Jim Belosic (the pancake guy) shares the story of how he started his tech company ShortStack.
Jim Belosic is the founder and CEO of ShortStack, a social media platform that allows you to create customized Facebook promotions & contests. Some of you might know Jim as the “pancake guy” from his blog jims pancakes, where he creates cool pancakes for his daughter.
Jim is also the author of OMG Pancakes! and his book has been featured on Oprah.com & ABC news. I recently had a chat with Jim — we discussed his personal background, as well as the startup story behind his new company ShortStack.
Q: Please tell us a little bit about your company – what is Shortstack all about?
Jim Belosic: ShortStack’s software is designed to help small-business owners and big-name agencies create apps for Facebook Pages, websites, and the mobile web. ShortStack users can create contests and sweepstakes, newsletter sign-up forms and integrations with the most popular social networks, including Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and more. ShortStack is a self-service platform that consists of more than 40 tools, 70+ templates, and an extensive library of support documents, videos, references, and an email support system.
Q: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and also how you started your business?
Jim Belosic: I’ve been an entrepreneur almost my entire life, and I started my own web design company at age 22. Nine years after I started the company, our clients started asking us if we could build some custom Facebook apps for them. We didn’t know much about Facebook in general, let alone Facebook apps, but I’ve never been one to turn down an opportunity to learn something new. We were building each app by hand, but we soon created some simple in-house software to help us speed up the process. One day it hit us that we had a really awesome potential product — which I named ShortStack — that we should make available directly to the end user and cut out the middleman (yes, even though that was us!). ShortStack was released in Beta in late 2010 and by January 2011 it was available to the public.
Q: Starting out as an entrepreneur who did you look up to, and who were some of your mentors and why?
Jim Belosic: Ben Chestnut at MailChimp has been a big influence for me. We’ve been through a lot of the same stuff when it comes to our previous experiences; when I read about his company’s history I realized that MailChimp, too, began as an agency. I feel like every time I have a question, I can read Ben’s blog and he’s either had that same problem or offers some insight that is relevant to me.
Another role model of mine is my dad. My dad has always been self-employed. When I was growing up I saw him working really hard but he could take breaks when he wanted. He had a flexible schedule that allowed him to pursue the hobbies he loves. He definitely inspired my entrepreneurial endeavors.
Q: How is running a tech company different than what you thought it would be?
Jim Belosic: I had no expectations because this was so different than the agency world that I was used to. I love that it’s really fast paced and we have to change all the time. It’s like running any other company, except in dog years :). One year in tech is about 7 years in a “normal” industry.
Q: How do you separate yourself from your competitors and what makes your platform better or different?
Jim Belosic: I guess our main difference is our flexibility. Everything can be customized or changed; nothing is cookie-cutter with our platform. Some other platforms offer pre-designed templates with limited customization. ShortStack offers pre-designed templates too, but users can also build apps from scratch, or start with a template then modify it to their liking. We also try to be competitive with our pricing. We offer a ton of enterprise-level features, but since we’re a DIY platform, we can keep the prices low.
Q: What was the biggest problem you encountered with your business and how did you overcome it?
Jim Belosic: Changing from an agency-based model with 10 or 20 clients to a software service with thousands of clients was a huge challenge. We had to continue to run the agency while we were creating ShortStack because we needed the cash. We bootstrapped ShortStack, and the agency side of the business provided revenue for us to keep a roof over our heads. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to take our existing agency revenue and have it support double the workload and staff. It was a huge balancing act, but luckily we were able to charge for ShortStack from the beginning. Without that early revenue, we would have had to look for investors.
Q: Please share some business tips & advice for new tech startups and entrepreneurs.
Jim Belosic: Focus on the product. Don’t worry about advertising and marketing too much at the beginning. A good product tends to sell itself.
Charge for your product from the beginning, even if it’s a small amount. Charging early on will help you reinvest in the company and will teach you how much people are willing to pay for your product. Even a small cash flow puts you light years ahead of dozens of start ups who may never get any funding.
When you are ready, build a public relations team. Public relations is an amazing investment that pays over the long haul. It’s like having good advertising that you don’t have to pay for every month
Q: What were the top 3 mistakes you made starting out with your business and if you could start over what would you do differently?
Jim Belosic: First, I would have focused on the UI of our product more. We told our users that we were easy to use, when in reality there was a learning curve.
Second, I would have designed our service to be more “platform agnostic” from the beginning. Being tied to someone else’s platform (in our case, Facebook) can be stressful.
Third, I would have offered our product with multiple languages “baked-in” to the app. Now we are trying to add multiple-language support and it’s tough at this stage. Bottom line: don’t forget that there are way more people in the world who don’t speak English but can potentially use your product.
Q: Besides the obvious social media tools available, what are the top 3 most useful tools or resources you’re currently using to grow your company?
1. MailChimp: I swear I’m not an affiliate for them! I just love their product and they’ve helped us increase our email marketing immensely.
2. Improvely: Improvely allows us to track all of our public outreach and see conversions up to 6 months after a user clicks on an initial link.
3. Geckoboard: We’re able to see all of our data in real time, including Tweets, website visits, blog visits, sign ups, etc. Having access to this information allows us to have a quicker response time to questions and to any other issues that come up.
Q: Can you recommend a good book for new entrepreneurs?
“Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug. It’ll change how you see your product and how your users actually use it.
Q: What’s your definition of success?
Jim Belosic: Success is when you can afford to make mistakes, learn from them and move on without serious repercussion.