Upmind: The Journey so far.


· 20th February 2022·About Upmind

Upmind: The Journey so far.

For the last four years we have been working on something very exciting. You have hopefully read about Upmind on our website now, or seen it in action with one of our beta testers. In this blog I want to cover our journey so far and explain what we have built and why.

Early Beginnings

Upmind started as internal billing software at a previous company of mine. It was a hosting business. By 2015, we had grown quite large - to around 200 staff members and a handful of brands. Between 2015 and 2017 I sold the company, and as part of an earn-out did a number of acquisitions of similar businesses. Billing had always been one of our biggest pain-points: in some brands we were using a mixture of off-the-shelf software we had modified and ‘bodged’, in others we were using proprietary software that needed significant work. ‘Connected’ parts of our business management - support systems, reporting, etc – were just as disparate and struggling with scale.

I hired a team and started work on a billing solution. Our plan was to create a backend framework that the individual brands could connect with, but to give our support and marketing staff one system to use. This was a large undertaking. I had hired Boris, now Upmind CTO, who had already developed the billing platform for Europe’s largest satellite internet company, and he built a team around him to start work.

I had expected my old company to be sold on as part of the larger group, but most likely by a private equity firm that would want to continue with acquisitions. However, quite quickly after we started building the billing platform, the company was acquired by a large publicly listed US hosting company. The focus rightly changed to integrating existing brands into the corporate systems they already had. My earn-out had also finished and I left the business.

The billing system was at that point dead in the water. I knew the potential. I agreed to buy the software so far, and take on the team. Upmind was born.

Upmind Focus

There was a need for hosting billing software because it’s a problem I had experienced. There are millions of hosting resellers globally. Some are large; most are small, often web design firms that have a few dozen hosting clients on retainers. There are some existing software solutions, but most resellers bill manually or use basic accounting software that does not offer any level of product integration or automation. We were also intimately familiar with the industry, and therefore needed to keep hosting resellers as an industry target.

At this point Upmind had been envisaged as internal software for one company to use. Notwithstanding the complexities of the software itself, this is a relatively straightforward proposition. If you need a function that does X (to generate invoices 7 days before a service is due, to provision new orders to provider Y), you hard-code it. If something changed in future, we could just change the code. Offering software as a service, this changed to all needing to be configurable. Rather than building software to help us run a business, we were building software that people could configure to let them run theirs.

It was going to be a substantial undertaking. You cannot ‘MVP’ a billing solution, let alone a hosting management system. If you charge you also need to support refunds, if you register domains you need to let clients update nameservers or transfer them out. If you support multiple currencies then you also need to allow people to store balances in different currencies, configure gateways per currency, set prices per currency and maintain a balance of exchange rate fluctuations. Your product needs to be functionally complete before anyone can use it.

However, we also knew that the scope and opportunity for Upmind was massive. For a start, the billing and automation problems that we had to tackle for web hosting also directly applied to other very similar industries, such as SAAS billing, software licensing, ISPs, telephony and colocation. Beyond that, comprehensive awesome software that did billing properly, and that also did support properly, and that also did product management properly, would be great for every service business. We would end up at 90% of the way to building what a gym needs, or a hairdresser, or a membership organisation, or an architect’s practice, law firm, dentist, subscription box offering, hotel, etc etc…

I put out a message to friends and connections asking to put me in touch with anyone who ran a service business. I then asked them what their biggest ‘admin’ issues were.

Some examples:

  • An osteopathy practice: “The software we are using is specific for our industry and has to run on Windows XP. We want a way to add patient notes and upload images but the software provider says it’s impossible and will never happen. There are no better options.”
  • A lawyer: “Each solicitor does their own billing and we are losing work to cheap online law firms. Our partners need to cut costs and have oversight but everything is completely siloed.
  • A kid’s party company: “Honestly, my billing is a complete mess spread amongst spreadsheets. I sit down and sort through it about once every six months. I really need a solution”.

Service business billing typically looked like one of the following:

  • Desktop software, often over a decade old. Infrequently updated if at all. Specific to an industry. Often quite restrictive. Accountancy software like Xero or Freshbooks used for day-to day management. Nothing wrong with this software but it’s further down the stack.
  • A mixture of all-sorts, often manual. Data in emails.
  • Larger businesses had either custom solutions, or had paid for a deeper integration. Some of the techier firms had also managed to hook into ‘subscription billing’ solutions which provided billing functionality for an API, but this needed developer resources.
  • Off-the-shelf software adapted for use (e.g. WordPress, which I’ll cover in later blogs).

What I found most striking was that if you were a business that sold a physical product, once - i.e. a traditional shop - there are an abundance of solutions (Shopify. WooCommerce, SquareSpace, Wix..). But there was no equivalent for service businesses. Pick one of the above and good luck.

Until now.

What we built

What we built was my ultimate wishlist for what I would have had when I ran hosting businesses but which apply to every service business. The business areas, while extremely coherent, can roughly be broken up in the following areas:

  • Client management
  • Billing (invoicing, tax, payments, refunds, subscriptions)
  • Product management and automation
  • Customer service
  • Marketing and affiliate tools
  • Client self-service and order systems

We started with backend logic APIs to store and manipulate the data. Everything we thought might need to be configurable we allowed to be. By late 2019 we had a firm structure and were putting together basic interfaces to visualise and manipulate the data. We knew that UX was absolutely key and we wanted Upmind to be beautiful to use.

We started alpha testing in 2020, throwing different business cases at the software to find problems or requirements. In these early stages Upmind started running a 3000 person membership organisation, handled special outdoor events during Covid where clients ordered drinks on their phones, managed a food delivery service and more.

While we built wide foundations, our first industry to target Upmind at was web hosting. We want to get hosting requirements absolutely nailed before we move to other industries. The first hosting business came on board in March 2021. By September 2021 we were migrating existing hosting businesses to Upmind using automated scripts. In early 2022 we finished the last of the functionality gaps that those hosting companies were saying they urgently needed. Upmind is heavily battle-tested.

Upmind will always need future development and new features; we will continuously increase the pace of development. However, before our full launch for hosting businesses we have to do the following.

  • Develop TLD management functionality for domains. At present all the options are there but it is complex to manage. In a world where there are 1000+ TLDs a domain provider can offer, going into each one to set the date by which point a domain must be renewed prior to expiry is the opposite of great UX.
  • Better structure the flows so we can (as Upmind) support Upmind users. We are building an extremely secure way that we can support our users through the application, while stopping us from being able to see any data unless invited by the user.
  • We have to improve some of the order flows specifically for domains. We are working with an experienced marketing agency to create the best checkout experience for clients of our Upmind users as possible.

Short-term, after launch our focus will be on:

  • Improving things and adding features based on feedback.
  • Adding more domain functionality to better handle edge cases (domain redemptions, premium domains, whois privacy).
  • More payment method integrations.
  • More provider (hosting, domain, website builder) integrations.
  • Expanding configuration options on provisioning with the aim in the medium-term of allowing you to add your own integrations and modules.

I have already touched on some of the longer-term aims for Upmind, and I won’t go into more depth here on features outside of the web hosting industry. If you have specific requests or features that you would like to see, we do want to hear from you though. Please let me know in a discussion thread at docs.upmind.com/discuss.

The pace at which we bring out improvements and features is rapid; approximately two substantial improvements a week. We already have comprehensive documentation which we will keep adding to. What we aim to do in this blog is highlight the new features that come out at the point that they do.

Seb de Lemos