The best business ideas are born out of frustration.
When Marvin Russell needed a checklist application to help him remember the many details he needed to keep track of every day, he couldn’t find one that was simple and easy to use.
Thinking like a true entrepreneur, he created a solution.
If you’re wondering what business to start, take a page from Marvin’s story and find opportunities within your everyday frustrations.
Here’s how Marvin Russell started.
Marvin Charles Russell
What do you sell?
Simple checklist software.
When did you start this business?
I built a proof of concept in 2013.
After more than 40,000 people had started using my proof of concept, I decided to incorporate in August of 2016.
Where did the business idea come from?
I have always had severe ADHD. Instead of managing it with Ritalin or Adderall, I started making checklists.
I became frustrated because every checklist maker online was bloated with too many features. I need something super simple and easy.
That’s when I decided to build my app, Checkli.
Did you have a written business plan?
What business structure did you start with and why?
I created Checkli as an LLC. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, to better protect my personal assets.
Secondly, after my proof of concept, I wanted to grow the business by investing more of my own money as well as raising outside money.
What would you do differently if you were starting the same business today?
I would have hired a full-time developer to focus on my project, and nothing else.
At first, I hired a part-time developer who was excellent, but he ended up only putting in a few hours of work each week. It was taking forever.
Three months later I hired a full-time developer to focus on Checkli and nothing else. It’s wonderful.
Customers and Revenue
What was your financial runway when you started?
I had the proof of concept built for a few hundred dollars.
Before Checkli, I started two other companies. Since both were successfully acquired, I had the resources to focus on Checkli.
I deposited $50,000 in the Checkli bank account to build the new web and mobile app.
How long until you became profitable?
Checkli was profitable 12-18 months after I created the LLC.
How did you get your first customer(s)?
SEO. I’m getting about 36,000 people to my site each month organically from Google.
I studied SEO like crazy at my last two companies. I was obsessed with ethical SEO.
I went after “Checklist” related keywords in Google. All the other big list apps went after the more popular keyword, “to do list.”
Now Checkli is the number one search result for “free checklist maker.” We’re also on the first page for a few other keywords, like “Checklist” and “list maker.”
How has your customer acquisition evolved?
I’m doing a lot more content marketing now through blogging.
I spend hours drinking coffee and thinking of things to write about that my target market would love.
Then I write about them.
I never come up with an idea and write about it the same day. I keep a checklist of all my blog ideas on Checkli, of course.
Name 2-3 tools you and your business can’t run without.
- Checkli: I make a checklist for everything.
- WordPress: It makes blogging so easy.
- Slack: It allows me to communicate with my remote team as if we are in the same room.
What one tool have you discovered that has changed your business, and why?
I once had 30 employees in an office, and instead of getting up from our desks and talking to each other, we chatted via Yahoo Instant Messenger.
It was great.
Slack is Yahoo Instant Messenger for businesses. I love it. It’s like your remote team is in the next room.
Email marketing software?
Growing Your Business
What was the first position you hired?
My first hire was a Software Engineer.
Current team size?
We are currently a team of three.
Do you use coaches, mentors, or a mastermind group? If so, how did you find them?
No. I just read what the best entrepreneurs have to say on their blogs or podcasts.
What books would you credit with helping you start, grow, or scale your business and mindset?
The Checklist Manifesto truly changed my approach to life and business.
It helped me realize how important checklists are to the world and that the human brain wasn’t built to remember all the tedious details in life and work.
The book is genius. I read it twice, and I’ve never read anything twice, ever.
What is the best piece of business advice you ever received?
100% of nothing is nothing.
In other words, would you rather have 100 percent of a company worth $50,000, or 50 percent of a company worth $5 million?
What are your annoying problems?
Starting a business happens differently for everyone. But the more entrepreneurs I talk to, the more I recognize some of the signposts that helped them find their way to success.
Checkli was created because Marvin Russell was annoyed. He needed a software solution that didn’t exist.
He hoped that other people would want to use it too, but he knew he needed to validate his business idea with proof of concept.
Learning how businesses got their start will help you chart your own path, from idea to first customers to growth.
Get more stories from successful entrepreneurs about their beginnings, their essential tools, and their best advice in the series How I Started .