Life will pay whatever price you ask of it.Tony Robbins
Founders are rarely the best judge of what their services are worth. Recently, I spoke with one who made an ecommerce app as a passion product but didn’t realize how valuable it was until people told him.
In the early 2010s, freelance coder David Hollander started building ecommerce tools. One fateful day, he developed a product that helped a client manage orders. Bursting with pride, David hosted it on his own server, called it Order Desk, and let other people use it too. Soon, businesses began asking why he hadn’t monetized it yet.
After a decade of work that included a reconstruction of the platform, Order Desk has become a full-service ecommerce tool. While other products focus on printing or inventory, David’s focuses on simplicity and over 300 integrations with platforms like Shopify and Amazon. All that effort has resulted in over $2 million in annual revenue, enterprise clients, and a 20-person team.
Here’s the story of how a freelance coder from Idaho built a million-dollar business by following his passion, listening to the critics, and creating a unique monetization model.
From Artist to Coder
One day in the early 2010s, David opened up his inbox and saw multiple emails from businesses using his simple store management app. They said, “Why aren’t you charging directly for your service? We’d all pay for it.”
David was shocked at first. He thought his app was too basic to be worth much. Nevertheless, he threw up a paywall and made so much money in the following months that he realized he may have found his new profession.
Today, David is very much a technical founder, his love of coding began in college while he was on a drastically different path. “I went to school for an art degree,” he says. “However, in school, I got excited about programming. I would stay up late into the night learning how to do it. I knew that this meant it was my passion.”
After graduating, David spent the next decade working as a freelance developer for his own business, SparkWeb Interactive, Inc. But around 2013, he was at a crisis point. “I was tired of building websites over and over. It wasn’t a good career fit,” he says.
Luckily, an ecommerce client offered David an escape. “Back in the 2010s I started to do a lot of work around ecommerce,” he says. “One customer wanted an app that allowed him to download his orders, arrange them, and send them to different warehouses.”
Something about this project stood out to the accomplished coder – he had a feeling it would with others too. He offered to host the tool for his client and then created a portal for other businesses to log in.
Sure enough, David’s application began to receive regular traffic from other businesses – enough that he began to reevaluate its capabilities. “As more requests for features came in, I started to wonder what scope this needed to be. I realized I needed to start over with a better concept.”
So in March of 2013, David began rebuilding his app. ”It took nine months of working to two and three AM because I was so excited about what I was building. You know you’re onto something when you’re too excited to sleep.”
David’s new app was an engine into which ecommerce businesses could import their stores. Once connected, customers could categorize and filter their orders according to almost any criteria they wanted. “Using Order Desk you can write business logic for your shipment process,” says David. “For example, you could write logic that says: ‘If a customer named Paul who lives in Chicago has ordered three widgets and his order is more than $500 then tag the order red and send it to a specific supplier.’”
David launched an incomplete version of the app in 2014. “It wasn’t fully ready but I fixed the problems people reported. After that, I built a couple of storefront integrations including one for this upstart ecommerce marketplace at the time called Shopify. I built up to 50 integrations that year.”
By the end of 2014, Order Desk was making $2,000 a month. As it kept growing, David realized he had to make another decision: Quit working as a contractor to focus on the business or move on. He chose the business and threw his efforts into growing it for the next two years. Then, in 2016, he faced another decision. “I was getting overwhelmed on the phone doing sales, support, maintenance, and building integrations at the same time. I needed to hire some help.”
Having been a solo freelancer his whole life, the idea of hiring was intimidating. “I’d never hired anyone before,” David says. “I was terrified they might not understand what I was trying to do. However, I gritted my teeth and hired someone and it ended up being fabulous They cared as much about it as I did.”
His first successful hire out of the way, David soon brought on developers and customer support staff to meet the needs of his growing business. By the end of the decade, he had a complete team covering development, customer service, and marketing. “In 2019, there were six of us and I decided we would have our first retreat in Idaho. We spent a week together working and hanging out. It was so much fun getting together we scheduled another retreat for January of 2020 and got it in just before COVID.”
After that second retreat, COVID rocked the US. While David worried this would spell the end for Order Desk, the reverse happened. Ecommerce boomed with stores like Shopify reaching over $30 million in sales in a year. Over the next two years, Order Desk tripled its team to 20 employees.
How Order Desk Differs From Other Ecommerce Platforms
Besides Order Desk’s uniquely flexible interface, David and his team designed other innovative features.
“Say you have 10,000 different designs on different products,” says David. “Sometimes your shopping cart on Amazon or Shopify can automatically hook you up with printing services for these designs but many times, it can’t. If you go through us, you can send different kinds of orders to different providers giving you more control. It also lets you fill orders dynamically so you don’t need to worry as much about stocking.”
David is also proud of how he has monetized his business using a hybrid of a subscription and one-off order fees. “I decided pretty early on that it’s important to be usage-based and not be limited by a plan where the most anybody can ever pay is $300 a month.”
He thinks having a unit fee is essential for any business servicing large customers.
When you have large customers, they tend to overuse and underpay.
“When you have large customers, they tend to overuse and underpay,” he says. “That means a subscription fee may not reflect the value of the service they’re receiving. To account for this, a lot of services charge a percentage of each order fee for their cut. However, we do things differently.”
Because Order Desk already charges a subscription fee, David decided to charge fixed fees rather than percentages. “For us, it doesn’t matter if the order is 10,000 units or a single unit – you pay the same small order fee.”
This dual structure gives Order Desk predictable revenue while allowing costs to scale up and down with customers’ busy seasons.
That said, Order Desk doesn’t target the biggest fish. “We target small-to-medium-sized customers,” he says. “Large customers usually want to build their own thing. Our bread and butter are $5 million-a-year businesses and below.”
Marketing Through Integrations
While his business has grown quickly, David says it’s more a result of his extensive integrations than his marketing.
“I never did any marketing,” he says. “I just wanted to spend time coding the app. I built a marketing site grumbling and complaining all the way. Fortunately, as the company has grown, I’ve been able to bring on people who are much better at marketing and telling our story. However, even today, we find referrals and marketplace listings are the best places for pulling in customers. Referrals from happy customers are critically important to us.”
A truly bootstrapped founder, David is much more focused on providing consistent, quality service to customers over fast expansion.
“I’m trying to accelerate growth but we’re not in a position where it has to,” he says. “If we stay where we are it’s okay. I’m now able to provide a fantastic workplace for my team and career-wise it’s very satisfying.
“I think a lot of enterprises find the initial buildout so complex they have to get funding. However, if I had gone out to raise capital, it starts a timer for growth. Suddenly, I’m in the red and have to grow fast enough to not lose money and need to downsize.”
Standing Out From a Crowded Industry
The ecommerce sector today is crowded with tools, but David feels there is plenty of room for everyone.
“It’s a big space and there are a lot of different services doing different things well,” he says. “Some are good at printing postage (we can do that, but it’s not our focus). Some specialize in inventory management. We’ve made over 300 integrations which sets us far apart.”
While there are a lot of small yet growing ecommerce and logistics businesses, David thinks logistics and ecommerce are trending towards centralization. He also thinks the industry is changing too quickly to be certain of anything.
“I see a lot more centralization with big guys buying more little guys. However, I don’t have a crystal ball. My business isn’t something you could do until 30 years ago and no one saw what was going to happen in 2020. I thought I might go out of business but I ended up doing much better than before.”
As for the future of Order Desk, David wants to keep doing what they do right now but better.
“I want more integrations and more ways to support our customers doing what they do. We pride ourselves on providing personalized support that helps people in a way big companies can’t. We want to love our customers.”
Looking back, David wishes that he’d thought more about the big picture when he started. He believes it would have made him less nervous about spending money to grow quicker.
I would have hired quicker and not been so paranoid about being a little bit in the red.
“I would have hired quicker and not been so paranoid about being a little bit in the red. Being a bigger company now means it’s a little easier to relax. I would say, ‘Hey man, as long as you see growth, bring on more people.’”
Order Desk reminds you that just because a product seems simple on the surface doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. There are thousands of industries where things don’t quite work the way they’re supposed to. Quick fixes and customer support are the keys to unlocking further value for you and your clients.
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