Ben Sinclair

November 29, 2022

My startup business story

It's been a joy looking back at the last 20 years of my experience where I co-founded one business and founded a second on my own. Both were self-funded and both were sold.

I never had the intention of selling, it just fell into my lap. Each attained different levels of success and brought with it a lot of wisdom, knowledge and talent to my life.

When starting my businesses, I never once thought about the "startup" buzzword which now seems to be all the rage. I just saw needs and decided to create a business to fulfil those needs. Plain and simple.

A startup is effectively a new business so I'm just going to refer to them as businesses in this writing and stay away from buzzwords.

Both businesses were timed to the market very well. That timing wasn't my own doing and I'm thankful that I got in when I did.

Before "proper" businesses

I was a young pre-teen kid who got passionate about building websites and programming. I spent countless hours playing with code, looking at how others approached problems (thank you open source!) and building a bunch of applications.

This resulted in me building several websites and monetizing them by selling private ads and Google AdSense.

I guess you could almost call this a business. I saw it as more of a hobby and a learning experience that just happened to make me tens of thousands of dollars.

This period is when I learned how to build websites and code.

OE Design

In 2003, my dad and I founded a web design business called OE Design. My dad had some business, sales and marketing experience and I could build websites and write code. I found some web designers in India to design mockups and there we had it, we had a shell of a business.

The business was self-funded. We didn't need a lot to get started as we worked from home and costs were low. I had around $15k USD in my PayPal account from my websites to pay the India-based web designers ($150 USD a design!) and my dad funded the rest of the local requirements. 

It was around the time when the Yellow Pages was a big thing and companies would spend tens of thousands of dollars a year for a full-page ad. My dad and later my older sister walked pretty much every commercial area in our city and the cities that surrounded us, asking if businesses would like to buy a website.

Businesses could have a 24/7 salesperson at the fraction of the cost of a Yellow Pages ad and then there was SEO! It was a fun time.

We grew to about 8 full-time core employees at our peak along with an additional 6 or so telemarketers on the phones.

As a side note, I also owned three vending machines during this period and had to drive around, buy cans and re-stock them but that's a story for another day.

Fast forward to 2010, we'd been running OE Design for 7 years. The market was changing, businesses were tight on cash after the GFC and we were starting to lose our drive for the type of business we had created. So we ended up selling our customers to another firm and thus ended OE Design.

Elvanto

Around the time OE Design was wrapping up, I started building my second startup Elvanto, a church database and volunteering system (now dubbed ChMS). The idea came from me building a version of this for the church I was attending at the time. I didn't charge a cent, it was my contribution to the church.

As with all software clients, they were wanting more and more updates. I was dating my now wife at the time and was complaining to her about all the work I had to do to keep it up to date. Her response was "maybe this is what you're supposed to do". I agreed and from then decided to build software that I could sell to other churches, and not just build for my church (if only I know the term SaaS). It was a win-win!

I built the product myself, provided customer support and did basically everything. That is something I cherish. My wife eventually started contributing in so many ways and eventually ran our billing department among other things that supported the business greatly.

Eventually, it started making more money than a contract job that I was doing for a year. When that wrapped up, I travelled for 12 months to 30 countries while working on Elvanto abroad and when we returned, started hiring people to help. We had about 10 employees at our peak and we set up a cool tech office with all the bells and whistles like concrete floors, an open plan office, beer in the fridge and a dart board.

In 2018, the Tithe.ly founders approached me about acquiring Elvanto. Eventually, it all went down and Elvanto joined Tithe.ly. My wife exited at that moment to pursue her dreams of property development.

Where I am today

It's now 2022 and I'm currently functioning as the CTO and a shareholder of Tithe.ly. Yes, I'm still there!

I'll be honest, it's been a nice change not having to be the sole responsible person for a business and to be a part of a larger company that has investors and growing rapidly. New challenges are great and I enjoy experiencing a different type of business.

I currently have the honor of overseeing our Director of Engineering, supporting various operations teams, overseeing the software we use, and ensuring we have the correct security and compliance, among many other things.

Before this, I grew our Engineering department from about 10 to 50 engineers as well as built out processes to support the development of our products asynchronously.

Key lessons I learned

  • You don't need outside money to fund your new business to be successful. When you do that, you generally have to give something away.
  • You don't need to give away part of your business. I almost did this with a friend who I thought could help grow it. He was going to work for free and in return, own a share of the business. I dodged a bullet there. 
  • Make sure whatever you're building, there is a need for it and that people will pay for it. This is critical. Build something people need, and the money will follow.
  • Finding good ideas that will be a big success is really, really hard. The timing of that idea is also very important.
  • You don't need an office space and have everyone in the same room. Remote works great!
  • Just because you had one or two successes, doesn't mean the next one is guaranteed.
  • If I could go back and change anything knowing that Elvanto was to be acquired in 2018, I would have invested much more time on sales and marketing which helps with the growth rate. I also would have invested in other revenue opportunities which seem obvious today. In turn, these changes would have resulted in a higher sale price. I'm more than happy with the outcome, but I thought it'd be useful to share this advice.

-Ben

About Ben Sinclair

Hey! I'm Ben. I’m a Christian, husband, father, son, friend, writing a book and also the CTO at Tithe.ly. I'm passionate about finance and technology. These writings are for me, however, maybe they’ll be interesting to others. Thanks for stopping by!