Bloggers / Founders / Interviews

Balancing the Grind With Arvid Kahl, Founder of FeedbackPanda & Blogger at The Bootstrapped Founder

Arvid Kahl is the founder of edtech SaaS, FeedbackPanda, and writer at The Bootstrapped Founder, a blog about his entrepreneurial experiences and journey.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

My name is Arvid Kahl, and I’m a developer turned entrepreneur turned writer from Berlin, Germany. Over the last three years, I started and ran an EdTech SaaS called FeedbackPanda with my life-and-business-partner Danielle Simpson.

We recently sold that business to SureSwift Capital, a private-equity company, for a life-changing amount of money. Ever since then, I’ve been writing about my entrepreneurial experiences at The Bootstrapped Founder, a blog that I am working on full-time at this point.

I’ve been an engineer since the early 2000s. As a university dropout, I’ve been working my way through a plethora of companies and projects, sometimes as a full-time employee, a contractor, or a freelance consultant.

I’ve worked for VC-funded Silicon Valley companies, traditional German software companies, and I founded my fair share of startups with friends and acquaintances. Many of those projects went nowhere, and some had some success. With FeedbackPanda, I finally had a chance to apply everything I’ve learned in the past, and it has been a smashing success.

FeedbackPanda, in a nutshell, was a text templating product that would help online English teachers to write student feedback efficiently for their work-from-home jobs, teaching English as a second language to Chinese children through web-based teaching platforms provided by Chinese Kid English companies.

Our customers were the teachers who were contractors for those Chinese businesses. We sold directly to the teachers, which resulted in having over five thousand teachers at the time we sold the company. Our monthly recurring revenue at that point was around $55.000. We never hired any employees, so we handled everything between the two of us.

Since selling the business changed my life substantially in many ways, I’ll try to share how I balanced the grind while running a two-person SaaS business with thousands of customers as well as now that I am a self-quarantined writer, mentor, and podcaster.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

While running FeedbackPanda, a “normal” workday didn’t exist. Every day was unique. Often, unexpected events required my attention. I was responsible for the engineering and operations of the FeedbackPanda platform.

Whenever one of our integrations would need to be updated because the Chinese Kid English companies had updated their website without any heads-up warnings, I needed to drop everything to build and deploy a fix as soon as I could.

That would happen once every two weeks or so, but we’d never know when exactly. Sometimes, they chose to release new versions of their portals on a Sunday night. There was never any real downtime for me in that regard; I always had to keep my ears on the ground, checking for integration problems.

Additionally, I took over most of the customer support during the later stages of our business. We set up FeedbackPanda as a “Built to Sell” business: we automated as much as we could, and we provided very detailed documentation, both internally as Standard Operating Procedures, and externally as a comprehensive knowledge base.

That knowledge base grew quickly since we added a new article whenever we answered a customer support question for the first time. After a few months, we had over a hundred articles available, and most customer support questions would be resolved by having those articles automatically suggested.

That meant that any question that made it through the automatic suggestions as an actual issue that I would need to deal with immediately. It was a very stressful time, as I never knew when those questions would come in, and we had not hired anyone to take care of it. It was all on me. This was the most anxiety-inducing time of my life.

In addition to those reactive and interruptive tasks, I was working on new features and fixed bugs whenever I could. It was a 24/7 job, and it left Danielle and me with only a few opportunities to have a life as a couple. We put all of our time and attention into the business, and while the outcome was spectacular, it led me close to burnout and mental anguish.

Now that we sold the business, my day looks completely different. Danielle and I get up, have a coffee together, read a passage from a book to each other, listen to the news, and then slowly migrate over into our work. I spend a lot of my time reading, collecting interesting links to articles, podcasts, and experiences that I can share in that week’s newsletter edition.

I take some time to mentor other founders through the MentorCruise platform, do a consulting session now and then, and spend the bulk of my time writing articles for my blog and my upcoming book Zero to Sold.

Around 5 pm, Danielle and I start cooking and spending our evening together. Where before, I would have worked twelve hours or more, I now regularly spend around six hours between all my teaching-related activities.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

I’ve always been a remote worker, either fully or partially. Back in 2013, I worked remotely for a Silicon Valley startup, and I’ve always been more productive working from home ever since.

For FeedbackPanda, we chose to work from home as it was the most convenient way to continue life as we knew it: Danielle and I already lived together, and we didn’t intend to hire anyone soon.

At the time, I worked partially remotely for a German company building IoT systems. For three days a week, I would travel from Berlin to Hamburg, a three-hour journey door to door. On the other days, I would work from home.

During that commute, I soaked up a lot of books and podcasts centered around indie entrepreneurship and bootstrapping, which motivated and instructed me to start a sustainable bootstrapped business.

Once both Danielle and I worked on FeedbackPanda full-time, it was clear that it would be a remote business. Not only didn’t we need an office, but we often travel between Germany and Canada to see our respective families, and we needed to take our business with us. That made us build a fully remote company, giving us the flexibility to work from any location.

Having your office with you also means that your work follows you wherever you go. Compared to office jobs at had before, it was often just too easy to pick up a customer service conversation from the phone, robbing us of many personal moments and opportunities to have a healthy relationship.

Only after we sold the business did we find the time to reconnect, and I am glad we sold the business even if it were just for this reason alone: I finally got my partner back.

In our post-acquisition life, writing from home is fantastic, as I have full control over my schedule. I set aside a few days a week where I focus entirely on writing, and I work only as much as I need to be productive.

With no office rental expenses, it leaves me in a win-win situation. I get to work as much as I want, and a fully stocked fridge and the kitchen is nearby at all times.

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4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Work-life balance, to me, is a continuous process, an ongoing concern. It’s the Aristotelean idea of the middle ground, constantly crossed from one side to the other, and vice versa. Some days, work will dominate, and other days will be full of things that are not related to work at all.

I personally find balance in a healthy dose of both, averaged out over time. I am not a person who works well to a schedule, at least not one that is down to the minute. I feel balanced when I get done what I think is enough, and I don’t have to neglect either my work or my personal things.

5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

Accepting that thing won’t ever be finished or perfect has been one of the most impactful mindset reframing exercises I have ever done. The moment I started fighting my desire for perfection and knowing everything before I would start something, I saw immediate results.

It’s the Pareto rule of 80/20 in action: stop fiddling with the details once you’ve got 80% of your work done, it will be good enough. In general, it helped to adopt the concept of things being “good enough” and trusting that I would improve them at a later time.

Focussing as much as possible on automating chores and tedious tasks has helped me focus on the critical parts of running a business that need creativity and deep thought. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re constantly interrupted, so building systems that facilitate detaching from the boring day-to-day stuff by removing it from your schedule are essential to staying on top of what matters in the long run.

In addition to automating things, documenting them has proven to be a vital activity. Any task that can’t be automated should be documented as best you can, for two reasons. First, it will allow you to execute it reliably and without making mistakes in the future.

One consequence of this is also the second reason: a well-documented task or procedure can be handed over to someone else reliably. It’s easy to train a new hire if you can give them a playbook with every job laid out in great detail.

In the beginning, documentation and automation will free up your time. Later, they will help you hire, grow, and scale your business. These two activities are fundamental to my success.

Work, life, and the balance between the two are a delicate act of continuously changing your life, one way or another. It’s fun, it’s stressful, it’s rewarding, it’s exhausting, but it is all progress, it’s all growth. And it’s all worth it.

6) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

I generally recommend three books for every aspiring entrepreneur: Hooked by Nir Eyal, Built to Sell by John Warrillow, and The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber.

All three of them have been fundamental to my entrepreneurial education and allowed me to build a business that was very valuable both to us as owners and to our customers alike.

Since I already mentioned Nir Eyal, I would also recommend his second book, Indistractible. He makes a case for reducing distractions and increasing traction, and he outlines how to do this.

I found his insight into the possibilities of focussing on the important things while ignoring irrelevant distractions very insightful because his guidelines allowed me to start spending more of my time with my partner and doing things that are not related to work.

For anything work-related, the book will help you become your most efficient self.

7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

I make sure that I always write something. I want to feel that every day has been a contribution to my legacy as someone who helps other people to improve their lives. That’s why I write, record my podcast, and interact with other founders on Twitter.

I was blessed with a daily commute of five hours — yeah, I never expected myself saying something like this either — so that I could read and hear the guidance of founders who had success before me.

Now I want to give back to the community, and writing is the way for me to do just that. That’s why whatever I do, whatever day of the week it might be, and wherever I might be at that moment, I want to make sure that I write.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

I would love to hear Nir Eyal speak about his personal approach. As an expert in the field, I would be most interested in the kinds of real-world obstacles that stand in the way of successfully implementing a strict regime of traction.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Any advice on any subject should be considered carefully, particularly what I have said here today. We all love our own unique lives, with our own passions, hopes, dreams, and quirks.

No piece of advice will ever fit your situation perfectly, and you have to mix and match. Taking everything with a grain of salt is an excellent recipe for avoiding over- or under-committing to a useful process.

That said, here is my completely subjective and unfiltered opinion: I’ve done my best work under pressure, and I’ve done my worst work under pressure. I succeeded at having a balance between work and my personal life, and I have failed, many times, to establish anything even resembling a balance. Throughout all of this, my experiences and learnings have been what kept me going.

Entrepreneurship is a journey along an unknown road with a navigation system that tells you to take a right long after you’ve passed the exit. Making mistakes is not just a part of building a business; it is the business.

So when you feel like it’s not working, or you’re spending too much or too little time, understand this as a reason to continue, not a reason to stop. The only moment when improvements happen is when changes are made. For a change to make sense, something has to be wrong. If you don’t do anything, you can’t ever be wrong, and so you will never have the chance to make it better.

Work, life, and the balance between the two are a delicate act of continuously changing your life, one way or another. It’s fun, it’s stressful, it’s rewarding, it’s exhausting, but it is all progress, it’s all growth. And it’s all worth it.

I write about the mental, entrepreneurial, and technical challenges on The Bootstrapped Founder, where I have published a fully-fledged guide called Zero to Sold, which shares my experiences in starting, running, and selling a sustainable bootstrapped business — and all the challenges I have encountered along the way.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.