I’m sure you know the pain of waiting for a slow website to load – the wasted time, lost focus, and interruptions in flow. But did you know a slow website also results in lost revenue? Tweaking your site to load one second faster can lead to a 7% increase in conversions. If your website makes $100,000 a day, speeding it up by one second might bring in an extra $7,000.
Shawn O’Neill, the founder of SpeedSense, helps brands earn more online by increasing website performance. SpeedSense does this through auditing and analysis, team coaching, and one-on-one training to make teams self-sufficient in keeping their website running as fast as possible. But the founder had no idea that making a case for website speed would be so challenging. Here’s how he took matters into his own hands to help customers reclaim lost time.
Following Your Passion Isn’t Always Easy
Shawn grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, and moved to Vancouver 12 years ago. At the time, he was a full-stack software developer for a 50-person startup called Verafin, working on user interface design. Shawn’s first glimpse of entrepreneurship made him want to try it for himself.
“I invested $10,000 of my savings to start a business with a friend in personal finance and self-improvement. Quickly, I learned that if you build a product first and then build an audience, you need to raise money because you have no runway to keep the business going. If you build it, they will not come, not without great effort on your part to attract them. My first attempt in the startup world ended in a glorious failure,” Shawn says.
Shawn returned to the job market and ended up coding for ecommerce companies. Over the eight years that followed, he worked his way up to leading engineering teams. “Ever since I was a kid, I was obsessed with human-computer interaction and the link between interfaces of all types. One of my passions while working as a developer was UX/UI,” Shawn says.
Shawn has always been a passionate advocate for performance. He knew the tight correlation between a fast site and a business’s bottom line, but the companies he worked for didn’t seem to care. An ambitious marketing campaign or a new payment processor, for example, would always come first.
He says, “There’s always more work to be done for devs than time to do it. So I was often left frustrated that we couldn’t fix our site speed. I learned that to move forward in ecommerce with a site speed project, you need to have an air-tight business case for it.”
Several years later, Shawn got the opportunity to run a performance project for a previous employer. Part of his mandate was to report on the exact return on investment: If they sped up the website by a hundred milliseconds, how would that impact the conversion rate?
The project was wildly successful. The company spent around $100,000 and it turned into millions in revenue. Shawn knew he had a convincing business case, recognizing a gap in the market for a service dedicated to site speed.
The Speed Consultancy
Only two options were available for boosting site performance, Shawn argues. One, you purchase website plugins or add-ons (which might just be a bandaid). Or two, you migrate to a faster hosting platform, which often requires a whole rebuild of your website.
Shawn says, “I wanted a third option: A consultancy that helps with website speed. In this case, an expert would audit the entire website and help implement best practices with the existing team and tech stack, without the need to start from scratch. I couldn’t find anything like that out there.”
With that mission in mind, Shawn launched his consultancy in 2019, geared towards enterprise-tier ecommerce brands that lacked an in-house performance team. Shawn started providing hands-on expertise to customers coming through his network and word-of-mouth referrals.
Initially, Shawn was selling himself as a performance consultant. He says, “I had a conversation early on with a mentor around branding ‘Shawn, the web performance guy’ versus building a brand around SpeedSense. I realized that the opportunity for growth as a standalone company was more appealing to me than becoming a speaker, personality, and subject matter expert.” With that decision, Shawn developed a methodology, laying out the practices, techniques, and procedures for SpeedSense, and started building a team.
During its first months, SpeedSense’s customers were mostly local. Pre-Covid, many companies hired within their community. It was easier to trust a consultant if you met them in person. But then the world shut down and everybody started working remotely. No longer confined by geographical boundaries, SpeedSense took off.
SpeedSense was now competing with companies across the world. One of its differentiators was – and still is – its ability to model the correlation between website performance and resulting revenue.
Shawn says, “Clients come to us for quantifiable predictions and results: This many milliseconds faster equals this many dollars more. We help them justify the budget. But if the projected increase in revenue is three million a year, the half-million-dollar investment in a speed project is a no-brainer.”
You Don’t Need to Choose Between Services and SaaS
One of the first steps in boosting a site’s performance is comparing it to its competitors. The SpeedSense team built several tools to audit customers’ websites at scale and pull in data from their analytics tools. This had evolved into a SaaS product. Shawn is now using the revenue from its services to bootstrap new tech products.
Shawn says, “I think there will always be a need for both SaaS and services in this space because you can only get so far with the tech. Website performance is a skill that needs to be taught to the in-house team. It’s not solvable by simply buying another plugin. It requires a cultural shift around high performance and delivering top-tier UX.”
Throughout running the business, Shawn has often felt pressured to define SpeedSense. Is it a SaaS company? Is it an agency? He says, “These questions are typically asked by folks who have an investment mindset. They want to be able to give the company a valuation and understand what the multiple is. I’ve avoided trying to be one or the other. Instead, we’re using what we learn from our services to inform product development – and the other way around. You don’t necessarily need to choose, because a hybrid business model can be a great way to bootstrap your startup.”
How to Set Goals for Motivation, Not Defeat
Shawn is the father of twin girls. When he started SpeedSense, they were only three years old. “I wanted a lifestyle where I could earn enough money at my own pace while spending as much time as possible with my kids. The transition to solopreneurship was initially a lifestyle decision, rather than a business decision. But then seeing the impact that the services were having on my clients, I knew the business part of it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. There was just too much there to think of it as a side project,” he says.
The founder set up a one-, three-, and five-year plan, implementing lessons he learned from his previous startup’s failure. According to Shawn, goal setting can be two-sided. It can be motivating, or it can be defeating if you set yourself up for failure.
He says, “I’ve been hard on myself for my past decisions. I have since changed that perspective. Future Shawn isn’t allowed to be mad at current Shawn for doing his best with what he has. Same goes for past-Shawn. At every point in my life, I’m making the best possible decision with the information I have and moving forward.”
Shawn ensures his long-term goals are motivational by setting plenty of intermediate milestones along the way. If his goal is to build a company that does $10 million a year in revenue, for example, then he needs to have digestible and achievable goals that lead them there.
“I have a sticky note on my wall that says ‘SpeedSense can be a $50 million company’ – but that is an aspirational goal. I needed to break that down, asking myself, What does that look like in twelve months? What does that look like in six months? And even, what does that look like this week? What do we need to be doing in sales, marketing, and operations to achieve this?”
Shawn continues, “The E-Myth, a book about entrepreneurship, was a big influence on how I planned the business. It talks about clearly defining everything that the business does and how it does it. It’s about the methodology of a business, where the value lies in its playbooks and SOPs that allow you to deliver a consistent experience to your customers. So, I spent a lot of time thinking about what SpeedSense would look like in the future and what needed to be in place to get there.”
Reflecting on his original sketch of SpeedSense’s plans, Shawn realized that he had accomplished many of the one-year and three-year goals he’d set. His first goal was to work hourly and find local customers. The next iteration was to provide his services with project-based pricing. The next phase was to hire someone to help him, work with an international brand, earn their first SaaS dollar, and so on. These weren’t rigid goals, but they did create the SpeedSense roadmap.
Last year, SpeedSense doubled its team and revenue. The company is on track for its five-year targets. All this while Shawn can spend time with his kids and partner. Everyone at SpeedSense has a great work-life balance, working remotely and flexibly, and many on the team have a family.
One of the most interesting and unique KPIs that SpeedSense focuses on is total cumulative human attention reclaimed. For one of its customers, SpeedSense saved visitors an entire year of waiting for the website to load. The founder believes that a slow website wastes human attention, so SpeedSense is on a mission to reclaim 100 years of cumulative human focus.
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