How to turn an internal software tool into a SaaS with $100k MRR with Amar Ghose from ZenMaid
If you’re an industry expert wondering how to build a successful SaaS within your niche – get inspired by Amar Ghose who is a non-technical founder sharing the strategies he used to bootstrap a remote-first SaaS with over $100k MRR. Let’s dive in!
Welcome to Product Stories where we explore how founders build successful software products. This is a podcast about development, remote work, and everything else non-technical as well as technical founders need to know to launch and scale software products. Today’s guest is Amar Ghose, the founder, and CEO of ZenMaid, and he will tell us how he grew his SaaS to over $100k MRR from an internal tool, he had a developer build while he was running his maid service in the US — Amar, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Victor. Looking forward to the conversation.
My pleasure. Amar, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background, where you came from into the SaaS world?
Yes, definitely. So– in a nutshell, I grew up in Silicon Valley, I grew up in Palo Alto. So I was always surrounded by tech companies and software. My dad was an engineer at HP and Intel and some of those places. What’s funny is, when I was younger, I was never really into that stuff and so I was always a bit entrepreneurial, and tried a couple of things while I was in high school and while I was in college, little micro niche sites and stuff like that, ended up graduating college, and joining a couple of tech startups.
So I was into sales and tech startups. But I was still always trying to do stuff on the side and so long story short is at some point, I came across a series of posts that talked about starting your own cleaning company or maid service without doing any of the cleanings yourself. So essentially how to run a maid service as a digital marketer, was essentially like what it was, in a nutshell, I started that and was working with a friend of mine that we started that together and I dealt with all of the people parts of that business and then he dealt with all of the backend stuff. So he built the website and then he built behind the scenes on the website that allowed us to quickly manage our calendar, send reminders, all of that stuff and that’s essentially what led to Zen.
Wonderful. So what is ZenMaid today?
So ZenMaid — essentially, in a nutshell, every single maid service on the planet has to manage their calendar or their schedule in one way or another. So a lot of maid services in the past were using pen and paper or they were using Google Calendar, but they have to know where they have to be and when– They have to know the details of every cleaning, they have to know who’s assigned to it and there’s a couple of pieces of information that just every maid service across the planet has to know. Otherwise, they’re going to go out of business because they can’t provide a quality service.
So ZenMaid is essentially a very specialized software that helps them to manage all of that information and we’ve added on overtime, a lot more features.
So we can now help them with payroll. But one of our big claims to fame in the very beginning was essential that we sent reminders, so the owner of the maid service would finalize their schedule and then ZenMaid would send text reminders to the clients to remind them of their upcoming appointments, it would automatically email work orders to the actual cleaners and stuff like that and then like I said, we’ve built out a lot of functionality since that point.
So these reminders — was it something that you took away from running a maid service yourself or was that some early-stage customers?
No, that was something that we did ourselves. That was one of the things that we did to innovate in the industry that that was something that a lot of our competitors at the time took two or three years after we launched– actually started doing SMS reminders in particular and that was something that, a lot of our early customers were interested in that or they were already sending SMS reminders, but they weren’t aware that it could be done automatically through a software program. So a lot of them were doing it manually and then they saw, we were doing, they are like, “Oh, that’s awesome. That’ll save me a bunch of time” and that’s why they essentially signed up initially.
And how did you decide to launch a SaaS company at that point?
So I feel like I’m quite lucky there. I ran my maid service and that was a side project. I was working a full-time job in Southern California. I moved back up to Northern California to take a new job and we shut down the maid service that my partner at the time wasn’t comfortable with me– running the maid service from a couple 100 miles away despite the fact that I wasn’t needed on location to do any of the stuff that I was doing and essentially my co-founder of ZenMaid approached me at that point when I was back in the Bay Area, and essentially said, “Hey, I’ve seen what you guys built behind the scenes, I think that I can rebuild that but better and turn it into a SaaS that we can sell to other maid service owners” and he essentially asked if I wanted to partner with him on that, to handle the sales, marketing, really everything non-technical. Anything that I could do taking out the trash, anything I could do to make him more productive. So he didn’t have to focus on anything other than building the product was pretty much my job for the first couple of years.
So you were lucky enough to find a technical co-founder pretty much right at the start. Do you think that was because you had proven that you have a market — that you have already something like even before you find a tech co-founder– you have a prototype off the software?
Yes, and no, I think that I had some experience there. But I think that it was more that I was good friends with my co-founder at ZenMaid prior to that and he knew that our skill sets matched up nicely, and that, I was going to be willing to hustle and to do what it takes in order to get the business off the ground and honestly, I think that had a lot more to do with it than anything else that, we didn’t have a prototype that just because we had something that was working for us. That wasn’t a huge part of it. It definitely was a factor and I think there were some things, but yes, there’s a long way to go between that unlike actually selling our first customers, which happened probably six or eight months after.
That makes perfect sense. But if you had known him — would you have still built that MVP or let’s assume you would have wanted to build it? Is there any other way you can think of how you would have gone about it?
Yeah, I would have gone out and pre-sold it, I can honestly say that I don’t think that I would have started this company or done that if he hadn’t approached me and wanted to do this with me. But if I had gotten that into my head of like, let’s start a SaaS around this, I would have gone out and pre-sold it that I already had, like you said, like a working prototype, it wasn’t something that anyone else could use, because it was just our back end. But I probably would have tried to go out and get 10 or 20, maid service owners to pay a couple of hundred dollars for lifetime access to the software. You know, if we were to build it and then taken that money to pay a developer or to find a developer like him to partner with me and it just is like, “Hey, I’ve already collected a couple $1,000 from people that want to use — they want to use the software and I would have used those pre-sales for validation”.
That makes a lot of sense and I assume it went from there. You are good at SaaS sales. You started acquiring customers, started iterating over to product-market fit. How did that scaling process, especially with the product look like? How did your feedback cycle look like? Did you have a lot of people that were saying, “Yeah, I’m interested, but it just needs a few more features” Or was that rather smooth?
No, it’s definitely not smooth at all. It took us over three years to get to $10,000 — like a month. So it was the furthest thing from smooth, that it could be — I mean, we almost gave up multiple times in the first four years, we almost threw in the towel a lot, because it just felt like, we were working so hard and getting pretty much nowhere. The one thing is, in hindsight, we did grow very consistently, but very slowly. So, for the first three plus years, we averaged $300 a month. So the first year, we were adding maybe 50 to $80 a month– in monthly recurring revenue when you take into account churn and all of that stuff.
So yes, you had a lot of people that would say that they were interested, but XYZ and I think that’s normal for any software, that doesn’t mean that you need to go out and build that stuff. It means that you need to go out and find more of the people that are like, “Yes, this is what I need right now”. And I think honestly, we were particularly good at that one thing that was very helpful was with my partner being able to focus on the product all the time, I never really had to worry about the product, I would occasionally make product decisions with him. But I could spend all of my time just focused on selling and marketing and so of course, I had zero interest in trying to sell someone that didn’t feel that our product was ready.
So I did a very specific job with qualifying people and making sure that they were in the right place, that our software might have been mature enough at that point to actually help them and so that was a very big like focus and then, you know, we learned some hard lessons along the way that we had our very first customer. She paid us $1,000, upfront for life and she insisted that she could not use the software until we built out this specific calendar view and that calendar view set us back maybe five or six weeks of development time, we pushed it out, she started using the software and she never used that view and thankfully, other customers came in and used it, but she didn’t, we also had the same thing and we’ve realized this even today have that we learned a lot from this was we had a lot of people at the beginning that said, “This looks great, this looks awesome, but I can’t use it until it integrates with QuickBooks and so at some point, I got frustrated, and was just like, I just want to get over this sales integration. What’s the fastest crappiest QuickBooks integration that we can do? And we built this barely functional QuickBooks integration—
A bunch of people that said they couldn’t sign up until we had that immediately signed up, never integrated QuickBooks, and we’re happy as could be and so now we look at that a lot, whenever people say, “Oh, I need this feature”, we always ask ourselves, do they actually need that feature? Do they just need to be able to say that we have that feature and so that leads to a very iterative process — as people want payroll, we go, alright, here’s the most basic payroll we can come out with and then once we see people actually trying to use that basic payroll, then we listen to their feedback, and we improve it from there? So you know, lessons learned… [crosstalk]
That is very interesting. So for one — this approach of — Instead of if you have a bunch of customers that want very different features, early stage, instead of building all of them, trying to understand what specific type of customer is it that’s actually signing up right now and actually being happy before we go upmarket and clearly define that persona and secondly, instead of, when people have feature requests that you actually like, Okay, well, maybe we should build it, instead of doing yearlong customer discovery, and then building the best thing out there over five years, that has every feature on Earth, building something very basic and learn from the feedback.
Yes, exactly. It’s increasing the feedback loops and it’s realizing that some people are asking for the feature, because they actually need the feature, some people are asking for the feature, because they just want to check the box and if they just want to check the box, then the actual feature itself barely makes any difference. To go back to the initial thing, you were saying of, of identifying and targeting the people that are already ready to actually buy your software, whenever, like I talk about that on these sorts of interviews, and with friends and stuff, it always reminds me of the quote, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail” and that was very much what it is.
So what you see is, you see a lot of indie hackers, you see a lot of developers– they try to solve every single problem by developing new features, they take very much the if we build it, they will come kind of thing and like, they probably ended up with better products than I had in the beginning. But they don’t end up with more customers and so for me, because I had very little control over the product, the only thing that I could do — I couldn’t do anything personally to accelerate the development time and so because of that, for me being like– you know,— essentially the marketing or sales hammer, it was very much of I want to get results here, I have to find the people that are actually ready and so in the beginning, that was just much smaller main services that just didn’t have a strict needs. To be completely honest, there were a lot of maid service owners that weren’t operating strictly by the books that, they didn’t need to be able to take into account taxes, because they were paying cash to their employees and stuff like that.
So they just wanted a soaped-up Google calendar that sent a couple reminders. But then, of course, as we got more and more of those customers, they began to go more and more towards the ones that were following everything by the letter of the law and of course, we had to grow up with them.
So I wouldn’t change that in an instant, I wouldn’t change that for the world in terms of how like we started. But of course, if I was starting over from scratch today with the experience that I have today, I would definitely do it differently but at the time that was when we needed to get traction.
And also super interesting for me is because you say you have your co-founder is basically taking care of the product you take care of the customer side. How does the communication loop here work because that’s usually very, very critical between non-technical and technical co-founders to make– to be on the same page? When it comes to customer needs to how certain features have to be used or not, because you inevitably probably have a bit more customer insight, being in touch with everybody all the time, how does that feedback loop work?
So, with that question, do you mean how did it work in the beginning or how does it work now, because there’s a huge difference…
I think it would be super interesting to explore how that evolved as well?
Okay, so in the beginning, it was very much like– I let my co-founder, I gave my opinion on stuff, and then he would go out, and he would build whatever it was and he was very good at taking code live that worked perfectly and didn’t have any bugs. But we had a tendency to miss the mark with little UI, UX decisions. We came out with things that with a little bit more thought it was very obvious that they could have been a lot better and everything and how that’s evolved over time, is we — So my co-founder hasn’t been with the company since 2017.
So he transitioned out. So when he transitioned out, then I’m much more became the product manager, that I became really the one that was making most of the product decisions, and it became a lot less of me just talking to him about it and then he would go out and design whatever he thought was best and so now what happens is— now there’s usually a high-level conversation about whatever the next feature it is — that’s needed. And sometimes all I’ve had conversations with customers before that — The ZenMaid team has multiple main service owners on it. So sometimes I’ll be having internal conversations with essentially ZenMaid customers, but also folks that work with us, and be talking to them about it and I’ll have a high-level conversation with the development team or the development lead and sometimes that’s enough information, like we have a very good feel, like we’ve got very good communication at this point. So sometimes that initial conversation is enough for them to go out and to do it.
Sometimes they’ll come back with mockups, it really depends on the level of the feature and we take into account a lot how serious a feature it is, and how wrong the feature can go and I think that’s a really important point — is there’s some things where it’s like, okay, we need to add this email template to the system, we have email templates in there. If we release it, and there’s something off with it, it’s very easy to fix. So for that, we can just have a high-level conversation, they can come out with the feature, and if they missed the mark that we just adjust from there. But then we have things where right now we’re redoing our payroll system and when we redo our payroll system, and we get that wrong, that’s not easy for us to go back and fix and so a lot more thought goes into making sure that we nail that right out of like out of the gate and so we kind of play it by ear with all the different features that we’re kind of working on and so then, of course, we have a lot of feedback loops built-in.
So sometimes they come back with mock-ups, I give my feedback, I go to our customers, we talk to them about the mock-ups, and we go from there, sometimes they just release it and then we go through and do feedback loops and everything. But oftentimes, the feedback loops are just saying, “Hey, guys, you nailed it with the functionality here but this label is wrong, this button needs to be moved and it’s a lot more stuff of like, okay, functionally it’s there. But it’s not clear to the customers what we’ve actually just released, or it’s not going to be easy for a brand new trial user to be able to figure out without contacting our support team” and so little things like that.
Got it. So essentially, you understand how much of it negative impact the feature can have, if develop not correctly, not as it should and if that’s very small, you don’t really care that much about it. You see later how it works, you do feedback loops, but if it really can have a dramatic impact, then you are more involved, more hand holding, more feedback loops with yourself up front. That is very fascinating and I think a very good approach to also not micromanage and empower development teams wherever possible. So that’s very interesting. What is the feature that that took way longer than expected?
If I remember correctly, I saw some the notes when you sent over the notes before the call and I want to say it was releasing the mobile apps. I think that was it. There was one feature that we had I’m pretty sure it was releasing our mobile apps that we said that, it was going to be done in January and it took until April or something like that and the communication on it was really frustrating that like internally, I had essentially committed us publicly, to like January, and the team had told me it’d be done in December. So I had already given us some leeway and then it just kept getting pushed back, kept getting pushed back and all that stuff on. And, yes, I mean, there’s just there’s some things that you really have to get. So I was looking at it internally, and I wasn’t like, yes, we have to push this right now. I was more looking at it internally and the dialogue, there was guys, this is not good enough, we can’t release this, it needs to be better and it took us until April to get it to that point, I’m pretty sure that was the big one that took a lot longer than expected.
What do you think the issue was mainly? — Because I’m not sure if you had– if you were used to building mobile apps? So maybe that was just new territory or was it more UX– That things just weren’t right for people or was it just not estimated?
It was definitely a communication issue. Most issues come down to communication, because most deadlines are completely made up. A lot of people don’t like to hear that. But the truth is that most people, there’s no rhyme or reason, they just go, we’re going to get an API out at the end of the month. It’s like, well, why? And that’s why I oftentimes won’t announce things until they’re very close to done. Because sometimes you have something you think is going to take two months and it’s done three days later and sometimes it’s the exact opposite, where you think it’s going to be a two-week project and six months later, you’re still working on it and in this case, it was just a very poor communication and that’s not to blame anyone on our development team. But like you said, it was that mobile development, it was new and so we miss estimated it. But it really was more about the communication around the Miss estimation, that was really the problem.
It’s perfectly fine for us to realize that the deadline that we set or the expectations that we set are wrong. The problem was that they kept saying, you know, it’s going to take another week, it’s going to take another two weeks and honestly, when we did a post mortem on that, it should have been very clear in December that this was not going to be something that we were going to be able to fix in two weeks and so yes, like I said, I’ve found that the vast majority 99% of the issues that we run into are communication issues above all else.
Although from being a developer myself, sometimes it’s just very unclear– think you’re going to fix something, but then you fix that issue. But you discover the underlying issue, and that one is a hell of a lot bigger, which is really the frustrating part of all of this. So I totally understand how that got around. What’s your current product team setup right now?
So, until recently, there were just two people on the product team– we just had our CTO, and then our mobile developer, and then in the past, maybe two months, that’s really skyrocketed and now we have 6 or 7 people on the team and so with that we have two interns now and then we have a couple of folks that actually started out on other parts of our team that have now started helping us with different things.
So we have two team members are actually our CEO, who I guess is bored with his role apparently because he’s moved into development and then one of our former VA is actually– the two of them have been spending the past couple of months just writing tests for the software so that we can begin to upgrade our rails version and to be able to just move faster without worrying as much about breaking things.
Then we have the interns, the CTO, the mobile developer, and then even like my wife now, who’s been our head of marketing, she’s beginning to learn to code and our CTO has been really good about breaking things down to the point where every team member now can actually spend time, doing some stuff that then we actually use in the app. So it’s beginning to accelerate for us. So yeah, but like I said– until very recently it was literally just two guys and that allowed us to move very, very quickly.
Awesome. So, you’re fully remote I think?
Yeah, fully remote since 2013.
Nice. Do you have any challenges or learnings around remote work– fully remote work– team culture– accountability — things like that?
I always struggle with that question, because we’ve never known it any other way. A lot of people go like a blind key– there’s all these sorts of differences and to me, that’s just always been the way that it is. So, yes, it’s a hard one. I mean, I do think that it’s important that you’re connected with people more than just in slack that I’m like, friends on Facebook with all of our employees and stuff, and some people aren’t, aren’t like, aren’t comfortable with that. But I do think that– that’s important that if you’re not seeing everyone on a day-to-day basis, you’ve got to have other ways to get to know them and to feel close to them and stuff like that. You know, we’ve ramped up our calls over the years.
So now, every team will meet at least on a weekly basis, there still aren’t too many calls. Most people on the team, I would say have two or three calls at the max each week. But like one little thing that we’ve done is, on all of those calls, we end all of the calls with a personal question– appropriate personal question. So today, like we just had the exact call an hour and a half ago and the question to end that call was if the ZenMaid team threw you a surprise birthday party, which one or two celebrities would you want to have like at that party? And that always leads to interesting discussions– or who is your favorite Disney Prince growing up and stuff like that.
So yes, I don’t know, that’s probably not all that useful. But I do feel it definitely lends to the team dynamic that I feel a lot of companies are missing that. Yes, I don’t know, we try to make sure that maybe not that everyone on our team or our friends, but that they’re friendly with each other and I think that’s really important, because a lot of people will miss that, if they’re used to office work. At the same time, though, we very rarely hire someone that’s used to working in an office, that’s one thing that we found is, you know, everyone, if they’re working in an office, and they become a remote worker, there’s going to be some transition period, other companies can deal with that transition period, we’ve found that ferocity just doesn’t really work. If they’re used to working in an office, we don’t want to be the ones that deal with that kind of transition, where they have to learn to manage their own schedule, and not have someone looking over their shoulder and all of that — if the person’s not already working remotely, I’m not very likely to hire them.
That makes a lot of sense and also a great hack with the birthday. So who would you invite?
I said that I would invite the Rock and Kevin Hart, I thought those would be the two that if you ever see those guys in interviews, I mean, in their movies, of course, they’re hilarious, but if you ever see them on Instagram stories or anything like that, they just seem they would be such a riot to hang out with… it just seems like it’d be a guaranteed fun time with the two of them.
What’s your distribution before beginning core team members and freelancers?
There’s only maybe— Right now, I think we have four people that I would consider to be full time and we have about 25 people. So it’s a lot of freelancers, it’s a lot of contractors, a lot of agencies, like I mentioned earlier, I think that we have out of 25, I think we have six or seven maid service owners that are on the team, that actually run their own maid service and use ZenMaid for a considerable amount of time before joining our team. So all of those guys, maybe work for us for two hours a day, probably even less than that and that’s just because they don’t really need any training. They know the software inside and out.
So we don’t really have to do all that much. They’re just available to help out like our other customers to jump on sales calls with potential customers and all of that stuff and then we work with agencies a lot that I’ve written about this a little bit on my Twitter and stuff like that, that I think that if you’re working with agencies are great. If you have all of your ducks are in a row, then bringing on agencies to scale what’s already working is brilliant. If you try to bring on an agency to figure out something that’s not already working in your business, you’re probably going to have a very difficult time, unless you’re paying top dollar for them.
Why would that be because they don’t have the insights that you need to make these decisions?
Yeah, I would say so– I mean, I’m definitely talking more on the– well, the marketing side, but also the product side. If you’re listening to this and you’re an entrepreneur, your biggest job is to understand your market, it’s to grow your team and to understand like your market, and the truth is, that an agency– they don’t have the time the resources to actually become experts in your specific industry. So for us, we work with a writer, a Content Agency, we don’t expect them to be experts in running a main service, and we don’t want trash content.
So instead, what we do is, we get all of like our industry partners, and all of the actual experts. In the cleaning industry, we get them to record videos with actual expert content from someone that’s run a maid service for 20 years, or whatever and then we send those videos over to this content agency, and they turn it into really high quality, like written content.
So that’s an example. But it’s the same thing with development, if you hire a DEV agency, unless you’re telling them exactly what to do, and you have a really good idea of exactly what you need, they’re not going to go out and figure out the little details that make the difference between a mediocre software that does the job versus like the software where your customers log in and they’re like, Oh, crap, this was designed exactly for me.
Yes, a 100%, we also tell all of our customers that market research and understanding what to build, that must be on them. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter who you work with, you’re going to be iterating, that learning curve is something that’s on you, customer and business wise. 100%. Awesome. So what’s in it for ZenMaid right now, what’s the outlook here? What’s your next milestone?
So we just crossed $100,000 a month, last week or the week before, I don’t even know what the next big milestone is, that seems like the last really big one until we hit $2 million in annual recurring revenue. But I’ve been doing the digital nomad thing that I’ve been traveling the world since 2015 and so my goals right now with ZenMaid, are just to continue growing the business without sacrificing my lifestyle, and without losing the team culture that we have.
So I do think that we’re going to top out our team here pretty soon, that I think at some point, we’re just going to be like, okay, we’re not going to hire any more people, we’re just going to continue growing the company. However, much we can, while keeping this small group, because I don’t think that on a personal level. We’re at 20 or 25 people on the team and I don’t think that I really want to be the CEO that’s managing 50 or 100 employees. I just don’t think that that’s where I want to go, particularly from a lifestyle perspective. But I do want to see how far we can get. I think that we can scale this to two or $3 million annually — with actually the current team, I think that we’re finally in a place where we can add on a lot of revenue without having to scale up our manpower too much.
So that’s the focus right now, we’re definitely in a scaling phase. But also going back to basics kind of phase, right, as we’re trying to solidify the product, solidify the software, make it faster, improve performance, just make it like less buggy and stuff and then, we’ve been doing this long enough that most of our marketing– and marketing channels are working well and so it’s really just about doubling down on what’s working, and just trying to accelerate the growth and take us to the next level.
Amazing. Well, good luck with that. Thank you so much, Amar for being on the show. Where can people learn more about you, get in touch with you, learn about ZenMaid?
Yeah, so the two places, if you happen to be a random maid service owner that’s listening to this, you can go to Zenmaid.com. I’m not sure how you would have found this but Congrats. Thank you for listening. If you’re a SaaS entrepreneur, or if you’re interested in lifestyle design, or marketing or any of that stuff, the two places to find me so I’m most active on Twitter. Twitter handle is it’sjustAmar. So I-T-S J-U-S-T A-M-A-R and then if you want to check out my personal website, that is the Amaricandream.com
So the Amaricandream but spelled A-M-A-R instead of A-M-E-R, if you want to look that up, and every now and again, I’ll post some longer form content on various things there and yes, if you reach out to me on Twitter if you drop me a DM on Twitter, I’m always happy to connect with new folks. Always happy to answer questions and even jump on a zoom call for anyone that wants to take me up on that, until I get to popular and my calendar gets to full. I’m always willing to chat with aspiring and upcoming entrepreneurs. So I encourage everyone to do that.
Awesome. That’s very nice of you. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and hope to chat soon.
All right, sounds good. Thanks so much for having me.