First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
James Webster: Thank you for asking; we’re doing well. We live on the edge of the Cotswolds in the UK, and we’re hugely thankful to have a beautiful landscape on our doorstep.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded sheepCRM.
James Webster: I’ve spent nearly all my career working for startups. I joined an online bookseller in 1999 as their 3rd UK software developer. The team I joined was responsible for expanding their product databases into Music and DVDs. I spent almost ten years with Amazon.co.uk, and last I heard, they were still doing quite well… I learnt so much at Amazon, but I left wanting to bring some of their software expertise to smaller organizations.
Sheep (sheepCRM) started as a side project in 2011 to help out a good friend running a local Youthwork & Outdoor Education charity. I intended to help him move to Salesforce but quickly realized that although SF is a brilliant product, it’s not a great fit for everyone.
Sheep is a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system but what I’d stumbled onto was the need for a CRM that’s about more than sales. With sheepCRM, we wanted to build a platform that could manage the rich data for all kinds of people: members, donors, volunteers, attendees (and customers). We knew it had to be really flexible and cope with all the different ways of capturing people’s data. We wanted to leverage the powerful community of tools already out there.
How does sheepCRM innovate?
James Webster: Our approach to innovation is rather old-fashioned – we just listen to our customers repeatedly until we really understand their needs. Then we build a solution that is as simple as we can make it. Innovation can often just mean removing one step from a process to make it simpler.
We’ve also tried hard to work with the best of breed SaaS products rather than try to build our own equivalent. Investing in deep integrations with Mailchimp, Xero, Stripe, GoCardless, and Eventbrite has multiplied our own innovations.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
James Webster: We’re a fully remote, cloud-hosted database so working from home and serving our customers remotely was normal. However, when the pandemic hit, we watched as a project after project got pulled by customers. As a board, we took a collective gulp and wondered where this was heading. Fortunately, it was just a blip, and 2020 growth bounced back and has exceeded our pre-pandemic plans.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
James Webster: We decided very early on in lockdown to adapt our software and make it available to Mutual Aid groups to help them coordinate local COVID-19 support. That wasn’t a difficult choice. The harder choice was continuing to support them as demand rebounded. We put the whole team under a lot of pressure. I’m not sure we have learned the lesson (in the sense that we would do it again), but we have come through a bit wiser.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
James Webster: For seven years, I was a solopreneur, but in 2018 I merged the company after meeting a couple of brothers, Will & Joe, working in the same space. Will heads up Sales and Marketing, and Joe manages all our Operations, leaving me to focus on my real passion – technology. Reducing the breadth of my responsibility has been wonderful for both stress and anxiety.
The first (UK) lockdown was a nice opportunity to reset my morning habits. I start the day with a strong cup of tea and some quiet time in my favorite chair, followed by a run. Work starts a bit later but often with a clearer focus. I’ve removed social media and work email from my phone and batched my emails into fixes slots in the day. My frenetic, multi-tasking younger self would be appalled, but I have come to love routine.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
James Webster: There are an enormous number of CRMs out there, but most are sales focused. The membership CRM market is a bit smaller, and Wild Apricot is probably the most well-known. However, we’re really competing with spreadsheets, websites that have over-reached, and old legacy bespoke databases.
Your final thoughts?
James Webster: From the business side, this unusual season has reinforced the need to have a laser like focus on your numbers and the fundamentals that underpin the business.
Personally, it’s been another reminder not to take the family for granted.
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