In today's ever-evolving tech landscape, stories of pivots and resilience stand out, painting a vivid picture of the journey behind successful startups. One such story is that of Marie Martens, the co-founder of Tally Forms. Marie's trajectory from a background in Marketing Communications to building a successful SaaS product is inspiring. In this conversation, she delves into her personal experiences, sharing insights from pivoting her initial business idea due to the global pandemic to achieving significant growth with Tally Forms, bootstrapping it to $60k MRR in 2.5 years. As she shares her story, Marie also offers valuable advice for other entrepreneurs and shares some insights on how to validate an idea, scaling a business, and some of the challenges you may encounter as a founder. Dive in for some real-world startup wisdom.
Can you tell us a bit about your background: where do you come from, what kind of family were you born in, what did you want to become when you were a child, what were you doing before being an entrepreneur?
Born in Bruges, Belgium, I had a carefree childhood with my parents, both physiotherapists, and an elder sister. Despite our family background, I pursued Marketing Communications at the University of Ghent. After working my way up to Marketing Manager at a publishing house, I joined the Digital Product Agency "In The Pocket" in Ghent. It was here that I first tasted the thrill of working in an agile environment and collaborating on cutting-edge digital projects. With a decade of B2B marketing experience, I embraced the startup journey.
You initially started with Hotspot, a platform for hotels and travel influencers, but had to pivot due to COVID-19. How was that transition and what lessons did you learn from it?
I left a job I loved because I had faith in Hotspot's success. We set a one-year goal, but six months in, COVID made it clear that Hotspot wouldn't work. Accepting the need to pivot and let go of our dreams was painful. The main lesson: embrace failure, pivot quickly, and don't be afraid to try something new. Iterate and move forward without holding on to what doesn't work.
How did you validate your idea for Tally Forms before starting development? What was that process like?
In the summer of 2020, we began crafting Tally, and by September, we unveiled our basic form builder MVP. Initially, it lacked some key features, such as form publishing. With a limited network, we shared it among those closest to us, collecting valuable feedback. Using this input, we embarked on cold outreach to creators, Indie Hackers, and startup founders who might find our product appealing. Months of relentless building and iterating followed, as we engaged with our small community of early users. In March 2021, feeling more confident, we launched on Product Hunt with around 1,500 users. Armed with crucial features to compete with other form builders, we experienced an overwhelming response, doubling our user base in a single day.
How does your background in B2B marketing influence your strategies in growing Tally Forms?
The importance of a good content strategy and creating relevant content for your audience is something that I try to bring to Tally as well. We’re building in public and are at the same time creating content that is relevant to other startup founders, who are going through the same struggles as we do.
Also creating a product and brand that people love with a lot of attention to the details in design (product- and marketingwise).
As someone who bootstrapped a successful SaaS product, what are the main obstacles you faced and what advice can you give to other women entrepreneurs who might be on a similar path? It's okay to say no. You can not satisfy everyone when you have a small bootstrapped team, but that's okay. The art of persisting. Every day, I'm replying to emails, answering questions, writing help docs and Filip is coding and helping users out non-stop. Life as a bootstrapped founder sounds more glamorous than it is, but every dollar you make will make you insanely happy. Don't be afraid to ask. Every problem you encounter has been solved by someone else before you. There's a great community supportive of Indie Hackers out there that wants to see you succeed and will help you out. So, just ask!
Your user base has significantly grown in the past years. What strategies have you found most effective for user acquisition and retention?
Besides word of mouth, our product itself has become our biggest acquisition channel. Tally is largely free, and free users have a "made with Tally" badge displayed on their forms. This results in more visibility for our product, new users and eventually paying subscribers. We describe how our growth flywheel works in this post.
Growing a business is often said to be harder than starting one. Could you discuss some of the specific issues that you've faced in scaling Tally Forms and how you've overcome them?
Scaling customer support has been a real journey for us! In the early days, we personally responded to all Slack messages, emails, and Twitter DMs within the day. It was amazing to connect with our users, but it also took up around 50% of our time, making it challenging to focus on product growth.
To address this, we took these steps:
- We revamped our help center, making it much more user-friendly and easier to navigate. Now, our users can find the answers they need quickly and effortlessly.
- As we grew, we knew it was time to bring in some reinforcements. That's why we welcomed our first team member as a dedicated customer success manager.
- To gather valuable feedback and ideas in a more scalable way, we introduced a public feature request page.
- We also revamped our contact flow by using a Tally form. This new approach helps us qualify incoming questions more efficiently, allowing us to respond faster than ever.
These changes have been game-changers for us, allowing us to strike the perfect balance between providing personalized support and having more time and energy to focus on building and growing the product.
You mentioned plans of hiring additional team members to help scale Tally Forms. What considerations do you take into account when deciding to bring someone new into your team?
As we’re small and bootstrapped, we need senior people that can bring value right away. Of course these profiles require a bigger budget, which is why we waited quite long before we started hiring. We’re currently a team of 4 and we make sure that we are working with positive, experienced, and talented people with a can-do mentality.
Dealing with scammers and malicious users appears to be a challenge for Tally Forms. How are you addressing this problem while keeping the platform free and accessible to genuine users?
Because Tally is mostly free with no limits on form submissions, it also attracts abusers who engage in malicious activities: creating phishing forms for example. We don't want to compromise on our free tier by introducing limits, so a growing amount of our time goes into blocking scammers and finding new ways to prevent abuse. We have a moderation system in place that flags suspicious forms and also advises our users or respondents to report scammers so we can take action.
As a woman in tech and co-founder of a tech start-up, have you faced any unique challenges? How did you overcome them?
I wouldn’t say I have faced different challenges than male co-founders. On the contrary, I have been invited to a lot of female founder communities and have gotten quite some opportunities to talk about our journey because I’m a female founder.
Question from the community: Imagine you don't have an audience, no MRR and you have to start indie making from scratch again, what would you do?
Choosing to enter a competitive market with Tally was a deliberate decision, mainly because we knew there was a validated demand – after all, every business needs a form builder at some point. We firmly believe that it's better to aim for 1% of a large market than to try to conquer 100% of a niche.
If I were to offer advice based on our experience, I'd suggest adopting a similar strategy. Don't hesitate to ship your MVP as quickly as you can. Getting your product out there and gathering user feedback early on is invaluable. With each iteration, you'll refine your offering, making it even more appealing to your audience.
Building in public has been a real game-changer for us. Sharing your journey, progress, and challenges with the world can help you grow a dedicated audience of supporters, enthusiasts, and potential users. It creates a sense of community and trust, which is vital in today's market.
So, in a nutshell, go for it, embrace the competition, launch your MVP fast, listen to your users, and share your journey with the world. I’m rooting for your success!
Balancing various roles while bootstrapping a company can be tough. What are your best productivity tips for other women entrepreneurs who are in the trenches of starting their own business?
Bootstrapping and operating with a small team have taught me the value of meticulous time management. To ensure maximum focus and productivity, I've adopted a few practices. First, I minimize meetings, and I'm selective about accepting "quick call" invitations. Our remote and asynchronous work setup allows us to schedule dedicated blocks of time for intense focus and product development.
Balancing startup life with family responsibilities can be challenging and sometimes stressful. However, I've come to embrace the reality that we may not always move as quickly as other companies. Learning to accept this has been essential in maintaining a healthy work-life integration.
Can you talk about your experience working with your co-founder, Filip Minev? How do you divide responsibilities, make decisions, and manage disagreements?
Embarking on a journey as business partners and life partners has truly been a learning adventure for us. Throughout this experience, we've discovered the key to success lies in defining our individual responsibilities and respecting each other's decisions within our areas of expertise. This not only fosters a sense of autonomy but also allows us to bring our unique strengths to the table.
Additionally, we've found that taking time for ourselves is vital. To recharge and maintain a healthy balance, we intentionally schedule fun activities and social outings with friends on weeknights. It provides a much-needed break and allows us to return to our work with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
In essence, by embracing clear roles and giving each other space to unwind, we've found a way to navigate both our personal and professional lives together. But, it remains a journey of growth and discovery.
Finally, what advice would you give to other women who are looking to start their own tech company or are in the early stages of building their start-up?
Go for it, show up every day and do whatever it takes to get the job done. Find what works (even if it’s something that doesn’t scale) and repeat it over and over again!
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