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15 years and counting

Happy 15th birthday, GoSquared!

Wednesday, 3rd February 2021 marks 15 years since we incorporated GoSquared.

Back then, the three of us (Geoff, JT, and myself, James) were 14. We were at school, and we were meant to be studying for our exams, and doing homework.

But we were obsessed with the idea of building on the internet. We didn’t quite know what, but we knew there had never been a better opportunity for a bunch of creative, smart, ambitious teenagers (I’m talking about Geoff and JT!) to start a business.

Like most 14-year-olds, we had no money, we had no clue, and we had nothing to lose.

So, why the hell not?

Now, after 15 years, it feels like as good a time as ever to share with you some of our highs, and some of the lows, and what we’ve learnt (read: the mistakes we’ve made).

My hope is that, if you read this, you might be inspired to go do your own thing, or you might realise it’s not for you – either way, I hope you will take something from this, even if that only take away is “those guys are nerds”.

Friday 3rd February 2006

In the UK, every company has to register with a central authority – Companies House. It was on this day in 2006 that we officially received confirmation from Companies House that GoSquared was a company. A legit, proper, like, real company.

From these discussions spawned our reason to get together – to put something new into the world. To build.

This day wasn’t special for any other reason – I don’t remember a party, I don’t remember any code being written, or any special announcements. I just remember receiving confirmation in some form – maybe it was a letter through the door? Either way – we were now a business, which meant we could do business things – like open a bank account, pay tax, and all of that fun stuff.

Of course, the story doesn’t really start on 3rd February 2006. It’s not like you come up with an idea, find people to work with, and start building all on a specific date after you incorporate. No, this was the logical conclusion of months of thinking and getting excited.

In fact, many months before this, I remember getting excited about how you could build a webpage in DreamWeaver, and how you could accept payments without too much complexity using PayPal.

A different world.

But I also remember classroom conversations with two pals – JT (James Taylor) who knew more than I ever wanted to know about maths, and Geoff who always had a positive slant on how to approach a problem and was determined to build whatever was needed to solve it.

From these discussions spawned our reason to get together – to put something new into the world. To build.

Squares – a solution to a problem that never existed

People sometimes ask why GoSquared is called “GoSquared”.

We rarely have the time to truly go into it, but here’s why: we used to sell “Squares”.

What the hell are Squares?

Squares are a sweet treat cereal bar made by Kellogg’s, and I believe they are known as “Rice Krispies Treats” in other parts of the world.

But not those Squares. We like those Squares too. The Squares we were selling were essentially ad space.

We read about a young entrepreneur in the UK called Alex Tew who started a horrendously ugly, but beautifully profitable website called the Million Dollar Homepage (it’s still live!)

We looked at that idea, as I am sure many hundreds of others did, and thought: if he can do it, we can do it! We believed we could make a more beautiful Million Dollar Homepage – one with fewer, but more valuable ad placements, and a slicker overall experience.

We got excited about the opportunity to make thousands, hundreds of thousands, heck, maybe even millions?! We started counting the number of ad spaces we could place on our homepage, how much we could charge (Per week? Per month?), and we got excited. We started building, and we raced towards our “version one”. The term MVP was not a thing in 2006, or if it was, I wasn’t aware of it.

We released our version one later that year, and we made millions…

… is how we’d always dreamt the story would go.

But alas, how wrong we were.

Herein lies our first lesson – or mistake – and one that we keep re-learning every now and then.

Lesson 1: Build it and they will not come

They will never come. You can’t expect to build an internet business without an equal or greater effort on marketing and growth to what you put into building your product. Today, the internet is in every aspect of people’s lives, and everyone is busier than ever – standing out requires Herculean amounts of effort.

LiveStats – product-market fit without knowing it

Fast forward several years, and the majority of the rest of our lives at school.

Skip through the biggest exams of our lives, several life-defining moments, a few underage pub visits, and several more attempts at trying to find a way to sell ad space to people that didn’t want it, and you land at our first “hit”: LiveStats.

LiveStats: watch your website traffic unfold in real-time.

LiveStats was our first taste of the world of “SaaS” (Software as a Service).

For years we had been trying to make a little money from ads, and then from taking a slice of being an advertising platform, and when we weren’t doing any of that we were making a bit here and there from designing and building websites for friends and family. The idea of selling a piece of software online that we maintained, and sold for a recurring monthly fee felt like a dream. We make this one thing, and people pay us every month to keep it live (no pun intended) and keep improving it? Sign me up!

LiveStats was born out of our own desires. We didn’t really listen to anyone else to build LiveStats – JT realised what was possible with JavaScript, and when we took a glance at a list of real visitors on our own website in real-time it felt like magic. We loved it so much we just had to make it into a product for others to use.

Our belief was simple: if you can see there are people on your website, you will start to build a connection with those people. And if you do that, you’ll build a better website, and maybe even a better business as a result.

We weren’t deliberately solving any real problem. We weren’t trying to compete with any other service of company. We just built something cool, that we loved, and we thought others would too.

At the time, too, you should have seen the state of website analytics. Everything was based on hit logging – you had static grey charts made from images. You had to install and run these “hit loggers” on your PHP based web server. It was dreadful! There was one interesting service out there, called Urchin – which was acquired by hungry upstart “Google” that became Google Analytics. Finally interactive charts, but the downside was they were in Macromedia (later Adobe) Flash, and your reports took a day or two to show up.

Everything that existed to show you how popular your website was so far removed from the idea that “people” were part of the equation – everything was about hits, pageviews, and charts. And everything was so slow and ugly it made you feel like you were looking at a Windows 95 Excel spreadsheet every time you wanted to understand how your site was doing.

We knew the status quo sucked – so LiveStats was our antidote to that: show you that people were on your website, right now.

Our belief was simple: if you can see there are people on your website, you will start to build a connection with those people. And if you do that, you’ll build a better website, and maybe even a better business as a result.

Lesson 2: You make your own luck

It felt lucky that we made LiveStats and that when we first launched it we had so much attention that our website fell over (good problems). But that luck came from hard work and perseverance: learning to build, working together as a product team of three, building a small but influential following on social media and through our blog, and building a strong gut instinct that said: “we’ve got something here”.

Building a team is harder than building a product.

After we left school, and after the initial success of LiveStats, we were fortunate enough to gain the attention of investors, customers, and people who wanted to join our team.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. – African Proverb

Before we knew it, we weren’t just building software; we were building a team.

Building a team (by building, I mean finding, hiring, onboarding, collaborating, retaining, and growing a team) is not something many of us ever get taught, and it’s certainly not something we ever taught ourselves. We had to learn on the job.

Over the many years of running GoSquared, we have made an unspeakably large number of mistakes along the way with building our team.

Whether or not you enjoy it or want to do it, it’s almost impossible to build a truly great company without building some form of team – even if it’s a small one.

But perhaps what I am most proud of after all these years is not our product, or our marketing site, or our Notion setup(!), it’s our team.

I love our team. Our team is incredible – ambitious yet humble, friendly yet driven, smart and endlessly curious. I miss coming into the office to be with them in person every day.

Our team is a small yet amazing collection of people.

But people are not like code. Code is predictable. Code is easy to write, easy to edit, and easy to delete. Code is versioned, and code is generally either right or wrong.

People are not code. They have ambitions, motivations, good days and bad days. People need guidance, inspiration, and encouragement. People need to feel safe and want to feel proud. People want a purpose. People who are in the right place at the right time, with everything they need can move mountains.

Lesson 3: People are more difficult, and more powerful, than code

Building a great company means building a great team – and that’s a whole different skillset from building a great product.

Figma skills and agile fundamentals don’t help you become a better leader. It’s intensely hard to become a good leader – you’re never “done” learning, and you’re always making mistakes. But becoming a better leader is the single biggest impact I can have right now, because through my actions I can enable everyone around me to perform at their best, to enjoy their working lives, and to achieve things they never thought possible.

The outcome of a great team is not just a great product, but an amazing company.

GoSquared in 2021 – a team with a purpose and a mission

We’re now in 2021, and we’re taking a moment to reflect.

In some ways we’ve come full-circle: we’re working from our bedrooms again, like we did back in 2006. Except now we’re “adults” and don’t have school or even the opportunity of leaving the house.

We’re on a mission to make it easier for anyone to start and grow a software as a service (SaaS) business just like ours.

The last year at GoSquared has seen more change than the past five combined. We transitioned to working remotely better than I ever could have imagined. We invested our collective brainpower into questions we had been dodging for far too long. And with our new-found focus we started to build the confidence to say no.

We exist to make great software, as we always have, but in the last year we’ve tightened our focus so much more. We don’t just exist to make great software, we exist to help others build great software too.

We’re on a mission to make it easier for anyone to start and grow a software as a service (SaaS) business just like ours. We want to see more people take the bold leap and start their software business – to realise it’s not as hard as they think, and to give them the tools and resources they need to go forward and start.

Maybe you’re reading this, and you have an idea in your head of a problem you want to fix with software. Maybe you’re even at school like we were back in 2006, and mulling over that idea. We don’t want to tell you to drop out of any form of education, but we want to be there to help you take your dreams and make them a reality. If you are thinking of starting a SaaS business, we want to guide you every step of the way from idea, to product, to business.

We’re still on this journey, after 15 years, and it’s getting more exciting than ever.

If you’re thinking of starting your own journey, then let us know – we want to help.

P.S. if you want to see a timeline of our 15 years, check it out here.

Written by
James is CEO and one of the co-founders of GoSquared. He also likes to talk about design.

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