Posted on
September 26, 2023

From identifying a personal need to scaling a thriving business

Justin Duke
From identifying a personal need to scaling a thriving business

Read the inspiring journey of ButtonDown, an email marketing platform, and the remarkable lessons shared by the founder. From identifying a personal need to scaling a thriving business, this story offers invaluable insights for aspiring entrepreneurs and showcases the power of relentless focus and unwavering commitment to customer satisfaction.

What is your company doing and how did you validate this idea?

Why I Started ButtonDown

I launched ButtonDown in 2016, approximately seven years ago. The idea came from my own need. At the time, most email tools were either needlessly complex or overly tailored toward e-commerce and marketing automation. I had my own blog, my own email-list, and I just wanted a simple platform that can help me with my newsletter delivery and growing my list. I did not want all the extra jazz. Being an engineer, I believed I could build a simpler and better tool, and I did just that. 

ButtonDown's core mission was, and continues to be, crystal clear: to provide the best possible tool for a specific niche within the email marketing domain. We remain laser-focused on delivering a user-friendly platform for email newsletters.

Initially, it was a side project, something I worked on during my nights and weekends.In those early years, progress was slower than anticipated. However, what kept me going was the realization that ButtonDown wasn't just solving my problems; it was resonating with others who shared similar frustrations with existing tools, such as Tiny Letter. This gradual growth served as our initial validation.

Validation through User Engagement

Further validation for ButtonDown emerged organically from our user community. Initially, I didn't envision it becoming a hosted app; it was conceived more as a personal project or a potential open-source endeavor. However, as I shared my progress, a bunch of users expressed a desire to pay for the service. 

With this dedicated group of beta users, I deeply engaged and actively sought their feedback to build ButtonDown into an exceptional product tailored for a select audience, rather than a generic solution for the masses.

A Leap of Faith: Transitioning to Full-Time Founder

Around a year and a half ago, I faced a significant decision. At that point, I had been running ButtonDown as a side project for approximately five years. I had a secure job at Stripe, where I served as an engineering manager and leader. Leaving that job to become a full-time founder and CEO was a difficult choice. However, ButtonDown had grown to a point where it could not only cover my salary but also offered substantial growth potential. So, I made the leap and transitioned to a full-time founder.

Since that transition, the journey has been incredibly rewarding. It's been exciting and fulfilling, surpassing my initial expectations.

What sets ButtonDown apart within the competitive email marketing landscape is our unwavering focus. Our plan with ButtonDown revolves around addressing a specific pain point with relentless focus and a commitment to excellence. This is what helps us thrive in a very competitive landscape. 

How do you identify and prioritize new growth channels?

Identifying Growth Channels and the Power of Word of Mouth

In ButtonDown's early days, one of the most remarkable aspects of our growth was the incredible impact of word of mouth and referrals. Approximately 90% of our growth came organically through this channel. 

This is also deeply embedded in our product. Every email sent using our platform naturally includes a reference to ButtonDown. This created a self-sustaining growth cycle where satisfied users became enthusiastic advocates, continually bringing in new subscribers. Word of mouth remains the cornerstone of our growth strategy.

Content Marketing and Thought Leadership

Beyond word of mouth, our approach to growth involves content marketing and thought leadership. We recognized the importance of providing valuable, candid, and widely shareable content. In a world where many corporate blogs prioritize SEO optimization over genuine value, we made it our goal to offer content that genuinely interested and benefited our users. We shared this content on various platforms, including social media and our blog, with the aim of building a brand that users found engaging and insightful.

Long-Term Perspective

Our commitment to providing valuable content and nurturing a strong user community is a long-term strategy. While some competitors may have substantial advertising budgets, we believe that establishing trust and delivering real value to our users will yield lasting benefits. We're not just focused on short-term gains; we're invested in building a brand and community that stands the test of time.

What are your top skills as a founder? How do you work on it?

Alignment with Personal Need and Use Case 

The foremost skill I've honed as a founder is ensuring that my product addresses a genuine need and use case. This is paramount for me because, from a motivation standpoint, I couldn't sustain the daily dedication required for ButtonDown if it wasn't a product I personally wanted to use and continually improve.

Multidisciplinary Perspective

Another critical skill is the ability to view my product, company, or position from various perspectives rapidly. My time at Stripe taught me the value of wearing multiple hats, such as handling engineering, design, and marketing tasks within a single day. While this can be challenging, it's also incredibly rewarding. Being able to switch between these roles swiftly is a distinct advantage and sets me apart from many other founders.

Focus on Unique Value 

A significant part of my skill set revolves around identifying the ways in which ButtonDown can excel compared to competing tools. Rather than attempting to outbuild companies with larger teams, I emphasize making ButtonDown the most cohesive, precise, and minimalistic yet sophisticated version of itself. This focus on delivering unique value allows me to connect with users who genuinely appreciate these distinctions.

I've realized the importance of simplicity, particularly in an environment where products can become cluttered and confusing. By focusing on simplifying and refining specific features, I aim to enhance user experience and avoid unnecessary complexity, which resonates positively with our users.

What is that one opportunity that had a significant impact on your company's growth or direction?

The Pivotal Opportunity

One opportunity that had a monumental impact on ButtonDown's trajectory was the decision to transition from working part-time on the project to dedicating myself to it full-time. Initially, I was investing around 15 to 20 hours a week to keep the platform running, conduct demo calls, address bugs, and handle onboarding. 

Going from part-time to full-time wasn't a mere doubling of effort; it was more like a four- to five-fold acceleration in progress. With my undivided energy and focus, I could devote myself entirely to improving the product. Instead of squeezing in 30 minutes of work before bedtime, I could channel my full creative and technical capacity into ButtonDown.

Looking back, I believe this transition was the most substantial step change in our growth journey. While I understand that it's challenging to prescribe a universal timeline for making such a move, I've realized that a touch less caution might have propelled us even further. Perhaps, instead of my four-year tenure at Stripe with ButtonDown as a side project, taking the plunge a year earlier could have accelerated our progress.

The Role of the Team

Today, I serve as the sole full-time employee, but we have a team of approximately seven individuals working part-time. These team members play crucial roles in customer support, marketing, documentation, and onboarding. Initially, I held a somewhat misguided belief that hiring assistance equated to personal failure or an inability to manage my time effectively. However, bringing these talented individuals on board not only lightened my workload but also enhanced the quality of our operations. Their contributions, particularly in areas where they excel, have significantly benefited both ButtonDown as a product and our company as a whole.

The decision to shift from part-time to full-time commitment and the growth of our team have been pivotal opportunities that propelled ButtonDown to where it stands today. These transitions have not only accelerated our progress but also enriched the product and improved the overall experience for our users.

What part of your business are you most proud of? Why?

I'm most proud of the transformation in our customer support and user satisfaction. This aspect of our business has been a game-changer, and here's why:

Elevating Customer Support

Historically, customer support was a challenging and somewhat demoralizing part of the business for me. Two years ago, I often found myself buried in emails, addressing a wide array of user inquiries and requests. It was difficult to reconcile this role with my identity as a founder, as I felt that my primary job had shifted from building and innovating to handling customer support.

Around 2021, I reached a turning point in my perspective. Instead of viewing customer support as a necessary but frustrating task, I saw an opportunity to make it exceptional. We decided to invest heavily in enhancing this aspect of our business.

Our approach included hiring part-time customer support team members, revamping our documentation, and prioritizing features and improvements that simplified users' tasks. We also adopted Help Scout, a help desk software, to better gauge customer satisfaction.

Remarkable Results

The remarkable outcome of these efforts is that we've consistently achieved a 100% "Great" rating from our users for the past five months. Every interaction with our customer support team leaves users highly satisfied.

This shift in our approach to customer support has had a profound impact on our brand. Users who have positive experiences often share their feedback on social media or in conversations, generating organic word-of-mouth promotion. This level of endorsement is invaluable and surpasses the impact of any marketing campaign.

Balancing Priorities

While focusing on customer support, we've had to make trade-offs in other areas. However, for ButtonDown, which aims to be an exceptional tool rather than aiming to dominate the market, this trade-off has been the right choice.

I'm most proud of our commitment to providing top-notch customer support and achieving consistently high user satisfaction. It has not only enhanced our brand but also created a community of satisfied users who organically amplify our presence through their positive experiences.

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