When Julian Lumpkin listed SuccessKit on MicroAcquire, he believed he’d run out of options. An exit, he thought, might take the sting out of failure and recover some of his investment. But prospective buyers urged him to try again: “You just need to do things differently,” they said.
Julian had been treading water for some time. He’d tried everything to grow his business, and yet its revenue barely sustained him. When it was time to negotiate his exit, fellow founders rallied to help him save the business he’d invested $100,000 to start.
In 2016, after working in sales for seven years, Julian recognized a common problem plaguing him and his coworkers. Case studies help close deals, but most companies don’t have time to compile them. “What if I could create a startup that stored those case studies?” he thought.
He dropped his cushy sales job in Manhattan and moved back in with his parents to start SuccessKit with his savings. Months of slow growth followed. Even after adding services that increased revenue, Julian felt he’d done all he could for the business and wanted out.
But the MicroAcquire community saw something in SuccessKit that Julian didn’t. “I knew we were doing something of value, but I didn’t think it would be a profitable and sellable business until I spoke to other founders on MicroAcquire,” Julian says.
With his confidence in SuccessKit restored, Julian unlisted it from the market and devised a plan to reinvigorate his company and put his fellow founders’ advice into action. Read on to see how Julian adapted SuccessKit into a business that put his clients’ needs first.
Dealing With Déjà Vu
Julian graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2009 with a degree in economics. He entered a cutthroat job market during the US recession but eventually landed a sales job at IQPC in November 2010. One year later, Julian left IQPC to become an account executive at CraigMichaels, where he eventually became a sales manager.
As Julian built up a book of business for the company, he noticed a trend in his sales reps’ performances. Those who included customer success stories in their pitch sold more. But then in 2013, CraigMichaels collapsed, and he couldn’t explore any further.
Julian moved to Axial, a tech startup. While Julian learned a lot about sales at CraigMichaels, his lessons at Axial would prepare him to start SuccessKit.
“The tech startup world was so much better for my growth, first as a salesperson and then as a leader,” Julian says. “It put me into an environment where I worked with a ton of super-smart, ultra-motivated people around or close to my age. And that’s where I transitioned from someone who was just in sales to someone who wanted to be a leader. But I didn’t know how to lead yet.”
Over the three and a half years he worked for Axial, Julian learned how to lead and how the tech finance industry operated. But he also noticed Axial suffered the same issue as CraigMichaels: Not enough sales reps used customer success stories to help them sell.
“The best sales reps met with the customer success team. They integrated customer stories into their sales process. And as a sales manager, I thought: Why can’t we enable all of our sales reps to sell that way? That’s how SuccessKit started,” Julian says.
“I wanted to help companies enable their sales reps to use super-specific, relevant examples of customer success in the sales process,” he adds. “Not just have three case studies that you use in every sales process.”
Julian consulted founders and sales reps at other companies to check whether this was a universal issue. When they confirmed his suspicions, Julian was confident that he could build SuccessKit into a valuable product (though it didn’t stay a product for long).
By the time Julian rang in the New Year in 2017, he’d quit his six-figure job at Axial, moved out of his Manhattan apartment, and started looking for a developer to partner with him.
Where SuccessKit Went Wrong
Julian initially pictured SuccessKit as an application that helped companies save hundreds of customer success stories in one place. The companies could tag the stories with relevant attributes, allowing the sales reps to find and include them in their sales pitches.
But Julian didn’t have a background in development or coding. He teamed up with his good friend, Daniel Litt, who helped him find developers to create the technology. Once they built a minimum viable product (MVP), the duo focused on securing clients.
Julian reached out to former bosses and cold-called companies he thought would benefit from SuccessKit. But he didn’t employ any other marketing strategies beyond those cold calls.
“It was tough as we didn’t have a marketing budget,” Julian says. “And because the product was so simple, I had to find people who wanted to be those early adopters and knew the product wouldn’t be much at first. But that’s how we got our first ten clients in our first year.”
During that first year of business, Julian employed contractors to develop the product while Daniel worked part-time as an advisor. Julian juggled everything else, from client relations to sales to drafting improvements to the app. After a while, though, it became clear that his efforts weren’t paying off as well as he’d hoped.
“We did just enough to survive. Just enough clients, just enough people renewing, just enough positive feedback, to keep going.”
“Candidly, for a full year, it was right on the border every quarter. I had to consider walking away because it just wasn’t working,” Julian says. “I didn’t take a salary in the first year. But we did just enough to survive. Just enough clients, just enough people renewing, just enough positive feedback, to keep going.”
Then something happened that would fundamentally alter his business: Clients started asking him to create new case studies as professional PDFs.
Julian admits that he provided this service just to pay the bills, initially. But as requests continued flooding in, he realized that his clients benefited more from this small service than they did from SuccessKit’s storage space. A storage space that was falling behind competitors technologically, Julian adds.
“We couldn’t build, iterate and improve the technology fast enough,” the SuccessKit founder says. “The companies that raised a ton of money and built true sales enablement platforms took off during that period. But we just weren’t able to execute nearly as well as that.
“The technology failed. So we started creating case studies as a service as a pivot to survive,” Julian says. “It was also what the clients wanted. So that’s what we pivoted to.”
How MicroAcquire Helped Scale SuccessKit
SuccessKit shifted from a product to a services B2B business in 2019. Revenue finally started pouring in as Julian hired contractors to write case studies for his clients. But this modest success didn’t satisfy Julian. He’d invested a lot of effort into the business and it wasn’t providing much of a return. Instead, he listed the company on MicroAcquire.
Julian worked directly with Andrew Gazdecki, MicroAcquire’s CEO, to build a deck and start talking to potential acquirers in 2020. Five or six serious buyers talked with Julian about changes they’d make to the business and the potential they saw in it. While he never received a formal offer, Julian knew he could easily sell SuccessKit for a few hundred thousand dollars.
But those conversations with potential acquirers showed Julian the real value he’d created with this company. He picked up financial and strategic lessons that put SuccessKit in a new light. Just when he thought the business would never grow fast enough under his watch, Julian now had new marketing and content creation strategies to test.
“I was thinking about selling, but those conversations motivated me to continue,” Julian says. “They taught me the importance of content marketing – tutorials on how to write case studies and things like that. Knowing what a potential acquirer would do helped me understand where the growth levers were.”
To spread the word about SuccessKit and what it was doing, Julian recorded hours of video explaining how to build proper case studies. And he released the videos for free online, so he could target people searching for “how to make a case study.”
Julian established himself as “the guy that knows everything” about case studies. People could take a shot at creating them on their own, but if they wanted someone expert to work on it, they knew who to call.
“It’s focusing on the customer’s problem.”
“It’s focusing on the customer’s problem. They’re not searching for an agency that writes case studies, they’re searching for how to do it themselves,” Julian says. “So we became the primer, one of the best sources of information for people trying to solve this problem, and that led people to find us.”
Putting Services First Saves Time and Energy
Julian charges customers a flat rate for each case study. Companies can use SuccessKit once or return multiple times a month for several case studies. His contractors are now full-time employees, and he hopes to hire even more people in the future.
Julian doesn’t plan on expanding the company’s offering anytime soon. He’d rather increase the number of clients he creates case studies for, diving into the niche market and targeting more businesses. Currently, SuccessKit serves about 150 B2B businesses. In the next year or two, Julian wants to grow that number to 500.
He’s come a long way from the sales manager that wanted to better equip sales reps. But if he were to impart any advice to fellow entrepreneurs, Julian would tell non-technologically-minded folks to focus on services over development.
“I could have saved myself so much more time if I approached this first as a service and then perhaps built some technology into it,” Julian says. “Service is a way to pay your bills in the beginning, to avoid desperately needing funding, and to solve the problem that you want to solve without technology.”
He adds, “If you’re a regular person trying to start a company and you don’t have millions of dollars and super powerful people in your network building tech, your best chance of success is to do it manually and as a service first.”
Although Julian has some regrets, he’s thankful to have persevered long enough to learn how to grow his business. Otherwise, he might’ve sold too early, missed a valuable lesson, and never met the people who still mentor him today.
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