Over Service a Niche that’s Under Serviced

Posted on 2019-11-04


Over Service a Niche that’s Under Serviced

Dmitry Buterin likes to keep Canadian non-profit organizations ticking. His company, Wild Apricot designs custom management software that keeps operations running smoothly. “Having worked in IT all my life, I know everyone can benefit from this.”  Buterin’s a part of many non-profit organizations. Among them, the Association of Internet Marketing Sales (AIMS) and CERBA, a nonprofit that aims to improve business relations between Canada and Russia.

“Eleven years ago, programs were sold as licensed software. You’d buy it, pay a monthly license, maybe a support fee.  Then, you’d have to install them on your own servers. It was extremely hard for a small nonprofits, they don’t have the staff maintain that stuff, to maintain those servers. So I said, why don’t we try to use this new kind of mold, a speed applications service provider?”

Buterin was busy running a software company, when he realized non-profit clients would be his core clientele. Wild Apricot came to fruition when more clients came to him with similar requests. With revenue coming in from other projects, Buterin was ready to dedicate himself to create software aimed at small companies.

We always wanted to become our own software company. So while we were looking for opportunities, a few things came together back in 2006.  We finally decided to make the jump and become a real software company.

“We were looking at different ideas we had and we realized, ‘hey, you know we’ve done a number of projects for small nonprofits, and we didn’t make any money because they had extremely limited budgets.’ A few thousand dollars on custom business software is a lot of money, and when we’re building a software, a few thousand dollars doesn’t buy the client many [features.]”  

Buterin is involved with several small profits, and is quite familiar with their challenges. Some obstacles included rapid staff turnover, volunteers with irregular hours and little to no time for training. This meant designing something that would be “plug-and-play” for his new clients. His next step involved research: It confirmed that there are many non-profit companies, all with similar needs. All of them needed an easy way to manage their websites, handle payments and promote their events. Out of all potential clients, why did Buterin chose non-profit charities for as his core clientele?

“You know…they are a very under-served market segment. I know that software are a wonderful of elevating what you do.  I realize how much manual work people do, and most of the people involved are not very technical for relatively basic things, ‘okay how do we find which one of my members have paid monthly, how do we track events, how do I update the look of the website?’

“So we felt that non-profits can benefit from good software service, and there are lots of them and nobody’s really doing a great job of serving them. So we said ‘why don’t we build a business around that?”

Buterin improved the subscription model. Non-profit clients would simply pay a small amount for a monthly subscription to access Wild Apricot’s services, instead of fussing with computers.

“Our thinking was, if you build a successful software product, and you know that your product fills the needs of your customers, you can scale your company in a very different way. It’s not about throwing more people into the company and trying to manage them, it’s about trying to create a great product.”

“You can say that I’m a very accidental entrepreneur because I grew up in the Soviet Union and in the Soviet Union, there was no concept of entrepreneurship. Everything’s done by the government.”

Buterin’s experience in growing Wild Apricot came from previous entrepreneurial ventures, and he knows the hardships many start-ups face. An entrepreneur’s skill lies in creating a product or service. However, he knows that the real business challenges lies in building the business to sell it.

“You can earn money, you can learn a lot from different organizations, but it’s also very important for the business to scale transition from where you start. Eventually you’ll grow the business.”

“When we started out, we realized there was a big difference between doing the work that you do and actually building the business. There is this famous book, which I recommend to all entrepreneurs, it’s written by Michael Gerber, and it’s called The E-Myth (Entrepreneurial Myth).

“One famous concept from this book is the distinction between working in the business and working on the business.”

“I have seen that mistake that I made many times, as when we get consumed by doing the work but you’re not actually thinking about the business.”

Buterin reads about business development in his spare time, and continues to seek out publications that help him shape his company. However, he feels that getting peer advice from a professional association yielded the most results on his work.

“I joined this organization in Toronto. It’s called EO, Entrepreneur’s Organization… I joined the organization 2004, and that organization has made major impact on myself and my professional life…it’s an association of entrepreneurs. We have 12 thousand members worldwide, and we have chapters in most big cities and one in Toronto.

“So, in Toronto Chapter, there’s 150 people right now…they do a bunch of things. They do events in Toronto, they also have global events. For me, the most important and most useful aspect of this organization was their Forum.”

“They book you into this small group of other entrepreneurs, in all kinds of industries, and they give you framework to help each other. So, you can describe it as you become an advisor to each other, but it goes way deeper than that. You also become friends and as you help each other to grow your business.

“At the end of the day, your success in whatever you do in business or life, is a reflection of who you are inside, so, because of [EO], it’s usually beneficial in my own personal development and my growth.”

“Sometimes one of us is living really well, and somebody else is struggling and the next day, the situation is reversed. So just being able to learn not just from your own experiences, the struggles from people who are on the same path and is hugely beneficial.”

“This whole market of non-profits that we serve, it’s very fragmented because non-profit companies have similar needs. ‘how do you manage a website, how do you update my member database, how do you track my emails, registrations...’ and things like that. On the other hand, there are so many different tools that you can use for that. You can use Microsoft Excel, you can use Gmail, Outlook, whatever, so it’s all over the map. That means it’s hugely fragmented.”

Wild Apricot puts tracking, accounting and web-management all under their service. The future for Buterin is looking good. With the advent of niche software to manage membership, companies like Capterra has been monitoring and ranking the functionality and popularity of various software’s companies. Wild Apricot has been ranked number one in their standings.

Buterin doesn’t rest on his laurels. He states his company is designed to do some good in the world. Not having volunteers waste time with hardware means more on the job. By providing back-end support, non-profits can focus on their work and not the IT aspect that runs it.

“There are so many other non-profits. Some use other software, many of them they still really run things at a very manual, very painful way, so there are lots more, many more organizations that we can help. We currently have 10,000 clients and organizations that are using our software.”

“For the next five to ten years, there’s much more we can do. There are so many other organizations that are struggling.  We focused on software, especially in the beginning, and our mindset was a little bit limited. It was like, ‘okay, here’s our software, go and take it and do something good with it.’

“I don’t know if you have ever been involved with non-profits, but most organizations are all volunteers. They have very limited resources, and there’s a lot of rotation…we have to basically help them to self-serve themselves.”

Wild Apricot has a friendly blog, worded in layman’s terms.  It offers advice in an informat but familiar tone for start-up non-profits. Buterin is especially proud of the blog on Wild Apricot’s website, generated to help support content-creators.

“That’s really where  this is a way for us to attract new clients and to keep old clients. But it’s about how can we create content, how can we create figures and webinars which actually help people. Like this blog article about how to run a great bed and breakfast. Now, we have a webinar about member retention. So we create a lot of content, which free. It’s available out there, right? The whole idea is that we don’t keep it behind the paywall.”

Buterin likes the soft sell approach, as it gives Wild Apricot a chance to earn their clients’ trust. Potential customers can read Wild Apricot’s informal style in their blog and webinars. Posting free articles and tools helps customers come across their software at their own pace. “It’s a long term gain for us,” adds Buterin.

The earthy, friendly approach to sales and customer retention is most noticeable in Wild Apricot’s company directory. Instead of standard job titles, each member of his company is given a fun label.

”My personal title is Chief Apricot. But, in the last  year, we also have been making this big transition. It’s a new organizational structure which we feel resonates better with our purpose and our long-term mission for our organization.” The structure Wild Apricot is currently using is TEAL, which uses a non-linear hierarchy.

Buterin observes, having the CEO at the top often means the boss is the most disconnected from the day-to-day operations of the business. “We think about us as not as a hierarchy, but as a bunch of small circles. The small circles all have specific responsibilities and goals. They all interact toward a common goal, instead of having one manager. One guy is never the best at everything. [TEAL] resonates with our culture, with the way we approached how we work here in Wild Apricot.”

“I love my organization. I love my team. And I love the fact that based on [TEAL], everybody here, can now do things that we like. I love mentoring and coaching and helping people in our organization, that’s one of the key roles for me. I’m really proud of what we have built in our eleven years. And there’s so much more that we are going to do.”