Is it time to end the 40-hour workweek? Recent studies show that the classic 9-to-5 job is antiquated and by far the least productive way of working. The same goes for working in person from an office daily. Even before the global pandemic, flexible, remote working schedules were becoming more and more popular.
The German company Billbee took 2020 as the year to switch things up. They became an entirely remote business with a 30-hour workweek, at full-time pay. Since that transformation, Billbee has seen an increase in productivity and their employees are happier and more motivated. Not only do they have more time to spend with their families, but they also have more bandwidth to focus on their own side hustles.
But the truth of whether this works is in the numbers. In 2020, Billbee ended the year with €2 million in revenue. This year, they’re on track to close in the €5 million range. By the end of 2021, Billbee will have an average year-over-year growth of 65 percent – with 140 percent growth occurring during the last 12 months. But it wasn’t just their leading-edge work policies that brought the company success, but their focus on controlled expansion and creative solutions also allowed Billbee to come out on top.
One Man’s Side Project is Another Man’s Holy Grail
Billbee is like a Swiss army knife for multi-channel eCommerce companies. Its customers are direct-to-consumer brands that sell their products directly via eCommerce platforms. Whether their order came through Shopify, Amazon, eBay, or their website, companies can handle and fulfill all those orders within Billbee’s platform.
David Pohlmann, now the CEO at Billbee, started his career at big enterprise companies, including HP in Germany and Palo Alto. Besides his corporate job, he ran an eCommerce startup with two colleagues. David says, “We were looking for software that could help us manage our multi-channel operations.”
“In early 2016, I stumbled upon Billbee and I met Jan Krause, the founder and now Chief Technology Evangelist, of Billbee. Jan was a one-man show and Billbee was completely under the radar. At the time, Jan was not really trying to make a business out of it, since he saw it more as a community project. I had a gut feeling that this platform could become something big.”
David then joined Jan as a freelancer to prove that Billbee could be more than just a side business and solo project. After a few months, David left his corporate job and joined Jan full-time as the first employee of Billbee.
Billbee was bootstrapped from the ground up. David says, “When we had any revenue, we would reinvest it, keep growing, and then reinvest it again. In the beginning, we had a little government funding that allowed us to pay ourselves at least a small salary. ”
Their approach to growing the business was to remain conservative, both in terms of revenue and employees. “I started in early 2016 and we only hired the next two employees during 2017. In 2018, we added three more people and in 2019 our team was just under ten,” David recounts.
“Once we hit the 10-person mark, we felt like an important decision had to be made. Either we would keep Billbee as a small business and try to get everything done with a team of 10. Or we would need to add processes and structures that would allow Billbee to grow into the next stage. We decided to go with the latter and started getting the business ready for more growth, more revenue, and more people.”
The Strategy of a Swiss-Army Knife
Originally, Billbee was built as an invoice printer for the do-it-yourself (DIY) industry. Looking back at 2018, Billbee had a very solid customer base of small DIY businesses. However, they were somewhat dependent on one platform, DeWanda, which is basically the German version of Etsy.
Unfortunately, DeWanda closed its doors. “Thank god we had already started branching out to customers who were using Amazon and eBay as their eCommerce solution and we weren’t solely dependent on this DIY platform,” David says. “That was a turning point for us. We recognized that we had to be independent of single customers, single partners, or single platforms.”
While Billbee kept its focus on small businesses, they now have customers from a wide variety of retail industries. DIY isn’t Billbee’s focus anymore, instead it’s a complete solution for multi-channel eCommerce companies. “Our strategy is to have a lot of very small customers so that it doesn’t matter if we lose a few of our best ones,” David says.
“Outside of the big eCommerce players, most retailers out there are small which points to a huge market that can benefit from Billbee.” Their customer sweet spot is a retailer that does between 200 and 20,000 in orders a month, spending about €30 on their Billbee monthly subscription. Typically, these companies have a small team and a founder or CEO that is still actively involved in operations.
David says, “We always try to focus on the mass market, going after 90 percent of the retailers out there rather than the top 10 percent. And it has worked so far. In 2019, we had around 3,000 customers, and in the past year and a half, we’ve grown to 14,000 customers.”
In the same way that they don’t focus on single customers or single partners, Billbee also does not focus on single features. David says they always try to use that Swiss Army knife approach. Instead of specializing in just one facet of eCommerce, they provide a good all-in-one solution for 80 percent of the businesses out there. The 20 percent of companies that are very niche will go with a specific solution that matches their needs.
So while Billbee made its start with invoicing, that functionality is now only a small part of what the platform offers. At present, Billbee handles most of the processes and operations that occur after a retailer makes a sale. They assist with customer communication, shipping, labels, inventory, fulfillment, and so on.
Getting a Small Company Into the Limelight Isn’t Easy
David shares that one of the challenges of a bootstrapped business is that it’s hard to get any attention in mainstream media, especially in Germany. The German market, similar to the US market, is mostly focused on big funding rounds and unicorns that aren’t even profitable for most of their lifespan.
“It was really hard to get any type of traction in the beginning. In the last couple of months, we’ve made a real effort to get noticed. We also feel like we don’t need to hide behind the curtain anymore, as we’ve managed to grow Billbee to a strong company without any funding and we want to get that news out there,” he says.
So how did Billbee appear on the radar of those first customers back in 2016 without the help of the media? It all started with the DIY eCommerce community itself. There were no specific tools in Germany targeted at DIY businesses because it’s a revenue-small community (selling usually only a couple of items a month). But, as mentioned, they’re huge in number.
“Around 5,000 sellers are doing less than 20 orders per month. And word of mouth traveled very quickly in that community. This also paved the way into the non-DIY eCommerce industry because a lot of our early customers transformed their small DIY business into a fully-branded company with scaled production. Those customers took us with them into the eCommerce community,” David says.
In fact, Billbee has such a strong brand name in Germany that the eCommerce community knows them by name. The search term that brings them the majority of new website visitors is actually “Billbee.” Alongside customer word of mouth, events were also key for them in creating brand awareness.
To boost organic marketing even more, Billbee dug into all the valuable data about eCommerce they had been collecting from their customers. David says, “We had a lot of interesting first-party data from all the orders that were flowing through our system from thousands of merchants.”
How big is the average cart size on Amazon versus the average cart size on eBay or Shopify? Where are the eCommerce hotspots in Germany? Where are most people buying from? This type of information could be of great help to their customers, so they created thought leadership content out of those numbers (while keeping their personal data private, of course).
Finding The Silver Lining During a Pandemic
In 2020, COVID hit. Initially, the Billbee team was afraid of how it would impact the business and whether it would stand in the way of their big plans. David says, “We had the worst-case scenario in mind where we would need to lay off staff and request government funding to keep afloat.” But as it turns out, eCommerce was one of the industries that surged the most during the pandemic.
“We actually benefited from COVID in two ways. First, our existing customers got more and more sales, and since our pricing is based on sales volume, we grew along with them. Our average revenue per customer has grown a lot. Second, we saw big growth in new signups because brick and mortar stores and local retailers wanted to start selling online as fast as possible,” David says.
The latter aligned well with Billbee’s strategy of being a self-service product that allows customers to get up and running within a couple of hours. Unlike most platforms, there is no need for an implementation project or onboarding process to get started. You can sign up with your email address and password, connect your Shopify store, and that’s it. To lower the barrier to adoption, Billbee has a 30-day free trial period during which you can test drive their tech.
New customers were joining Billbee by themselves and everything was working smoothly. As a result, Billbee did not have to expand its marketing and product department during the pandemic. The only thing that wasn’t scaling by itself was their customer support – because the more customers you have, the more support you need.
“This was our biggest challenge during 2020: To grow our support team and be able to onboard new employees quickly enough to start helping customers. So, we got creative and took an alternative approach to meet this need. Instead of hiring completely new and unfamiliar support staff, we actually hired Billbee customers to become Billbee employees,” David shares.
“This allowed us to become more efficient in providing customer support. They already knew the tool and we didn’t have to teach them how to use Billbee from scratch. A lot of the time they were even better experts at using the tool than we were! We just had to train our support employees how to work the ticket system and how to provide the Billbee customer experience.”
Billbee’s customers include a lot of “side-preneurs.” Often, they have a full-time job and are running an eCommerce side business on Billbee. Once they got hired by Billbee, they became a full-time employee but were also able to keep their side business running on the Billbee platform. David says that around 50 percent of people at the company have a side hustle of some kind and they encourage that.
Billbee grew even more than they had initially planned, doubling their team from 10 employees to 20 by the end of 2020. And this year they’ve added even more people, growing to a team of 35.
Changing the Way Companies Are Run
In 2019, Billbee had two offices in Germany. David and Jan lived about 80 kilometers away from each other and the team was divided between both locations, five people in each office, and they would meet up once a week.
David says, “We decided to do a 100% remote working trial period even before COVID forced us all to work from home. We had hired our first entirely remote employee at the end of 2019. What we discovered was that it created a two-class company between the people who worked in the office and the people who weren’t part of the day-to-day.”
Shortly after Billbee started their remote trial period for the whole company, they challenged the status quo again. There’s a growing body of research that shows shorter workweeks lead to improved productivity and decreased feelings of burnout. Billbee did just that by reducing their workweek to 30 hours while keeping everyone’s salary the same.
How does that work in practice? David says they have a few boundaries when it comes to the 30-hour workweek to set everyone up for success. Employees need to work at least four days a week. “We do not want people to overload themselves by working two 15 hour days, for example, since that would negatively affect productivity. They also shouldn’t work more than six hours in a row, at which point they need to take a break.”
“Again for productivity and motivation, employees are advised not to work more than 10-hour days. Other than that, they can pretty much decide how to fill in the week. Most people work five days a week, which comes out to six-hour workdays. We try to schedule all of our meetings on Mondays so that everyone can plan their schedule around it. That way all the other days are flexible and it’s up to them how, when, and where they work,” David says.
Internally, they surveyed the team to measure employee happiness and motivation with the fully-remote and 30-hour workweek policy and the results are great. There was no drop in productivity or performance, even with everyone working 10 hours less per week. With both trials being a success, Billbee decided to make the changes permanent in October of 2020.
Billbee’s innovative approach to running a business has truly paid off. In the past three years, they’ve doubled in terms of customers and tripled in terms of revenue with high profit margins and high cash flow. In 2019, they closed with €1 million and in 2020, they hit above €2 million. This year, they’re going to close in the €5 million range.
David concludes, “In the past year, we’ve grown our team, built out our infrastructure, and solidified our strategy. Now we’re at a point where we can further develop our product and marketing departments too.”
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