentioned that the transition out of Woo … From WooThemes / Woo Commerce was challenging. Was it challenging jumping back into that being … having this tangential business relationship again?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah, I think Magnus, Mark, and I … We probably only properly almost a year after Conversio was Receiptful back in the day, launched onto Woo Commerce. And a lot of that was 100% my fault. And I had to put out that olive branch again and say sorry for the way I have acted, but yes, and that was a difficult situation. And I think even to this day … Like anyone building anything for Woo Commerce, like if you don’t give Woo Commerce themselves behind you, it’s very hard to find traction. They … I want to say they’ve monopolized it in a kind of vicious way, but the reality of the matter is, Woo Commerce uses trust the most. So if they’re not distributing it, I think it’s very hard finding alternative distribution channels you know for software or any hardware built into Woo Commerce. So that initial first year up until we kissed and made up, it was hard.

Josh Pigford: Sure. So you’re doing the email thing. The email receipt stuff for a while. And then at some point you realize you need to do a little bit more right?

Adii Pienaar: Yeah. That kind of sometime was after two weeks after launch. So the initial idea was as a bootstrapper kind of launch where it’s a female product, but the idea is always to get to probability as quickly as possible. Which also means charging as quickly as possible. But we picked kind of receipt stuff. We essentially saw within the first two weeks that the feedback loop for us to actually gather data and prove that this was gonna actually be useful, was going to be really hard. Because we need to sign people up, they need to send receipts. We need to learn from that. We need to kind of prove the product. And then we need to use that data and we’ll prove the product to kind of market and grow. [inaudible 00:35:55]

But the reality was that in that first month, we sent 300 receipts in total. And that kind of feedback loop was always going to be too long for us to survive. So what we basically did was we made the whole product free so that in that decision, realized that all made our decision that we’re going to have to build complementary tools eventually. And sometime in the future to monetize. So we were at least very clear about what we were gonna do in terms of monetizations. It wasn’t just the kind of hope and pray thing. But we definitely kind of made a shift there in terms of going free, and then not necessarily knowing when we will eventually have the kind of bandwidth all the time to start working on the great stuff.

Josh Pigford: So are you transitioning there. So you guys in November I think it was? Rebranded from Receiptful to Conversio.

Adii Pienaar: Yes.

Josh Pigford: So you had mentioned as early as two weeks after you guys launched Receiptful that you realized we need more here than just simple email receipts. So how long was that? Sort of transition in the making?

Adii Pienaar: The timeline was essentially about 18 months since we launched the first non-receipts product to when we rebranded. And throughout those 18 months, we knew that our name was limiting, even though we were starting to get really good brand awareness and good reputation around Receiptful, kind of wanted to build a good brand. And our customers and users really loved it. And we loved it. We got very sentimental about it. But we kept stumbling into these conversations where our customers would literally tell us, like what, you guys do other tools except for receipts?

So we kept … We knew that the store was going to be very limiting, but at the time though, redesigns, rebrands are kind of a lot of work. And the only thing you’re actually getting is the thing you had before. Which was a website a new logo, right? So it just didn’t make sense for us. So we essentially delayed that decision and we took on the pain of having an inefficient name that was confusing to some of our customers, some of our prospects. For as long as we possibly could. Basically to the point where we were at least profitable. To then undertake this massive kind of redesign project. And I think that our timing was relatively good in the sense that we also, alongside the rebrand, we released two additional core features, new things, and product reviews. Which is what we kind of have today. We have eight core features which kind of makes up our first version of what we imagined our all in one marketing dashboard to be. Which is kind of closely related to us wanting to rebrand to Conversio in the first place.

Josh Pigford: So Conversio’s what … Conversio’s 15 plus people now?

Adii Pienaar: We’re 14 full time.

Josh Pigford: Gotcha. And is everybody remote?

Adii Pienaar: Everyone is completely remote. I love the fact that we don’t have office operates today.

Josh Pigford: Yeah, that’s fantastic. So I’m curious. We’ve talked about lots of different things here from design development stuff and sales. Like what part of building a company do you feel like you naturally gravitate towards?

Adii Pienaar: I think two things. The starting part. I’m much better at the kind of the initial phases where everything is a blank canvas and I don’t have to have much discipline in terms of being process driven and looking at data and all those things that I don’t inherently or naturally enjoy. So definitely the starting phases. I think I’m good at starting things.

And the second part. The team building aspect. I really enjoy working with people. And I enjoy leading the team. And I enjoy building the team in terms … Whether that’s adding more team members or building the processes or influencing the culture. Those are the things that I think are probably my super hero skills in a sense. And that’s definitely kind of the things that going into anything that we take at this stage on a new project, those are the kind of things that I would happily do. The things that I would naturally gravitate to.

Josh Pigford: It’s really interesting talking to a lot of different founders here. So many seem to … Or they have realized that building a company is in a large part, all psychology. Right? It’s just people. And it’s not code. It’s not design. Like those are byproducts, but like you need to figure out how to work with other human beings. Which is surprisingly hard. You know.

Adii Pienaar: Yeah. And I guess it is hard. I mentioned you asked me about my childhood, and I think I owe a great deal of gratitude to my mom in that sense in terms of that kind of emotional intelligence. But I think that the hard part the truth is always there. Like companies are based on the people that work within it. And for me, it’s always a … You can find great talented people that are being stimulated by the thing that you want to work on, to work on those things with you. You just need to figure out how that relationship makes sense for both those parties. And yeah, that’s definitely something that I think looking back at early WooThemes days to later WooThemes days and how Conversio … I think that’s the single skill that I’ve gotten almost exponentially better at I would think.

Josh Pigford: What’s been a key part of the success for Conversio?

Adii Pienaar: Oh wow …

Josh Pigford: Or would you even say … I mean I’m making an assumption there, I mean do you feel like you guys have succeeded at this point?

Adii Pienaar: I mean, yes. Kind of having spoken about content, I would be an absolute hypocrite, that they would think that’s the case. I think we’ve definitely succeeded. And I think as with any type of company there’s multiple things that I think we’ve done well. I think that one of the early things we really did well was we built a product that surprisingly scaled for a very long time with kind of architectural-wise, infrastructure-wise. Before we had to kind of start making incremental improvements there. I think that saved our bacon in the early days. We took a little longer to launch to get stuff ready, even though I was impatient. My [inaudible 00:42:37], he told me Adii, you’re going to be grateful. So I think that’s in the very early weeks, that’s something we did well.

And then a lot of our initial traction came from just our customer’s support. Which was something I learned through WooThemes. At one stage, almost 40% of our product reviews, our app reviews on the Shopify website for example, specifically mentioned a great customer experience. Support experience. And that’s something that we’re very passionate about. I know a lot of companies say they’re customer-centric or whatever they want to call it. But that’s definitely something that relationships are important to us. And we really try our hardest to kind of let that shine through in everything we do. And that’s definitely two things from the top of my head that we mostly figured out. At least two of our strengths. We have many … I’m not gonna pretend to have figured out marketing or sales, or any kind of those things. There are many things we still need to learn. But I think those things we do relatively well, at least.

Josh Pigford: Was there any singular inflection points? Sort of like Woo Commerce was for WooThemes. Where growth … Where there was like a big inflection point. Did the growth change, increase, picked up? Have you guys had anything like that?

Adii Pienaar: Well … I’m gonna say yes. And then I’m gonna tell you something surprising. So our growth has been relatively linear since we started charging with kind of periods of where it kind of accelerated a little. But since … So our pricing is tied to average order volume of our stores. Which basically means business performance. So kind of we up and down grade people, so expansion MRR, contraction MRR. Based on how many orders they’ve processed. Which is not something at Conversio itself influences or at least not exclusively influences, right? Which means up until peak retail, end of December. And last year we experienced very very nice growth. And then we literally got back to the highs of the end of December a month ago. So since we’ve been at the same point for … So we went down a little and we’ve come back up, about a month ago. Which is an interesting experience. It’s very kind of counter to what we’re told. Kind of SaaS or revenue companies should be doing. So we haven’t had that real inflection point kind of upscale growth, but we’ve definitely experienced a different kind of phenomenon in terms of what our MRR chart looks like.

Josh Pigford: That makes total sense, but you’ve got this like e-commerce SaaS thing going on where you’re like subject to the whims of seasonal sales on some level. That’s super interesting.

Adii Pienaar: Yeah.

Josh Pigford: So I don’t know. As follow up to that, what’s been the hardest thing about building Conversio?

Adii Pienaar: Um, patience? Yeah, that’s probably the one thing. A [inaudible 00:45:41] in my life. I’m yet to learn to be more accepting of like, you know, some things just take time. And I want to blame the universe at least to some extent. I think if we’d just taken our little kind of micro piece of the world in terms of the tech and ecostystem, we’re … And I know you’ve written about this a ton especially in the last year as well … But we’re not taught to have a very healthy or wholesome approach to growth and success. In terms of tech-y, and I’m not even talking about looking at unicorns and thinking we should all want to blend our companies that IPO.

But even for smaller companies that … All of the reference points, all of the best practices out there, they’re very singular and they say one thing. And most of us have learned through the years is that one things unfortunately doesn’t apply. But we still look at those things, and like I feel unhappy about it. Like I … On Tuesday Nathan [inaudible 00:46:42], a friend of mine, I still look at where his business took off completely, and I’m like why is this not happening to me? Right?

And that’s such a bad way to look at the world right? If we’re constantly comparing, it’s very hard to be content and very hard to feel successful. But yeah. That’s definitely the hardest part. And most of those things, and coming back to my initial answer of patience, and just taking time. I think most of those things eventually end up evening out or you get a more true version of the story when you kind of extrapolate that horizon. Where it’s not just looking at this month, and not just thinking about where we need to go to next month, but should start thinking about a year and five years and 10 years. Then those things probably even out. Yeah.

Josh Pigford: It’s so true. I find myself, especially we’ve been in this run up to a million dollar run rate, and I find myself sort of obsessing over our own Baremetrics dashboard. But the inverse of that is when I don’t get obsessive about it like say I take a week off or something and I don’t check it, I come back and it’s not like growth stagnated while I was gone. Like it keeps doing it’s thing. And it’s a much healthier way to look at things than to sit there and obsess over the numbers every hour, or even every day. Right? And I think that’s a really hard thing to get past.

Adii Pienaar: Yeah, so my team now … Like they know when I’m getting anxious and impatient about things, and like they will just tell me like Adii, stop looking at the metrics. Just stop looking.

Josh Pigford: Right.

Adii Pienaar: Cause there’s … Why … I still want to know who made the rule that kind of every recurring revenue business needs to grow month on month. And that that growth needs to accelerate, and linear growth isn’t allowed. We have to grow the growth. By all means, that’s great if you can achieve it, but that shouldn’t be the default. That shouldn’t be the starting point for kind of measuring these kind of things.

Josh Pigford: I think a lot of people, especially new entrepreneurs who haven’t like really ever built a business, don’t realize that things like … even 5% month over month growth is so atypical in the rest of business. Right? Any other business in any other industry it’s like we grew 5% in a year. And everybody’s stoked. You know? Just something with the tech start-up scene, there’s this obsession over just the weirdest amounts of growth.

Adii Pienaar: Exactly.

Josh Pigford: It’s hard part to get past.

Adii Pienaar: Exactly. And you would think like remember for WooThemes days, we had [inaudible 00:49:38] sales. There was very little recurring revenue made of 5% of revenue. So some months we were up significantly, and then for the next two months, we were down. And we didn’t know why. I would think, like even thinking about tech now, that should have been kind of this normalizing effect on my own expectations, but as soon as I kind of got into this pure revenue-recurring business, I also started thinking like we have to have like five or 10% month around month. Every single month. If we can’t do that, it’s shitty month, and I’m not gonna feel good about it.

Josh Pigford: Yup. The crazy part is, you can’t even do … Like keeping 5% or 8% or 10% or whatever. The math doesn’t work out on that. Like long term. But in your head, you still sort of extrapolate it, and you think well we’ve got 10% this month. Well if we do that for the next 12 months, we’ll be a 50 million dollar company right? But no one ever does that. But we still think of like, what if? You know? The what if part is really hard to get past all the time.

Adii Pienaar: I would want to offer anyone some pearls of wisdom of how to get past that, but you know, I’m not past it yet.

Josh Pigford: No, I’m not past it either. So was there a time you thought that Conversio might not make it?

Adii Pienaar: Um, no. I don’t think so. And I hope that doesn’t come across as being overly pompous almost or arrogant. But no. I funded about the first six months of the business, and then we raised a small [inaudible 00:51:28] of about half million dollars. And based off of that [inaudible 00:51:40], we were able to get to profitability or kind of yes we did get profitability obviously by that stage. We had some revenue. So we basically cut our … By in the last couple of months we were very close to kind of being break even. Ever since then, even to this day we still run very close to break even where I have made this decision to invest as much of our profits as soon as they’re there. As soon as the gap opens, we reinvest into the team or whatever. But no, I don’t think I was ever scared that this was gonna die. I probably also felt that there was always ways to cut back on things whether it is asking … I think that’s what you guys did right? You asked some team member. Or some of you took some salary break, or salary cut for some time to just kind of preserve [inaudible 00:52:25].

I always felt that we had a good product and we’ve had good customers. And things were growing. So I always felt that we’d have enough time to make those small incremental changes to at least get us to break even. Because I think that kind of bootstrapping or at least self-funded profitable mindset was always at the forefront of all our discussions and big decisions. Which meant that I knew I wanted to get as close to it as possible. Because as soon as you’re close to it you can probably make a few quick small changes to get yourself there. Which then gives you that infinite timeline to figure things out, create a basis and grow from there.

Josh Pigford: What’s the next year look like for you guys?

Adii Pienaar: I think mostly two things for us. So because we went very wide on the product initially, we booked all these, we have eight core features that I mentioned earlier. So right now on most of those features, we don’t have feature priority or even close to it to individual companies that does just that. So if you take a very simple example, our email newsletters are not as advanced as MailChimp, all right. So we have some maturing to do on those individual features to get to not necessarily feature parody, but to eradicate the biggest or most prevalent objections we get from prospects and customers about those things. So that’s kind of on the one side.

And on the other side, this thing that I’m very very excited about, which I won’t share too much about but we’re launching a nonprofit soon that’s basically going to do work to promote and encourage and well research because there isn’t much written about this. But sustainability in e-commerce and just sustainability in retail. Cause we definitely have a passion for things that are not consumerism for example. So we’re gonna try to launch that and get that off the ground in the latter stage of this year as well.

So those two will be the two predominate things we’ll be working on, and then we still need to … We have a couple of primary marketing channels working for us for example. But we need to kind of beef that up and diversify from there and not be as reliant on those. So there’s still kind of work there. And honestly those things excite me less. I’m not process-driven as I’ve mentioned. So yeah. The product generation and the nonprofit are the things I’m very excited about for the next year.

Josh Pigford: That sounds great. That sounds great. Well Adii, that’s all I got man. Yeah. Unless you got anything else you want to add.

Adii Pienaar: Like to be respectful of your … the time you try to hold your episodes to, I will not say a further thing. I suspect we can continue ruffing for hours.

Josh Pigford: Yes. Indeed. Indeed. Well cool man. Well thanks so much for hopping on the call. And it’s been great chatting.

Adii Pienaar: Likewise, thanks homie Josh.

Josh Pigford

Josh is most famous as the founder of Baremetrics. However, long before Baremetrics and until today, Josh has been a maker, builder, and entrepreneur. His career set off in 2003 building a pair of link directories, ReallyDumbStuff and ReallyFunArcade. Before he sold those for profits, he had already started his next set of projects. As a design major, he began consulting on web design projects. That company eventually morphed into Sabotage Media, which has been the shell company for many of his projects since. Some of his biggest projects before Baremetrics were TrackThePack, Deck Foundry, PopSurvey, and Temper. The pain points he experienced as PopSurvey and Temper took off were the reason he created Baremetrics. Currently, he's dedicated to Maybe, the OS for your personal finances.