To build a successful startup you don't need money, connections and fancy tech. Here's what you need.
Michael has been fascinated with entrepreneurship since he was a child. It all started outside of his house growing up. As soon as his mom came home from the supermarket, his little improvised shop in the driveway was ready to go, freshly stocked with family groceries. Michael considered himself to be a successful entrepreneur — well, no one would argue with that, especially his family members who were the main source of his demand and supply, and the unbeatable margins.
As he grew, Michael came to understand that building a business is a bit more difficult than he'd imagined in his childhood. But the passion to sell physical items, adopted in the early years, remains with him through his whole life.
This passion basically led me to start SwagUp that has been recognised as one of the fastest growing American startups in August 2021. This is even more fascinating, knowing that SwagUp was built by Michael Martocci with zero technical skills and absolutely no investment.
1. Learn lessons and seize opportunities
However, before SwagUp Michael made his share of mistakes that turned out to be a great school of entrepreneurship. The approach he used can be described as "learn from whatever experience you get and be open to new ideas".
Being a non-techie founder, he did exactly what most non-techies do: he started with a social network (there's no statistical data on that but about 80% of non-technical startup founders who contact me are building a marketplace or a social network), though they are actually the toughest ones to launch and grow. Projects that require strong network effects to be feasible in the long-run are not the best play-ground for a first-time non-tech founder. But this is not what most of them are convinced of.
Anyway, in 2013 Michael who was barely out of high school and not even 20, co-founded Clique – a social network or a community that positions itself as "a method for broadening horizons, connecting us with people in our community, and establishing life-long, meaningful connections through shared experiences".
Michael was in charge of product design and marketing strategy, including social media marketing. Clique did not become huge (though it is still there, the project was not shut down) but Michael had a great experience in communicating with developers and project management.
His next step was Weatherford Fit — a fitness app, where he, again, was in charge of marketing. This one was more successful and made $300K in sales in the first 4 months after launch. What did Michael actually do to get there? Basically, he learned to run experiments: created several landing pages for every fitness program and tested them, chose the winner and doubled down the effort. There was tons of email and Facebook marketing too.
2. Build it with no-code
Eventually, Michael landed as a marketing analyst in a venture capital startup advisory firm. And if before that he was building his own startups but did not interact too much with the community, now he was touching grounds with many founders like him. That's when he came up with the idea of SwagUp.
The original insight was this:
💡Startups love swag but there’s no service that makes it simple. On one side, there are large e-comm sites that push at least half of the work on the customer. And on the other side, there are agencies that deal with Big corps and don't care too much about bootstrapped startups on a tight budget.
Michael decided he could automate a process a bit and deliver a more convenient experience to startup founders. That was the idea. And Michael could use his access to founders that he gained working in the venture capital firm.
However, being a non-techie founder, Michael could not jump into coding exercises. What he did — he put together an MVP with no-code tool:
A landing page on Wix
Typeform for interaction with customers and receiving order details
Zapier — for processing orders
Trello — as a backend database where all orders were stored and manually processed.
As soon as the MVP was ready, he ran some Google ads. Everything was done from Michael's mom's converted garage.
Within days he started getting requests from the startups. Well, there was obviously a demand!
Fast forward a couple of months of trial and error and he got reached out to by a New York -based startup looking to pay an order for 100 swag packs for their new hires, a concept that will still be a bit foreign in 2017. The order ended up being $10k, the biggest single order Michael had had in any business before that.
That got Michael thinking:
💡 Swag is not only something you order for specific corporate events or as a Christmas gift for your partners. There are so many ways a startup can leverage a swag pack: new hires, onboarding, a way to say "thank you" to a customer. But the problem with these "little gifts" is that they are very time consuming: you have to brand them, place an order, wait for the delivery, then arrange the delivery to multiple receivers.
Michael saw another opportunity here: build a one-window fully automated service where a startup founder could do the branding online, place an order and arrange the delivery — all from one app.
SwagUp pivoted from "brand your swag" to fully integrated experience of swag pack creation and delivery. Why packs instead of single items? Well, there is an economics of the delivery process: obviously, dealing with one $300/pack is more economically viable than dealing with multiple $10 items.
By the end of the calendar year Michael's enterprise did $3M in sales! Still operating on the Wix landing and a Typeform.
3. Build a team
It was only then when he started growing the team and found a CTO — a technical talent who rebuilt the existing infrastructure turning it into a customised software solution. It went fast and smooth, no delays and budget overspending. How? because there was a clear visible example of how everything should work, and what weaknesses of the existing system should be removed. New CTO built an ERP and a new front-end for SwagUp. But also he created a new opportunity for the business. The backend was built as a modular API-system with a SwagUp just sitting on top of it. So, why not add other applications? Or arrange an integration with other apps? That's what API is for, right?
So, when the backend transformation was completed (SwagUp was selling about $6M a year by then — all on no code), a new customer showed up. Rippling — a startup that provides hiring, payouts and onboarding services reached out to Michael with the idea of arranging a first in its kind integration for an onboarding process. Meaning, this time there would be no placed order. Just as soon as Rippling hired a new person, an API call would be sent to SwagUp and the cogs would start rolling, sending an automated order for manufacturing, branding, packaging and sending out the swag pack. All with one tap of a button. For that to become possible, SwagUp had to create an interface — and that's exactly what was done. Simple dashboard, MVP style. But it worked! Pretty soon, Michael decided to offer this service to other customers too.
— What started as an arms and legs agency style business has transformed to a full fledged technology business, with over 50 engineers, PMs, designers, with 175 total employees and over 3200 B2B customers.
— Michael Martocci, founder of SwagUp
In August, 2021 SwagUp was included in Inc 5000 — the annual feature of America's fastest growing private companies among the top-30. The crazy thing? Michael is only 23. And he still doesn't know how to code.
Building a tech startup being a non-technical founder playbook
❌ You don't have to be an engineer to build a successful tech startup
✅ Be open to every idea you stumble upon
💡Build lean MVP using no-code tools to validate your idea
👋 If you can't build it on your own, DM me on Twitter and I will hook you up with someone or tech you how to do it
🤓 Hire a CTO or look for a tech-cofounder after you validate your idea