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Adii Pienaar

Family man, seeker and learner. 3X Founder: Cogsy + Conversio (acq by Campaign Monitor) + WooCommerce (acq by Automattic). Ex-Rockstar.

Doing this again and considering various paths

You would've seen that I've referenced the term "life-changing" a couple of times when I refer to Campaign Monitor's acquisition of Conversio last year.

But what does that even mean?

I've used that term, because I've become more private over the years (compared to my early online days as "Adii Rockstar) and especially so after Jeanne & I had kids. So discussing the financial terms of the acquisition is not something I've done in public, because there is a measure of privacy that I'd like to retain.

I don't however have a problem sharing the details with other founders / entrepreneurs / friends with whom I have rapport in intimate conversations. I ultimately believe that we should demystify all things around money, but doing so publicly likely tips the pros/cons scale to the negative (or at least makes it more complicated than what it is worth).

There are however two things that I can share to qualify that term "life-changing":

  1. Upon exit, our family office still owned 70% of the business (because we only raised a single round and were profitable) and we sold to a strategic buyer in Campaign Monitor.
  2. The size of the exit means that if the capital was invested well and Jeanne & I didn't didn't suddenly develop a desire for private air travel, I could work part-time and be very picky about what I work on (whilst the monetary reward of the work is a consequence more than a consideration).

So why would I embark on the new and risky endeavour of starting a new business so soon after selling the previous one?

The benefit of writing things down is that I can record and signpost my state of mind at various points in the past. In reflecting to write this post, I found the words that I wrote about a year ago (about Conversio's acquisition) quite poignant and poetic:

"When I have been still in the last couple of weeks, I've never heard the thoughts, ideas and questions louder. I have never been more curious about what could be next and felt more ambitious to reveal more of my truth in this universe."
"I am not a new character on this path; my experience of this journey has just evolved. Every morning, I set a new goal and make the same commitment anew: to show up with all of me."

What I have learnt in the time that I spent with Campaign Monitor, is that I really love the work. I love making things. I love putting my stamp on those things. I love surrounding myself with great people that want to make things with me. And even though neither WooThemes or Conversio were journeys with all good things, I've learnt to love the journey.

As this continued to crystallise in my mind in the last couple of months, the desire to make something of my own only grew too. It got to a point where I knew that I would eventually build a new business. I just didn't know what it would be or when I'd be doing it, because I was in no rush to leave Campaign Monitor and also felt that I had unfinished work there.

Since leaving Campaign Monitor, I've had some time to consider a bunch of different paths (more so than ideas) to follow next and building Cogsy was much lower on the list of paths that I initially explored. I'd love to share those alternative paths, why I decided against them and ultimately what led me back to SaaS (and Cogsy).

1) Life Profitability / Author / Speaker

I've been working on my upcoming book since November 2019 and the original publishing date was October 2020 (which has since been postponed to January 2021). The book has been a big time and money commitment and investment in the last year, so it made sense to double-down on that and monetise the book beyond just book sales.

As early as Q1 this year, I was planning on launching a whole business around the book. The cornerstone of that model was to build a speaking (think corporate workshops) and coaching component on top of the book. I love public speaking and would love to do more of it, so the opportunity seemed a great fit. And whilst it has not been consistent in the past, I have been paid well to travel and speak at conferences. (Two birds, one stone too.)

Then COVID happened and international travel got delayed indefinitely. So it kind of derailed these plans.

The other components of the plan (online community, online coaching etc) just didn't excite or energise me as much. Partly because I'm an introvert, unless I'm on a stage or with smaller groups of people in real life.

The idea of being a "thought leader" and being the brand also didn't really resonate with me. I did a lot of content with Conversio and I was the most public face associated with the company, which I didn't mind. But I wasn't the brand; Conversio was.

So I scaled down the strategy for the book to be more about marketing and getting the message (which I'm very passionate about) out there, instead of being the next gig that I undertake to pay the bills.

2) Investor

If you followed me on Twitter in the last couple of months, you would've seen that I toyed with the idea of raising a fund, making more investments and becoming an investor.

I've made some pretty shitty bets over the years, but early-stage investments in the likes of Buffer, Podia and Churn Buster should reap a good, net return.

What intrigued me about this path was partly the romance of investing... I love the idea of smart people reaching out to discuss their ideas and capital needs. It represents opportunities for learning and making new friends. And the monetary upside would follow those initial or primary benefits.

The idea also gathered momentum as I seemingly found myself in more conversations that would look like deal flow (the Holy Grail of Investment). The ability to get into the best opportunities early is a key part of how investors and funds get outsized returns. So I thought that I could leverage the deal flow that I organically had, accelerate it (by doing it more full-time) and then raise a fund to extend the reach beyond my own financial means.

So I did the work, spoke to loads of people and figured out what this could look like.

I learnt was that whilst it would be possible for me to embark down this route and whilst it could be very lucrative (holistically), the work required wasn't really the work that I wanted to do. I realised that I yearned to get my hands dirty in businesses and that being an investor (regardless of how hands-on I might be), there'd always be a layer of abstraction between myself, the work and what what was happening in the companies that I decided to fund.

(What I ended up doing instead, is to trust my friends who had a strong hypothesis and had already operationalised how they invest. Our family office ended up investing in Tiny Seed, Earnest Capital, SureSwift Capital and FE International's LTV SaaS Fund. I also haven't done individual, cherry-picked angel investments for a while; instead preferring the diversified approach that these kinds of funds offer.)

3) Coaching / Consulting

I've been a coaching client of Dan Martell in SaaS Academy for almost 3 years now and he played an integral part in getting me through a hard second half of Conversio's journey (all the way to that life-changing exit).

A little while ago, I started helping out in SaaS Academy as a part-time coach meaning that I coach some of the other founders in the group. Which has been loads of fun and hugely rewarding. I get to work within a team (the SaaS Academy team) and interact with smart, interesting and diverse founders on a weekly basis for a couple of hours. So it ticks quite a few boxes, which is why I've continued this (and will be continuing this as I build Cogsy too).

Interestingly or coincidentally or serendipitously, as soon as I left Campaign Monitor and opened up my availability, a whole bunch of other opportunities (things that I was not exposed to before) popped up. I have since committed to taking an advisory board seat for a private equity-owned European tech company (I'm on a three month probation; wish me luck) and have taken on a private coaching client too. I've also had friends and others in my network reach out about doing both once-off and ongoing consulting gigs.

As these things things popped into my inbox, I considered doubling down on this path. The remuneration would be good and the diversity of clients and projects would be hugely stimulating too. Also, the idea that I wouldn't necessarily be responsible for the execution of whatever I'm offering advice on felt like a bit of a reprieve from the stressors of being a founder.

Ultimately, the lack of skin in the game was a big factor in deciding against this route. Whilst I have committed to a few short-term and part-time gigs (since the early parts of Cogsy will be a slower time for as I rely on my product and engineering team to get us to V1), I couldn't see myself turning this into a long-term pursuit. Similar to the notion that I wouldn't be able to get my hands dirty enough as an investor, I figured that I would soon miss doing the work as pure consultant and coach.


So why Cogsy?

Deciding on the actual idea of Cogsy is a different post altogether. Once I settled on the idea of building a new SaaS company, Cogsy was not the first idea I considered and I actually went down a whole different path initially based on the set of criteria that I had. So there's more to share about that.

There were a couple of things that really tipped the scales in favour of building a SaaS company over the other paths that were available to me:

  • As far as digital products go, building software feels like making something that is tangible.
  • There was a clear path to building out a team.
  • SaaS and especially the recurring revenue model is one of the best business models around.
  • I have experience and have learnt new lessons in the realm of software / building teams that I'd love to re-apply.

And that's where we are today with Cogsy. 😎

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