Develop the right audience. Make sure you’re selling to people who want your thing. Build something that they want. Don’t try and build something just because you think it’s a good idea. Listen to the devil’s advocate. Go find people who will purposely attempt to throw wrenches into your ideas and your plans.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeremy Duvall.

Jeremy Duvall is the founder of 7Factor Software, a custom DevOps and cloud-based systems and software company that builds from the beginning for stability, security, and scalability for large, tech-savvy corporations and growth-stage startups with high growth potential.

Jeremy is a software craftsman with more than a decade of experience building and advising others on how to build rugged, performant, and beautiful software in nearly every industry. Jeremy founded 7Factor in 2017 with a commitment to build a smart, flexible, human-centric team of experienced software architects, engineers, and developers who obsess about quality and will give clients honest, expert advice.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up on a farm in a small, North Georgia town. When I was very young, my mother died in a car accident. I was in the car too but survived. After that, my sister and I were raised by our father and grandmothers. Dad was a very hard worker. He drove a truck, sometimes for a week at a time, while keeping the farm going too. He did whatever it took to keep us fed and get us through school.

So there was tragedy and struggle in my childhood, but also this idyllic setting in the North Georgia mountains, living on the farm. I spent many afternoons climbing in the fruit trees and dispatching imaginary foes.

I was a good student and in my senior year enrolled as a post-secondary options student at Young Harris College. I spent that year taking calculus and physics classes. When I graduated, I stayed on at Young Harris to complete my associate’s degree. During that time, I was mentored by Dr. Bob Nichols and Dr. Kenneth Fox, who both encouraged me to apply to Georgia Tech’s program in computer science, one of the top computer science programs in the country.

After graduating, I was lucky enough to get a job at Danger, Inc., creator of the T-Mobile Sidekick, a phone that was a sensation at the time, although most people have since forgotten it. It’s one of the most important mobile phones that was ever developed. So much of what we did was later emulated by the big names in smartphones today. Developer programs, APIs… all that infrastructure that builds an ecosystem around a smartphone: Danger did that first.

After Danger, Inc. was acquired by Microsoft, I worked for Microsoft for a while, then did my rounds at a few startups and consulting firms before founding 7Factor in 2017.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

When I started my career, quality software engineering was not something that many consulting firms cared about. Most were obsessed with speed and revenue, with little concern for the costs of badly written code. I wanted to focus more on software engineering as an art and a competency that needs to be practiced and perfected. I wanted to advance the body of computer science through consulting.

There were a few boutique firms that cared about that, such as Pivotal and ThoughtWorks, and I could’ve gone to work for one of them. But I wanted to put my own spin on this idea. I wanted to connect the art of software engineering to the business value.

Many of the other firms that care about quality are more focused on being gearheads and talking about very esoteric and often overengineered architectures, whereas a lot of what you do when you’re consulting is building software for humans. You’re creating software that is to be used by an executive or internal staff, or it’s used by a consumer. It’s not just about building the most highly available architecture. It’s about building architectures that are usable by humans.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The academic challenges at Georgia Tech were like nothing I had ever experienced before, and initially I vastly underestimated the work it would require for me to succeed. I did very poorly my first year, was put on academic probation, and, after three semesters, I was removed from the program. I’d failed out of one of the most prestigious engineering universities in the country. I was devastated.

I went home, got a job at the local Ingles grocery store, and spent some time sorting out my life. I thought a lot about how hard my dad had worked to get me to Georgia Tech in the first place. He had never given up on me, and I realized that I wasn’t ready to give up either.

I sent a letter to all of my former professors, outlining to them my plan for graduating successfully, and I reapplied to Georgia Tech through the academic appeals process. It worked; I was readmitted to the program and came back with a new focus and drive.

My first semester back, I had a 4.0 while taking five computer science courses. I was given the opportunity to work on some very interesting projects in research labs. That included a project in Dr. Keith Edwards’ prestigious Pixi Lab, work for which I won the President’s Undergraduate Research Award.

More recently, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the drive and perseverance I developed during that time helped me pivot my company to make up for some initial losses in revenue while finding a way that we could apply our skills to combat the disease.

We’ve just released WellEntry, a health-screening SaaS solution that helps organizations screen their employees, students, teachers, customers, and guests for symptoms of disease. It’s the next natural evolution of 7Factor as a company. We’re planning to create more solutions for the healthcare IT market and evolve those platforms, while continuing to provide DevOps services for companies.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are going pretty well. 7Factor went from zero to 21 people in three years. We have solid revenue and zero debt. I founded the company on a bonus check from a previous company.

We have a good culture. That’s one of the big reasons why people stay and why we’re successful. It’s not a toxic culture here, like you can find at so many companies. We have a human-centric culture, a culture of quality and grace. (I recently wrote about that on Medium.)

As far as grit and resilience, I think those words often come up in the context of a hustle culture, and I’m actually not a fan of that. Ours is not a hustle culture.

To the extent we succeed on grit, it’s the grit of the entire team that matters. When you pivot to thinking like that, you really don’t have to have as much grit, resilience, or hustle individually, because your whole team is invested in doing this together. That makes it a lot easier.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

It wasn’t very funny at the time, but I can laugh at myself now. When I started out, I expected that clients would all pay their bills on-time. If you walk into Walmart and get a shirt, you don’t tell them, “Hey, I’ll pay you later,” then walk out of the store with your shirt. If you try that, you’re going to get tackled by a cop and maybe banned from Walmart for life.

In the early days of 7Factor, we had done a lot of work for a startup, but they weren’t paying their bills. We hadn’t done our due diligence on their finances, and I guess I just naively assumed that, if they said they could pay for our work, then they could.

It worked out OK in the end. We had a month or two of reserves to cover payroll, and just as things were getting tight, a big check from Delta Airlines arrived on time. Eventually, the startup paid their bill. We never worked with them again, and I learned to look a little closer at a potential new client’s ability to pay. “Trust but verify” became a key mantra for us after that.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think what makes our company stand out is kind candor. A lot of consulting companies will talk about how they’ll shoot straight with you, but none of them actually do that, especially if the sale is on the line. They’re going to do everything they can to keep that revenue in the door. While I don’t blame them, it doesn’t help anybody, and it doesn’t produce a relationship that has longevity.

If you come to 7Factor wanting us to build something that we don’t think is going to serve your goals, we’re going to tell you so. We’re going to push back and have a discussion with you. It will be a respectful conversation, but an honest one.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Don’t lower your rates. Don’t undercut your pricing. You have to make sure that you’re communicating the value of who you are and what you’re bringing to the table. People will gladly pay top dollar for value that is actually being added to their companies.

I am extraordinarily anti-commoditization, because I believe it brings my craft down to a level where people don’t care about how hard I and my team have worked to develop our ability to write good software. It is something that requires sharp, smart, motivated, problem-solving people, and the only way to get that is to pay them well.

How do you not burn out? Hire good people. Don’t try to do it by yourself. Find other people to help you, and don’t try and do it on your own. Otherwise, you will burn out for sure. I’m very proud of the team that we’ve built. Trusting them and giving them the latitude they need is what’s going to keep this company going.

We also prevent burnout by building load-balanced teams: providing and facilitating a framework where people can take time off and know that someone else on their team is able and empowered to take care of the work while they’re gone. It’s all about sustainability, and the way you avoid burnout is by creating an environment that doesn’t encourage it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Several of the people who I worked with on the Sidekick back at Danger, Inc. Legendary engineers like Cid Halloway and Mike Bouche and Sean Curran, Godfrey Imudia, Allison Bellach, Joe George. All of those people are significantly responsible for my upbringing, culturally, into software engineering.

Danger’s talent included folks that contributed to the Linux kernel. They were incredibly, incredibly smart, way smarter than me, and I was just lucky to be able to work for them. Most of them have gone on to work at companies like Netflix, founding members, people who legitimately are some of the coolest people I’ve ever met in my life.

When I went to work for Danger, I was just a random kid coming out of Georgia Tech, and they’re like, “Hey, let’s try and teach this dude how to develop good software.” Even more than helping me grow as a developer, they taught me how to be part of a good culture, how to operate on a team, how to take care of the people to your left and to your right. They taught me how to create a culture you could enjoy.

It really helped me drive toward a culture that I’m proud of here at 7Factor, a culture that cares about people and doesn’t focus on just numbers and goals. If 7Factor becomes a $100 million company, fantastic, but I really don’t care. It’s about the culture that we provide, and it’s about the people who work here. It’s not about the revenue numbers I post.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

A lot of our work is as a services company providing DevOps and cloud-based solutions to major corporations and promising start-ups. But the COVID-19 pandemic recently inspired us to launch our own SaaS solution, a health-screening platform called WellEntry. We built it in close consultation with Aveanna Healthcare, the nation’s largest provider of pediatric home care services. They’re implementing it for all 30,000 of their home care providers and are offering it to some of their customers as well.

We’re now selling the service directly to schools, healthcare and hospice providers, food processing plants, factories, office buildings, military installations, government buildings, hotels and restaurants… anyone who wants to screen people as they enter their buildings, facilities, or sites of remote service.

A lot of people view selling software as a numbers game. If I fire 100 arrows at that bale of hay right there, 10 of them will hit. So, in order to get to 30 sales, I need to find 300 leads. It’s very easy to fall into that statistical way of selling. What I’ve learned from providing software services is that that statistical approach is a great way to acquire new customers, and it’s a hot garbage way to keep and build a community of users that actually care about what you built for them. I approach selling software from a services perspective, a relationships perspective.

And sure, if you’re Uber or you’re Airbnb, your market is just so incredibly large, and the ideas make so much sense that you’re naturally going to grow into astronomical subscriber numbers. So if you have an idea that is an obvious win, it really all boils down to price.

But for a lot of software, it comes down to relationships. I know people hate to say that because this sort of meritocracy that we live in wants you to think that the best product always wins, but that’s actually not the case. There is hot garbage software out there that people have bought because they know a guy.

Part of the way that we’ve approached our sales is, one, we don’t have a piece of hot garbage. We have a great system that was designed to solve a problem for a specific company — Aveanna Healthcare — and that we’ve been able to expand into other markets. We’ve approached it from a services perspective in that, when you purchase our product, you get an experience.

With WellEntry, we’ve said, “Let’s build a community of users that care about what we’re doing,” which is one of the reasons why WellEntry is doing particularly well in healthcare organizations. Healthcare workers are heroes, and they’re wonderful people. Some of these people took an oath to do no harm. So, for them to get behind something, they have to be convinced that it is a good solution to the problem.

So, again, if you have an idea that is a no-brainer, like Uber, just go sell it and make tons of money because it’s easy. Use that whole numbers game and make a billion dollars. But if you’re developing something for a niche market or for a group of people who are a little bit more difficult to convince, you have to build a community of people and supporters that make sense for what you’re offering. You can’t just go at it as a numbers game.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

We took a per active user approach on this, then calculated our costs per screening. WellEntry leans heavily on Amazon Web Services, so we figured out our monthly costs to run the solution. That part is easy enough. It’s more complicated to factor in the costs of the humans who built and maintain it, the people who sell and support it. There are a lot of unknowns there. But we put a lot of work into figuring out what WellEntry was going to cost us to run and based our active user fee on that.

We also charge a one-time setup fee, and that’s important to me. It’s there to cover the costs of my trainer and director of operations, the time they put into getting our customers up and running on the platform. I don’t think anyone should be shy about charging a setup fee, especially if it’s not a simple, SaaS solution that you just sign up for online, or an app that you just download and sign up through that.

If you have any kind of white glove service around onboarding — if it’s B2B and not B2C — you’ve got to charge for training and ramping up. When you work with a corporation, they’re going to be looking for a much tighter onboarding process. Don’t be shy to charge implementation fees or consulting fees to help them get their people into your system.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

Develop the right audience. Make sure you’re selling to people who want your thing. Build something that they want. Don’t try and build something just because you think it’s a good idea. Listen to the devil’s advocate. Go find people who will purposely attempt to throw wrenches into your ideas and your plans.

In the case of WellEntry, we had the benefit of a close working relationship with Aveanna, who had already been a services client of ours. They wanted this solution, and they told us exactly what they needed in it. Because we had a good relationship with them, we could also run our ideas by them. We could rely on them to tell us when our ideas weren’t going to work or weren’t going to serve a real need.

Take calculated risks. You need to be willing to take risks, but a gut feeling isn’t enough. Do you have only a 50% chance of success? Or is it 80% because, as with WellEntry, you already have a relationship with a $2 billion healthcare company that says they want your solution? We took a risk with WellEntry and spent a lot of money developing it in the midst of a global pandemic, but we also knew that a very important existing customer was telling us they would use it, that it would help them keep their caregivers and patients safe. It was obviously a risk worth taking.

Develop a compelling and competitive cost model. Be willing to change when you recognize the market isn’t responding to it, but also know your rock-bottom values. What’s the minimum amount that you’re willing to go to market against without going out of business?

This goes back to what I said earlier about considering all our costs for WellEntry and calculating the per screening fee based on that. We add a fair mark-up for our profit, of course, but our fees are fair without undervaluing our work. It’s a quality solution at a reasonable price.

Don’t skimp on the engineering talent. Make sure you hire people who know what they’re doing. At 7Factor, we’re often brought in to do what I call “unicorn rescues.” That’s what happens when a startup has a good idea for a SaaS solution, but they hire a cheap, outsourced development agency to build it for them. At some point, they realize that the software is so bad that it’s going to sink their good idea. That’s when some of them come to us to either fix their code or rebuild it right from scratch. They end up spending more to get to a viable product than they would have if they’d started with good engineers from the beginning.

In the case of WellEntry, I was using my own team of engineers, so I knew I had the best teams available. I wouldn’t have hired them if they weren’t, and if my talented engineers somehow underperformed, then that would be all on me for not leading them effectively.

Build good stuff, then keep making it better. Honestly, seriously: build good solutions and build them well. Don’t over-engineer something to solve every possible problem, but take the time to plan your product well then commit the resources necessary to build it right. Then listen to your customers and figure out how to make it better.

We’re still early in that process with WellEntry. I’m proud of what we built in our version 1, but we’re just now starting to get that customer feedback. We’re testing our theories of what we believed people wanted and needed, and we’re deciding on our next development priorities based on that.

If you’re not listening to your customers, you’re asking your competition to come in and take them from you. You have to be able to build something that people want, then be able to evolve it in a way that makes sense.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would start an anti-commoditization movement. I’m trying to do that right now, as a matter of fact. Software shouldn’t be treated as a commodity, and the people who engineer it shouldn’t be either.

I want business owners to care about the quality of the software they use. I want them to not think of software engineering as a bunch of people in a dark room with headphones on, turning wrenches. I want, instead, for them to think of software engineers as living, breathing, smart humans who can contribute a lot to your ideas and your vision. I want people to start hiring developers and rewarding developers who care more about the quality of their solutions than the speed with which they get them out the door.

To the CEO of any large company: I challenge you to walk onto the floor with your engineering team. Find a random developer. I don’t care who it is. Don’t pick a lead, because those people want to impress you. Pick a random person on the floor. Sit down and ask them to pair with you the whole day. You don’t have to say a word. You don’t have to know anything about what they’re doing. Ask them to explain to you what they’re doing, and you’ll get a better understanding of the type of work that these people do.

Humanizing those engineers, I think, will do a lot of good for a lot of people. It will make them start thinking less about the output and more about the people creating it.

That’s my movement: Humans are people. Treat them as such.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Jeremy Duvall on LinkedIn:

7Factor on LinkedIn:

7Factor on Instagram:

WellEntry on LinkedIn:

WellEntry on Facebook:

WellEntry on Twitter:

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Jeremy Duvall of 7Factor Software: 5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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