When we started, there wasn’t even an official payroll. With budgets and ideas in balance, we take a look at how Gun.io thinks about profitability. In this episode, we sit down with the VP of Operations, Tyler Newkirk, to hear how we made sustainable growth a priority and what it takes to stay above water for nearly a decade.
You guys, welcome back to the Frontier podcast. Very excited to talk to you both today. Tyler, I don’t know if we’ve looped you in—but Teja’s the cohost this season, so we’re tag teaming these interviews. (Tyler: Excellent!) I know. I’m super stoked. I feel like he brings really nice balance to my would-be Barbara Walter’s vibe.
People do tell me I’m like incredibly balanced. (Tyler: You stole my joke. I was just gonna say that’s what you’re known for, your sense of balance.)
People tell me every day…
They’re like, “Holy shit, this guy’s the pinnacle balance!” Yeah, of work life balance.
Well, you know who is the pinnacle balance in real life—I think is Tyler. I feel like you- (Teja: That’s true.) are constantly juggling about a dozen things.
Three of them are kids. (Teja: At least three kids.)
Yeah. At least that we know [of]. Maybe he’s had more in the last four years. I don’t know. We keep losing track.
Yeah, that’s true.
Yeah. Kids, and ops, and finance, and generally just keeping everything on the rails here. Tyler, I have a question for you. What was the highlight of your day today? What was the best part?
Oh, my day? That’s easy. I had about a three hour stretch this afternoon with no meetings where I could be heads-down in a couple different spreadsheets, working with numbers. Like actually, like seriously, that was—like legit. Like, I was being productive.
That’s a good highlight. There’s nothing more peaceful than a quiet spreadsheet, you know?
Just time—time to think. (Faith: Yes.) It’s a precious resource. (Tyler: Yep.)
Yeah. Teja, what about you? We’re talking at 4:12 PM on a Wednesday. What was the highlight of your day?
Highlight of my day actually was getting up early and working out and doing a nice long run after I worked out.
Nice. It was a perfect morning for a run. Oh my god.
Yeah. It was sweet. I didn’t think I would get a chance to train jiu jitsu today, so I went extra this morning, and it was cool. Although— actually, no. This only highlights, right? So it was good. That was the highlight.
Yeah. No thorns, just roses.
Yeah. The highlight was being able to work out this morning. It was so sick.
I’m happy for you.
I did not have time, but I woke up really early and got a bunch of writing done, which always feels really good. Like when you look at the clock and it’s 9:00 AM and you’re like, I already did like half my to-do list—This is a good day.
Yeah, totally. Well, I feel like writing, or working out, or doing something good for your mind like that in the morning is like a linchpin habit. Or like, if you do those things like, I don’t know, eating well, hydrating, not drinking too much coffee, or like maintaining a good productivity rhythm, that becomes easier if you do that linchpin habit. (Faith: Yeah.) But if you wake up and like, just fucking do emails, at least for me, that’s not good.
No. You know, what I found is like a huge difference maker is going outside right away. (Teja: Yeah.) Like taking a walk in the morning. It’s crazy what that does to my attention span during the day.
Anyway, Tyler, we’re thrilled to have you here. Obviously we all work together every day, but we all have very different kind of areas of expertise and things that we we focus on. And something that I think listeners are—you know, if we’re assuming that we’re talking to folks who are running businesses or thinking about similar things is we are, profitability is probably on their minds, right? How to get there, if they’re a new business, and how to maintain it. If they’ve been around for a few years and maybe have their sights set on growth, that’s gonna take some investment. So I’m wondering if we can maybe start with just like a recounting of the early days. So like what, from the onset of the business, did those early days look like in terms of profitability? How did we balance our spending with what we were bringing in?
It was a little rougher back then.
Yeah, I imagine!
No, in all seriousness—you know, it was a little bit just by necessity, I think. You know, and I remember just Teja and I working pretty closely with that and you know, going way back, it was even like customer by customer, right? Like, if we had a new hire, a new close, you know, we could actually like expect that one check to come in and satisfy some different needs we’d have in the business, right? And so it really would be check by check. And some cases, you know, for a while. Then I think as we, you know, started to progress and we started to grow, you’d put those together, and then you’d kind of have the beginnings of all sorts of things, right? Some projections, budgeting, casual flow management. So, you know, I think as young operators, which we were back then, it was a good forcing function for us to grow and be disciplined in how we thought about cash and expense, you know, budgeting, all of that, which, you know, I’d had a little bit of experience with personally. But this was another level, right? So I think it just forced us to be really disciplined around those things.
And to be clear, we didn’t have the option to just like burn and grow at all costs. Because we were largely bootstrapped from the beginning.
Yeah, exactly. And I don’t know that I’d say that that was like a hundred percent, you know, by choice necessarily, right? Because we wanted to grow, and grow quickly, but we just never found that right offer—that right partner. And so, you know, we stuck bootstrapped and just had to make that work, right? Otherwise we still wouldn’t be here today.
Yeah. I think when folks in our shoes think about how to be profitable and stay profitable, they think of kind of four main areas, right? So one is like, how can we reduce costs to operate? And kind of along that same vein, how can we maximize efficiency? Maybe a third is increasing productivity, and then finally, reducing turnover, like keeping folks on the team for as long as possible. So of those four, do you think any have been a key factor in our success when it comes to profitability? Or like, how do we think about them as a whole?
I think from my seat, a lot of it has been around efficiency, because we, up to this point, have been pretty limited in like what we’ve—we haven’t had a lot to pare back, in terms of like our expense base, right? It’s always been pretty lean. And so it’s the thinking, at least from how I see it, has always been: How do we get the most out of what we have, right? How do we stay efficient? How do we stay lean? How do we make sure, you know, we’re not burning more than we can afford? And so that’s really been my mindset. My mindset is, we’ve got these certain assets, whether that’s people, whether that’s, you know, our process, how do we get the most out of that? How do we be as efficient as possible? Teja, I don’t know if you would have anything to add to that, but—
I like what you said about, it wasn’t like fully a choice, you know, it was like part choice and part out of necessity, and maybe I can share like a point on that. It’s like—and I wanna be delicate about this—it’s like the local— it’s like the folks that knew us well enough to invest in the early stages of the business were likely operating from models of business growth, because that’s the playbook that they ran to achieve their success, that were not well suited for our business. And so if we had taken their money, it probably would’ve caused us to like—‘cause when you don’t take money, you don’t grow as fast, but you have like all of the options on the table, and there’s an economic value to options, right? And we felt, as a team, that the option value of like having a future of like an infinite set of possibilities grow, we could be profitable. We could take institutional, we could take debt, we could do whatever we want.
We can change the business, like whatever. (Tyler: Yeah.) That’s like awesome, right? We can collaborate. That was really fun. And like it was—I mean, I look back and I say like, it was totally worth it. It was worth it to be able to push off like all the years of just things that, you know, I think can distract businesses, you know, managing investors, all that crap. So not to say that all investors are like that—some are great. And I think we found some great ones. I remember going to go raise capital with some like, local angels, and we went to some dude’s house, and like we just like drank wine and like ate good food. And it was just like, it was—I was like, how is this helping anything? Like it’s not—
How is this helping you understand our business?
No, it’s not. They would’ve given us some money. So, it was sort of like we knew we didn’t want to do that. Like it just was dumb. So we had to kind of make the business succeed.
Yeah, it kind of sounds like—and I think a lot of other bootstrap companies and leaders at those companies would agree with this—Like, it’s kind of be profitable or die, you know, as a bootstrap company. It’s not really a choice that folks have. Like, oh we’ll just kind of carry on this debt month over month, and hope that this initiative pays off. Like you have to have pretty fast cycles of success.
I remember one time we did like an exercise at Bongo Java on the back of a napkin to understand our unit economics, like—this is like a legit story. (Faith: Yeah.) (Tyler: I remember the table, we saw that. It’s great.) Yeah, me too. (Faith: No way.) So profitability should be a choice, but like your unit economics— meaning like what you spend to get a customer—should be positive. And so I think for us, like we needed to figure out like, is the business sustainable? Like if we get more customers, is it gonna cost us more than we make in the customer base? And so I think some companies, you know, when they’re trying to grow quickly, obviously you take outside capital to actually hurt your profitability. So you do a J curve and you grow faster, right? And it should be a choice because it’s like, okay, we’re gonna spend a load on acquisition so we get paid back in three to six or 12 months, right? So the economics hold, that’s the theory. So for us, it was like, well we don’t have outside capital, we don’t really wanna raise it. ‘Cause the people we’d raise it from probably won’t be value additive and it’d be distraction. So we need to kind of do it profitably. That was the decision, I think, that led to the path that we chose.
Speaking of that path, you know, I’ve seen maybe a fraction of this—but Tyler, I’m curious if there are examples that come to mind of small changes or decisions we’ve made along the way that have had an outsized impact on our profitability.
Yeah, don’t let me touch the finances. That’s a good one.
Lesson number one, this is really important for folks who are working with (inaudible).
I know I— I mean, one comes to mind, for sure—and this is sort of embarrassing to admit—but I remember in the early days, when we had flatter rates across the board. So we were, you know, paying each developer kind of the same, marking things up the same. And I realized, belatedly, that what we were marking up did not equate to our take rate, or what we were keeping. And so we had a target of margin, I think of like 30%. And I kept going, why are we not hitting this? And I realized it’s because simple math was wrong. And so it is something as simple as like, hey, my thinking around rates was wrong and was costing us about 5% in gross margin. (Teja: Yeah.) And so just a simple like—
Well, that’s an easy one.
Yeah. And you know, like I said, it’s pretty embarrassing because it’s simple math, but once we caught it, it was like, okay, you know, great, now we can start to see this go up. And it was obviously a good change. So, that was a big one that has stuck with me for a good reason through the years. I think one other one, you know, just aren’t as big as that, but we’ve done experiments along the way, pricing and different things that, you know, we’ve learned like, hey, this is working, this isn’t working. You know, in terms of are our margins being cut? Are they growing right? And so I think just keeping a close pulse on those different types of experiments, too, has allowed us to really hone in, you know, where we wanna be and how to dial that in.
Yeah. And I always think of—I was in Canva the other day, just like making some marketing assets and cleaning out our folders, and I came across our folder where we used to create all of our developer profiles. So we had like—they looked great, like really sleek developer profiles. But we made that decision where we were like, Okay, here is an inefficiency that if we just build it into our custom app, it would save us so much time. And these really talented, smart people who are spending hours a day making profiles can do something else. And our ability to like quickly share candidate profiles with companies is exponential.
Oh, I remember. Yeah.
I think of things like that, where it’s like—it’s small, and none of us really thought about it, ‘cause it just seemed like the next obvious right thing to do, and we moved on to finding out what the next obvious right thing to do was. (Tyler: Yeah.) But when you think back to those small moments, it’s like, I feel like those efficiency gains are always worth it, when you think about the dev time spent or the experimentation time spent to figure it out.
Yeah. And in terms of, you know—I think one other thing that we did early on that really paved the way in terms of like discipline and kind of management around profitability and cash flow was, you know, Teja and I both read the book Traction. And I forget who initially recommended that to us, but we read it and we adopted the framework, and through that, I think really started to set a discipline of like, Hey, if we’re gonna set a budget, alright, we’re gonna set our expenses to make sure that, you know, we can be cash flow positive—make sure we’re not burning too much. And you know, I look back at that, and I think that was really one of the first kind of foundational steps that we took. We don’t use that framework exactly today, but there’s still bits and pieces to that that we do use. And so I’m really grateful that that was introduced to us. Great book for us to kind of get our feet wet into managing, and I think [it] really did a lot down the road for us to be disciplined about that approach.
Yeah. I think a lot of people listening are probably individual contributors. And I think often, profitability can be something that ICs think about, but they think of as a problem for, you know, the executive team to figure out. We know that that’s not true. Like I think the work that ICs have done have allowed us to be profitable as a team and as a business. And so I’m curious about your take on what individual contributors can do to have a positive impact on profitability, and why should they care, especially developers who are ICs
I mean, number one, like I get why that’s like a common term, but it always feels like a little bit weird to me, you know, independent contributors. I think you’ve got units, and you’ve got teams within a company, right? And they’ve got their goals. And I think from my seat, you know, I wanna make sure that my job is done well, in that, you know, if we’ve got profitability targets or financial targets, those are set, and those trickle down so that everybody at every level of the company understands, you know, what their goals are, roll up to certain things that absolutely affect overall profitability or overall unit economics, right? Because at the end of the day, those are all inputs, you know, from tiny numbers, or each dollar affects your overall profitability. And so all of those little inputs add up.
And so, you know, I think my sense of it is, that’s where it starts. It’s not that, you know, activities from quote-unquote IC are smaller, meaningless—but that’s where it happens, right? Like that’s where the deals are made, that’s where the efficiency gains occur. And you know, I think that’s absolutely the trench work that’s done that paves the way for good results at a P and L level, you know?
I’ll chip in a little bit here, ‘cause we just had our board meeting yesterday, and it sort of helped me crystallize something that I think, Tyler, you’d agree with: How well a business is doing, depending on whether you’re maximizing rate of growth—which makes it really exciting for a certain class of investors or buyers or whatever—or how profitable a business is, which also makes it attractive—‘cause the whole value of a business is how much money can the next owner make with this business, right? That’s why businesses are valued in crazy amounts relative to their revenue, because it’s like, oh my god, this is highly scalable, we can make this a hundred times bigger and generate X amount of cash, right? (Tyler: Yeah.) And so, like the whole world of value and valuation is basically a way to get a handle on like, the future of this company, right? (Tyler: Yeah.) And so if you’re an IC—even if you’re a manager of a small team, like your life will be substantially better if you’re able to help the company and help the CEO or the management team or the board get an awesome deal by making the company generate more profit or grow faster. The reason why a lot of company cultures get fucking destroyed is because the company’s in a position where they probably raised at a really high valuation in their previous round. They’re hitting the point where they’re running out of money, but they haven’t accomplished enough for that next round to be like an awesome round where they don’t have to give up a substantial amount of control. The existing shareholders, ie option holders, ie employees, are not diluted to fucking shit. (Tyler: Right.) Like, there’s like a whole—there’s like, all that shit matters to the IC. Like the salaries can continue to grow, ‘cause there’s enough cash coming into the balance sheet that the board is comfortable paying at market or above market for the right talent. Like it all starts with like, is the business executing? Is the business satisfying the customer base? Are the metrics either in growth, profitability, whatever— (Tyler: Hundred percent. Yeah.) And like people think about this thing called rule of 40—if you plus the growth rate plus the—if you combine growth rate plus EBIT right? So let’s say you’re growing 40%, but you break even, okay, you’ve exceeded the rule of 40. If you’re going a hundred percent, but you’re losing 20% of your revenue, okay. Your combined is 80%. (Tyler: Yeah.) So, if you’re exceeding that target, you’re in a good spot as a company. If you tend to be delivering on your thing, that’s like all good for your ICs. ICs get paid based on how well the company’s doing.
Yeah. If the company’s responsible, like around, you know, making sure that those things are aligned.
Yeah. Well, the IC has to make sure that they’re working at a company like that.
Right. A hundred percent.
That’s on them. That’s not on me. Like, they need to do their homework on us!
Right. Or any company you work for.
Sure. Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. I shouldn’t say that’s on me. That’s actually more so on you, too, because, yeah.
Yeah. For hiring purposes, yeah. It is interesting. I think we could do a whole episode around questions to ask if you’re thinking about joining a company, no matter how early or late stage. Because I think profitability—for me, profitability was really important. And that’s kind of how I landed here, is I wanted a business that was growing responsibly, and you know, we wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation like you just described. But yeah, I think that could be a really interesting episode. Something else that stood out to me was, Tyler, you talked about at least for the IC, how as long as targets and results are transparent, it’s good for ICs to think about their own activities in terms of profitability, right? So like, what am I generating from what’s being provided to me, whether it’s budget, or people, or whatever. And I think that that’s kind of rare too. I think we do a really good job of that, just with the way that we set goals and kind of give teams the autonomy to chase them. And they’re on budgets to do so. But I think for a lot of VCs, that can be pretty opaque.
Yeah. I think a lot of that stems from being transparent about goals, and I mean, gosh, goes back to our you know, OKR framework, but even again, like Traction, where we would set revenue goals and those would be shared that, you know, amongst the team and so everybody was kind of dialed into what we were, you know, hoping to accomplish, right? And I think as you grow and you’re able to maintain some level of transparency, I mean, obviously you can’t share everything. It’s not good to, you know, be fully transparent, in some regards—but I think as much as you can, so that people understand how their efforts, you know, are rolling up to success—I think it just gives one a sense of buy in, right? That like, hey, we’re all working at this together, and I understand how my actions are affecting that. But then two, like you said, there’s like a tangible sense of accomplishment if it’s like, Hey, I really knocked out my targets for this month, for this quarter, and I can see that reflected in the overall company numbers or in our departmental numbers, like that’s really rewarding. And so those are things that we try and foster, you know, and I don’t know how rare that is. It’s not like I’ve seen the insides of, you know, hundreds of companies, but it is something that I think we strive to do.
A hundred percent. On that note, I have one final question, which is, for people listening, you know, we can assume that they are hoping to become profitable or stay profitable. What—if you could distill one key piece of advice or key learning for them, what would it be?
Again, this is from my seat, as more of an operator who’s in the numbers: I think getting a handle on and just being disciplined around your financials is like the biggest thing. You know, whether that’s in my peer group, or just people I’ve talked to, I know that that’s not everybody’s strong suit. And so sometimes there’s a hesitancy to really get involved in the numbers, because it’s just not where people feel comfortable.
Oh, it’s like personal budgeting, right? You kind of wanna throw up the first time you do it for yourself.
Yeah. And yeah, there’s just a hurdle there, right? You know, it can be scary to really unpack what the numbers say, you know? And so I think being able to say like, Hey, the way forward is for me to be objective about the reality of the situation, which comes from understanding. And so I think, you know, diving in, building in discipline where you’re budgeting, where you’re setting projections, and you’re adhering to that, I mean, it takes work and it takes time, right? Like, you’re not gonna get that perfect on the first swing, or your first rep, but over time you’ll start to, I think, build out some models that make sense for your company. And that really, again, from my seat, that paved the way for us to have a really like, comfortable sense of where we were at, whether on any given week, any given month.
It allowed us to kind of understand if things were gonna be tight in the future, how we could work to avoid that or mitigate that. But it all started with like, hey, we have to understand what the numbers are and get a sense of that. So I think if you’re not sure how to tackle profitability, like as Teja mentioned earlier, you know, really understand your unit economics too. It’s like, don’t be afraid of the numbers. You gotta dive in. You have to understand where you’re at and what the reality is there.
Well, there’s more to think about, because our business is actually kind of complex, right? So, Tyler’s not only managing, in some ways, profitability just at the P and L level, he’s also managing AP and AR cycles, which is like basically cash flow management.
(Tyler: Yeah. We didn’t get into cashflow much.) Yeah. And actually, cash flow management is arguably more important than P and L management. (Tyler: Yeah.) Especially for a self finance company. And maybe, Tyler, you can talk about the differences—and this is probably actually really relevant to people who are trying to scale a business, ‘cause you feel that cashflow crunch and you’re like, I gotta hire this person, but I don’t get paid by these guys. How do I get the cash? Right? So Yeah.
Yeah. That’s a great dovetail to—you know, that thing talking about the numbers. For me, like this goes back to when I was at Belmont, and I had Dr. Cornwall, who was my professor, Head of the entrepreneurship department at the time. Really, one of the things he liked to preach was, cash is king. I’m like, yeah, that’s like a fairly well known, you know, moniker. But it’s very true, you know, especially for certain businesses that like, things can be going really great, but if there’s no money in the account, you know, like you’re gonna be in trouble, regardless. And so to today’s point about cashflow, like that’s a huge piece of it, right? It’s understanding your timing of your ins and your outs. And we had to be creative around that, right? Like we understood early on that because of LTV and just the size of our transactions that there could be delays with customers. You know, we didn’t always capture that instantly. We were not like in eCommerce. And so we had to be creative about, alright, how do we make sure we’re not collecting 30, 60, 90 days out, because we have to have the cash on hand sooner than that, Right?
That’s the real genius. That is actually like, that is actually the real genius of the business and probably speaks to the sophistication of Tyler’s financial sense the most. Because, you know, if you think about it, you’d rather have a business with like maybe 10% margins that had really short AP cycles or really short AR cycles, right? (Faith: Right.) Versus like huge margins, but you’re not getting the money until next year, right? Because you’re like, Okay, how do I do anything? How do I pay any expenses? (Tyler: Yeah.) The way Tyler figured that out is probably kind of secret sauce level stuff. But—
But he figured it out. (Teja: Yeah, and that is awesome.)
I mean, you guys are very kind. I mean, again, like some of that was just outta necessity, right? (Teja: Yeah.) Is like, how do we make this work? Because if we don’t make it work, there’s not gonna be money to do x, y, and z, make payroll, all these things, right? I mean, the timing of that is really important. Understand, you know, how to make sure that you’re able to meet those obligations and not get caught with promised money that never hits your account or takes a long time. (Teja: Yes.) You know, leaving you in a tough spot for the short term, right? And that’s different for every business, right? I don’t think there’s a one size fits all because you’ve got just different different products, different offerings, different payment timing cycles and such. But that’s an important piece to really understand. And I think not only understand, but leverage. Like I think there’s ways to leverage that to your advantage, even where you can create positive cash flow, float even in short cycles, right? So that’s another great thing to think about. Teja, I’m glad you brought that up. (Teja: I mean, six years since payroll started, never missed it once, maybe seven years, pretty good, you know? That’s something I’m proud of our team for doing, for sure.)
Tyler, you don’t have maybe a traditional background for somebody who’s kind of running the show on things like this at a business like ours. And so I’m wondering if there’s resources that helped you get really good at, you know, all of the kind of cash flow questions that you just described.
I think honestly, like the biggest thing is having a network of people around you that can help you level up in those areas, right? And that’s the thing that I have been able to leverage the most. And I’m really grateful for like the community that I’ve had, being in Nashville. And so maintaining some of the connections I had through my experience at Belmont has been really big. Keeping in touch with some mentors, professors, and even in like simple little tactical ways of like, Hey, how are you? Do you have a model built for this? And you know Excel? Yeah, I’ve got something. Okay, cool. You can take that and you tweak it to make it your own, your business. And so I’ve had a lot of benefit from leveraging my, you know, personal network here in town. I’m sure there’s tons of great resources and books, and I’ve read some that have been, you know, helpful just in terms of like different ways to think about mechanics, profitability, cash flow, operating, all of that. But I think honestly like the biggest things for me have been really tactical of like, no, here’s like a new model, or here’s a new way to think about this. I’ve built this, which helps me track inputs and outputs, you know, more easily. And so just leveraging those, understanding how they work and then tweaking them to fit kind of our system have been really helpful for me in understanding that. And then obviously having like a good team around me here at Gun, right? It’s been crucial, right? Helping us. I think we all are leveling up every day. And so just talking through that stuff, being open and transparent about problem solving, it’s great. And I don’t wanna take that piece for granted either. ‘Cause I don’t know that it’s everywhere that you have a team that’s willing to help you kind of grow like that. So both of those things have been huge for me, personally.
Yeah. It’s all about the personal board. I think I’m hearing that from a lot of folks.
Yeah. Co-sign. I mean, we would show our P and L to people that we just wanted to get feedback from, and they had no information rights, or we had no obligation to report. They would just be like a friend of ours or somebody who sold their company, and we’d be like, Hey, here’s our P and L, here’s how we’re thinking about this, what do you think?
And we’re still doing that, right? I mean—(Teja: Still doing that. Yeah.) as the company grows and matures, there’s always new ways that you wanna think about organizing things and leveraging, you know, different financial mechanics. So yeah. I mean, still doing that today.
A business is like a product. Not only does it make products, but it is like a product. And like, you know, P and L is one way to look at it profitability. But another way to look at it is like, as Tyler described, when are you getting your gap accounting? You’re just looking at like, it’s just like a sheet of like, okay, this is the money. (Tyler: Yeah. I mean, there’s a set of rules that govern how, you know, money’s accounted and accrued.) And if you need to pay all your bills on the first, but you get all the money on the 30th, that ain’t a good business. But it could look good on the P and L.
Yeah. You gotta figure out how to get to the 30th.
Well, sweet. Tyler, thank you so much. I really appreciate all of your insight and transparency around kind of what we’ve learned over the last few years. If people wanna reach you, Tyler’s here at Gun, we’re very easy to reach. Shoot us an email, find us on Twitter, LinkedIn, you know, he mentioned building a personal board. And I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re always willing to knock around ideas with folks who are kind of working through the same problems as we have. Cool. Well you guys, thank you so much. I’ll catch you later. (Tyler: Awesome. Thanks, guys!)