How This Ex-Freelancer Grew a 7-Figure SaaS with Zero Funding
They serve thousands of happy customers, turn a healthy profit every year, and have never taken a cent in funding.
We tend to glamourize startups with 8-figure venture rounds, celebrity-driven marketing, and hockey-stick growth. But Hampton member David Hollander took a different route - he built a SaaS company with zero funding, zero dollars in ad spend, that boasts raving customers, and good old-fashioned profitability.
But it didn’t start that way. In 2011, David was just an ordinary freelancer atop a pile of failed startups.
Then one of his ecommerce clients came to him with a problem. They were looking for a way to review and edit orders in bulk before sending them out for fulfillment. It seemed like an interesting challenge so David agreed to take a stab at it.
A week later he had a solution and realized his other ecommerce clients might also find it useful. And they did!
That seed eventually grew into OrderDesk - an order management app that lets ecomm businesses automate their order fulfillment workflow.
In this interview, David sat down to tell us…
- How they’ve grown to thousands of clients through partnerships alone
- Why he pays all his employees (even those outside the US) a competitive salary
- How they’ve built a great company culture despite being remote and international
- And much more!
Here’s the full story from David himself...
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is David Hollander and I run a company called Order Desk. At its core, Order Desk is an order management app that lets businesses automate their order fulfillment workflow using our Rule Builder and over 300 integrated services.
I started this as a side project by accident years ago. Today we help thousands of merchants and fulfillment companies automate their order fulfillment processes. Exciting, right?
We’ve never had hockey stick growth, but we’ve been growing steadily for years, bootstrapping the entire way. As of late 2023, our team consists of 23 amazing folks who genuinely care about our customers and one another, and our revenue is at $3M/year. It’s been an exciting journey to get here.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been a lifelong entrepreneur with a powerful track record of building projects with, how shall we say it, “limited success”. From David’s Dog Walking Service as a 9-year-old, to a wedding website builder that got exactly one customer, I have had a lot of ideas and not a lot of successes. I’m sure other entrepreneurs will know what I’m talking about.
In 2011, I had been a freelance web developer for ten years and had begun working with quite a few ecommerce customers using the FoxyCart platform. One day, a customer came to me and asked if I’d build a simple control panel to help them review and edit their orders before sending them off for fulfillment in a CSV file.
This sounded like an interesting project and I accepted right away. When I finished a week later, I realized that what I had built was more broadly useful, so I offered to host it and added several more features for others to use as well. I wondered if my other customers might like it.
And did they ever! Before long, I had quite a few customers who were using my little tool to manage their orders. I called it “Order Desk” and kept adding features as they requested them. I finally began charging a small subscription fee and by the end of 2012, my little project was making almost $1,000 a month. It was magical!
Take us through the process of building and launching the first version of your product.
I was getting a lot of feedback on my product and I realized that everyone wanted something different. I’d never be able to build options for all the situations I was encountering. I began working on an idea that would allow my users to take any action on any order, based on any condition in the order – a solution that would be flexible enough for all the problems my customers were bringing to me.
Finally, in early 2013 I broke ground on this new idea and spent 9 months hacking away at it alongside my regular freelance work. There were many nights that I stayed up till 4am because I was too excited by what I was building to go to sleep.
In January 2014 I launched the new version of Order Desk for my clients and it was not quite ready. But I kept building and improving on the fly and by the end of 2014 Order Desk was making about $3,000/month. It was an exciting and challenging time.
Six months later I found myself at a crossroads. Order Desk was taking up more and more of my time and I began to resent the freelance work that was getting in the way. Looking at the Order Desk revenue and trajectory, I decided to go all in and stopped taking on new work.
I began spending all my time building features and integrations while doing support and sales at Order Desk. A year later, I found myself so busy that I knew I needed some help.
I’d never hired anyone before and to be honest, I was terrified. I’d have to spend so much time training this person. What if they weren’t honest? Would they care about my customers and product the same way I did? These fears turned out to be unfounded.
My first employee was wonderful and we made a great team. Together, we worked hard building the business and it began to grow even faster. Over the next few years, I learned a lot about hiring and people and myself.
Not only that, but I found a new purpose for my career beyond just building the product to make gobs of money. Providing a place for my team to build their own careers was incredibly satisfying.
Since launch, what growth channels have been most effective for you?
In the early days, I was so focused on development and support, that I never prioritized any marketing. Order Desk grew through word of mouth and with the support of our partners, whose customers needed our product.
Today, we have a team that focuses on building content and working with our partners, but we’ve never spent time running ads or trying to buy customers. Instead, we’ve spent our efforts building relationships with our partners: companies that are running fulfillment for their merchants.
Since the beginning, we’ve tried to build as many third-party integrations as possible and today, we have connections to more than 325 different services. By focusing on our partners, we can help them improve the service they provide to customers and it’s a natural sales program that multiplies our efforts.
Did you ever have an “oh shit” moment where you thought it wouldn’t work?
For a few days in March 2020, we were very worried right along with everyone else. We started thinking about what a collapse would look like and strategizing for how we could conserve cash and how long we’d be able to last if we had a drastic dropoff in customers.
But the opposite happened. We saw a tremendous increase in sales because everyone stayed home and spent stimulus money on the internet! It was like Q4 in Q2.
Really though, the boring answer is no, not really. This idea and project has grown as a direct reaction to the needs of our paying customers so we’ve always had a strong market fit.
We’re 100% bootstrapped so we only grow as we can cashflow that growth. Not only that but being bootstrapped means that we are free to make the business decisions that drive our priorities. It’s important that the leadership team share the same priorities and we often make decisions that prioritize stability over high growth.
Can you break down the keys to this business model for us? What makes it work? And what do outsiders typically not understand about your industry?
Our business model is pretty simple. We charge a monthly service fee and then a small per-order fee for customers to use our app. The base fees account for 30% of our revenue with the usage fees accounting for the other 70%.
Because we are transaction-based, when order volume fluctuates, we tend to see revenue do the same. This also means that our Q4 revenue goes through the roof as we see our order volume more than double in November/December each year.
In the early days, we were seeing 60-80% YoY growth, but now that we are bigger, our growth is more measured.
Our organization is broken down into four teams: support, engineering, content, and people ops with leads for each of these teams. Because we are still a small company, everyone knows everyone else and we’re able to easily collaborate across teams.
What platform/tools are absolutely crucial for your business?
Our business is 100% remote so everything starts with Slack. Our Slack platform enables the collaboration that we’d otherwise miss from not having an in-person office.
We also use Zoom and Around to help our team stay connected. Around in particular is great for drop-in meetings where a few people can work together, keeping video bubbles available at the top of their screens.
Other than that, we keep things pretty simple with a combo of AWS and Stripe that make building a modern web app so nice. We use Notion as our collective Team Brain, Shortcut for managing development projects, and BitBucket for hosting our code.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I don’t read a lot of business books, but I appreciated the perspective and ideas presented in Powerful by Patty McCord. I’ve enjoyed listening to just about anything that Simon Sinek has to say. His thoughts about how to lead and what’s important have made an impact on me.
Mostly, I love hearing from other entrepreneurs who are building their businesses. I have a friend who is a woodworker and when I listen to him talk about his business and what he’s building (literally) it makes me want to go out and buy a miter saw and try to build something myself.
When someone loves what they are doing, their enthusiasm is contagious!
Where do you see untapped opportunity in the market? What business do you wish someone else would build that would make your job easier?
Setting up Order Desk can be a bit technical and we see a lot of non-technical folks who just want to have their hand held. We love to see companies that manage the fulfillment side for their non-technical customers and partners. It’s always a great situation when a customer can really flex their muscles doing what they do best and delegate the technical implementation to others.
Beyond that, I think much of the ecommerce industry plays into this idea of what professionalism looks like. What we’ve been trying to do is inject a little fun into what we do while still prioritizing the needs of our customers and our partners.
It’s okay to smile and show some personality, and I’d love to see more of that across our industry.
What are some strong opinions you have about leadership, and how do you actually put those into practice in your company?
A few years ago, we spent some time identifying the values that were important to our company. These values are Curiosity, Humility, Empathy, Generosity, and Fun. We’ve worked hard to make these values a core part of our work every day and everyone has permission to make decisions through the lens of these values.
No one will ever get in trouble for being too generous with a customer or spending too much time trying to figure out how things work (being curious). These values are important to our hiring process as we are almost entirely focused on finding new teammates who are a 100% values match. Skills can be taught.
Earlier I mentioned that as a bootstrapped company we can place priority on things that are important to us, potentially sacrificing short-term profit. One way that we do this is by paying our international team US salaries.
An employee who happens to live in Africa or Asia isn’t valued less than a US-based employee and we want to avoid a perception of favoritism. We want our team to have the option to live where they want to live. It’s been exciting to use salary as a tool to help change the lives of some of our international team members.
Because I own 100% of the business and am not looking to exit, offering equity wouldn’t really do much for the team, so rather than providing equity, I give my team profit sharing twice a year. This is another way I’m trying to lead with generosity and prioritize people over profits.
Where can we go to learn more?
You can find out more about Order Desk at www.orderdesk.com.
If you want to keep up with me, I may tweet occasionally with @dhollander, though I’m more likely to be posting about the NY Mets or telling a dad joke than dropping Serious Business Thoughts™.
After all, there has to be balance in life and I’m trying to use these years to focus on my family in addition to building a business that impacts others for good.
Personally, I find being the CEO of a startup to be downright exhilarating. But, as I'm sure you well know, it can also be a bit lonely and stressful at times, too.
Because, let's be honest, if you're the kind of person with the guts to actually launch and run a startup, then you can bet everyone will always be asking you a thousand questions, expecting you to have all the right answers -- all the time.
And that's okay! Navigating this kind of pressure is the job.
But what about all the difficult questions that you have as you reach each new level of growth and success? For tax questions, you have an accountant. For legal, your attorney. And for tech. your dev team.
This is where Hampton comes in.
Hampton's a private and highly vetted network for high-growth founders and CEOs.