5 things we learned the hard way at CrewFire.

Alan VanToai

July 23, 2017

Building CrewFire has been (and continues to be) an awesome experience, but it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows.

Along the way, we’ve made tons of mistakes. And, as they say, “a smart person learns from experience, a wise person learns from the experiences of others.”

In this post I’ll share a few of the bigger mistakes we’ve made, so you may be the wiser between us.

1. You should feel pain when unclear.
2. Sell direct.
3. Don’t build concrete shoes.
4. Don’t redesign the wheel.
5. Untangle the damn finances!

1. You should feel pain when unclear.

A week or two ago, I stumbled across a classic Derek Sivers’ essay, “You should feel pain when unclear.

The gist of it is that when he was running CDBaby.com, he had to think extremely, extremely deeply about every single word in any email he wrote, before it was sent out to their 2 million customers.

He had to be crystal-fucking-clear (my emphasis), or else he would get 20,000 confused replies that would take his team a week to respond to… roughly equal to $5,000 in labor expenses plus the morale costs. Ouch.

The last two lines of the email hit me in the gut:

“I see new websites trying to look impressive, filled with hundreds of puffy unnecessary sentences.

I feel bad that the people behind those sites haven’t felt the pain of trying to email that text to thousands of people, to directly see how misunderstood or ignored it is.”

That was exactly me.

For the longest time, the way I’ve been describing CrewFire has been unclear, but I never had to face that pain.

To quote Charlie Munger, “No one said to me that the [idea] was wrong. Instead, people were puzzled briefly, then moved on.”

The fact is, if you’re working on something new, it can be tricky describing it to people with no concept of what it is, especially because you know it so well.

In the case of CrewFire’s messaging, I’m experimenting now with new ways of describing the product:

“CrewFire is a simple tool to get your whole team sharing company content on social media.”

(Read more about that decision in my recent post, “I’ve been an idiot with CrewFire.”)

Going forward, I’ve literally printed out Derek Sivers’ “You should feel pain when unclear,” and keep it next to my desk.

I re-read it every time I write anything, especially anything customer facing: website copy, emails, or blog posts (like this).

2. Sell Direct

When it comes to marketing and sales, I’ve come back to Nathan Barry’s excellent advice and stopped solely focusing on sexy “scalable” marketing strategies like content and ads, and started reaching out directly to potential leads to talk with them, one-on-one, about their marketing needs, CrewFire, and to see if there’s a fit.

Nathan points to a lot of good reasons in his post. The biggest benefit for us today, though, is related to the point on clarity above:

Early on, your messaging won’t be perfect, and the best way to find out what messaging resonates with your customers will be through actual conversations with them.

It’s all about learning as much as you can, as quickly as you can, about all your assumptions (product, market, pricing, features, etc…), and there’s no replacement for actual human interaction for that.

So if you’re building something new, start direct.

3. Don’t Build Concrete Shoes

This one’s a judgement call.

On one side, it’s important to think ahead and build your product, team, and business so that it’s prepared for the challenges ahead.

On the other hand, there is such a thing as “premature optimization”, where your meticulously designed plan or system becomes like “concrete shoes” – they fit great at first, but make change impossibly painful.

I could point to so many examples of where we botched this one, including overly elaborate marketing plans, hiring prematurely, spending on things that don’t matter yet, etc.

But to give you one clear example, the one that’s been top of my mind lately has been our billing system.

Ambitiously implemented, we thought through everything: credit card failures, upgrades, downgrades, list sizes, features, edge cases, etc…

Between design, front-end, and back-end development, it might have cost us $10k to implement, all before we had a dozen paying customers.

And today, it’s just like concrete shoes. Expensive concrete shoes.

It keeps us from experimenting with pricing, features, and designs, at a time when we need to be flexible and experimental with all of those things.

Instead, we could have handled billing manually much longer – putting “contact us” buttons in certain places, and handling the account management personally for some time.

And that flexibility would have let us invest our precious scarce design and development resources on features that actually matter to customers.

4. Don’t redesign the wheel.

I’m super proud of our design today. Our dashboard is beautiful, and it feels good to sell a product that has truly world-class design.

All told, we invested maybe $10k (again) in designing our own components, and in retrospect, investing that much time and money into designing everything from scratch was unnecessary.

CSS Frameworks like Twitter Bootstrap, Zurb Foundation, Bulma, or Pure can be taken off the shelf, made your own with a handful of CSS tweaks, and give you everything you need to build a beautiful, functional web app.

You’ll move faster, and save tons of money over building everything from scratch.

At the end of the day, for a web app like CrewFire, there was no need to redesign the wheel.

So whether it’s designing an app or any other aspect of your business, look at all the resources that are available to you on the market already, and see where you can apply them to your business.

Save yourself the time and money. You don’t have to do everything yourself, all the time.

5. Untangle the damn finances!

Last but not least… this one is so simple, but so important.

Important enough, that even though it’s quite specific, it’s really worth driving home, just in case you’re tempted to be so foolish as me.

CrewFire is actually our second product. It has some revenue, but (relatively) sizable expenses. On it’s own, it’s unprofitable.

Our first product, SimpleCrew, has great revenue, with relatively few expenses. On it’s own, it’s wonderfully profitable.

Combined, the business is roughly profitable. And for the longest time, that was about as much as we knew. We never took the time to split the finances of the two products, so we could evaluate each product’s financial health individually.

If we had kept cleaner finances, we would have recognized the extent of CrewFire’s unprofitability (and started taking the steps to correct course) much, much sooner.

So, if you decide to offer multiple product or services, do yourself a BIG favor and take the time to set up your financials so you can easily evaluate the profitability of each offering, individually, from the start.

You don’t necessarily need completely separate sets of financial statements, just a high-level understanding of each respective product’s revenues, expenses, and profits will suffice.

It could save you thousands in sunken profits.



And there we go! Hopefully you can learn from some of my mistakes, the wise way.

I’m going to continue bumbling along, and sharing my lessons here on our blog along the way, so be sure to subscribe by email to get updated on future posts.

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Alan VanToai

Co-Founder of CrewFire


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