Finding the right cofounder can be difficult. Especially if you know that 65 percent of startups fail due to cofounder conflicts. But, sometimes, the answer is right in front of you.
Marie Martens and Filip Minev are partners in business and in life. Together, they founded Tally, a free and simple form builder. The cofounders have grown Tally to $380,000 in annual recurring revenue and 50,000 customers. But running a bootstrapped business with your significant other isn’t always easy – and you might fail on the first try.
When Covid Forces You to Abandon Your Startup
Marie and Filip launched Tally in late 2020. Marie is a Belgium-based founder with a background in B2B marketing. Before starting her startup adventure, she worked for small and big companies in the media and tech industry in Belgium. Filip is the technical cofounder and the brains behind the product, while Marie is the marketing and sales expert.
But Tally wasn’t the couple’s first startup. Filip had founded Delta, a cryptocurrency portfolio tracker, that was later acquired by eToro. After he sold that app, Marie and Filip decided to build a business together. They launched Hotspot in February 2020, a marketplace that connected hotels and travel influencers, but little did they know that the pandemic was right on their heels and would ruin their business.
The couple grew Hotspot to a monthly recurring revenue of $1,000. It was starting to gain traction with influencers and hotels and the founders were confident they could accelerate growth. So, Marie quit her job to focus on Hotspot full-time.
When Covid shut down the travel industry, the founders waited it out, thinking that Covid might last a couple of months. But once they realized that wasn’t the case, about six months into the pandemic, they decided to move on. Hotspot had lost so many customers already since no one was traveling and hotels had to shut down.
Marie says, “We worked full-time on Hotspot but didn’t earn any money. After brainstorming new startup ideas, we landed on a no-code form-building tool. This is something that we often needed in our previous jobs and also for our first startup. We had used several form builders, but to our surprise, hadn’t found one that we enjoyed using and was affordable for a young startup. We realized there was a place for a different type of form builder.”
Using The Freemium Model to Stand Out in a Crowded Market
The founders recognized the form-builder space was a crowded market but that meant demand was high. Today, Tally stands out because of its freemium model: It offers unlimited forms and responses for free, which few of its competitors do.
When the founders first launched Tally, this freemium model attracted customers without needing a marketing budget. Once people tried out the tool, they discovered another difference: a clean and simple interface that works like a blank page instead of drag-and-drop tools. Both the user interface and the freemium model distinguished Tally from its competition and helped the company sign up its first customers.
Before launching publicly, the founders reached out to friends and family who work in tech to get some initial feedback. After that, Marie compiled a list of hundreds of prospects by scanning Product Hunt for people who had uploaded similar products or founders whose startups could benefit from Tally.
She says, “I would look for anyone who might need a form builder, find their Twitter account or email address, and send them a cold message asking whether they wanted to test Tally and send us feedback. We did that for months in pretty high volumes. That took us to the first five hundred Tally users.”
The founders spent those first months gathering feedback, tweaking the product, and building a small community. Some of those first customers went on to become their biggest promoters.
Tally also started to build in public, sharing the highs and lows of running a business. Marie says, “We wanted to share our startup journey to help other founders. Startups, creators, and small businesses are also our target audience, so we wanted to be open about our learnings, what new features we’re working on, how we’re doing it, the revenue we’re bringing in, and so on.”
In March 2021, the founders launched Tally on Product Hunt, doubling its customers in a day. It was a pivotal moment, and since then, the startup has grown every month. “Tally is inherently a viral product because you make forms to share with other people. And because the tool is free, we added a Made by Tally badge on each form. Everyone who fills out a Tally form gets exposed to our brand. Our product is our biggest marketing channel, helping us reach and convert new customers,” Marie says.
If most of Tally’s customers use the tool for free, how does Tally make money? Instead of volume-based pricing, Tally offers extra features aimed at teams and businesses for a monthly subscription fee. Tally Pro offers team collaboration, customizable forms, white labeling, no commission on payment forms, and more. The average form builder doesn’t need pro features, but if a customer wants the full offering, they can sign up for $29 per month.
Around three percent of all users convert to Tally Pro. More specifically, Tally has around 50,000 customers globally of which 1,200 pay for the tool. This results in a sustainable business model for Tally, as it currently generates $30,000 in monthly recurring revenue.
The Challenges of Working and Living Together
Before starting Hotspot and Tally, Marie and Filip had been dreaming about starting a business together for a while. They wanted to experience the digital nomad lifestyle, traveling around the world while working on their startup. They also had complementary skill sets, with Marie being an expert in marketing and Filip in software development.
“We knew that if one day it felt like the right time, we would just go for it. We gave ourselves a year to make it work. If it didn’t work out, we could both just find another job,” Marie says.
Currently, Tally’s team consists of just Marie and Filip. Together, they run the entire business, doing everything from coding to customer support. But running a business with your significant other does come with its challenges.
Marie says, “We live together and work together, so we talk about Tally all the time. There are no boundaries between private life and work, it all blends together. The biggest thing we learned to do is separate our responsibilities. We respect each other’s decisions. Filip owns the product and I fully trust him with that. I’m in charge of marketing, sales, PR, and all of that, and he trusts me to make the right call. We each have ownership over our domains. This helps to create some boundaries as we’re not always working together on the same things.”
Marie and Filip also had a baby during Covid. The founders were used to working long hours and suddenly that wasn’t possible anymore. They had to learn how to run a business alongside spending time with their child. Now, their jobs have become a lot more of a nine-to-five, allowing them to spend mornings and evenings as a family.
Tally just celebrated its second birthday, so the founders had some time to reflect on how to move forward. Marie says, “We’ve made it work with just the two of us until now, but as our customer base grows we need more help. Filip and I are in execution mode so much we’ve little time for strategic thinking. Our goal for the end of the year is to hire our first employees, especially for customer support and product development.”
Don’t Feel Pressured Into Taking Funding
The founders always envisioned Tally as a bootstrapped company. Marie had savings from her ten-year career and Filip had sold his previous startup. This gave the couple a bit of financial freedom to try out something new for a year while still being able to pay their bills. So far, they haven’t needed to invest any money into the company because Tally was profitable from its early days.
Having that financial runway also allowed the founders to make decisions with their customers in mind. Marie says, “Making Tally free would not have been possible if we didn’t have savings. We would have had to use a different business model to generate money faster. Now I think our freemium model is one of the main ingredients of Tally’s success. I would recommend that all entrepreneurs have some fallback money before launching their business so they can last a couple of months to a year without generating profit.”
Tally did get a lot of interest from investors after its public launch. Marie says, “Ever since, people have reached out about funding our startup. We wondered whether we should be raising money for Tally. Did saying no to funding mean we lacked ambition? It made us question our choice to be bootstrapped. But in the end, we love the lifestyle we have right now and that would all change if we took on funding.”
Without investors, Marie and Filip have the freedom to decide where and when to work, making business decisions that they feel are in the best interest of their customers. And because Tally’s revenue has grown month over month, the founders are confident they can expand the business without any outside help. Marie concludes, “Our goal is not to grow the biggest team or become a multimillion-dollar company. Instead, we want to create a sustainable lifestyle business that works for our family.”
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