Founding and owning a SASS company.
Episode 13- Caro Syson 'The reality of founding and owning a SASS comapny'
So Caro, you own pocket PA, which is this phenomenal app to kind of really support those small business owners to do all the things that all the other apps seem to do in one place and manage all the finances, their appointments and reminders, managing their calendar and everything. In your own words, can you just explain who you are and what you do?
So who am I? I ask myself this question.
So I think I am this bonkers crazy woman, five years ago, I decided to embark on software, having never written a line of code and never planned to write a line of code and thought, I'm just gonna make an app. And I just fell into it really, there was never this big strategy and plan to make a software tool that was going to do all that stuff. It came about, I think, because my oldest daughter came home one day after she finished school and said she wants to work for herself. And knowing that she would be amazing at what she wanted to do. But not being able to have any experience having run a business or anything like that. I just started off doing my due diligence, looking for something for her to use. And I found an app for this. And after that there were hundreds of different apps or doing different things and different strands in business. But nothing all in one place that seemed to join up all the dots in the big areas. So I knew that finances were going to be a challenge for her. When was 19, she struggled to get through her GCSE of maths and she wasn't particularly numerous. So percentages, spreadsheets, numbers, just befuddle her. And I was concerned that all of the software tools for accounts were just ridiculously complicated, overwhelming us. If she had downloaded one of those tools, she would have only used probably 5%. And that would have confused the heck out of her. So it was the same story on all of these big CRM systems and all of the invoicing and stuff and I just thought that's crazy. I'm going to make something all in one place, make it really simple, do it in colour, because business always looks better in colour. And it's I'm going to just make something for Meghan, that was my original plan. And I know it sounds incredibly self indulgent to make a software tool for your daughter, but that was just my that was what I started off doing. And that was it. That was where I began.
I don't think it sounds self indulgent at all. I think lots of people listening, obviously are business owners. Firstly, can you before I get into it, we should probably say, what is SASS?
That SASS was again another alien word. And I didn't even know I was making a SASS product which is software as a service. So I was making a tool which people could access on the internet. It's downloadable. It's not an app that you get from the Apple or the Google Play Store, I've actually made something called a web app, which you just open on a web browser, like Google or Chrome or Safari. But Software as a Service is where you create a tool on a platform, and you charge a subscription for it. So it's free for 14 days, and then you have a cost on a monthly or an annual basis. And so that's what you get as the service, you use the tool. That's your stuff. It's subscription based. I've tried lots of different things. I've had lots of different businesses. And that's why I felt so passionate about wanting Megan to be successful, because I thought, if she's brave enough and 19, to want to work for herself, I don't want anyone to tell her Don't be ridiculous. Of course, you can't do that with business experience, I wanted her to succeed. That was my main mission and goals.
So this tool had to manage all of that business stuff that she would find really overwhelming on a day to day basis, because she was specialising in beauty. Just as people might become self employed as a coach or a fitness expert, that's where their passion is doing what they love with their clients, it isn't on the non income producing business stuff, because nobody starts a new business to do more business admin. So that's just not what lights them up. And they're not earning money when they're tracking their payments or booking new appointments or speaking to clients. They're not earning money, that they're only earning money when they're actually delivering their service. So I needed it to be super simple, so that she needed to spend the least amount of time doing that stuff that she hated. And I wanted to make it engaging and interesting every time she opened pocket pa so that she felt lit up and thought, oh my God, look, oh, this is interesting. Oh, this is what I'm doing. So it had to be in bright colours and had to be very quick and simple for her to be able to understand the main numbers because as a business owner and having had 30 years of business experience, I knew that you can't manage you can't manage what you don't measure. So as unsexy as it sounds, you have to get intimate with your numbers, because it's all very well just delivering, you know, your service to your customers and stuff. But if you're not in the back area, analysing how things are going on a regular basis. And I'm not going to say it has to be weekly, monthly, or however you've got to do it to fit your business and your own circumstances. But you do need to be comfortable with your numbers, whether you like it or not, you cannot be a business owner, and not get intimate with those things. Otherwise, you could be having a very expensive hobby going on. And not know that until the end of the year when your accountant tells you and you do not want to have that that's not going to give you longevity for your business.
At what point did you realise you are a SASS company?
Probably about a year and a half into getting caught up making this thing from Meghan. And in fact, we started off making an app for her phone. And it very quickly became obvious that there was going to be very limited functionality to get the breadth of everything that I was trying to do, you just couldn't do that on a phone app. And they are very clunky, because you have to develop them on an iPhone basis. And for an Android, although there are hybrid opportunities available now where they can be distributed through both. But whenever something goes wrong on a native app, and it crashes, you have to get a bug fix going. And then you have to push it through the apple and the Google Play stores. And then you have to get your clients to update their system again. And those are just all time consuming. And it's jolly expensive, building those native apps. So it was very quick, quickly apparent to me within probably the first year and a half. I know that might not sound very quickly apparent. But it was obvious that I had to move it onto a webapp platform. And then we would make it mobile friendly to work on any device, whether it's a tablet, a computer or a mobile phone. And then what you do is you just open your browser and everything's based on the cloud. So there's no storage space taken up on your phone, which is also handy.
So how do you get from not even knowing what SASS even means to your daughter coming home and saying she wants to build her own company?
It's just like around the dinner table and you thought you know what? I'll make an app. I wasn't ever planning to, I was looking for something for her to use. But it was when there was this inadequacy of what I could see out there that nobody was joining up all the dots. I wanted her to just have one place to log in one password, one username, and I wanted it to be super simple and nothing was delivering that and it felt like everybody was overcomplicating things and it was just too much. It was overwhelming and I knew how overwhelmed she already was. She was tired, she didn't have resources to be able to take a personal assistant on, you know, that was 2530 pounds an hour. And I needed an affordable tool that she could be empowered to be able to use for herself to enable her to do these tasks. And I wanted to try and get it to automate things to leverage her time, so that she could just set something up once and then it would just work in the background.
So we set her up with online booking so that she could just give a link to her clients, she didn't have to do endless messaging backwards and forwards, because that was a waste of time, she would get back from work, and then in the evening, spend all this time messaging people. So all of these small things that I was thinking about trying to include in I felt like sort of Christmas, she would come down and say, I need to do this now. And I've decided to start selling this. And I was thinking, I've got to put that into the app, I need to have a small area where she can sell products and things or she said, people aren't turning up for their appointments, and they're forgetting. And so we had to put in a reminder system, a booking reminder, like you get from the doctor and the dentist and she said. But I want to put their name in. So we had to make it say Hi, Sue, Hi, Sally, hi, whatever news or tag system, so it would look personalized to all of her clients. So all of these things I was learning. And it was fascinating adding all of these things in but it was totally exploding and mushrooming and bigger and bigger every time I had a conversation with her. And I wasn't keeping up with making it as quick as she was like telling me what she needed. But that was how we started really.
Did you have to start off with a developer thing because in my mind, basically, I ran into this guy at a grant price. And he wants to build an app or software, SAS system SAS module, where it helps musicians book gigs. And I said to you know, my brothers are developers, and I was like, what you need to do is you need to go to work on a Friday in Shoreditch, and go and hang out where all the developers are. But he's like a, sort of, he's a 19 year old musician, kind of guy really interested. And I think there's this huge kind of world of app developers and things like how did you? I don't know, there's an assumption, I guess that assumes that you have to already know that space and know those people to be able to access that you're shaking your head to any of those people, then we're not people know, I was literally, an English mum in Hartfordshire. With never having done any of this with a completely different background and never having nothing technical at all.
I had this very clear vision in my head, and I knew what I wanted it to do. I had clear ideas of how everything fitted together. I don't know if you have to have that vision to get started or whether you can work with somebody, but I had that clear vision right from the get go. So I was very streamlined about what I was trying to achieve. And I know that when I started and map it all out, because you begin by doing a mapping and the more stuff that you can do before you actually reach the development stage, the more cost effective it is because what you don't want to be doing is doing that mapping out as you're starting to build it because that can take you down blind alleys of extra cost which aren't necessary. So it's really important that the more forethought that you can get, and the more clarity you can get on the design and the layout and the architecture of your system. But that's not to say we haven't done U turns and iterations.
I'm on version 3.1. We've had some quite big changes. And also I've learned huge amounts. I've been terribly burnt on my journey because of my naivety and lack of experience. I've had some real car crash roller coaster moments where I could have given up at any point in time, and nobody knew that pocket Pa was coming. And it was only really being made for Megan. So I wouldn't have lost any face over sort of shutting the doors when I had these car crash moments. But I started as I began through the journey, and I realised that there were hundreds and 1000s if not millions of people that work like Megan, as solo business owners and needing that support and help and it just became apparent that there was a much wider audience than just Megan and my son, Sam, who now uses it as well for his self employed business.
Did you ever try to start building it by yourself? Or was it straightaway?
Absolutely not. I sometimes look at the code and just think how ridiculous it looks. It's like a foreign language and I feel like I've got dyslexia or dyscalculia just looking at the code. It's just, yeah, it doesn't light me up at all. And I can't think of, I mean, I love the logic, but my remit was always to say, this is what I want. This is how I want it to look. And sometimes the developers would say, that's really difficult to do" and we would suggest doing this, but it will look different. And I'm like, No, I want it to look. So specifically. So I very much stuck to my guns. Whereas if a developer had designed and made it, it would probably look very different to the final outcome of what we've got. But because I've made them do things that are particularly difficult in order to get the experience at the front end, they've had to go above and beyond in a way that they may not have done if it had been developer LED. So I think there's a silver lining in that actually.
It's never clouded by the limitations of the coding or the difficulty at the back end. Yeah. It was just annoying. If they said it, I, it looks like something relatively simple that I would ask for, then I would think, Oh, yeah, that should be ready by tea time. And they're like, No, that's going to be a five day thing to get what you want, because the logic is so complicated. And I think that that's the beauty. And the thing about pocket PA, it looks incredibly simple and intuitive on the front end, and yet the complexity and the web that is built behind it, because so many things are linked and have knock on effects and stuff to other areas. The complexity at the back end is just enormous, because what I was effectively trying to do was to bring forth huge aspects of people's businesses into one simple platform. So all of the clients CRM system, like a HubSpot, or Zoho, or whatever, all of the appointments and the booking systems like Calendly, and all the other booking software's and then there was the billing and the invoicing side of things, and then all the income and expenses in the accounts, which just sage Xero, QuickBooks just deal with just that one aspect. And even just trying to mash together two of those things would have been a big task three, wow, for people were like, That's ridiculous. Why would you be doing all of those things in one? It was just beyond the capability of a lot of the developers that I went to start with, to see at the beginning, they would say that they could do it, and then two or three weeks into the project, they realise the enormity of it, and then they wouldn't be able to deliver. So I would take what they had made, and then move on to the next one. So that caused a lot of disruption at the beginning, I suppose.
So what do you think people's perception is? I don't think people think about that at all, when they think I'm going to start up an app or a SaaS company, they think it's gonna be really cool, and make them loads and loads of money.
Yeah, I had never even contemplated it because I first of all, I didn't even know what a SaaS company was, I was never making it to make money because I was making it for Megan. So it was only later down the line that I realised I had to monetize it and start charging a subscription. And if I was going to offer out because people were like, can we use it? I was thinking, Oh, my God, that's a really, really big responsibility. Now looking after somebody else's business, it's one thing, if you know, the app was a bit glitchy. I said to Megan, I'll get that fixed by Tuesday. But if somebody else's business is relying on it, I needed to make sure that it was like right on point all the time 24/7 because I didn't want to let anyone down. So there was a huge shift in responsibility when I realised other people are going to start using it. And there was this expectation and level of deliverance that I needed to give them. But on the front end, it might sound super exciting to have an app and how modern or whatever, but the actual complexity is another level and I had no idea what I was moving into. And if I could look into a crystal ball now, I would certainly think twice before moving into it. And I'm really glad that I didn't know what was ahead of me, because I might not have got to sort of five, six years down the line. If I'd known that I was going to be pushing water uphill for all this time.
I imagine it's a really big upfront. Cost time, everything. Because the majority of SASS companies and apps tend to be funded by venture capitalists. Because there's so much upfront before you can even release it or even start to market it. I don't think people always necessarily see that they see this app on their phone or assess that they can download pocket pa.
We've finally moved into a three tiered pricing structure, but it starts with 1499 a month plus VAT for the lite version. And then we've got a business and a pro version, but even the Pro versions, you know, 3399 plus vat. So we're not talking about hundreds of pounds each month for the platform. It's a low, relatively low cost. So I require a large number of users to make it, breakeven and profitable and I had never even thought about the distribution at the back end when I started making it but the distribution is also so much more challenging than I could ever have imagined reaching all of your target audiences. and cutting through the noise of the existing things on the market, trying to differentiate yourself to explain what your product does in that literally one tagline is just, there's so many challenges, and I hadn't given any thought to it, which again, just highlights my naivety and inexperience in all of this sort of thing.
I don't think people appreciate that a 3014 99 pound piece of software could have been four years in the making 1000s and 1000s of pounds, those kinds of stress hours, those those are people, because it's crazy. Why would you even start if that was your end goal to have a 15 quid product. And because you will have to have hundreds and 1000s of users for it to break even. But for me, it was always really important to have the price point as a super affordable entry level, because I don't want people not accessing it because of the cost of it or being put off. And it was really important that I had that opportunity to support that demographic of people who are those micro business owners. So it's pitched for those solo business owners, if you're self employed, working by yourself for yourself, earning under 85,000, and you're not VAT registered, and you don't have any staff. If you are literally just working by yourself running your business, then that's who I'm trying to support and help and I wanted to price point it for them so that it was a no brainer price, and they realise and recognise that value.
Do you think there's a kind of unspoken law in the SAS market that it can't cost over, sort of 40 pounds 50 pounds a month?
Pricing is a funny, funny thing, isn't it? Developers give away so much for free. And there's this expectation, because there are lots of free premium or freemium versions of software's out there to lure people in. And we don't give a 14 day free trial, but there's no totally free version. And it's been discussed in house, you know, a number of times if we should offer something like that out, but I feel that you have to communicate the value of your product. And if people miss that, then either I'm not getting the messaging correct, or it's probably just not suited to them. But there is this fine balance of that there is always that push pull of a ceiling price. And then should it be free. But I'm competing with small business owners who might use six different software tools, and they're using them just because they are all three. And they're thinking that they're being thrifty. And they're working smarter by using all these free tools. But what they're missing is a missed opportunity of actually, it's taking them longer to do it, because they're using everything for free. And by putting everything into one tool, they're going to actually save themselves time and money effectively, because their time is money. But also, even if they're not free, they're paying 1299 for each app that soon adds up. My subscription bill is massive, every month.
And I think the collective amount that we were averaging was about 60 pounds, 60 or 70 pounds for all the different tools that you could then shelve. And just use pocket PA for your one tool. So a third of the price of the collective, some of your other subscription apps, not only do you have a bespoke tool that is sort of encompassing all of the aspects of your business all in one, you can get away from the multiple different subscription model, which is what you just described.
So one thing I want to touch on as well, because this is the Instagram versus reality is something that we talked about before we press record was taking time off at Christmas. And I was like I'm excited and taking a week, last week of work and use at all, I won't be drowning in tools. Because my perception is that you can build an app or a SASS product. As long as it's not buggy, you literally can sit back and chill and lie on a beat. But that's not the reality.
It is not the reality, because I will have people message me on the chat thing at any random time. I had somebody at 1:30 the other morning saying it's glitchy. I'm really disappointed. I can't download my spreadsheet or whatever. And I was thinking about God who's doing that on a Saturday at 130 in the morning. And so I picked that message up at seven o'clock on Sunday morning and just said, Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. Could you let me know exactly what the problem was? Because it was such a general message. There wasn't anything that I could go in to specifically look, it was just everything is glitchy. And I thought well, that's not the truth of it, but people pass one two. And funnily enough, I've not heard back from the lady since then. So I don't know if it was like a drunken moment that she was trying to download. I have spreadsheets at that moment, which would be very bizarre.
But I feel a sense of responsibility, because I have a very small team, I'm not funded by VC funding and money. So therefore, every penny that is spent is very carefully monitored, because it is all of my money. So as a result, I don't have a big customer service team, quite often, it's just myself or one of the other members that will be looking at those messages, and particularly weekends, that's just left down to me. So I pride myself on very high customer service response times and, you know, looking after people, because I feel that that's a really important aspect of the brand. And it would be lovely to get bigger, where I could take a team on to look after those inquiries. But the reality is that at the moment, if I get a message in, I could well be at the checkout or being in the queue, looking at that, trying to get a response back, going shopping, or whatever it is. And I think that's part of my personality is that I deliver like that.
So yes, I probably should be looking at taking some days or times off. But the reality is that when you have a software tool that is available 24/7 365 days a year, and you do have a very small team, you have to decide what the responsibility and you know, response rates are going to be when people are running their livelihoods and their businesses on it, I feel that there's a huge sense of responsibility that I need to make sure that I give that commitment back to people that trust my tool for their business.
Is there a bigger question there then, though, that the SASS business space is actually very accessible, because of the way that they've trained their customers to expect low prices, quick response times, and those can only be delivered, if you have massive amounts of funding to be able to create these things.
I don't know what the answer to it is. Because most people that go into these products do have very big budgets, with their brackets and their angel investors and that sort of thing. I think I'm a slight anomaly because I haven't gone down that route. And I have been able to self fund it. But it's been a huge financial commitment, you know, a six figure sum has gone into it, for sure, plus the rest, not not even taking into account five years of my time, full time over that period, never having taken a salary, always propping the business up with my own finances. And it's hardly surprising that it's a very male dominated industry, only 2% of founders I think, are female. And the amount of funding, excuse me, that is actually spent with women is literally one or 2% as well to match. So all of the funding that's invested in the SASS companies, most of it is just going to male funding.
And I heard as well that that 2% only ever really goes to Starling like one company, and then they label it office female.
I haven't probably applied as rigorously as I should have for lots of reasons. I've had offers of investment, then I haven't felt the quite the right fit. Because I don't want just money on its own coming into the to move me forwards. It's not money on its own that can open the doors and take it to the next level. It's more about what contacts what doors can that new opportunity come with? And what would be the plan for moving it forwards if someone was to invest with me to move pocket PA on well, you know, what's their route to market? What distribution channels do they have? What avenues and connections and contacts do they have that could open the door to make pocket PA, you know, springboard to the next level?
What do you think then is in your crystal ball for the next five years? With God?
I don't know if I'll still be here five years, but it seems like it needs to turn a corner, I'd say within the next 12 to 18 months, because I know there's only so much bandwidth and energy that you can keep investing. I often say nobody has overnight success. It's always a 10 year overnight success or a five year success but people seem to have it just come up on their radar and think oh my god, you're so lucky. That's just a really great idea. But they don't see all of those masses of hours and forever, but you've spent it in that space feeling like you're pushing water uphill, that you're not making any progress. I've never had the patience to do a video diary. I have grown a lot in that period. But I don't know then in the next five years.
I would be hoping to have 1000s and 1000s of users and I want to get pocket PA to a point where I then leave it with somebody else to take it to reach its full potential because I feel just as small Part of the whole journey, yes, I might have, you know, created the inception of the idea and got it to this point. But pocket PA is so much bigger than me, I need a team and a lot of investment probably once it starts getting traction, to reach its full potential, because there are millions of people that it could help but I don't have the skill set and the bandwidth and the connections to be able to reach all of those people. I've got it to this point. And I can get it a wee bit further, I'm sure. But I need to let go of it at some point to allow it to spread its wings and grow into what it could become otherwise, I would suffocate it, and probably it would just shut the doors.
You're clearly really really customer focused.
Because those small business owners, every small business matters. But I feel that the customer, the customer demographic that I'm trying to reach, I think they sometimes feel that they don't matter. They're not big enough to be seen as a legitimate business because they don't have staff or they don't have big swanky premises and an office and the government puts so much focus on supporting businesses with over five employees. And they don't recognise those solo micro business owners with just themselves or, you know, perhaps a part time person giving them that support. As you know, they're the bread and butter, the backbone of Britain's so they are the whole economy. And it really annoys me, I won't say anything rude but it really knocks me off that they aren't recognised.
And given the support and potential, you know, there are budgets for software to help businesses with five and up to five up to 249 employees, there's a software budget that they can get to get off price software, there's nothing allocated for these micro business owners who really need it, they really need to leverage their time, they need to be using smart tools, and not be expected to be running their business on a spreadsheet. And pocket PA is perfectly designed to fit those people, for people that don't like spreadsheets pocket PA is God's dream, because you don't ever have to open a spreadsheet until you send one off to your accountant. And so many people's spreadsheets are just so freakin boring. And you don't want to have to open your Excel spreadsheet every week to start putting in your information. That should not be the only time that you look at your information and your monetary stuff alongside your bank account, you should be seeing and knowing that information on a daily basis to understand how well your business is doing. And it should light you up or motivate you to do better if it's not showing what you want it to see.
Like I feel like in that crystal ball, there's not just the development of moving through with the pocket pa but also some sort of campaigning. I'm so passionate
about kids not being given the support to actually become self employed when they leave school. And this is a real bugbear of mine that I've started to speak in schools now. And I wasn't sure how well it would be received by head teachers because they're so focused on their career ladder and pathway for their students moving on to their Russell Group of universities, and getting onto this next treadmill of further education. But there are, you know, just like two of my kids who didn't go on to university and didn't have any aspirations to do that, but wanted to work for themselves. And I think that is a really common thing. Now for kids to see people working for themselves.
Instagram has lots of people, showcasing their freedom and lifestyles and that sort of thing. And so it is aspirational for a lot of kids. And when I go into the schools and say how many of you would like to have your own business, I get loads of hands go up, but they're not sure how to because schools aren't equipping them with any tools to help them understand or see that it's possible. And I would love schools to be able to say you know what, self employment is a really viable option for you, you don't have to go in either to a full time work or, you know, kids have got so many niche interests and things that they can share with the wider world that they're good at already that they've learned by the time they're 18 that they could monetize and start running businesses if we only give them up and help them and supported them to be able to start running a business at 18 or 19 on their own. And that was what I wanted pocket PA to fit in potentially with those people just like it did for Megan and to be able to unlock their potential for them to shine their light brightly. Because the world needs more people shining their light, because it makes it brighter for all of us. And then they are happier and we get less, you know, people with mental health issues because they're doing something that they love, and they're doing it right from the get go. So shouldn't we be exploring that or looking into that or funding more, you know, trials and pilots to see if that might be an opportunity? Because we're so entrenched in the old system of you know, three terms. That wasn't the three terms, built for when we used to do harvests. And the kids used to have to go work in the fields, and we'd rotate with crop time and stuff. That was why we had three terms. But we don't have kids working out in the fields anymore or stuff like that. So it's just so outdated how we have our calendar system and our, you know, our whole education system is skewed. We don't teach them about mortgages, interest rates, compound interest, you know, that's the eighth wonder of the world compound interest. And how many schools are teaching compound interest? And how important it is that they just don't even know that it's actually against them when they have credit cards and information like that.
So all of these things are really vital. We're not equipping our kids enough. And it's not the fault of the teachers, they're teaching things that are on the curriculum, but we have to have a big shake up and recognise that what we're teaching our kids isn't matched with how we're expecting them to function in the 21st century. And we expect better off them, but how are we equipping them? It's frustrating.
There's so much to be said, isn't it? How can we sign up to Pocket PA?
So you could just go to pocket pa.com. And then there's a 14 day free trial for everyone. And I love hearing your feedback. So you can join me on Instagram. I've got I'm at pocket pa.gb Or I've got my own little account at Caro Syson. I love hearing from real people because I promise you if you message me it'll be me messaging you back. I don't have this big swanky team that take care of everything for me. So yeah, it's just me.
Thank you so much. This has been amazing.
If you want to chat or ask any further question head over to my instagram, IngeHunter for further details. Also linked is the website to PocketPa where you can find out more on SASS companies and contact Caro!