In 2012 there was an error in Ben Curtis’ Ruby on Rails application and Airbrake’s customer support was not helpful at all. He decided that was his last straw. Our phone conversation started out with learning about the early days of his SaaS startup, Honeybadger, and it ended with hearing about how humor has quite literally shaped his team’s entire outlook on their business (their business was named after a meme, for starters.) This is the story of how one founder used humor to build an entire brand and culture.
The Quest for Something More
Ben was working at a startup, trying to support a customer with their application. He would send errors to Airbrake and when he went to go check in with their customer support, they had no idea how to resolve the problem.
“I contacted customer support, sent over an error message that stated that there was no detail, and they responded by saying that there was no detail and an error. I turned to my co-worker, Starr, and said ‘We can do better than that.’”
That’s essentially how the idea for Honeybadger came about.
Starr Horne, Josh Wood and Ben Curtis had worked together at a freelance agency and were collectively fed up with Airbrake. They decided it was time they took their frustrations elsewhere and built an even better product with exceptional customer support.
At the time, Ruby on Rails had no alternatives other than Airbrake so they knew that plenty of people would want to get their hands on the new application. They started out with a mailing list from Rails Kits, and the rest was history.
The three of them chipped in a couple thousand bucks and paid for the server. They’d spend nights and weekends working on the business and they had it built and ready for use in a total of four months.
Using Humor to Accelerate a Business Venture
Honeybadger was named after the Honey Badger video that went viral on the internet.
The team first started building out their brand on nights and weekends until it turned into a full-time gig. The Honey Badger meme was just a funny video at the time, but little did they know it would turn into the full-blown inspiration for their SaaS product.
The team has many core values that have shaped HoneyBadger and made it into what it is today, but their secret sauce is the company’s central cultural value of having fun and enjoying life—all the while working hard and building something great for customers.
“People really identify with three developers having fun. It is a big part of our brand and I appreciate how much humor plays a role in our branding. We didn’t have a ton of marketing training in the beginning, so we just leant into being ourselves and promoting our product to the world in an authentic and humorous way,” said Ben.
Ben shared all the silly antics the team would get up to, including sponsoring conferences and renting a bus to take conference goers to burger places.
Moral of the story: You can be successful and have a blast while doing it. The saying work hard, play hard isn’t just a nice phrase—it’s crucial for a well-balanced and well-intentioned life.
Marketing within the Ruby Community
Honeybadger quickly turned into an exceptionally popular health monitoring tool that was built for developers who care about quality products and satisfied customers.
FounderQuest, the Honeybadger founders’ podcast, was built out of an idea to have fun while chatting about SaaS and marketing their product on the side.
“Starr talked about it for a long time, I was more hesitant. Until we decided it would be a great marketing angle for Honeybadger so we gave it a shot.”
They discovered quickly that FounderQuest was a wonderful way to add value to the SaaS community, and specifically the Ruby on Rails community, while also encouraging people to think outside of the box, build an excellent product and care for who matters most: your customers.
Back in 2013, Ben and his team would go to a lot of regional Ruby conferences. They’d travel all over from Chicago to Pittsburgh to everywhere in between and meet people in the Ruby community that were thrilled about their product.
“Meeting people was always the best part for us. They were always shocked at the size of our company when they realized it was just the three of us who started it. We loved those moments—to be able to see firsthand how our product was impacting those in a community that we cared so much about.” They continued to see their brand awareness spread like wildfire through word of mouth and especially through the help of FounderQuest. This was a huge part of Ben and his team’s marketing strategy—word of mouth and the conference sponsorships.
The Benefits of Going Solo, Funding Wise
Ben explained that he and the Honeybadger crew were freelancers before, so they really valued the independence and autonomy of being self-funded.
When you are self-funded you choose what work you do, what customers you serve and how long you work each day. No one else is calling the shots, you get to make decisions and you get to set the pace.
“All three of us have families and we didn’t want to spend our entire lives on a business, we didn’t want to have 80-hour work weeks. It works for some entrepreneurs, but it wasn’t the lifestyle we all wanted.”
“The obstacle of being self-funded is that it takes longer. Most of our competitors are funded and they can get more done, are able to be in more places and have more advertising dollars. But I believe the work-life-balance we are trying to achieve isn’t possible if you are always having someone hounding you for results.”
Ben concluded by saying, “We learned early on to accept that. Yeah, it can be challenging to not have as many resources as we’d like, but we’ve learned to adapt with our marketing tactics and build something that benefits our customers nonetheless.”
SaaS Advice from a Seasoned Founder
I asked Ben what he would advise to any SaaS founder looking to improve their SaaS offering. He started out by talking about founder market fit. Finding a market that works for you. “It’s important that you look at your skillset and your experience. You want to enjoy what you are doing because at the end of the day, what you do should make you happy.” He also mentioned some of the most eye-opening SaaS founder advice I have heard to date:
- Find a customer segment that you genuinely want to help
- Find something that is truly enriching and satisfying and fulfills something more in you than just going after money
- Life is too short to be bored with the work you are doing. Humor can be a part of your business and you can still be successful
- Decide who you are, what you like and who you want to serve
- Sometimes it’s okay if the product you create is scratching your own itch, if you are customer zero then you will know what should and shouldn’t be in your product
- Be a product led organization, not a sales led organization—people will buy the product and they will love it
- If you aren’t intimately aware of our customer and what they need, it will be hard for your company to know that the product resonates with them
- Being self-funded allows you the freedom to go with the flow and allows the process to take shape organically
He concluded by sharing, “Our team started Honeybadger and FounderQuest with a mission to help developers have a better life, to enjoy their work more, and to have better tools. I remind myself constantly that my customers are real people, with real lives, families and goals in life and it is a privilege that I get to serve them.”