In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Laura Roeder joins the podcast to answer a number of listener questions on topics including managing annual subscriptions, being a non-developer founder, and more.
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Rob: Welcome to this week’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us. I’m your host, Rob Walling. This is a show where we talk about building ambitious, yet sane startups. This week, I had a great time answering listener questions with Laura Roeder from MeetEdgar. We talked through questions about managing annual subscriptions, going low price versus high, being a non-developer founder, and we talked through more listener questions. This is Startups for the Rest of Us episode 473.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome in building, launching, and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your fifth startup, or you’re thinking about your first. I’m Rob and today with Laura Roeder, we’re going to share our experiences to help you avoid the mistakes we’ve made.
Welcome back to the show. This is the show where we focus on indie-funded and self-funded startups, folks who want to do interesting things, are ambitious, and want to build themselves a better life, but also want to build companies that grow. Starting a company is hard. Having this community of people who are going through the same thing that you are, having that sense of belonging, knowing (a) that it’s possible but (b) that there’s a place where we can all hang out and just get each other, and where you don’t go in and explain what you do and everyone looks at you funny, there’s a tremendous amount of value to that. That was a big reason why we started this podcast almost 10 years ago, back in 2010.
Startups for the Rest of Us has many episode formats. Sometimes, I just have conversations with folks, do interviews. Now and again, we do founder hot seats. But one of my favorite episode formats is listener questions. We’ve answered a tremendous number of listener questions over the years. We’ve had a lot of episodes on this. It’s just the gift that keeps on giving, because it’s a time for listeners to participate, and to hear what other folks are going through, and to hear the thought process of a couple of founders typically who’ve been there and have done some things, and it’s not that we’ve been through everything that they asked about, but you can at least hear that thought process of how we would approach it. And over the years, we’ve always receive positive feedback about this episode format.
Before we dive in, I want to let you know that at MicroConf, we are making an announcement next week. It is by far the biggest announcement that we will have made since we launched the event nine years ago. It is coincidental that the 20th MicroConf is going to be on April 20th of 2020, so the 20th during the 20s or whatever, but that’s not the announcement. I’ve obviously already mentioned that MicroConf Growth and Starter are in Minneapolis in late April of 2020, but if you’re not on the MicroConf list, I encourage you to go to microconf.com, enter your email, and we’ll loop you in as soon as we have the info. It really is pretty spectacular and you probably know me well enough by now to know that I’m not trying to inflate the importance of it.
Today I answer questions with founder Laura Roeder. If you don’t remember Laura, I interviewed her in episode 451. She runs MeetEdgar which is a social media management SaaS app and in 451, we talked about stellar growth, platform risk, layoffs, and powering through roadblocks. It was a really, really good interview and Laura knows her stuff. I have a ton of respect for her. Honestly, I always love getting on the mic and just chatting with her. Super fun. I had a fun interview at 451 and I had a great time talking to her today and hearing her insights and her take on some of your questions. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Laura Roeder, thank you so much for coming back on the show.
Laura: I love the Startups for the Rest of Us. I cannot stay away.
Rob: Awesome. I am so stoked to have you on to answer some questions. You’ve actually submitted questions in the past, so it’s cool to have you on the other side of the ear bud, so to speak. We have some good questions today. As always, voicemails go to the top of the stack. I curated some questions that I think you should have some unique insight on. Let’s just roll right into the first voicemail which is about being a nontechnical founder and how to make good technical decisions.
Mack: Hi Rob, this is Mack from the UK. I’ve got a question, I’m looking for advice for a nontechnical founder. How can I avoid getting called out by poor decisions from the technical team or just not knowing about the consequences of some of the technical revisions that gets made to create their software? Any advice would be great. Thanks.
Rob: This is an interesting question, Laura. As a nontechnical SaaS founder yourself, I’m curious what your initial take is on it.
Laura: I would first like to take umbrage with the phrase non technical founder. I mean obviously, I know what he’s referring to. Nontechnical founder means that you are not a developer and I’m not a developer. But I always think it’s a little funny because I’m like, “I run a software company.” It doesn’t seem quite right to call me nontechnical, but this is a very real problem for all of us who are running software companies and are not developers because obviously, you are not intimately familiar with a really core part of what your company does.
I guess the first blanket advice for this is that, you really need to have a person in that CTO role who you trust 100%. I think this goes for any leadership role in your business, but it’s especially important in this case, because you’re not going to be able to provide so much oversight. Anyone can look at a customer service email and say, “Okay, that was not how we want to answer,” but you really can’t read code if you’re not a coder. I think that’s just step one is, make sure that you’re willing to put 100% faith in the person in that dev leadership role.
Rob: That’s what I was going to say as well. Even if you aren’t at the place where you can have a CTO. The fact that he used the phrase, “How do I not get called out,” does your team not trust you or do you feel like you have to make decisions that are out of your league? That’s an interesting turn of phrase. It implies that the team calls him out for making technical decisions, but are you making decisions you shouldn’t be since you’re not a developer? I would dig into that. I think having a CTO, or the senior dev, or somebody that really is making decisions in the best interest of the company, is a huge deal.
Laura: I think it also brings up that you shouldn’t try to pretend to be anything you’re not. If people are calling you out, does it mean that you’re pretending you know things that you don’t know or maybe making decisions that would be better for other people in the company to make? I think it’s just important to be unafraid to ask really stupid, really basic questions until you understand some of these core concepts related to writing code.
You can decide how much you feel you need to know. For me, I feel like I’ve been through this process recently big time with our finance team, understanding all the financials of the business. I just asked our finance person over and over and over again. Sometimes I’ll literally read a book. I read a finance book recently. I just wrote down questions for her in the margins and then I’m like, “I want you to read this book too and we’re going to have a call together. I’m going to ask you all of my questions about the book.”
I think that’s a great thing to do for technical questions as well. You need to be open with your team about what you know and don’t know and I think it’s important for you to work with the type of person that is very patient and very understanding in explaining things to you. Within reason, you don’t need to understand every detail. There are a lot of concepts that are probably unfamiliar to you that you do need to understand at least the basics of how “the sausage gets made.”
Rob: I like your example because as a founder, you don’t need to know every single thing about bookkeeping, accounting, and finance, but you should probably know enough to be able to ask the right questions. I feel the same way running a software company. I don’t think you should be able to code everything in a SaaS app, but maybe it’s worth going through a code where the code camps or maybe it’s worth on the side taking you to make classes.
It’s easier than ever to learn and have just a really basic level of coding knowledge such that, yes, you’ll never be able to make architectural decisions, you won’t make the senior level things, but you can at least relate to, “Oh, this is what code is. This is how it works. This is what it’s like to write a bug,” and spend four hours and not realizing that it’s the semicolon. That’s a lot of what it is. I think having that cursory knowledge and being able to then ask the right questions is what you’re touching on and that’s what I like about it.
Rob: You don’t like the term non technical founder. If you’re a developer and you’re writing the code, then you’re like a developer founder, is it a non-developer founder, is there a term that you prefer rather than nontechnical?
Laura: I guess maybe just say founder and then when you’re explaining later your side of the business, because you also don’t call like you just a developer founder, but I’ve never heard anyone actually say that.
Rob: I was just making up a new term to try not to say technical and non, because typically it’s technical and nontechnical are the two terms people use. I was just trying to think of a different way to say that because you’re right, running a SaaS app, yes, you may not write code but you are more technical than most people we know just because by nature of being in it. It is a misnomer.
But if someone wanted to differentiate between Derek and I when we started Drip, he was literally in a code every day and I was literally not in the code every day. I don’t know how else you differentiate that or what phrase we could come up. I don’t feel nontechnical founder as pejorative. I don’t feel like it’s a negative. Does it have a stigma? Do you feel like it does?
Laura: I actually think it does have a little bit of a stigma because I’ve heard developers use it in that way before. We’re not as cool of a founder if you’re not technical.
Rob: No, I think that’s lame.
Laura: That is lame.
Rob: That sucks. I don’t use it that way but if it gets that connotation then yeah, we need to figure out another phrase for it. Cool. Thanks for the question. I hope that was helpful.
We’re going to bounce into our second question which is also a voicemail. It’s about a founder who’s launching a second SaaS app. They’re nearing launch and he’s concerned about potential lawsuits.
Thomas: Hello, this is Thomas from Austria. I listened to the show for a long time and wanted to tell you that it’s really great content. I love following along your journeys and also hear stories of other people in similar situations.
To my question, I founded a SaaS company three years ago. It provides an invoicing solution for small independent car repair shops. It’s doing pretty okay. I can live off it and it’s slowly growing, so I’m happy with that. Half a year ago, I founded another company with a partner and we are building a software to compare prices for car parts.
Now that we want to go to market with the software to the suppliers, the […] of us are trying to fight us pretty hard. I think we have to go to court several times. There is not really a legal problem with fetching the prices because we do it locally on the customer’s computer and they’re not going through our systems, but still they can make our lives very miserable if they pulled us to court all the time.
Now, I’m not really sure how to go along. My partner really wants to push through that and he’s sure that it will work out. I’m also pretty sure that it will work out in the end, but I’m not sure if I am the right person to spend my next one, two, three years fighting big companies. I wanted to hear your thoughts on that and maybe what you would do in this situation. Thank you.
Rob: Thomas also wrote in and he said that he wanted to clarify that he hasn’t spent any money on the price comparison project, and have a small private investor, but in essence, he has only invested his time so far. I should preface this with we’re not legal experts, we don’t give legal advice, obviously, but it’s more of, “Hey, if I were in your shoes, how would I think through this?” This is an interesting situation. I’m not sure it’s one I’ve heard before. What do you think about this Laura?
Laura: The way I think of it is just, there are pros and cons with every business, every business model, and it’s really smart to go into a business with your eyes wide open about those pros and cons. From what I understood from his message, this is a likely threat, not a certain threat. He suspects that there is going to be lawsuits. He has a good reason to believe that’s going to happen or it could not happen at all. It makes me think of with my business MeetEdgar, we are entirely dependent on the social networks. You can listen to my interview on this podcast on Startups for the Rest of Us. I talked about a big problem we had because of that, but all businesses have upsides and downsides.
For me, I know that I’m in a space where I’m totally dependent on these partners that I have no relationship with and that can do whatever they want. That’s a big downside to my business. The big upside is that I’m building on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Obviously, very popular tools, so lots of users. I think that he just needs to know this going in and maybe it’s something that you budget for.
It’s good not to be scared of it. It’s good to go in and say, “Okay, I know that this will likely happen. Maybe we have some money set aside for it. Maybe we’ve already figured out who our lawyer is so they can jump right in and we won’t be surprised,” spending a few months just trying to find a good counsel.
To me it doesn’t sound like a deal breaker, because it might not even happen at all. Like you said, you have to know that that is a battle that you could be fighting and you have to know that that’s something that you want to sign up for.
Rob: I like the way you’re thinking about it. I think these unknowns, like if you’ve never received a cease and desist, or you’ve never been sued, it’s super scary. You don’t you don’t know what that entails. I got sued by a patent troll about probably five years ago, but it was literally a blanket. It was about a troll. Someone who sued 100 people at once for having online invoicing software is what it was. It was just this crazy, he sued everybody that does online invoicing because it was a ridiculous patent. I got to be honest, I was super scared the day I got the email.
Then I quickly realized I could talk to a lawyer and someone was just like, “Yeah, this just isn’t that big of a deal,” and we have these stigmas against things. Lawsuits can be a big deal. They can be expensive, but your point of it’s almost like try to demystify, or de-risk, or just get more familiar with what this might look like. Typically, if you were to launch something like this, you’re not going to get five lawsuits the next day from five suppliers. It’s probably going to be weeks, months, and then they’re going to grumble and they’re going to have to call you or send you an email, and then you might get a cease and desist.
It would be a long process and maybe like you said, you set aside money to either have a lawyer, whether it’s to go to court or whether it’s to try to negotiate settlements. There’s a lot of options here and I think this comes back to expertise. As a nonlawyer, you should know how to ask the right questions, but you’re not the expert in how they should all go down. There’s folks who can give you advice if you find a good counsel.
I think the biggest question for me is, is this a big idea? Is this a seven-figure idea or an eight-figure idea that’s worth going through all of this for it or is it something that’s going to generate $5000 a month? In which case personally, it doesn’t sound like it would really be worth it. I mean maybe I would launch it and if it’s doing a couple thousand dollars a month or $5000 a month and you start getting cease and desist, well maybe that’s the point where you’re like, “Okay, I guess I’m going to pull the plug on this,” maybe that’s the best decision because it just doesn’t make enough money or maybe that is your defense of, it doesn’t make enough money. Go ahead and sue it. It’s not worth anything.
I think that’s really the question I’d be asking, not is it worth it, but is the idea big enough? Do you think the company can be big enough to make it worth fighting for?
Laura: I think it’s also worth a quick Google. I think he said he’s in Austria. He didn’t say if the business would also be dealing with Austrian suppliers. America is very litigious, most of Europe is not, you can’t just file random lawsuits about anything the way you can in America. If this were my business, you can figure out a pretty good amount just from educating yourself on the internet. Would the suppliers have any case? If they wouldn’t, that’s also just going to make the whole thing much more unlikely.
Rob: Yeah. Thanks for the question Thomas. I hope that was helpful. Depending on what happens, I’d love to hear an update on how you move forward.
Our next question is about pricing and whether to try to go for more customers with lower pricing or vice-versa. It’s from Winslow Moore and he says, “I’m a huge fan of your podcast and all you guys do. I found you guys at the end of last year when I was going through a bit of what I’m doing in my life and I’ve learned so much. I’ve wanted to reach out for a while, but haven’t because my current product under development isn’t SaaS, it’s just an app. A recipe book app to be precise.” I’m assuming it’s a mobile app.
“Development is nearing completion and I’m wanting to make a landing page to gain some interest. Before I do, I’d like to figure out some pricing scheme options and I’m hoping you can give some advice. Here are my main ideas. Number one, make the app free with ads,” he listed pros and cons, “Number two, make the app freemium with paying to unlock X recipe storage. The third is to make it cheap like $1, and the fourth is to make it a subscription like $1 a month or $5 a quarter. Again, I know this isn’t something you normally answer questions on, but if you feel adventurous, it would be appreciated.” What do you think?
Laura: I feel like I have some news that he’s not going to like to hear. I’m trying to let him down gently. This is one of the most crowded spaces you could possibly enter. There’s so much recipe content on the internet. So much of it is excellent and so much of it is free. None of the models that you outlined gave a compelling reason for someone to pay. You just said like a recipe app, maybe they’ll pay $1, maybe they’ll pay a subscription. I think you just need to rethink your starting assumptions or maybe there’s something you didn’t tell us, because there are reasons that people could pay for some recipe or cooking service.
I know a SaaS business that does meal plans for people. You put in all of your detailed dietary requirements and they spit out really specific meal plans, shopping lists, and there’s a whole app and a subscription around it. They have a business doing that because they’re meeting a specific need in the market that is related to recipes. There are businesses related to recipes and food, but just recipe app, I don’t think is really one of them.
Rob: I like the way you’re thinking about it because if you were to niche way down and, like you said, build custom meal plans, that’s something you can’t get for free, or it’s really hard to do at a good quality or vegan meal plans or Paleo meal plans. There are ways to think about it. I’m guessing everything I just named is already done to death. Even if he has, let’s say, he builds not just content and he builds an app that actually has functionality that people are interested in. A $1 a month, you need a thousand customers to make, and doesn’t Apple 30%, I think, so you’re really making $0.70 on that. You need a thousand customers to make $700 a month. That is a tough business.
Even with apps store distribution, you would really need to know apps store SEO. I mean you to rank in the top whatever, top five, four or whatever term that has enough volume to do it. This would be a pure search play in my opinion, because at $1 a month, even for lifetime value is $10, $20, $30, $40, you can’t run ads, you can’t hire sales, none of the standard models work. It’s purely a spray-and-pray and it’s, “I need to have enough free traffic,” so you need virality, or you need organic discovery through a search engine. Really, none of these pricing models are easy.
Laura: I’m going to go out and say they’re not viable. I think it’s polite to say that they’re not easy, but they’re really only viable if you have some way of getting that mass, which is possible. Maybe you’re like, “I’m going to raise a ton of funding and I’m going to be the number one recipe destination on the internet.” Someone has to be that. That’s not an impossible thing, but it’s going to take a ton of money to get there or you’re like. “I am the number one SEO ninja on the app store. No one can do apps store SEO better than me and I also probably have a bunch of money or some money to put behind it, so that’s how I’m going to get there.”
I just think you need to really look at how does mass work out to make this a viable business and what’s my strategy beyond just like, “Well, I hope a lot of people find my recipe app in the app store.”
Rob: And even if you’re building a SaaS app, let’s say, just in general, what’s the general rule? The lower your price point, the higher your churn, the harder it is to grow. This is not in every case, but it’s in 95% of cases. That’s why so many SaaS apps, the playbook is, you go out, you underprice yourself because you just don’t know any better or you don’t value what your built and over time everybody goes up market. It’s a very common playbook.
The reason is if those customers as you go up market tend to churn less, they tend to be more sophisticated, less support, there’s just a bunch of plusses with it, but you often can’t start out at those high price points because your product is not worth it at that point. It doesn’t provide the value and it takes you time to get product market fit with that audience. Then move it up market.
Laura: That’s all B2B stuff, also, everything you’re saying. We’re talking B2C, so I don’t think there’s really even a big market to go to for an app. There’s more expensive consumer services but, I’ve never heard of an expensive app. Maybe it’s a thing, people have done everything. Now I’m curious. Is there an app for consumers that cost $800 a month and is a lot more high-end looking than the other app? I don’t know.
Rob: I’ve never heard of one. I bought a $25 app the other day. It wasn’t a subscription, but it’s a teleprompter, that goes on my iPhone, that listens to my voice. It’s the only one that turns the microphone on and as I speak, it teleprompts automatically. To me that was worth $25, but really, am I a consumer? Because I bought it for business purposes. I bought it for these videos I’m recording. I’ve also bought $20 app a couple of years ago. It was before where you can pair an iPad as a second monitor to your Mac. It was software that did that. Again, there was only one or two of them and I did the best one. It wasn’t a subscription and I would’ve been less likely to pay a subscription for either those to be honest.
Laura: Yeah, those are really tough models, too, where they’re only making $20 one time.
Rob: Right. Thanks for your question, Winston. Sorry for the bad news, but I hope that was helpful. I’m curious, if you love recipes or somehow love that space, then dig in and figure out that maybe it’s not a $1 app, maybe it is a website that you acquire from someone to get a traffic source and you build just a web app into there. I mean, there are other options in the food and recipe space, that I’m sure there’s opportunity and I would say don’t get locked into trying to pick up pennies really is what $1 a month it’s like.
Laura: I didn’t actually say the name of the one I was talking about. It’s realplans.com if you want to check that out.
Rob: Awesome. Our next question is about recurring payments and it’s from Gavin Esplan. He says, “I’m in the planning stage of a small daycare management app. One of the main features will be setting up recurring payments between the daycare providers and their customers, who are parents or guardians of the kids. I also need recurring payments for the providers to pay me. I’m a professional web developer, but I’m not sure which system, like Stripe, would be best to accomplish this. I’m leaning toward Stripe, but it’s probably because it’s the one I’ve heard of most. I’m not sure what other good options would be out there. Do you guys have any recommendations?” What do you think, Laura?
Laura: Well, there’s an easy part and a hard part to his question. As far as him taking payments from customer, I say yeah, Stripe is great. We use it. We like it. Go for it. The other part where your customers take payments gets a lot trickier because your customers need to have something like Stripe or PayPal, but they need their own individual accounts and then are you helping then set that up? Then there’s your customer stuff that has to be complied with or do they already have their accounts? I just want to point out there’s a trickier question within the question.
Rob: Stripe Connect is for marketplaces. I think it’s for this instance. I’ve never used it, but I know folks who’ve set up market places and use it. This isn’t technically a market place, so that’s where I’m not sure if the terms of service would apply to him having 20 or 30 day cares using it and taking payments or if the Know Your Customer stuff would pass through to him. Do you have any interaction with Stripe Connect?
Laura: No, I’ve researched it a little bit for a different project and the hurdle that we came up with is that this similar model, they still have to have their own Stripe account which Stripe helps facilitate. We thought that might be confusing and challenging for this customer to set that up which I imagine daycare centers might have the same or they might have their own payment system already that they’re using.
Rob: Yes I would head to Stripe Connect and at least research it because that’s the one that I’ve heard the most about when you’re in this type of situation. Again, not saying it’s going to work but I think that’s where it starts. In my opinion, Stripe is number one in this game. They kill it. They make it easy and if you can make it work with them, great. To me, by my rules, if for some reason I couldn’t you Stripe, I would look at Braintree. I think they’re the number two in our space for doing this stuff.
Obviously, it doesn’t sound like he’s funded. I’m guessing he’s bootstrapped listening to this podcast. If you look at Gumroad, as an example, became a processor themselves. That is a possibility. There’s a lot of red tape and regulation. I’m guessing, one of the reasons I heard Gumroad raised their money was that they had to go to banks basically and have a bank say, “Okay, we’re cool with you being a processor.” If you’re some bootstrap person working at your garage, that’s unlikely to happen. It’s probably not an option for you now, but in the longer term hopefully, you don’t have to do that, but that would be a parachute option, I think. Thanks for the question, Gavin, hope that was helpful.
Our next question is from Ash Yadav, and he’s looking for thoughts on joining an early stage startup just after graduation. He said, “I just cover the podcast, I’m going through one episode at a time. They really informative and enjoyable. I recently graduated with a degree in EECS,” Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, I think, “then joined an early stage Internet of Things startup. I want to ask what are some tools, courses, workshops, et cetera, I can look into to get more comfortable with the industry lingo.
As I recently graduated, working in a two person team right now, there are times when I have to talk to clients or talk to people who are much more experienced than me and sometimes I feel left out. I don’t have industry project management experience, an MBA, or the entrepreneurial experience to be fluent in business lingo. For example, this might sound silly, but someone recently talked to me about beta sites and I had no clue what beta sites were. Luckily, I was able to figure it out while we chatted in made it out alive, but I fear I’ll be in a similar situation again.”
You almost certainly will. I remember my first job out of college and I didn’t understand anything. Thanks that’s a great question, Ash. Interested in your thoughts, Laura.
Laura: I think the first thing, Ash, is that someone asking questions is a huge sign of intelligence, not the opposite. Everyone knows that you’re young, everyone knows that you just graduated from college. When you ask those questions like, “What’s a beta site?” instead of pretending that you know and then maybe being way off base, it’s actually going to make you look much smarter, eager to learn, and capable than just pretending that you know stuff. Hopefully, most of the people around you feel the same way that I do. I don’t think you should be shy about asking questions. Even if it’s something that you feel is really basic, that you feel a bit embarrassed about.
We all we’re born knowing nothing. No one knew the term Internet of Things until the first time they heard it and then someone explain it to them. No one is born knowing any of those stuff. I think people should do this anytime in their career. We were talking about this earlier in the podcast about learning and asking questions, asking more questions. For me, the answer is less about courses and more of just having the attitude and the mindset that asking questions is a wonderful thing and that’s how you learn.
Rob: Yeah, when I graduate from college and had my first job, I thought I needed to know everything. I felt weird about asking questions and I thought it was a sign of weakness. I pretty quickly learned what fixed it for me is I worked with this one guy who is really smart and he was senior and he knew bunch stuff. In meetings, someone would say a concept and I remember being like, “Oh, I know what that is,” and he would say, “I don’t know what that is. Can you define out for the group?” and I was like, “Whoa.” Everybody respected him.
That showed me that it was okay to ask a question like that. It was such a good model for me and I think the thing to keep in mind is you’re going to ask a lot of questions up front, but it’s not going to be like that forever, because you’re just going to learn enough. First, you’re going to learn 20% and then 60% and then you’re going to get to the point where you’re 80 or 90% fluent in all the lingo. That may take three months, it may take six months, but at a certain point, you’re not going to ask as many questions.
You still want to ask questions, but you’re going to be seen as more of this mid-level or senior and you’ll get to the point where you don’t have to do it all the time. For me, if I was trying to learn about a new space, I don’t know much about IoT (Internet of Things), just what I’ve heard on Tech podcast, so if I got a job at one, I would probably be in a similar boat. I would dive deep in the IoT podcasts and some IoT audio books. For me, I do a lot of audio just because that’s my thing. For you, maybe it’s Kindle or maybe it’s paper or whatever I would use Google a lot. I will try to get the lingo from the podcast or the books in advance and then every time I heard something I didn’t understand I would Google it. You’ll be shocked, there’s only so many terms in any space.
In SaaS, it’s an app and there’s MRR and there’s LTV and it sounds like there is infinite, but if you listen to the show for probably 10 or 20 episodes, you’re going to hear 90% of the terms that we all use. If you’ve defined of those and committed them to memory, that’s great training for trying to get up to speed faster.
Laura: Yeah, I love that advice. I was thinking just the other day I actually Googled the term “test case.” It came up in my company flat, they’re talking about test cases and I was like, “You know, I’m assuming I know what that means, based on some context, but I’m actually not sure that I know what a test case is. I just Googled it and I read about it and I figured it out, right in front of a nontechnical founder thing.” This is a skill that you want to have throughout your career and like Rob said, luckily, it will get certainly easier and you’ll have to do less Googling as time goes on.
It’s something to embrace to make sure that you’re not making assumptions, make sure that you are on the same page which is why it can be good to ask things like, “Okay, this is this is what I mean when I say test case, is that what you mean,” because those types of miscommunications come up all the time.
Rob: That’s a really good point. Probably once a week, I Google an acronym. Oftentimes, it’s something someone posts on Twitter and it’s like a colloquialism that I just don’t know. I mean maybe a year ago it was TBH and I used TBH the other day. I was talking to my 13-year-old and in conversation out loud, I was like, “So TBH, blah, blah, blah.” He’s like, “What does that mean?” and I was like, “To be honest.” He’s like, “Oh my, you’re such a nerd.” But I find myself Googling this on what does this mean and then there’s like seven different definitions and you have to take it from context. Don’t feel like you’re in over your head, Ash. I think we all are. Just because someone has been doing this for a few years doesn’t mean that they know everything about it. Thanks for the question. I think it’s a good one.
Wrapping this up for the day, our final question is from Zee and it’s about managing subscriptions. He says, “Hello. Big fan. What recommendations do you have to manage subscriptions that come both via credit card and check? As the business is growing, I want to make sure I’m not missing out on things as people renew their subscriptions. For example, we make a credit card payments through Braintree.” I think it means they accept credit card payments through Braintree, but they also have people that pay via check annually and they handle stuff through PayPal.
To set the context, when I first read this, I thought he was saying, “We have a bunch of SaaS subscriptions, how do we keep track of those?” But he’s actually saying they accept payments in a bunch of different ways, some of which are annual. He says, “We then use QuickBooks for all the accounting. We want to be sure we don’t miss out on annual fees.” Laura, have you had to deal with this?
Laura: No, I haven’t.
Rob: Is it all credit card with EDGAR?
Laura: Yeah. I mean, we would just say, “No, thank you.” if someone wanted to buy with a check, but I know that in some industries, you can’t do that.
Rob: Yeah we did this with Drip. Let me think. After we get acquired by Leadpages, we were using Stripe, they were using Braintree. At a certain point, we started accepting PayPal and they were doing these larger annual contract values. You get you get a 12-month subscription that is $20,000 and really that’s an invoice check situation. Frankly, you don’t want to pay the $600 processing fee, the 3%, but also the companies, bigger companies as you said that’s the way it works
The way we did it, like the very first one, is it literally went into an Excel spreadsheet or maybe it was a Google Docs that we all had access to and we’re like, Okay, note to self, calendar reminder,” and it goes into a Google Doc. In the next month, we need to build some type of system. Then we just went into our existing billing code, and we tweak some things to say, “Oh, this is a check and so and so needs to be reminded.” It sends off an email to this AR (accounts receivable) at this certain thing. We hacked it together. That took one day or two days of development work, but in the moment we were able to accept the check.
We knew there was a calendar reminder in case everything went haywire. We went back and it was like this just in time MVP implementation of something. I’ve been gone from Drip for two years now. I’m guessing by now, hopefully they built even a better system. I think there are a bunch of ways to do this and that they’re trying to build a gold-plated version from V1 is not necessarily the best way to do it. If you only have one or two customers paying you that way, you just don’t need that much infrastructure.
Laura: Yeah, I don’t have anything on this one.
Rob: All right. Well Laura, thanks again for coming back on the show. It’s so good to chat with you. Folks who want to keep up with you, you are @lkr on Twitter, that’s a great three-letter Twitter handle, I’m so jealous. If folks want to know what you’re up to with Edgar, they can head to meetedgar.com. Anything else you’d like folks to check out?
Laura: I would just like to say that people used to be a lot more impressed by my Twitter handle, I feel like you can tell that Twitter’s on its way out because I used to get a much bigger reaction. You threw in a little comment which was very polite of you, but I missed out on having a cool Instagram handle. My Instagram is @laurakroeder, I can’t even get @lauraroeder, I had to throw my middle initial in there. I’m just like feeling a little old that I missed the Instagram thing and no one cares about my Twitter handle anymore. That’s my closing comment for the show.
Rob: That’s amazing. Thank you so much. I guess I should go register an Instagram handle, is what you’re saying. That’s how old I am.
Laura: Yeah. Get on that.
Rob: Thanks again, Laura. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Next week on the show, Mr. Brian Castle from Bootstrapped Web and Process Kit is coming on to talk about just the brutal year he had in 2016 and 2017, overcoming a 40% decline in MRR, and we walk through his trials and tribulations, dig into frankly some struggles, some victories and failures, and it’s a good interview. Also I hope you’ve been checking out TinySeed Tales on Thursday mornings. That season wraps up here in the next week or so.
I would love to hear your feedback or input on that. You can email me directly firstname.lastname@example.org, you can Twitter DM me, or if you have great things to say, obviously, just go into Twitter and let me know. I appreciate it. Should we do it again? I’ve started working on season two doing some interviews, but if you like it, if you will listen, if it’s a good fit for you, please let me know. If it’s not, that’s cool, too.
It was definitely an experiment. As I’ve said when we announced that this is by far the most time and money I’ve ever invested into an audio project. It’s TinySeed tales, because TinySeed was able to make that happen. If it’s worth it and it’s providing value, then we’ll keep doing it. If not, we always have more good ideas we can implement, so I can obviously but my focus elsewhere.
You heard a bunch of questions answered today. If you have a question for the show, you can leave us a voicemail at 888-801-9690 or you can record an MP3 and WAV, an Ogg Vorbis, an AIFF, send us a Dropbox or a GDrive link to email@example.com.
I tweeted something out a couple weeks ago and I said if I were starting a company today, these are the tools that I would use. I just listed it, it was a five-minute tweet tops. I just listed a bunch of things and look through them, made comments and spit it out. It’s like one of the most popular tweets I’ve ever done. These things are both fine and infuriating, where you spend 20 minutes trying to craft something and like six people care about it and then you do something like this that is just off-the-cuff-flippant and it gets all these traction. I think it has 150 retweets or something at this point.
The funny thing is just the opinions about Dropbox versus GDrive versus Box. It was like, “Why not that? “ It’s personal preference. There’s feature parity. These things are not so different from one another, it’s really a personal preference, unless there’s some individual, sneaky feature somewhere that somebody has that you really need. For the most part, these things are all equivalent, but I think a lot of preference comes into it as well as pricing and stuff.
Anyway, I digress. Our theme music on the show is an excerpt from a song called We’re Outta Control by a band named MoOt, it’s used under Creative Commons. You can subscribe to this podcast, and you should, by searching for startups in any pod catcher you have. To be honest, new subscribers is a big ranking factor in iTunes. If you’re listening to this and you’re not subscribed, even if you just listen to it on the web or you somehow download it through an FTP script that you coded up years ago, it would be super cool if you would open iTunes and just hit the subscribe button because it does help us rank higher. It helps us get more reach and it helps us reach more people.
If you haven’t been to startupsfortherestofus.com in a while, we have full transcripts of all of our episodes within a week or two after they air, we […] the audio live is that, number one thing in transcripts just take time to get done. We get a decent number of helpful comments on the site too, so if you have a comment on an episode, you can obviously tweet to me @robwalling or you can come to the website itself startupsfortherestofus.com. Check out the fancy new design we put in place a couple of months ago. Leave a comment, drop us an email through the contact form. Thank you so much for listening today. I’ll see you next time.
In this week’s episode Craig Hewitt “turns the business on it’s head” by implementing a no credit card trial.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob talks with Shai Schechter of RightMessage, about his amazing launch and then finding himself near bankruptcy and how he was able to right the ship.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, I follow a journey from an amazing launch, to near bankruptcy, to profitability with Shai Schechter of RightMessage. This is Startups for the Rest of Us Episode 472.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing startups, whether you’ve built your fifth start up or you’re thinking about your first. I’m Rob and today with Shai Schecter, we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the mistakes we’ve made.
Welcome to this week’s episode. I’m your host Rob Walling. Each week on this show, we look at ambitious startups, founders who are looking to make a tiny dent in our corner of the world and maybe that only impacts the five people around them or the thousand people that use their app, but it’s folks who want to build interesting things and have a greater purpose, that is around building something larger than themselves, but they are not willing to sacrifice their life, their health, or their relationships in order to do that.
These are not the typical Silicon Valley startups where fundraising can be a goal at itself and where people build slide decks instead of building businesses. We want to build real businesses with real customers who pay us real money. Along the way, we like to be meticulous and disciplined such that we can build these businesses over and over. We find repeatable ways that work over and over and it’s not just a luck shot. It’s not hitting the startup lottery that allows us to build successful companies.
I just got back from a three days on the North Shore of Lake Superior. That’s about a three hour drive north of where I live in Minneapolis and I got a little room in a lodge with a fireplace and a Whirlpool tub. I had this great view of Lake Superior and you can’t see the other side of Lake Superior because it’s so big. Aside from the waves, when it gets windy, there are only two-foot waves, three-foot waves. Aside from that, it really does feel like you are on the Coast of California or the Coast of Oregon. It’s this coastal feel to it.
It was great for me to take a step back and to basically have a personal retreat and to reflect on what’s been going on over the past 18 months. I used to take retreats like this every 6-12 months. Something Sherry and I have both done over the years. I’ve really fallen off the wagon in terms of doing that to my detriment. I don’t remember the last time I took even three days away from the family just thinking. It was either 18, maybe 24 months to go. I really did enjoy my time away. I feel like it allowed me to think. Of course, some work stuff crept in, but I just wrote that down or sent it to my Trello board.
The deeper thinking, the high level thinking about both my personal growth along with growth within the family as a father and a husband, as well as growth at work and where we are taking TinySeed and Microconf and the podcast over the next 12-24 months. That was the high level visionary thinking that I really wanted to get done and it was super fun. I like thinking long-term and then coming back all motivated.
So, here I am back in town and I’m raring to go tomorrow morning once work kicks off. While I was off at the North Shore with crappy wifi, I recorded this interview with Shai and I think that Zencastr did it’s job. We’ll know in the final recording, but I think it will come out and you won’t even notice that there were times where it came in and out and I eventually had to pair with my phone.
As I have said before, the show must go on and that we should appear every week on Tuesday and even some weeks on Thursday. I hope you have been listening to and enjoying TinySeed Tales. If you haven’t already pinged me about Tiny Seed Tales, if you listen to it, I would love to hear your thoughts, positive and constructive. You can Twitter DM me or frankly, you can write into the show. I read all the emails and you can say, “I don’t want this played on the show,” but firstname.lastname@example.org will come directly to us.
I enjoyed this interview with Shai Schechter. You probably know him as a co-founder of RightMessage. He and Brennan Dunn, who is the other co-founder of RightMessage, had met back in 2014, 2015 via Brennan Dunn’s Double Your Freelancing Community. Shai actually did some consulting work for Brennan and met him for the first time in person at a Double Your Freelancing event in Sweden. I know that they’ve connected many times in person at MicroConf as well, as they both come to a lot of the MicroConfs that we hold.
You are about to hear the story of RightMessage which started as a conversation in 2016 about productizing what basically Brennan had hand-coded for his own purposes. Shai had been working on similar stuff for his clients and they frankly threw out a proof of concept pretty quick on Twitter and for the next couple months, they validated the idea, trying to build an audience, figuring out if the idea would fly.
In the first half of 2017, they had given it a name, bought a domain name, and they were trying to get $10,000 in pre-orders, basically just beating the drum and building the audience. By June of 2017, Shai and Brennan had a crude product that beta customers could log into and they could use in a rudimentary fashion. As I like to say, we are going to join the story in progress. That’s actually something I like to do in these interviews is to try to get past the less relevant details and really get to the meat of the interesting pieces of it rather than telling the entire origin story. We are going to join this startup story already in progress. I hope you enjoy the conversation with Shai as much as I did.
Shai, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.
Shai: Thank you for having me.
Rob: We are going to dig into some RightMessage story today. I think a lot of folks listening to the show will be familiar with RightMessage either from having followed Brennan for years or I’ve mentioned it a few times as one of my angel investments and bootstrappers, but you did a really well thought-out talk at MicroConf Europe just about a month ago. It was well-received. It was the story, the first year, a year-and-a-half of RightMessage. I realized that the story had the beats, the ups and the downs, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, all the things that make a good startup story. So, I wanted to bring you here to talk a little more about it. We’ll touch on some points that were on the talk and obviously go deeper on a few today that I’m super interested in.
Shai: Cool. Sounds good.
Rob: To kick us off, we talked offline before this and you mentioned in June of 2017, you have a crude product the beta customers can log in and play around with, but really you took the next six months to do the slow launch or the customer development. Essentially with those early users because six months of building is not actually that much time, especially if you are still doing it part-time and transitioning into it.
Your official launch was in January 2018, so it was just about two years ago. What was that like to finally be able to launch it? What was your confidence level at that point based on this six months of early access or beta and then finally be able to say, “We’ll launch. We’re sending the email. We are doing the big Twitter storm. We are pulling out all of the guns and doing the big splash”?
Shai: Honestly, we were fairly confident about it just because it’s been so long building up that audience. We had people who were trying to get into the beat even when we weren’t letting people in. It was that feeling of people banging the door down, people were really wanting it, and that was a good feeling. It meant that we were confident going into the launch; we’ll talk about how it was maybe overconfidence later. At that point, everything was really good.
Rob: That was right around the time you guys raised an angel round, right? A little more than $500,000. I participate in that and if my recollection, that was late 2017 early 2018. Was it before you officially launched?
Shai: Before officially launched. That was the second half of 2017. We had an email from one of our very first customers basically saying, “You are probably going to say no to this and you are bootstrappers, but I think you should take money and here’s why,” and he laid a bunch of reasons. I showed the email in the talk where he was like, “I think you should take half a million or a million or whatever,” like this very casual, “let’s throw money at this.”
Rob: And to us as bootstrappers, we’re like, “What do you mean half a million, or a million, or whatever?” These are huge numbers. Having extra $10,000 or $20,000 a month to spend on a product would be amazing, but he is talking huge numbers. What was that conversation like then because obviously you and Brennan must have sat down. Was it an instant no? Did you have to grind that out between the two of you like, “Hey we should.” Did you ask for advice? What was that thought process like?
Shai: At first it was an instant no. It was a very easy, “We bootstrap.” That’s what we know. We don’t like the idea of institutional money. We’re talking about angels and the seed at this point, but we don’t like that idea. It’s not for us. It’s great for some people, some businesses, but that’s not what we do. We broke it down into rather than just a blanket “No,” we wanted to say, “No, because…,” so we broke it down into all these things that we’ve seen as the downsides of taking money.
We didn’t want to give up control of the business. We wanted to control where it was going. One of the points was that we always want to be doing what’s best for our customers and the audience that we built. We don’t want our shareholders who are trying to get us to go to a different direction that’s going to benefit them and maybe not the best interest of our customers.
Another one was that we were moving really fast on building this, building up demand for it. We’re going to have to stop doing all of that if we are going to put together a pitch deck and going out to investors and finding them. We laid out these reasons to him and he essentially shot each one down one by one. Not in the way that they are not legitimate, but in the sense of we can work around them.
Where we have said, “We want to have control,” he said, “Okay, so you’ll take the money, but the investors will not have any control. They won’t take any board seats, they won’t have any say, you’ll do what’s best for your customers, you two will still be in complete control of what’s happening. You don’t want to spend that time pitching, you won’t have to.” He was like, “I’ll put together a syndicate of these investors that I know. You won’t lift a finger. We will get this money together for you. You will give away a percentage of the business. We’ll […] safe. It’s an easy way of raising money.” He just put a line through each of our objections.
At that point, I think it would be naive to say no for the sake of it. It was always about, “I don’t want those consequences,” and when those were taken out of the table, we were like, “Actually, this money would accelerate us. It would help us move faster. We could hire a few people. We could do things quicker than the two of us can,” so we said yes.
Rob: It’s really interesting when you do that, when you remove the dogma or the binary nature of yes, you should always take funding, no, you should never take funding, but when you actually start looking at the reasons, it was like 20 years ago, we being the bootstrapper MicroConf grouch, we probably have not taken funding because the only funding available was institutional from venture capitalist and in those cases, all of the things you raised, all of the objections you raised were true.
You needed a deck. You needed to spend six months raising […]. You needed a huge amount of money. You lost control, often they would have more board seats. It was not just a founder-friendly environment, but I’ve been beating this drum for several years now. There are opportunities these days to raise these small, not institutional rounds, as you said. It was from people like the CEO who emailed you. Somehow, I got involved at some point. I don’t even know if I mentioned if Brennan mentioned he was raising or if I approached him or what.
It’s a bunch of small cheques. I imagine it’s a bunch of other SaaS founders and your network, the two of you that came in. They really don’t put the pressure on you that maybe we all think would be suddenly be on you having raised a around.
I’m curious. We are going to walk around the rest of the story and how the funding impacted some of your decisions, but looking back, do you regret raising the money. Do you think it was the right choice?
Shai: I don’t regret taking the money. I regret some of the decisions we made spending it, but I don’t regret the fact that we took the money. I think that was a smart move.
Rob: That really kicked you in. You guys raised just over half a million dollars. What did that feel like? Again, as a bootstrapper, to look into your business bank account and see half a million dollars in there. Was it like the world is your oyster right now? We are basically launching here and the next month we have a bunch of demand. We have people saying, “Take my money please,” and we have half a million in the bank. Talk me through with that. How was that like emotionally?
Shai: It was great. I don’t think there’s another answer I could give to that. Anyone would enjoy that feeling. Everything was going right. You get all these extra validation. The fact that people were willing to put that money in is just more validation. Everything was good. There’s money sitting on the bank. It was exciting.
Rob: Sitting on top of the world. In early 2018, you mentioned in your MicroConf talk that the first four months after the launch, everything was growth. It was the first half of 2018, it was 15% growth, 25% growth, 45% growth. It sounds like that feeling of being on top of the world is just continuing. Then in mid-2018, the wheel started falling off the bus. Talk us through what happened there.
Shai: The nature of it was, we get to launch and everything. We’re like, “This was going really great.” Launch week went really great and then a few months after that was just every month we were growing more than the month before and we had hired a few people by this point. We’re spending a lot, but if our growth carried on how it was, we would be back to profitable long before we run out the runway.
I remember saying that time when we took the money, “We are not even going to get through half a million dollars.” That was the minimum that was even suggested for us to take. We’re not even going to spend all of that. We are not going to get anywhere near zero. As it kept growing we were like, “This is all going good.” We started spending more money and we started growing faster and then, churn caught up with us. June 2018, MRR was the same it had been in May and that was very new feeding for us because we have been growing. I think April to May, we grew by $6000 MRR and then May to June, we flatlined.
Even then we were like, “Okay, it’s kind of normal. I’ve seen this happen after a big launch.” All that launch audience is now used up. People who had been following you since before you launched have now bought in and it’s not uncommon for that growth to slow a little bit. The problem was a few months after that, it carried on flat lining and we were like, “Okay, maybe everything hasn’t fallen into place perfectly as we thought.”
Rob: I’ve seen this multiple times actually. It’s pretty common, as you said, after a launch. If you have a lot of growth, you are adding a lot of people in the top of the funnel, you’re adding a lot of people getting on boarded and often times, your highest churn is in the first 60 days of someone being in your product. If you are growing and suddenly you flatlined, that churn, the high churn early days takes about two months to catch up with that. It’s like this massive wave that hits you hard. If you keep growing, you’ll never notice it, but the moment that you slow down, it can overwhelm you. What I find interesting is in your MicroConf Europe talk, as I understood it, it wasn’t just the first 60 days of churn. You guys had a real churn problem. I forget the exact numbers, but what was your churn like around that time?
Shai: I don’t know exactly the reasons, but I will so often seen trying not to […] 60 day thing. Ours was a little bit longer and it took about four months for any churn to really kick in for new accounts. I think part of that is launch customers are much more forgiving. A typical customer might come in and you know in the first month, two months maximum whether they are going […] exceptional product. With launch customers, they’ll wait for a bit longer, they know that not everything is fully baked yet, and that also falls into that false sense of security. Churn at that point was getting up as high as 15-20%. It was over 15%.
Rob: Of each month, right? That’s obviously tough. For folks listening, if you think about 20% churn means you don’t have customers in five months, 15% churn gives you about six and two-thirds months. If you are not constantly adding folks, even if you are, that’s just a very tough business to run. Based on the funding you had raised, you had hired out ahead of revenue. You essentially had what they call burn. You were burning cash each month. You were losing, I don’t remember what the number was, $10,000 a month or $20,000 because you had staffed up with the idea that you essentially had product market fit and you’re going to continue to grow and therefore would hit that number in a few months.
Shai: Absolutely. To a point you have to do that, right? If you are never going to be in a position of burning money, you have to question why you have taken the funding. If you only ever going to be spending money that you are making, then you don’t need money from external sources. There has to be a point of like, “We are going to spend a little bit more beyond our means because that’s going to help us recoup that faster later.”
Rob: Right. It’s going to accelerate my growth because I can hire that extra engineer to get product features built faster. I can hire the marketer to get me beat the drum more, however that works out.
Shai: Exactly, but it’s a function of we are confident that we are going to make X amount of money back in Y amount of time. If you can’t get your revenue as high as you think you can, as quickly as you can, that’s when you run into a problem.
Rob: And you guys did. The latter half of 2018 did not sound very fun and I guess even early 2019. When did you and Brennan realize that you had a problem, that you needed to act on in essence by cutting out expenses?
Shai: Later than you might think. Later than we should have in hindsight. I think when things are growing as quickly as they were, and everything was moving upward so fast, when the following month flatlines, you see that one was the anomaly. An algorithm might think that was the anomaly. You then add in layer into that like human emotion, optimism, all those things, and we were like, “Yeah, this is just a one off. Next week it’s going to recover. There’s no problem here.” It’s only after that it happens in a few months and then MRR is actually starting to trickle downwards where a few months it was growing 40%-45% month over month. At that point, burn is higher than ever because you’re so sure that you’re going to recoup it.
Towards the end of 2018, when it had been several months of it not growing how it had been at the beginning, was when we went, “This isn’t the anomaly like that beginning, but it was the anomaly, and we need to do something about this because the money is finite.”
Rob: There’s two things I want to touch on there. One is what was the problem? Why was churn so high and why did you peak and then essentially start declining? What was the core reason for that, that you see looking back with a year of hindsight?
Shia: The core reason for the churn was because we were selling something that these people hadn’t been doing until that point. This idea of personalizing your website was fairly new to people who are using it. Like 90% plus of our customers went switching from a competitor. They were switching from they hadn’t been doing this before, they have been doing other things to try and increase conversion on the website, but what we were selling was brand new.
A lot of people would use it and if they had enough education on how to make it successful for them and they weren’t immediately seeing results, they were like, “Yeah, this is kind of a nice to have. Other people aren’t doing this and they are getting on fine, so we don’t really need it.” It was very much seen as, “My business isn’t quite ready for it yet, it’s a nice to have but it’s not essentially,” is what we were hearing a lot.
Rob: It’s really hard to invent a new product category. We often want to do so we have no competition but inventing a new product category really requires a lot of time, a lot of money, because you are having new to-do’s, perhaps a new role at a company, the Chief Personalization Officer or something that doesn’t exist today, maybe that’ll exist in ten years, but do you have everything in place that can last ten years?
When we saw HubSpot invent inbound marketing and I talked to Dharmesh Shah at one point. He said it took them four years, they wrote a book, and it was millions of dollars if not tens of millions to get that concept into the people’s brains. It’s like cool. If you are in that position, then do that. But I experienced the same thing when we were getting Drip off the ground and we had all these different worlds for what it was.
It’s not an ESP and it’s not a marketing automation. It’s this other thing. After a while, I realized no one wants to use that other thing. They want to use something that they already used, but better or different. It sounds like that’s the path that you realized you were on was perhaps needing to come closer to some existing products.
Shai: Exactly. Coming closer to something that already exists in their mind, that they can compare you to something else is really important.
Rob: Talk to me about you and Brennan realized, we have a real problem here and I know you did some gradual fixes. You raised a little bit more money. You did a little bit of consulting work. You tweaked stuff along the way, but that moment where the two of you realized, “We have to lay people off and make some massive changes,” because when you are running a SaaS app like this, 70%–80% of the cost are the people. It’s your developers, support people, and that’s the bottom line. When you look at it, it’s like, “We can shave our AWS bill by 10% and that saves us $300,” but it’s everybody’s salary […]. Talk me through what that was like when you guys realized you really have to make a change. How did that feel?
Shai: It was difficult. We had a really good team. The whole company was remote, but we were really close. We built a solid team there, so that realization is not a nice feeling. One thing that helped was that we realized that some of the hiring decisions were actually not in the company’s best interest anyway. What I mean is, part of the reason we didn’t realize that there was a problem until later was because we had hired people into roles that maybe we still should have been doing.
Without meaning to, Brennan and I obstructed ourselves away. We put a layer of obstruction between ourselves and the customers with things like customer support being done by somebody that we hired. Various customer-facing roles being […] to people. There’s a lot of things to be said. They were feeding things back to us, but we weren’t on the front line. We weren’t seeing stuff as much as we should have been. Part of what really helped was actually this could really helped anyway for us to start filling those roles ourselves, but the fact that means letting people go is not nice.
Rob; Not fun at all. That’s the thing the pre-product market fit because it sounds like you never really achieved full product market fit. I view product market fit as a continuum. It’s not a binary state and you had some product market fit with some people but it was just not really catching on. Before you do have that, work catches, and suddenly your churn plummets and your trial-to-paid goes way up before you have that moment. It’s very hard if the founder step away because you need that tight feedback loop and you need to reiterate super quickly. I find it insightful that you are bringing that up and then almost in retrospect, you noticed, “Oh, well. That’s one place where we screwed up.”
Shai: 100%. If you look at our revenue graph in the first few months, it looks like what you would expect when there is product market fit. That made us think that we had product market fit and various other things made us think as well. In hindsight, we did not fully have product market fit and if we have been looking more carefully at things like our churn graph was not representative of our3 product market fit churn graph, but the revenue was growing so fast at the beginning that it looked like we had it.
I’ve spoken with a lot of people who have had something similar happen where part of it as a community is we got better at launching and it’s a big thing. I’m starting to see where several years ago, I definitely was not as good as launching something. My first launch is where you launch pretty much nothing and you try and scramble to grow up from zero. It’s only because we’ve now got better at building the audience, pre validating all that stuff, that we are able to get that really fast growth at the beginning and the knock on from that which doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to keep going that way.
Rob: It’s a good point that you bring up revenue growth can mask high churn. Revenue growth can confuse us or it can make us think that we do have product market fit but it’s really that churn number and customer happiness. Even customer onboarding is like activation because activation predates churn, a customer’s journey and how many people are you using this, what type of value are they going to get.
It’s complicated and we wish we can just look at a dashboard of numbers and predict what’s going to happen but there’s a lot of nuance to it and there’s a lot of mixed signals. That’s the hard part, is when you are getting hundreds of new people trying it and they are saying, “This is amazing and I’m having so much fun. I’m doing this. I feel like the results are really working out.” You are like, “Oh man, we are just killing it. We are on a rocket ship,” but then in the background when you see mixed signals and you see churn is high but I’m hitting all the feedback and we just grew by $6000 in MRR last month. Those few things are hard to reconcile because which one should you believe when you are in the moment? It’s not this black and white. It is black and white in retrospect of that’s where we messed up, but in the moment it’s confusing.
Shai: Yeah, 100%. You have this thing on the same day, you have someone tweeting out about how this is the single best tool they have ever used in their business and then you got someone else churning because there is no value in this. You say, “Which one of these do I listen to?” The answer is probably the one that is churning. It’s not that simple. As with a lot of things in business, you don’t know which one is the anomaly.
Rob: Yeah, that’s really the point. I hate to say this, but I think a lot of us are just a little too glass half full. There maybe a few too many optimist or maybe we just have the optimist streak as founders of like, “Hey, this will work out. We’ll figure this out. It’s going to go well.” I think we do need that because of how hard this journey is, but I also think that dose of reality coming in of like, “Hey, I’m not saying this guy is falling, but there’s a chance that this is going to tank here in the next few months because of this high churn number.” Having that in the back of your mind is like Plan B. What’s your Plan B if this doesn’t work out? Are we paying attention to all the numbers?
That’s the thing. It’s not a binary of, “Yes, we have it. We are growing fast and everything’s great.” It’s also not binary of, “Oh my gosh, the sky is falling.” It’s always this needle that’s moving back and forth between the two and it’s judging like, “If it swings the other way in either direction, what do we do? It’s thinking ahead those alternate realities in the future of what we do, what’s our plan?”
Shai: I think there’s a couple of interesting points there. One is that I agree with you about the optimism thing. I think it’s the reason that we start businesses in the first place. I think that’s always going to be there for a lot of us because if we were less optimistic, we would go and get jobs and we wouldn’t start these businesses because of all the things that could go wrong.
That’s where the double edged sword comes. For us, because we were spending so much money, even when we did start to know that maybe something or everything wasn’t going perfectly, there wasn’t so much we could do at that point because we already committed. You can’t just switch off those employees for a month and get back on track. There were some stuff that you might need to do when you’re in that situation. It’s going to be kind of a longer-term fix. We didn’t have the luxury of long-term fixes because we’re running out of money. When you’re burning that much money month-to-month, you force yourself into a certain corner were if things do start to get wrong, there’s no easy way out to that point.
Rob: Yeah. That’s where it comes back to that question I asked earlier of do you regret raising funding? Is the moral of the story, that, funding is bad, and you shouldn’t have taken it? My take is no. That’s actually not the take. The take is you get the funding at the solid valuation. The investors never busted your jobs as far as I know. I never busted your jobs. I was replying to the emails, offering the help. We were at least on one or two phone calls talking about these steps.
My impression is having investors was almost a net positive in a sense that you can get advice from people who were in it with you. That’s just my take for the outside. What’s it like from your take, you and Brennan’s take in terms of was it the right call to raise the funding? Did that cause us to make bad decisions? Or is it more about, “Funding was good, but we should’ve just spent the money differently”?
Shai: I do regret taking the money. I think it makes sense to do that. Like you said, we had a good valuation because there was some track record involved, there was some prevalidation, we’re already making revenues. We got it on good terms. It did help in a lot of ways. I think the mistake wasn’t taking the money. The mistake was not looking carefully enough. It was the worst case scenario, like not looking at, “What if things aren’t going to grow as fast as we think they are? Are we still going to be okay in that position?” I think taking money was a reasonably good call but there are consequences to spending it so fast. We definitely spent it as fast as than we should have.
Rob: That’s a trip. If everything had worked out and you had kept growing it $6000 a month, it would be a Cinderella story.
Shai: Yeah. I guess that’s the thing. I don’t know the answer to that part. Was the expected value there positive? Were we actually doing exactly the right thing by spending all that money? Because growth could have continued as it did. Having to fire people, having to lay people off is just the consequence of what happens if it doesn’t work out. The fact that you didn’t have to do that, and you’re playing with people’s employment, with people’s lives at that point, for me I’d rather stick to the path that doesn’t risk having to do that at all. I think other people would look at that and say, “You made all the right course along the way.” When it doesn’t grow as fast as you want, you just lay people off, you move on, and at least you tried.
Rob: Yeah. I think that’s kind of a different world view. That’s like the Silicon Valley world view. It’s not really what I would espouse nor I think you guys as well.
You obviously have to make some layoffs there which I’m sure is really tough. You guys also made some adjustments to the product. Talk us through how you went from being this thing that was another item on the to-do list and it was something that was inventing its own category. You shifted into being part of an existing category, doing it quite successful, and finding some product market fit with it.
By the way, folks can see all of your numbers at rightmessage.baremetrics.com, as you guys are in the open startup ecosystem there. They can look at your revenue growth as of today. It looks like your MRR is about $28,000. Given that it’s down to just yourself and Brennan at this point, you guys must be pretty profitable, I’m guessing.
Shai: Yes. That was the other thing. Because we had all that burn—I’m glad you brought it up—it was kind of that feeling of we weren’t doing nearly well enough. You take a step back, we have got to $20,000 MRR within a few months of launching a SaaS product. That’s something we should’ve been pretty proud of. But we couldn’t look at it like that because the flip side of that was, no, we’re burning money. We have a loss-making company. There was no time to be like, “Yeah. We actually got a lot of customers right now because all we could focus on was we’re burning through our funding.”
Rob: It’s like a bootstrap success but a funded failure. It is what it is, right? It’s because you’re spending so much money. A $20,000 MRR, 3-4 months after you launch, most people listening to this podcast would kill for those results. That’s an interesting mindset shift.
Shai: Yeah. There is the flip side of being really difficult to have to make those calls and the layoffs, there is now that kind of sensitive, almost, relief. I was just listening to Laura on here […] a few weeks ago. She said something similar. It was like, “With absolutely no disrespect to people who were affected, the flip side is, there is that feeling of relief.” The company is on the same track right now. You can think a little bit more clearly when you’re not burning money, when everything is moving upwards. You got your bank balances going up month a month. It does help you make clear decisions.
Rob: For sure. We know that’s how you did the financial side. You’re able to cut expenses, get to profitability. Product-wise, how did you go from being trying to invent that new category to essentially fitting and sliding into an existing category?
Shai: At this point we were speaking to a lot of customers. We weren’t abstracting the way at this point. We’re really digging deep to where the mismatch was, where some people were not getting the value from the product that they should have been. It all came down to, like you said, it was such a new product category. What we ended up doing was saying, “The people who are succeeding, what are they actually using this for?” A lot of them were swapping out the calls to action on their website. They’re swapping out the content and their calls to action to be more personalized to segments of their audience and they’re actually killing it.
We showed all the graphs. We showed conversion rate within our product. These people are 2X or 3X in their conversions by using our platform to personalize their calls to action. Many pivoted to be like, “We can be your call to action builder with high conversion rates than the one you’re using now.” Now, we’re not competing with the product category that these people weren’t using before. You all have calls to action in your website already. What if we just fit ourselves into that category and essentially pivot to have more competitors? We were in the space by ourselves where we’re like, “This is great. We have no competition,” but the flipside is, no one knows that they need you. Can we just pivot to say, “We are a call to action builder but better in various ways.” Now you have something to switch from. That was the theory and it kind of worked.
Shai: Yeah. What we did is we said, we’re going to make that entry level plan. We still got the more advanced, more flexible, you can personalize anything on your website. That became the premium plan. The idea was if we can get people in with something they’re familiar with, we can then upsell to the more advanced platform later once they’re ready for it. A lot of people were bailing because they weren’t ready for the full personalization. Maybe they didn’t know what their segments would be. You can’t personalized until you have segmentation in place. We brought in this kind of entry level.
We brought in about the same price. We didn’t really reduce pricing. We took the stuff that we have been selling and we put it in a higher price. Then, we bought this call to action plan. This more limited plan at the same price that we have been selling it before. Feature-wise, you’re getting less for your money but that’s not always a bad thing. We were actually limiting the thinking you have to do, at which point the product becomes a lot more valuable.
Rob: Well, sir, it’s been quite a journey. Congratulations on making it through. It’s hard to say that it’s not an atypical startup journey because no startup journey is typical. Definitely, the ups, and downs you’ve experienced, I think a lot of us experienced even without raising the funding. There’s just a lot of hard decisions and a lot of decisions you have to make with incomplete information, in essence. I know that you guys, at this point, are on a much better trajectory. The fact that you’re profitable, I know it let’s you sleep better at night. I feel like the lessons you’ve learned, you’ll take with you moving forward. I really appreciate you coming on the show to share it with folks who can basically learn so people can avoid the mistakes that we’ve made.
Shai: Yeah, 100%. The more I spoke with people about this before and after the talking […] MicroConf, I found that a lot of people saw that similar curve of, “Everything is going really nicely up and now everything isn’t.” It’s what you do at that point.
What you do is going to be very different depending on you. If you’re profitable at that point, you’d taken money—all those things—and also is it a churn problem like we had? Or is it top of the funnel problem? Is it […] at the bottom. That experience of just because it’s growing, it might not keep growing forever. It’s something a lot of people are seeing as they get better at launching in the first place. As we keep getting better at making money, we also potentially going to fall into these kinds of traps. I think it’s important to be aware of them.
Rob: Yup. If folks want to hear my own story with Drip, I did a talk a few years ago at MicroConf. If you go to robwalling.com, it’s listed there. It’s called An Inside Story of Self-funded SaaS Growth. That’s on Vimeo. While we didn’t take funding, it’s very similar to what you said, the launch went really well, I had pre sold it, we thought we have traction, then we just plateaued, and then just sat flat. It was super stressful for me.
I had also hired out. I had a revenue because I had some money coming in from another app at the time. It was some of my darkest times running a startup. It was that same Trough of Sorrows, what Paul Graham calls it. I feel like it’s pretty good name for it.
Thank you, sir, again, for coming in on the show. If folks want to keep up with RightMessage, you are @rightmessageapp on Twitter and rightmessage.com. If folks want to keep up with what you’re up to, where would they head?
Shai: Yeah. I’m @shaisc on Twitter, and shai.io on the web where I’m going to start writing a little more about this stuff. There’s a lot of scribbled notes that I have that I’m going to start publishing. There’s an email list to have people on.
Rob: Sounds great, man. Thanks again for coming on.
Shai: Thank you for having me, Rob.
Rob: If you have a question for the show, leave us a voicemail at (888) 801-9690. Or email email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt. It’s used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us by searching for startups in any podcatcher you use and visit startupsfortherestofus.com to leave a comment or for a full transcript of each episode. Thank you for listening and I’ll see you next time.
Rob is back with Craig Hewitt of Castos. They talk about learning to delegate more of his responsibilities as a new growth marketer joins the team.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob talks with Jane Portman of Userlist. They discuss the struggles of growing slowly, gaining traction in the crowded space, and some of the lessons learned from her first SaaS app.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this week’s episode of Startups For The Rest of Us, I talk with Jane Portman of Userlist, about their fight to gain traction in a crowded space. This is Startups For The Rest of Us episode 471.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing startups, whether you’ve built your fifth start up or you’re thinking about your first. I’m Rob and today with Jane Portman, we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the mistakes we’ve made.
Welcome to this week’s episode. I’m your host, Rob Walling. Each week on the show. We cover topics relating to building and growing ambitious startups that we grow, because we want to improve our lives. We want to improve the lives of those around us, but we’re not willing to sacrifice ourselves, our lives, our relationships, our health to grow these companies. We believe in relentless execution with a long-term mindset. We think in terms of years, not months. As such, we don’t burn ourselves out by working crazy hours, sacrificing our health, or relationships.
Over the past 470 episodes, we’ve espoused things like freedom, purpose, and relationships. Freedom is the freedom to work on what you want, when you want, without a boss breathing down your neck. The freedom to go on your kids baseball game on a Thursday afternoon without asking anyone’s permission. Purpose, the ability to work on something that fascinates you and drives you everyday to make it better. The purpose of building something that tens and thousands of people are getting value out of and it makes you feel great. Relationships, deep and meaningful relationships with your family, your significant other, your kids, your friends.That’s what Startups for the Rest of Us is all about. That’s the lens through which we view startups.
Today, I’ve invited Jane Portman on the show. Have known Jane for several years. She spoke at MicroConf Europe back in 2014. We’re going to talk about the app userlist.com that she co-founded with her co-founder Benedikt Deicke. They started working on Userlist about two years ago. They did a bunch of customer interviews. Then, almost a year later, they sold pre-orders. That was about one year ago. Really, it was a little bit less than a year ago when they started onboarding people and turned on billing towards the end of 2018.
Userlist, which used to be userlist.io, but they just recently got the .com, so now it’s userlist.com is customer life cycle email, perfect for your SaaS business. It’s event-based email, behavior tracking, lifecycle automation, segmentation, they have broadcast, and that kind of stuff. You can imagine competitors of Userlist might be something like an Intercom, customer.io and maybe even a tool like, Vero. To be honest, I’m so much less clear on the whole email marketing space. Know that I’m not in it day-to-day. But, at one point Vero was in this stuff as well.
Both Benedikt and Jane have been to many MicroConfs. I’ve had dinner with them multiple times. They are just fixtures of the community and good people who are working hard, essentially Bootstrap SaaS app. It’s always fun to have conversations with folks who are doing it. Benedikt is a developer and Jane is a really solid UX/UI designer. They make a good team, as you can tell by the design and from what I’ve heard the reviews of Userlist.
In today’s episode, we talk about the struggles of growing slowly and trying to find traction in a crowded space, because there is a lot of competition. We even walk through some lessons learned, that Jane learned from her first SaaS app that she founded. That one came as a surprise to me. I remembered the app, but I just hadn’t realized what had happened to it. In the middle of the interview she said, “Hey, I have a bunch of interesting takeaways from that,” and we run through those towards the end. Hope you enjoy this conversation with Jane Portman.
Jane Portaman, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Jane: Thank you Rob. I’m super, super thrilled to share a story here.
Rob: It’s good to have you on. You and I have known each other for many years actually. You spoke at MicroConf Europe back in 2014. I believe? We’ve met at many a MicroConf.
Jane: Absolutely. Thanks for putting that amazing community together.
Rob: For sure. Congratulations on userlist.com. Still on the back of my mind, I think of you as userlist.io because you just have them for two years. I think just recently, you dropped a couple thousand bucks on the .com.
Jane: Quite a few, yeah. We’re absolutely excited about this. We had doubts until the very last moment. But when we did buy it, and when we got out to the community with the news, then it was an instant hit. We’re like, “Yes. This is so great.”
Rob: That’s what I was going to ask. As a bootstrapper, I think Benedikt said you spent $2000 or $3000 on the domain name. He mentioned it on his podcast. Obviously, that’s an investment. You said you have doubts right up until the end. Where you’re just questioning whether or not it would be worth it, whether or not you should do it?
Jane: We actually spent, $4000. It’s definitely a lot for a bootstrapper budget. We have been on the negotiation curve for a year-and-a-half. Basically, ever since our business started. It felt the right moment that it was available enough for us. We understood that Userlist really has good traction now. It was also a good enough point for them not to understand that we’re super, super successful because otherwise, we would probably go back up.
We started at negotiating at $20,000 and then met at $4000. We’ve been having doubts, but we have never looked back ever since. That’s been such an emotional uplift for the whole company.
Rob: Yeah, that’s good. That’s nice to have those hard decisions. That once you make them, you know you’re either going to feel terrible and be dragging them along and second guess them, or you’re going to feel amazing, move on, and know that it was the right call. It’s so hard to know until you send that wire or until you do the 301 redirect and how your domain is all up. I’m super stoked to hear that it was the right call for you guys.
Jane: Thank you.
Rob: You’ve been working on Userlist with your co-founder Benedikt and your co-founder Claire for two years now. As you and I talked a bit offline, it’s been a long journey to get to the point where you are today. You started doing customer interviews about two years ago. Then another year later, you did some presales. Then it was just about a year ago that you started onboarding people.
I know that there’s a lot of talk in the MicroConf community about Userlist. I believe they were even cemented from the stage of MicroConf Europe for folks who are using Userlist. I’ve heard from you and Benedikt that it’s been slow growth. It has been perhaps a little discouraging that it’s taking this long. Can you talk me through how that felt?
Jane: Absolutely. There are a lot of facets to that. First hand is, our naivety in the beginning. Our initial plan was to get to market and $5000 MRR in six months. Primary reason for that was that we did the software product together with Benedikt before. We got it out in a few weeks because it was smaller. This time, we figured, we’ll have a more complex product, but let’s go full throttle in this. It took way longer than that.
We’ve done a lot of administrative stuff in the first year. We didn’t even do much product development because of that, because email […] so sensitive. We wanted to get properly set up with a lot of things like incorporation, all kinds of legal documents, agreements, everything like that, we had in place before even onboarding the first customer.
That feels great because we don’t have to deal with that now. But whilst we were done building the actual MVP, the second part of the hurdle happened. It’s an intentional model that we decided to be a critical business tool for people as opposed to a Vitamin type of product. That implies lower churn and much better retention, but that also implies problematic onboarding. It’s much harder to help people onboard into critical business tool, as supposed to some productivity stuff.
Therefore our users, our customers, they do strongly depend not only on the state of our product, and the complexity. But also, because our product is super easy inside. The integration might seem intimidating, but it’s not really, and inside is super simple. What mostly depends on is this stage in their business. We have plenty of early-stage founders who are planning their launch in a few months and it’s never the perfect day to tackle customer messaging. That’s what we have to deal with. I think we still yet to solve that inflection point moment and how to stimulate that in our customer’s mind. We’ve been trying our best to inspire them with learning materials, with podcast channels, and everything else. It’s still very much learning in progress.
Rob: Yeah. You mentioned that it’s hard to get people to switch, or to come onboard because it’s such an aspirin. You’ve talked about the Vitamin aspirin. That caught me a little bit there. That’s what I found, too. When I’ve had apps that we’re Vitamins, it was easier to get people to try them out, but the churn was higher. Frankly, it can cut both ways.
It’s nice when people will just try it on a whim. It sucks when they cancel, but it is nice to be able to get casual users. Building the aspirin type product is exactly what you’re talking about, where it is a lot harder to get folks to sign up, commit, and move over. And there’s switching cost, even if there isn’t true switching cost. There’s switching cost in their head and there’s set up cost. There’s all of that almost mental baggage that I think people have resistance to moving over. How have you been attacking that?
Jane: Like I’ve said, we’ve been trying to inspire folks. We do our best to follow-up with the potential leads in the most polite but persistent way. We don’t have our secret sauce yet. It really helps that our brand has grown over the last years, especially. We have gotten some nice publicity. I think that a nice public image also makes us more attractive of a purchase, and that contributes to that excitement, that founders generally need to get started with this. It’s just a matter of technically helping them onboard when they need technical assistant, but that’s not a huge burden at all.
Rob: It’s an issue that probably any email tool, that’s worth its weight is facing. Is that, most people who are going to use their tool are already using something else in place of it. They are either using a tool like Mailchimp, or Drip, or customer.io, or they have built it themselves in-house. They already have Rails code with a Liquid template that they pull at the database and then they send these life cycle emails. I introed it at the top of the show, but just to remind folks, it’s customer life cycle email designed for SaaS businesses. It’s behavior-based, event-based life cycle automation, segmentation and that kind of stuff.
The switching cost for that is, there’s a challenge there because it’s hard. If I was running a SaaS app, I don’t want all my marketing emails in Mailchimp and my lifecycle emails in Userlist. I want them all together so that when someone unsubscribes, it unsubscribes across everything. So that I have the data, the tags, and all the stuff across everything. The decision to switch over to Userlist is not as simple, easy, “I make the decision today, I move tomorrow” decision. It’s the one that really covers a lot of aspects of my business, all the way from marketing, into the sales process, into the onboarding, the customer retention process. It really does touch a lot of key points in a business.
Jane: You’re just hitting a nail on its head. We have very, very heated discussions in house. They’re not heated, because we initially agreed to give this only post sign-up, customer communications. There is a bunch of trade-offs and perks related to that. The perks are that it allows us to make the products super simple inside. Literally, very very intuitive, as opposed to more complex enterprise tools that do both. On the other hand, there have been an increasing support requests and I know there are opinions out there (yours included), that we should probably allow for classic email marketing automation inside this list as well. So, it’s in debate and we’ll see if this direction is worth pursuing down the road. It’s not an easy decision for sure.
Rob: No. I went through the same thing. I wouldn’t say that I think you guys should do marketing. I just know that when we started Drip, it was overwhelming. By the time we’re just doing the customer interactions, people kept asking us for the marketing. It was for the reason I said they wanted it all to be in one place. That is a decision for you guys to make yourselves.
If you look at Intercom and Customer.io, they’re not designed for marketing emails. It’s really customer communication. It’s obvious that you can build a business without doing those things. I don’t know if Vero was still that way, but getvero.com was also just used to be customer messaging. I think there’s a path to do it and do it successfully. It’s just a matter of how you attack it and which customers you go after.
Jane: And making these tools speak to each other. It’s not just a matter of technical set up. There is no convention in the whole SaaS industry to date. Please correct me if I’m wrong. What is the best practice if somebody becomes your customer? Do you keep sending them newsletters or not? What kind of communication they receive? Is there a single unsubscribe button or not? Every founder makes those decisions for themselves. It’s a technical set up and it’s plenty of logical decisions they have to take.
Rob: Yeah, that’s right. You find yourself all in the mix. Every founder, as you said, makes the decision differently, but they all think that their decision is right. That’s where it gets complicated. That’s interesting.
Over the last couple of years, you’ve been grinding it out, getting Userlist on, getting it built, getting presales, getting folks to use it. You do have paying customers at this point and MRR. I’m curious. In your mind, has there been a lot of uncertainty? Or is there uncertainty now in terms of, “Are we going to be able to pull this off? Is this going to work? We’re two years in and I wish we were growing faster. I wish we were bigger.” Does it ever feel like, “I am just not sure that this is going to work at the scale that we wanted to”?
Jane: It sure sometimes feels like a marketing drudge for any founder. From day one, we have never had any doubt that this is a product that’s needed for people. We’ve done some inventive products before, but we were absolutely positive that there is a need. It was just a matter of making it happen, step by step, slowly, very slowly, very very slowly towards the right direction.
We’ve actually been getting more optimistic with time. The last few months have been super cool. We know there’s a lot of work ahead, but it’s been so nice to see how the traction picks up and there is word of mouth in the community, et cetera. We have actually made decisions, we have been part-time on this, myself and Benedikt. We have made the decision to take the scary plunge and actually go full-time on that in the beginning of 2020, starting January.
Rob: Wow. That’s just a couple of months out. Good for you guys.
Jane: Yeah. There is a lot of work, like prep up we have to do in terms of client work. Having client work, it pulls your attention away, but on the same side, it lets you do that organic slow thing in the more secure manner. You don’t have to worry about bread and butter on the table, because that desperate type of marketing is no good for any brand.
Rob: Yeah. It’s hard to be stressed about money and watch runway shrinking away. Yet, it’s also hard to have split focus. I’ve done both of them and neither is that fun. That’s the conundrum of being a founder. It’s making hard decisions with incomplete information where none of the decisions is 100% clear. I feel your pain on that. Congrats on deciding to go full-time. I do think that will probably be game changing for you guys in terms of the focus.
Jane: Thank you so much. We’re absolutely looking forward to this.
Rob: I bet. I asked you before the interview, if we were cool to talk about your third co-founder, Claire Suellentrop. Folks may have seen her on the MicroConf stage a couple of years ago. You, Claire, and Benedikt actually started Userlist together a couple of years ago. I know that she’s a lot less involved than she was early on. Do you want to talk us through maybe, what the situation is and how that went down?
Jane: Yeah, absolutely. We started this together, the three of us. It was me who pulled the folks together. In my previous SaaS, I was a solo founder, so I had to pay Benedikt cash to build stuff. There was no way I could do this with such a complex project, so I invited Benedikt on board. I was super lucky that he said, “Yes.” There was one more piece of the puzzle missing, the marketing person. Claire was number one on my rolodex of nice people and also amazing marketers, so I reached out to her. At that point of time, she was particularly looking for something of her own to start after quitting Calendly. There was ofcourse time between that. She was previously director of marketing at Calendly. See how large of talent we’re talking about?
I was absolutely thrilled when she said, “Yes.” We had a lot of discussions in the beginning. I’m super happy that we formalized our relationship in the most transparent way. Splitting the shares in the correct manner, doing the vesting schedule, then doing the proper contract. Even though in the beginning, that contract was sort of informal, but we still signed. Then we incorporate it.
Everything was really really well-organized. It’s not just about being legally protected, but also about having clear system in your mind. What’s going to happen when something changes? The assumption of that was everyone was going to be friends forever. It’s definitely very naive and childish, because things change for everyone. That is exactly what happened after a year that we’ve been working together.
The traction has been slow. We just started onboarding our fist pre-order customer. There was no sign of MRR whatsoever. Claire had to decide what’s going to be the number one priority. She had to take things off her plate to make it happen. She had two large projects at that time. It was Userlist and Forget The Funnel, which you’ve probably heard online, which is a huge training website and platform for marketers. She made a conscious choice towards working with marketers because these are her peers, target audience, and that was just overall more fulfilling.
Therefore, we’ve rearranged our agreement. We slowed down her vesting in half and she became our advisor instead of doing work hands one. In that type of mode, we spend another year until just recently when all of the above happened, that we decided to go full in. It didn’t feel quite fair that we’d go full in, start working our backs off, and Claire would just be advising. We decided maybe we could put together a more fair agreement and we reconsidered it again.
Right now, we have not documented it yet. She will formally stop vesting at the end of the year. She will just retain the number of shares she has while myself and Benedikt will go full spin. It sounds pretty stressful, but we really didn’t get into any human arguments about it. It was more like a constructive discussion about figuring out ways how it can work for all of us and the work that’s fairly rewarding. Going into business with adequate people really, really pays off. After all, she is a good fit.
Rob: That’s what I’m going to say. From what I’ve heard from you and Benedikt just in passing, in talking about stuff, it sounds like it’s been a surprisingly easy process for something that could’ve been really hard. It often turns into a big emotional fight with co-founders if there’s someone that has a perfectly good reason to come, walk away, and do something else that they decided to go do. It can hurt people’s feelings and it can have all types of ramifications. It really sounds like you all were just reasonable people trying to figure out what was best. Is that a good summary of it?
Jane: Yeah, very much so. Interesting fact: we never got to use it, but in our original agreement we also had a field for a mediator. That was a person we all knew and trusted who would mediate our arguments should we arrive at a deadlock somewhere. We never resorted to that measure, but it was another cautionary thing that we took. It sounds like marriage. You need to find adequate people to really resonate with each other and you need to document everything. That’s how it works.
Rob: That’s good. I’m glad. I like Claire and I know that you guys are friends. It’s nice to be able to go away with everyone feeling good about the resolution.
Jane: We’re so very much a team. She remains as the co-founder. For sure we’re going to have a monthly marketing sessions together. She’s still participating largely in the strategic side of the business. It feels great. She’s a wonderful human being.
Rob: Jane, you’ve worked on many SaaS apps. You’ve built a couple yourself, as you said. You hired Benedikt prior as a contractor, and now working as a co-founder. You have a bit of an experience under your belly here. What has been the most surprising thing to you in building Userlist?
Jane: Building Userlist? I was thinking you’re going to ask about the takeaways from the first app because I had plenty.
Rob: Oh. Let’s go back on that after you answer this. I’d love to hear it.
Jane: Probably the slowness of it was the biggest surprise.
Rob: Yeah. You thought it would gain traction quicker?
Jane: Yes. The product idea is quite unbeatable. It’s really, really a useful tool. You will think that just getting the word out in the community would get fellow founders signing up like that but no.
Rob: Yeah. Is that an issue with switching cost? Or do you think it’s the differentiation thing of not having the same features? If I were to compare you to your competitors, I don’t know who has the most features or whatever, so I’m curious what your take is on that.
Jane: We’re all wise enough to know—our team and you—that features that are not exactly the key thing in purchasing decisions. I think feature parity is not an issue. A lack of some features is clearly a benefit in our case. It makes the product much more transparent and straightforward to use.
I don’t want to be comparing it to Apple but because it’s run-of-the-mill, we try to make some opinionated product decisions insight so that it’s simpler, easier to use, and more efficient. In that regard, that’s definitely not a problem.
As for the switching cost, yes. I think that’s a primary reason as we talked about. I’m hoping there’s a secret sauce inside. Overall, that and explaining what it does all together really makes a puzzle. I’m glad that I have been putting it together gradually but it’s clearly not there yet.
Rob: To wrap us up today, you hinted takeaways from your prior SaaS. For folks who don’t know, it’s called Tiny Reminder. It was a form builder with notifications. Does that correctly sum it up?
Jane: That’s right. It was a Vitamin. Very much Vitamin type of product.
Rob: Cool. What were your handful of takeaways from building and I presume, shutting that down?
Jane: Quite a few. I sold it Nusii, so it still exists and functions. They’re planning to grow it as a satellite, a promotional tool for Nusii. I had a bunch of takeaways. I’m so glad I had this lab SaaS, lab rat sort of project that I’ve made all possible mistakes. I didn’t market it to a clear audience. It was really so useful that anyone could use it and after that, just focus on a niche instead.
It was super Vitamin. That’s why we set out to do an Aspirin product this time. Also, I did a freemium and that was quite a battle. Freemium is not a great way for bootstrap founders to start their business. Not just because of the lack of revenue but also the lack of MRR as a validation. You never know whether those people are just like tire kickers or real users—do they really need it?
And a couple of more discoveries. I had a lot of experience with info products before. I’ve been observing how sales work, that sales are hard to get, how downloads work, how emails, sign-ups, and numbers work. Not everything is cool. I was not prepared for that in SaaS businesses. It’s so much harder.
Just selling a book and an impulse purchase is way easier than selling a tool. That’s clearly not something you can just buy. You need to use it and get value out of it.
Rob: I had that conversation with so many info marketers who are making $50,000 a month or $100,000 a month. They’ll say, “How am I going to get into SaaS?” I’m like, “I know you can write a copy. I know you can get people to impulse buy a book.” If they don’t read the book, they don’t cancel on you because they’ve already paid you. It’s like in a completely different world. You’re right, it’s not twice as hard. It’s like 10 times as hard to make it work with SaaS.
Jane: We had a spectacular product launch for Tiny Reminder. The number of free trials, I think, was the cold traction to the website. We’ve got like 10 or something. I don’t exactly remember the number but it was super miserable. For a typical marketing freebie, it would have been, like you’ve said, 10 times bad.
Another lesson was that I had no audience of my own related to design. I’m sure there are plenty of founders in that audience. I’ve learned to understand that personal audiences don’t translate into SaaS sales, period. We’ve had a few users coming from my site but this is clearly not a primary channel. It’s not something you can leverage very well. You really need to count on product market fit first and some scalable, reliable, marketing channels instead of trying to milk your list, which I’ve never done in a bad way, but I tried with the first product and it just clearly didn’t work.
Rob: Yeah. That’s a lesson I’ve learned a long time ago as well. You can sell a little bit to your list but really, they’re interested in hearing from you, hearing about your process, and they’ll buy books from you all day because that’s hearing about you and your process. Books, video courses, and conference tickets are things that you can sell their personal audience, but SaaS apps, you can get that first. You will get a first handful of customers and then that’s it. Now, the real work begins.
That’s why I’ve heard folks say, “Hey. You should build an audience before you build a product.” That’s the way to do it. I’ve heard that said about infoproducts and I’ve heard it said about SaaS. I think it’s the wrong advice with SaaS. It’s never bad to have an audience but I do not think it’s worth the years and all the effort of building an audience.
Building an audience is very, very hard in order to launch a SaaS app. I think I have many more examples of people who have not built an audience and launched a successful SaaS app than I had people who have done it. Versus, if we’re going to talk about the knowledge product side where you’re going to write books, courses, and that kind of stuff, I would say people need to know, like, and trust you. Therefore, if they need that relationship with you, therefore, I would recommend and err on the side of actually building an audience before doing that.
Jane: You need to find scalable ways of reaching out to new people anyways. Even if you have a nice waiting list like we had something close to between 500 and 1000 people, I have an impression that they never really fully converted, even though we’re doing our best and talking to them very, very often, very diligently, with exciting updates. It’s still not a scalable way to grow our customer base for sure.
Rob: Yeah. That’s right. When we launched Drip, I had a launch list—not my robwalling.com list—but an actual Drip interest list. It was about 3400 people. The first 500 on the list were from me talking about in the podcast. I think I emailed my email list and just talk about it in another podcast. Then, there were segments that were from other shows. There were some from Facebook ads to a landing page. I watch how they converted. It was definitely my personal brand that converted almost the worst.
There were some cold traffic that converts worse than that, but people were more interested in the story. That’s okay, but you have to know that going in that an audience is not a golden ticket to launching a successful SaaS app.
Jane: Moreover, it can be deceptive. We’ve heard those stories like Brennan building RightMessage. They almost have that hangover from Brennan’s authority in the automation space when they were building a different kind of product. I’ve just had Derrick on my show and we’ve talked about Level and how we validated it. That was basically off his authority based on Drip and everything that got him into a little bit deceptive situation, too.
Rob: Yup. As you said, it can be deceiving.
Jane, thank you so much for coming on the show today to talk about Userlist and your experience with it. If folks want to keep up with you on Twitter, you are @uibreakfast. You have the UI Breakfast Podcast that you have mentioned a couple of times. Any other things folks should check out?
Jane: Of course, userlist.com. We just migrated yesterday. That’s a great resource. You can find all kinds of materials if you’re interested in life cycle email. We grabbed the Twitter handle, too. We are now at @userlist. That’s just pure luck. We didn’t even buy it.
Rob: That’s great. Cool. Thanks again, Jane.
Jane: Thank you so much, Rob.
Rob: Thanks again to Jane for coming on the show. If you have a question you’d like to hear answered on the show, leave me a voicemail at (888) 801-9690. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next time.
Rob does another follow up with Crag Hewitt of Castos, they talk about his new hire (growth marketer) and news of a major break-through.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob checks in with Mike Taber on his progress with Bluetick. They talk about the finale of the Google audit, a new integration. and trying to find differentiation in the market.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this week’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, I catch up with Mike Taber and get an update on his progress with Bluetick. This is Startups for the Rest of Us Episode 470.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing startups, whether you’ve built your fifth start up or you’re thinking about your first. I’m Rob and today with Mike Taber, we’re going to share our experiences to help you avoid the mistakes we’ve made.
Welcome to the show. I’m your host, Rob Walling. Each week on the show, I cover topics related to building, growing startups in order to build yourself a better life and improve the world in some small way. We strive to be ambitious, but we’re not willing to sacrifice our life or health to grow our companies. We have many different show formats. We have some tactics and teaching. We have interviews, listener questions. Sometimes, we do founder hot seats and breaking news episodes. All kinds of things that just mix it up and the feedback I’ve gotten since the mix up 20, 25 episodes ago is that the people really like that and they almost like the unpredictability of it. I’ve been overwhelmingly told to keep going and keep doing what we’re doing.
Each month or so, about every four to six weeks, I catch up with Mike Taber. He’s still a regular guest on the show, but he only comes on every month or two to update us on what he’s been doing with his product, Bluetick, that he’s been struggling to get to the point of supporting him full-time. If you haven’t already heard episodes 448 and 458, I’d encourage you to go listen to those episodes because they do give you a background on really what we’re talking about, how I’m trying to help push Mike forward, and challenge some of his assumptions. Also, to get updates, just to hear what’s going on because I like to know what’s up with Mike and I’ve heard overwhelmingly that people want to as well. They want to know what’s going on with him.
Today’s episode is a fun one. I do push back on a few things that Mike has said and call him on why he hasn’t made more progress. Overall, it’s a positive episode and it’s fun to hear Mike rant about the Google audit and I think our editor even has to bleep him once or twice, which is unusual for Mike.
Before we dive in, I want to let you know that tiny TinySeed applications for batch two are now open. You can go to tinyseed.com, click the apply button. If you’re a bootstrap, SaaS app, or subscription software and you’re looking for mentorship and community in a small batch of motivated founders as well as $120,000 investment or more frankly, if you have a couple of founders, you should head over to TinySeed and see what we’re up to. We’re super bootstrapper-friendly and the idea is to raise the tide and to raise all the boats in this segment that is really an underserved group.
The venture capitalist has an agenda and it’s to go bigger or go home, it’s to be a unicorn or bust, and that’s not what we’re doing. Our thesis is that we can get a lot of folks who are wanting to build this $1–$20 million ARR, these life-changing SaaS apps, ambitious but not 90-hour weeks. We’re about halfway through our first batch of ten. This application process runs for the next couple of weeks and we’ll be doing another batch early next year. We’re getting that together. Good things have been happening there. tinyseed.com, if you’re interested. With that, let’s talk to Mike.
Mike, thanks for coming back on the show.
Mike: Hey, how is it going?
Rob: It’s pretty good, man. I was just counting the days. I think it’s been about five weeks, about right around 34–35 days since we last spoke. I know during that time you were out of town for five days with MicroConf Europe, but I’ve been getting feedback both at MicroConf Europe and then at a little founder retreat I went to earlier this week that folks do like following the story of what you’ve been up to, so I’m curious.
As usual, I have my list of stuff from last time that some stuff was up in the air and the threads that we’re following, so I look forward to hearing about it. I think the thread of the hour and the one that you’re basically spending 15 hours a week last time we spoke is this Google audit. You were a month into it and you thought it would be six more weeks’ worth of stuff. We’re essentially five weeks into that period so I’m fascinated to hear what that’s looked like over the past five weeks, where it’s at, are you wrapping up, that kind of stuff.
Mike: I guess for context of dates and timeline here, three weeks ago was MicroConf Europe. There was a Wednesday that I was basically either on a plane or over in Dubrovnik for MicroConf Europe. That spans a couple of weeks where, I don’t know about you, but a day or two before you travel, you really don’t get a whole lot done and then the day or two after is kind of the same thing so that basically makes it almost two full weeks right there.
My audit started last Monday and it was supposed to go from Monday to Monday, I believe. That process is finished. I’ve got a draft of the report and I’m going to go over it with them next week. I’ve got the letter of attestation or whatever it is, more like a letter of assessment. That’s already in my hands and I’ve sent that off to Google. Now, it’s a waiting game to see if Google just looks at it and says, “Yup, this is good. You’re all set for the next 12 months.” That’s the good news. The bad news is I’m super pissed about the whole thing.
Rob: Well, you have been the whole time. Are you more pissed now than you were the last two episodes? Has something more happened?
Mike: I’m way more pissed about it because basically they came back and said, “Yeah, everything looks fine. It’s pretty much it.” There was one thing they complained about and they’re like, “Yeah, you’re cryptography keys, the keys that you’re using to encrypt information, shouldn’t be on the same machine as all source code,” or not even a source code, but the actual application because before, I was compiling it directly into the application knowing that nobody else has access to that machine. You can’t get to it unless you break the machine open and hack into it, and then you’ve got access to the source code and everything else.
At that point, encrypting things really doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot and yeah, the data is on a different machine, but I’m well aware of all the security implications there. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a very, very small thing. They’re like, “Yeah, that’s an absolute no, no. You can’t do that.” I was like, “All right. Fine.” I spend a couple of days using Azure’s Key Vault, I think it’s called. Basically, now I’m storing the keys someplace else, but the client’s secret and stuff are still on that machine, so it’s like, “Okay, now I have to go to this other machine, pull back that information, and then encrypt it.” I have to do that every single time that I have to encrypt or decrypt information. I’m like, “This is just stupid.” It’s just like, “All right, whatever. I’ll do it,” because I have to. I have no other choice.
Rob: Yeah, that’s the thing. You can get hung up on it and be pissed about it, but then you got to move past it especially if Google approves this certificate of attestation, I think is what you said. I mean assuming that that goes through, you have 12 months and it’s time to get on your horse and get things moving.
I’m curious. Over the past five weeks, how much of your time was that was it? You expected it to maybe ramp up to like 20 hours a week, like half your time, and I’m curious if that amounted to that or what it looked like.
Mike: It wasn’t that much. I had to give them a whole ton of documentation. It wasn’t quite a dozen different documents of policies and procedures and stuff like that, but some of it was just I’ll say personally frustrating because they’re like, “Document what your secure coding procedures look like and how you educate other people who come onboard.” I’m like, “Well, there really isn’t anybody else that I have to educate about it because it’s just me.”
I distinctly remember looking at one of the questions and it was something along the lines of, “Please describe how you do pair programming for code reviews.” I wanted to laugh at it and I had to hold myself back from saying, “I wait 12 hours, sober up, and then look at the codes sober to figure out what it was that I was doing.” It’s just so frustrating to have to go through that stuff and answer completely stupid questions and provide documentation for things that I’m not going to look at and nobody else will.
Rob: I wish you would have put that drunk answer on there and just to see what they said.
Mike: Well, it ended up in the report, too. Not that, but some of the other things that I wrote, they asked me a couple of clarifying questions and literally word-for-word, the stuff that I put in there, it was word-for-word what I said was in the executive report.
Rob: Yeah, that makes sense. I was joking, by the way, about the drunk comment. I’m glad you didn’t do that because that wouldn’t have gotten well. This feels like a win to me. I’m going to flip it on its head because I can tell you’re pissed and you have been for three months or more because the whole thing threatened your business itself.
When you got initial quotes or estimates, they were really high. Then you got lower quotes, then you negotiated, and then you got something that was reasonable enough for you to pay. Now, it sounds like your done and while it has killed some time, it didn’t kill as much time as you were projecting over the next six weeks. Right now, are you done? Do you have to make any more code changes to satisfy their recommendations?
Mike: As far as I know, no. I have the letter. I have to hand it off to Google. I believe, at that point, Google just takes it and says, “Okay. Yes, you’re approved.” And they toggle some switches on their side and they stop bugging me about all this stuff. My belief is that I’m done, but what pisses me off is how little they found and how big a deal Google made it out to be. They’re like, “We’re going to kill your business if you don’t do these things or you don’t go through this process and pay this large sum of money to this third party company to do a security audit.”
There’s no recourse there whatsoever. So, I go through the process and then when I get through it, I come back and I look at their end result of it and they’re like, “Oh yeah, you have to change this one minor thing here that’ll take you like a day or two.” Then, all the other documentation that I put together, which is a total waste of time because nobody else is ever going to look at any of it, it’s totally useless. It was a huge time sink for absolutely nothing. It didn’t benefit my customers. It doesn’t make the product any better. It doesn’t get more people using it. It literally does nothing other than allow me to stay in business. That’s the piece that’s so frustrating. That’s the part that really pisses me off and makes me angry at Google, for putting me through this when at the end of the day, you look at the report and they’re like, “Oh yeah, these one or two things.” It was almost completely unnecessary.
Rob: If you’re at home playing the Startups For the Rest of Us drinking game, you can know take your shot for Mike saying it was unnecessary and he’s angry at Google. Mike, I know. I totally get it. I think I want to say it again. I consider this a win because you’ve passed this. Six months ago, maybe more, you started talking about this and it was a big, big deal and you’re done. You made it through and it didn’t wreck the business. To me, it’s like the Bill Wolf quote, “Control what you can control and let the score take care of itself.” That’s where you are. You can be pissed. I get pissed all the time at stuff. You know me pretty well. I get mad pretty easily, but I try to let stuff go quickly and move on. You know what I mean?
I mean this could’ve been a complete and utter roadblock that decimated your business whether because you failed the audit, whether it’s because you couldn’t afford the audit, whether it’s because you refused to do the audit on principle. Any one of those would’ve wrecked the business and you turned it into a speed bump. You said, “What are my options here? I can pay for this thing. I can negotiate this thing. With my teeth clenched, I can just force my way through,” and that’s what you did. I think I know it’s a pain in the ass. I totally get it and I’m really surprised that we have not had to use the beep noise over any of your words so far this episode, but cheers to you, man. I am happy. I look ahead at Bluetick and now, it’s all about execution. It’s differentiation. It’s writing some code. It’s marketing. It’s getting more people in. That’s how I feel about it. I have the outside perspective. You’ve been mired in this for months. Does that resonate with you? Do you feel that way or do you feel like I’m being too optimistic silver lining?
Mike: You’re absolutely right. Everything that you just said is 100% correct, but Google still pisses me off right now. I’m not the type of person who gets upset easily. I’m not the person who you can just poke with a stick and suddenly, I just rear my claws and just go after you. I just don’t do that, but this has been dragging on for so long and I really feel like I’ve been put through the ringer for this for no good reason. I just can’t point anything justifiable. The problem is I know I have to go through it again next year.
Next year, it will be better because I’ve got all the documentation in place and yeah, the product will change, certain things are going to have to be updated here and there and that’s fine, but the fact that they went through this whole thing and they made it such a big deal, and they get to the end of it and there’s this report that shows, “Oh, we found three things.” One of which is not even on my servers. I’m like, “Okay, this is total […]. Complete and utter […]. You’re complaining about an SSL certificate that I put on a server that’s not even my server. Come on. That’d ridiculous.” I even told them that. I’m like, “I have no control over this.”
Rob: Yeah. I hear you about having to do it again in 12 months. My hope is that the fact that you already have an existing relationship with an auditor and that you have the same docs or depending on where you are in 12 months, maybe you’ll have hired a developer or a senior developer that could do parts of this for you so you don’t have to mire through it.
I realized that’s a tall order. You’d have to make a lot of progress between now and then, but I think in the back of my mind, in your shoes, you’ve seen how frustrating this is and how much it emotionally derails you. With me, with Drip, it was blacklists, there were support requests, it was cues being slow. There were these things that I had to find people to do because they slowly tore away at me and they made me hate my job.
As entrepreneurs, we can’t hate our job because we control them. If we’re not enjoying it, it’s to a certain extent, our fault. Now, in this case, it’s not. It’s not your fault that Google made you do that but you did then have the chance to say, “Well, I’m just going to shut the business down,” or, “I’m going to pivot away from Google,” or whatever, but you gritted it and made it through, which is in my opinion, what you should have done. But looking ahead 12 months, I’d be thinking how can I not let this be six weeks, eight weeks of me being mad next time? What types of things can I put in place to help with that?
Mike: The fact of the matter is, I think that in a year when this comes up again, it will be a lot less stressful because I will have had full visibility of all the things that are going on, and all the things that they’re looking out, and I will have already had one report to look at that says, “These are all the things that we looked at and be able to at least keep them in mind moving forward.” Up until I got a final report, even during the week of the audit, it was just super stressful because I wasn’t getting anything back from them and I was expecting a daily report or something along those lines that says, “Hey, we looked at this and this is a problem. You need to fix it. Here’s a high priority. Here’s a critical thing that you have to do.” Because that all those critical and high items had to be taken care of before they could issue this letter of assessment and I was getting nothing.
I asked them. I was like, “What’s going on here? I’m expecting something here and I haven’t heard anything.” They’re like, “Oh, we haven’t found anything so far.” But of course, there’s a lag time between the time that I sent them an email and then they get back to me. I think some of their penetration testing staff are in completely different time zones like halfway around the world, so it just makes that back-and-forth a lot harder to do because, (1) they don’t report directly to me, and (2) they’re in a completely different time zones. It just makes it a lot harder and a lot more stressful, but I don’t think that it’ll be nearly as bad next time.
Rob: Yeah, I would agree. Looking ahead, let’s talk about some other things that you had in the works, some of which were on hold or I think one of which was on hold due to a code freeze and then there were some other stuff that step through. Just to keep going on the thread.
You have an untestable sealed .NET component. Startups For the Rest of Us drinking game just gets so good when we go over this topic again. I want to go back and I think it had to have been six or eight months ago when you first mentioned of this thing. You said, “I’m going to replace this thing,” and you put it on hold due to the Google audit. Have you replaced it yet? Is this top priority? Where do we stand with this?
Mike: I just got the letter of assessment this morning. I was expecting it on Monday because they said that they were working on it, and then Tuesday came and nothing, Wednesday came and still nothing, and finally, I got it this morning. It was like one o’clock in the morning. Until then, it’s basically been on code freeze. So no, I haven’t touched that yet. Is it on deck? Yes, at some point. When exactly? I don’t really know.
I have to go through and look at where that really falls in the priority list because I feel like it’s a lower priority than a lot of the sales and marketing stuff that I have to do. I hate to say that this is or isn’t holding me back because I’m not really sure. I want to get it out of there. I don’t know how hard it is to be able to pull it out because it is pretty integrated into the core of my code and I’m going to have to change the storage mechanism.
I think I’m just going to have to make a judgment call at some point about do I just suck it up and leave it there even though I know that it’s the wrong decision? There are certain part of I think everybody’s application where it’s got words on it and you’re like, “This really needs to be rewritten or it needs to be refactored.” And you don’t do it because you know that you’re just kicking a hornet’s nest and it’s going to be terrible.
Rob: How long do you think it’s going to take you to get the new component in? I know you have to redo data and you have to remap stuff and namespaces. I get it. How long though? That’s the thing.
Mike: Just for me to migrate the data would probably take a week. That’s just the computers churning.
Rob: Yeah, so it’s a sizable thing, but you have decided that this is the right choice, right?
Mike: Yeah. That’s the thing. Assuming nothing goes wrong, it would take a week.
Rob: Sure. All right. It happened this morning and you’re not done with it yet, Mike? What have you been doing? No, I’m just kidding. Do you plan to start it? What is it? Thursday today so do you plan to start that tomorrow or Monday? Is that the next priority or you’re just saying I’m going to do this in a few months?
It’s tough. This one’s not so clear up to me. To me, in my head, it’s a bite the bullet type of thing where it’s overhead and I know it creates legacy, or cruft, or just hard code to work around. To me, I would bite the bullet and I would cover up two weeks and I would hammer this through. But I can also see an argument on the other side of this provides no value to your customers. On the flip side, it’s like, “I should be marketing, selling, and getting more people in before that.” I could see an argument either way. Again, I would probably make the product such that I feel more comfortable marketing and selling it, because I hate having crappy code. What’s your plan there?
Mike: The best thing that I can come up with is to plan to do it in about a month because that would put it in mid- to late-December, which I know there’s not going to be many people using Bluetick at the time and I’m probably not going to be fielding very many support requests. I’m probably not going to be launching very many new marketing or sales campaigns at the time. It’s a slow time where it would be a good time to sit down and bite the bullet and do that as opposed to now where people are still ramping up for the holiday season, doing email follow-ups, and trying to get deals and stuff. By the end of the year, it seems like my time is probably better spent doing that now and then plan for that slow period of biting the bullet.
Rob: Cool. That sounds good. We will connect with you again on that next time you come back. For our next topic, let’s talk about marketing. You obviously had the majority of your work weeks to be doing other things. You didn’t want to write code and the Google audit was taking some time. We talked about a marketing hire you were making. It was a contractor to do podcaster research and we had talked that through a little bit last time. Where does that stand?
Mike: Most of the stuff is already done and been sorted and prioritized. I got the information I need for all those things, so we’re basically waiting until the end of this audit to start queuing those up. Between today and tomorrow, the plan is to start queuing those up, start sending those emails out, and see if I can get onto a handful of other podcasts. I’ve already done one podcast interview. I actually did that last week. I’ve got another one that I was told by the podcast host that she’d love to have me on so it’s just a matter of reaching out to them and getting that set up as well. There’s no more roadblocks in the way of doing that so that’s get started ASAP at the moment.
Rob: It’s been five weeks. Why did it take that long? Why hasn’t that started two weeks ago?
Mike: Well, two weeks ago, I was in Europe. That’s why. Of the last five weeks, a good solid week-and-a-half to two weeks was spent in the middle of the audit and then there was another solid week or two that was basically over in Europe. I basically had maybe two weeks or so before MicroConf Europe get started on that. That was mostly the data aggregation and the actual work that was done behind the scenes.
Rob: Got it. Are you sending those emails through Bluetick?
Rob: That’s cool.
Mike: Well, that’s the plan. I haven’t actually sent them out yet.
Rob: How did you get on the podcast then?
Mike: Oh, there’s a personal invitation. Somebody raised that to me.
Rob: Got it. Cool. That would be an ASAP thing then. You could get that going tomorrow literally or Monday. You just got to write some copy and get her in.
Mike: That’s the plan for that.
Rob: Good. Looking forward to that. We already talked about that. I won’t go into it. Again, it drives a little bit of traffic. It’s more of a slow burn. It’s a one-time thing type of thing, but I think that it’s easy enough to do as long as it doesn’t take a bunch of time. I would probably be doing the same thing right now.
The other thing you were looking at was code emailing. It was really warm emailing. You said 900 email addresses from your LinkedIn connections. You had prior Bluetick cancellations, sales leads that never converted, that were in pipe drive, other stuff. You were going to bucket them and start warm emailing cold batches in the next week or two last time we talked. Talk to me the status on that.
Mike: I’ve got those all bucketed out and that’s another situation where I was holding off on actually doing it and pulling the trigger after this audit was done. That again is something else that got the green light at this point that I can start today or tomorrow.
Rob: That’s interesting. Why were you holding off on that? Because you knew you were going to pass the audit. That wasn’t a big question. I knew you were.
Mike: It was never a question of whether I would it pass it or not, it was a question of timing. There are two pieces of the audit itself. There was the technical piece where they say, “Hey, we’re going to beat on you servers for six days.” And then aside from that, there is all this policy documentation that I had to create. Anything that they saw that raised a red flag, I had to either change the policy itself, it’s not just text that I have to change, but it’s also I have to change how I do things.
For example, one of the things that they said was, “Oh, you have to enable multi factor authentication on everything including source control.” So I have to basically generate SSH keys and lock down all of my source controls, which means that I also have to generate API keys, then go into my build environment, and I have to change all that stuff, too. It’s not just a simple thing like changing some texts on a piece of paper that I hand to them. I actually have to go do those things as well. All of that stuff needed to be changed.
There was a bunch of other things that came up during the policy side of things where they said, “Hey, you need to change how you’re going about these things just in order to comply with the requirements.” Between that, I knew that I only had a week or two before I had to leave for Europe, and then immediately after that, I had to dive right into the technical side of the policy stuff.
What I didn’t want to do is start going out and start and try to schedule meetings, calls, and stuff with people. They were not going to be for a month-and-a-half because I didn’t necessarily know that earlier this week things were going to be done. For all I knew, they could come back and say, “Well, you’ve got these 25 vulnerabilities, and 17 of them are high or critical. You need to make code changes to do those.” I didn’t know that I was going to be done this week. For all I knew, it could’ve been another three to four weeks.
Rob: Yeah, but I think we talked last time and I had said cold email doesn’t just start converting overnight typically. Typically, you start it at trickle, you test some things, you tweak, you tweak, you tweak. It takes weeks to really start ramping it up. I had suggested, “Hey, you have this month or whatever,” I guess it was six weeks during the audit that was projected to be six weeks, “I would propose that you just start emailing 5 a day or 10 a week.” Just a very small trickle to start seeing something such that the volume of things wouldn’t have been like, “Oh my gosh, I have 50 calls.”
It wouldn’t have been so much, but just to start ironing those out because I bet if you start this on Monday, it’ll be a couple of weeks until it really starts getting going and now, you’re at a standing stop five weeks later. You know what I mean? Five weeks after our last call, you are at standing stop trying to get it going rather than having a little bit of momentum. That’s what I was more getting at. Why did you wait during the audit to get it going?
Mike: I think I agreed at the time and then realized that I just was not going to have time. Even if that started to turn into something, I wasn’t sure what the future would hold in terms of my timeline leading up to the week after MicroConf or two weeks afterwards. Like I said, for all I knew, it could’ve been another three or four of hard, heavy lifting in terms of code or code changes. I just didn’t know. That big blind spot is really what held me back there.
Rob: Okay. Next time, you should be good. You should be rolling on these things. Right now, cold email and the podcast tour, do you have any other marketing stuff that you’re going to be rolling out or are you going to be focusing on those two? I’m just talking over the next month. Let’s say we talk again in four or five weeks.
Mike: I do have one other thing that has finished up, which we haven’t really talked about. I just finished up an integration that I got approval for I think on Monday of this week. Now, if you go over to zapier.com and you search for bluetick.io, you’ll find it underneath the early access section. bluetick.io now officially has a Zapier integration that is no longer just buy and bite only.
Rob: Nice. Congrats man. That’s cool. Now, what’s funny is I have a note because I was going to cover that. The note says, “Mike is working on an integration that should be live at the end of this week.” I read that five weeks ago. Why did it take that extra month?
Mike: Because I had to email them and then there was a little bit of back and forth. They basically had to run it through their own testing and stuff like that. There was a bunch of things that needed to be changed both on my side and inside the Zap itself in order to get it live. It took a little bit longer to get finished than I thought it would or I hoped it would. And then I emailed them and said, “Hey, can you guys take another look at this.” When I got back from MicroConf, I emailed them again because I haven’t heard back. Maybe the email got lost or buried under all the other stuff that I’ve got going on, but I ended up having to ask them again to take a look at it. It only took them two or three days after that to take a look at it to say, “Yup, this thing looks good. Go for it.”
Rob: Cool. So people can go and search for that right now. Do you get any promotion out of that? Are they going to list you anywhere?
Mike: No. They don’t do any code promotion until you get to a certain number of users, which I think I was told it was like 50 users before that happens so I have to look and see if there’s any way for me to actually see how many active users I have. But I don’t know what it currently stands at so I don’t know how far I have to go between now and doing any sort of code promotion with them.
Rob: Got it. In order to get to 50 users, obviously, you need to get more customers yourself and then have something in a sequence somewhere that is asking people to hook it up, right?
Mike: But I will say having the audit and the Zapier integration behind me, I would call both of those huge wins for me.
Rob: Yeah, that’s good. Would you say over the past, since our last call, those are probably the two high points?
Mike: I would say so, yeah.
Rob: And then the low point was the audit? Just in the midst, that’s what it sounds like.
Mike: Well, the midst of it and then the end results been everything’s fine. It’s like if I wanted to pay somebody five plus figures to go not find something, I’m sure my kids would volunteer. Again, it’s just irksome. I mean you don’t know until after you’ve done it because you do have to poke at everything and I get that part of it, but it’s still frustrating especially being early on.
Rob: Wait, are you saying you were frustrated with Google and the audit? Oh Mike, every time, I’m going to keep bringing it up.
Mike: My anger is interesting.
Rob: Oh, next call, I’m going to bring it up again just to see, just to troll you. Cool. A couple of other things before we wrap. One thing I had asked you about was differentiation. I’ve mentioned, Bluetick is very similar and undifferentiated from most of your competitors and you had said, “I need to talk to some of my customers more and ask them why did they decide to use Bluetick.” Think about it as a job to be done thing. You had talked to a few customers. You got a couple of ideas. One was to have customers in multiple sequences at the same time. In other words, to be able to re-add customers to the same sequence.
It’s a two part question. One is have you gotten more confirmation that those two feature ideas or differentiators are enough? Are you going to build those? And I guess the third part is, maybe we’ll start with this, have you had more conversations with customers since we last spoke? Talk about those other things.
Mike: I’ve had a few here and there, yeah. I still don’t necessarily know if what I have in mind is the deciding factor of like, “Hey, this is going to make Bluetick leaps and bounds better than the other things that are out there.” I believe that it is, but I don’t necessarily know that for a fact. I don’t have any real basis for that. It’s a gut feeling more than anything else.
Rob: How can you turn it from a gut feeling into something? I would say a gut feeling is like, “Yeah, I’m like 30%, 40%, 50%.” How can you get this to 70% or 80%? Whether it’s with one of these things or whether it is something entirely different that you start hearing from other customers.
Mike: I think the first step one, obviously talk to some more of my customers, but two is to start running the idea past. I almost want to say go back to basics when I was first flushing out the idea of Bluetick with a bunch of different people and ask them questions about, “Would you be […] this?” or a product that solves this particular problem. I think it’s a matter of going to some of my list and finding out, “Is this the type of problem that you would be interested in solving inside of your own business?” I feel like it’s more of a reframing of what Bluetick does versus selling what Bluetick is, if that makes sense.
Rob: It does. Now, is it reframing what it does just like, “Hey, it does this one extra feature or two extra features,” or is it in a whole position? Like it’s a more broad branding/positioning shift?
Mike: A little of both, I think. In order to do it, I would have to write some more code. Obviously, I don’t want to go in that direction unless I hear more from people about, “Hey, yeah, this would actually be very compelling for us to use that.” But the other thing is when you hear about an email follow-up tool, your inclination is cold email. There has to be some sort of a brand positioning of, “Hey, this isn’t just for cold email. This is how it is positioned differently in order to make it work for people who aren’t just doing cold email.”
Right now, Bluetick serves a very, very specific piece of functionality for people in their business and if they don’t have that particular problem, then they won’t use it, but that also makes it hard to identify the types of customers because two businesses who are largely identical, one of them may be doing that activity and the other one may not be. It’s hard for me to say, “Oh, go after SaaS companies that fits this profile or in this particular business,” because unless they’re doing that particular thing, it doesn’t solve their problem.
Rob: Got it. So between now and the next time we chat, is this high on your priority list, to speak with this additional customers to try to suss this out?
Mike: It is. I wouldn’t call it my number one priority, but I really need to find what that one differentiating feature or factor is that would make it easy for people to understand what I originally had in mind with Bluetick as a vision as opposed to what it currently is and does today and what people see it as.
Rob: Yeah. I wouldn’t disagree with that. It’s kind of what I’ve been saying the whole time back to episode 448 when we first really dug into all of this. My point was Bluetick is not differentiated and you’re not moving fast enough. That was the thing, whatever that was five months ago. Now, you’re through the Google audit and you’re through a lot of this speed bumps and does feel like, (a) step one, figure out how to differentiate it, and then (b) differentiate it and move fast enough such that folks you’re trying differentiate away from aren’t keeping up with you or aren’t going in the same direction or whatever. That’s what I’d be doing, too, in your shoes, would be a lot of conversations.
I think that cold emails probably can play into that. Again, they’re not cold emails, but it’s your LinkedIn connects and the Bluetick cancellations and such. In addition, I’d probably talk to every customer you have right and just try to figure out why they’re using it, how else you can make it to be sticky. You have those two ideas of those features I mentioned earlier. Those seem like nice to have as interesting tweaks but I’m not convinced. My gut is that they aren’t enough. They aren’t enough to be really, really differentiated and make people switch. Just like what can you have that will make people switch from other tools or choose your tool when they’re comparing yours to the three or four other tools that are top of mind for me.
Mike: I mean I have an idea of exactly what it is that I would want to talk to people about because it’s something that we can talk about it here if you want. The basic idea using Bluetick as a mechanism for identifying things that you need from other people and this is something that you can do with Bluetick right now, but let’s say that I need a W-9 from you or something like that, the question is, how do I get that from you and how do I make sure that I follow-up with you until I get it?
That was one of the things that Bluetick was born out of, was when basically before Xander started helping out with this stuff, I was doing all of the data gathering for all the sponsors for MicroConf. I would say, “Hey, I need logo. I need title text. I need an image. I need all these different things,” and asking them for it and then going back and forth like, “Hey, I’ve got these two things but not this other one or this third one over here or fourth one over here,” and using Bluetick instead as a mechanism for gathering that stuff.
That’s basically a way to build a process into Bluetick such that solve a very tightly-defined problem to gather digital materials from other people and they may fit a specific format, or they may be documents, or Excel spreadsheets or something, and then Bluetick can manage that back and forth process to say, “Hey, I’ve got these three things but not this other thing over here.” Does that make sense? There are like 30 different use cases for it but just very simplistically, that’s the idea.
Rob: Yeah, that makes sense. That’s a clear path or a clear job to be done. The job to be done, you’re saying, is not cold email, it’s not increasing sales, it really is to get something in a workflow from other folks and to do that with email. My first thought when I hear that is right now, the tool I use for that is Gmail and Boomerang. If I email someone for an image, and a this, and an invoice, I Boomerang it in a week if there’s no reply or two weeks if there’s no reply and then I just respond to it again. I know that’s different. Probably in Bluetick, you could put a whole sequence together and if they don’t reply, it automatically does it. I don’t have to type the next one.
I think that Boomerang does a really good job on a small scale and if I only had five sponsors to deal with, that’s what I would do. Bluetick is going to be limited only to those that needed that scale. Cold outbound email or sales emails, you’re a 1000 a month or 2000 a month. There’s no way you would do that via a Boomerang, so everyone in that boat needs or should be using a tool like Bluetick or one of your competitors’.
Whereas, the niche you’re talking about, I think, not only is that a lot smaller and it’s further away from the dollars that the people are trying to generate for their business, because more of a back office thing, but it has to be people doing that at scale. Again, if you’re onboarding five clients a month, you’re probably just going to do via email. If you’re onboarding 100 clients a month, 100 sponsors a month, now it makes a lot more sense to use a tool like you’re talking about.
Mike: A lot of what you’re saying makes sense but I had a conversation with somebody who does onboarding at a small scale and they already know let’s say 30 or 50 different things that they need from the customer. Rather than saying, “Here’s the list of all the stuff that I need,” they only ask for two or three. The reason they only ask for 2 or 3 is because if they ask for 50, it’s going to be overwhelming to the customers. Instead, they only ask them for a couple of things and then they modify that list over time.
So the idea would be you’ll have this, I’ll say a workflow, where you’re asking for something from somebody and you need Bluetick to follow-up or you need a follow-up mechanism in place to basically manage the process of gathering that stuff and you don’t want to overwhelm them with everything all at once. That’s just one instance.
But also, I’ll tell you from experience of managing the sponsors. Once you get up to more than about five conversations in parallel like that where you have different things that you need from people, it gets really hard to manage. It’s not 1000, it’s not even 25, it’s like 5 or 6, and it’s just a nightmare to manage, even 5 or 6.
Rob: It’s interesting. I think, in the interest of time because we’re wrapping up, I want to make a note of this and circle back once you’ve had more conversations, I don’t think it’s a terrible idea. It’s an interesting position. I think there’s a hole we could dive way into how I would think about this because if you’re going to build a generic tool to do that and there are three different use cases, you have a problem. If you can pick one, what’s the biggest one of those used cases, the biggest pain point? Back to conversations we’ve had in the past, is it conference organizers trying to get sponsors and speakers to give them stuff? Is it, whatever, we could pick any vertical and is that where you start? Or is it lawyers trying to get stuff?
Mike: Is it CPAs trying to get tax information from their customers?
Rob: Exactly. Right. All that stuff.
Mike: I’ve had those conversations, too, and it’s a nightmare. I hate to go down the road of going after real estate brokers where you’re trying to get a loan and you need all these different things to apply for. I don’t want to deal in that particular business, but that’s another particular use case where there’s a lot of back and forth and a lot of information that’s needed.
Rob: That’s the thing, is all those verticals we just named or several of them are a pain in the ass to sell into. They are inundated with cold outreach. They don’t adopt new technology quickly. I tweeted this out a few months ago where I said you’re either dealing with competitor pain or customer pain these days if you’re building a SaaS. It’s a general comment but 10 years ago, you could go into a greenfield market with somewhat sophisticated customers, and you could build a SaaS app, and they would come and adopt it, and that was it. It was cool. But things changed over time and today, there’s not much greenfield left and a lot of the greenfield is like, “Well, there’s not a really good this and that for lawyers, or this and that for CPAs, or this and that for dentists.” And so, there’s not some specific thing for them. It’s like, “Cool. I’m going to build for that because I don’t want competitor pain. I don’t want a bunch of completion that chomping at my heels all the time.”
On the flip side, you’re now going to have customer pain. What I mean by that are high maintenance customers, they could be long sales cycles, they could be high price sensitivity, they are high support because they’re not technical, that’s kind of stuff. I’m not trying to make an unequivocal 100% of the time this is the thing, but these are the patterns that I’m seeing. When I look at the TinySeed batch, or when I look at people who apply to become in TinySeed, or when I look at my experience, you got to pick one of those. Trying to get away from both of those is very, very hard, I would say dang near impossible these days unless you get pretty lucky and be early to a certain market for early adopters where the market is just emerging.
I can name a few. Baremetrics is one. Early on, he didn’t have either. Now, he has competitor pain because he has a bunch of competitors, but he got in so early with the Stripe Metrics. I think another one is Tuple, Ben Orenstein’s. They filled a big gap that was left by a startup that have been acquired and shut down and right now, they don’t have competitor pain and they don’t really have customer pain either because it’s a lot of developers.
In the long run, Tuple will have competitor pain because people are watching that and there are going to be competitors that are developed there. They have a bit of a technical mode but in the long term they should just expect to experience that eventually, but since they have a head start, that’s good.
That was my long diatribe about that’s where as you decide if you want to do one vertical or five verticals to start with or wherever you want to position this. I certainly think making it a generic horizontal tool where the headline says get anything from anyone in an automated way, I think that’s a really tough way to go because in a lot of examples, people are trying to fit it into like, “What it is actually then? Is this like Mailchimp?” “No.” “Is it a cold email outreach tool?” “No. It’s not that.” So they’re trying to fit it into a bucket. That’s what people do when we go to these sites. If it’s something that’s just completely new, it’s always you’re just explaining the same thing over and over.
This is interesting. I’m making a note here because I think this is the key to unlocking something with a small group of people. This is how you find early signs of product market fit with a small group, and they love it, and they rave about it, and they say, “No other tool does it this way.” And they have different feature request for you than they would if you’re a cold email tool. If you can make it work and it’s a big if, that the direction you head. That’s how you find that you start growing.
Mike: Yeah. It’s just interesting how many conversations I’ve had have led me in that particular direction. There are a lot of things that remind me of, back when I first started working on Bluetick. It was some of the problems I ran into in trying to onboard sponsors for MicroConf or to sales for AutoShark. A lot of them are overlapping in a very similar way. Some of those features, they just never really got built.
Rob: So wrapping us up today, each time we’ve tended to talk about motivation, sleep, exercise, and stuff—I don’t want to run so far over what we dive into all of that today—I’m curious, over the last five weeks, what has your motivation been like?
Mike: I would say it’s fluctuated. It’s gone up and down. There are definitely days where I don’t have a whole lot of motivation and I feel like the world is pressing down around me. It’s not that I don’t have any options, it’s just that it’s hard to figure out what to do. And then there are days where I don’t even think twice about it and I just sit down and start working and banging things out, but it fluctuates from day-to-day. I can’t say that there’s a great pattern to it or not a great pattern but like an identifiable cause for anything that’s going on. It’s not really sleep-related. It’s not really exercise-related because I’m sleeping fairly well and exercising pretty well. So I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
Rob: I was going to wrap up the interview anyways, but the recording software crashed right at that moment and then Mike and I were basically just text chatting. But I feel like we’ve got a pretty good feeling of where Mike’s at and I’ll probably dig more into motivation, sleep, and exercise in the next episodes. It’s kind of got short shrift here. But I, for one, am feeling good for Mike about his Google audit effect that it’s done and I feel like he can get past it and move on. I’m super interested to hear what progress he can make on trying to get on this podcast as well as really the cold email as the one that I’m banking on as well as the differentiation. Those are the things that I’m going to be continuing to press him on.
These are the points of accountability that I think helped us all to move forward, is to have someone bring up what we said last time and say, “Where are you with that? If you’re not as far as you should be, why not? Okay. Let’s talk about that again in a few weeks.” Is starts to get in your head that this is a real thing that you need to move on and make progress on. Otherwise, the business doesn’t move forward.
I always enjoy talking to Mike. I feel like these are enjoyable conversations for me when I listen back to them. I feel like there are a lot of value for folks to follow his story, to hear what he’s going through as well as to take away how to keep pushing a business forward and have accountability. In a way, it’s a one way mastermind. It’s a little bit how I think about it. It’s kind of he’s reporting on things and I’m helping move it forward. I appreciate that Mike takes the time to keep us posted and we’ll keep doing this as long as it’s interesting.
If you have a question for the show, because we do a lot of Q&A episodes, email us email@example.com and you can even attach a voicemail or link to a Dropbox, Google Drive, MP3, or whatever, or you can leave us a voicemail at (888) 801-9690. Per usual, voicemails go to the top of the stack and we will have another Q&A episode coming up here pretty soon.
Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt. It’s used under Creative Commons. In any podcaster, search for “startups.” We’re typically in the top five. You can visit startupsfortherestofus.com to get a full transcript of each episode. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you next time.
Rob follows up with Craig Hewitt of Castos, as he shares some big news on the podcast
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike walk you through some of the talks and key takeways from MicroConf Europe 2019.
Items mentioned in this episode:
picture of an evening reception at MicroConf Europe 2019 at Vala Beach
Rob: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Mike and I talk about our key takeaways from MicroConf Europe 2019. This is Startups for the Rest of Us episode 469.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing startups whether you’ve built your fifth startup or you’re thinking about your first. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the mistakes we made. So, where this week, sir?
Mike: Not much. Just working on my security audit for Google.
Rob: I was going to ask about that. That’s the running thread. I think in the next couple of weeks, we should get back a full updates episode, but talk me through it briefly.
Mike: It started earlier this week, so I scheduled it for the week after MicroConf Europe because obviously I wasn’t going to be here at last week. I didn’t want to start it the week that I wasn’t here because it’s expensive. We went through, how to kick-off call, they said, “Which environments do you want?” and then they asked, “How much can your server handle in terms of requests per second?” and I hesitated a little bit because I wasn’t really sure what to tell them.
On one hand, I want them to do a good job, but on the other hand I don’t want it to fall over and die on itself. I said, “Try to be a little careful, but I should be alright generally if anything happens. Just email me right away and be done with it.” I just turned them loose.
Rob: Do you think it was a good call to do it immediately after MicroConf Europe? I guess you flew back on Wednesday, I flew back on Thursday. It wasn’t just jet lag. It’s just that extravert hangover being around so many people. It’s so amazing and you want to stay up late and have a bazillion conversations but then, I find that on the flight back I am completely worthless. Basically, I can’t do any work and frankly, several days after MicroConf, I just don’t book anything. Even doing phone calls is a real stretch for me. The fact that the audit started the week after, were you geared back up again by then?
Mike: I was, but I didn’t have all the stuff ready to go right away. We ended up starting about a day late, but that was partially my fault because any email come through that I didn’t fully read absolutely everything in it, it said, “Reply to this email just to confirm that we’re good to go on this date.” I confirmed it on the call but then they followed it up with an email afterwards just to verify and I hadn’t replied to that.
So we ended up starting a day late, but there’s a bunch of paperwork that I was still working on to get over to them. So, documentation, policies, procedures, that sort of stuff. Anyway, we really didn’t start any too much later. I could be a lot worse. It could’ve been them saying, “Oh. Well, our schedule is booked for the next three weeks, so you’re going to have to wait three weeks.” I’m glad that it didn’t come to that.
Rob: That makes sense. From my end, really spent a week-and-a-half in Dubrovnik. I guess it was eight days and the first part of that for several days was second in-person TinySeed retreat and then rolled into MicroConf Europe and then I stayed one extra day just purely because I couldn’t get a flight out at a good time, but that was nice to have that extra day. Most people were gone and that view from that hotel is just amazing.
If you’re on Twitter and you saw any pictures—we’ll even try to grab a picture and put it in the show notes here. Tt really is the nicest venue we’ve ever had in MicroConf fat ever in either continent. There’s something about being that close to water. It’s the Adriatic sea and there are boats out there and there are people’s scuba diving.
With TinySeed, we did as a kayak trip although I couldn’t go out there because I was busy writing my talk, but it really is just amazing to be in the venue, you want to talk, then the break starts, the curtains open, and you’re just looking out on the sea. It’s this feeling of we’re not trapped in this conference room for six or seven hours today.
We are in the conference room intermittently between walking out on the deck, hanging out in the sunlight, listening to seagulls and that kind of stuff. It really is this very unique venue that we found.
Mike: Did you get to go swimming at all or no?
Rob: I had time to swim. I don’t particularly love swimming in cold water. It wasn’t that cold but it was cold to me. I’m from California. I like hot tubs and I like warm swimming pools, so no. I sat there and waved at people and took pictures at folks while they swam and they did it because they were like, “Yeah, I want to prove that I was in the Adriatic sea and stuff,” but I did not get up in the actual water past my knees.
I did get it last year. For listeners, this is the second year we’ve done it at the same venue and I’ve don’t it last year. How about you?
Mike: I went twice. I was planning on going to the third time just before I left, but then I realized that if I went swimming just beforehand, then it was probably going to be an issue because all my stuff would be all wet. I just didn’t want to make it all wet with the sea water and then get on a plane because I would have to put them in a plastic bag or something. I’m like, “No.” I just don’t want to do that.
Rob: Twenty hours of flying? Yeah. We definitely got a lot of positive feedback about the venue. It was interesting. There were more first timers there than usual this year and I’m not sure what to make of that. There were also just more attendees than we had at most MicroConf Europes. It was between 130 and 140 and folks were basically saying, “You should do it here again next year.” That was the overall consensus that I heard.
Normally, we move it every 2 years. I moved in Prague for two years, Barcelona two years. We only did Lisbon for one due to issues with the hotel and then we’ve done it two years in Croatia. So, next year we would think about moving it, but folks are saying, “No. Do it here another year.” Is that what you heard as well?
Mike: For the most part, I did hear one or two people say that we should have it in very specific places. I asked if they lived there and they said yes.
Rob: Yeah, it doesn’t count. If you recommend a city, I’m always like, “Great. Do you live there?” because then I completely discount it. If you don’t live there and the event recommend it, it’s going to be one vote for every city everybody lives in, and then we’re just going to go to the place with the most attendees from that.
The only real drawback for me about doing it in Dubrovnik again is it’s hard to get to. Even for Minneapolis, which is a delta hub, I have to do three flights. I have two stops and it takes me 17 hours each way. It’s not that far. I can get to Heathrow in London. It’s an eight-hour flight tops, direct. It’s not that Europe is that far. It’s that it’s these three hops with the gaps between and customs in all this and that.
It’s not the end of the world. If you’re in Europe, I’ve heard it’s actually pretty easy to get to, so I’m willing to discount that, but the other thing that has me concerned is we do it in shoulder season because the hotel is a five-star hotel. It’s €250–€300 a night during the main part of the year, during high season, but when we do it, it’s €120 a night. It’s way, way less expensive, but as a result, the risk of having a bunch of rain is higher.
In both years, we’ve dodged it and within two or three days after we left, it just started pouring rain most of the days and stormy. That’s my one concern with doing it next year is do we roll the dice again a third time?
Mike: Well, we have had in Vegas for a long time. I feel like rolling the dice is a real par for the course. We do run businesses, too. I guess you could say that, but with running your own business, you actually have some measure of control. Maybe a fall solution, but you do feel like you have control with the weather totally out of the window, literally and figuratively.
Rob: Someone pointed out I said that to someone the other day and they said, “How bad would it be if it was raining outside? Would that ruin the event?” and I was like, “No, I guess it wouldn’t. It would just be different. The evening events would have to be indoors, but we’d still have the view of the ocean and frankly stormy ocean is pretty cool.” I actually think even if it rained, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Mike: Yup, I totally agree.
Rob: Sounds good, so no verdict yet. We’re actually still getting survey responses from the attendees about all the myriad of things, the talks, the venue, and all that stuff. So, news to come on that in the future once we figure ourselves out.
Today, we wanted to walk through a handful of the talks. Talk through some key takeaways that you and I took away from these talks. We never have time to go through all the talks. We had nine speakers and eight attendee talks. With 17 different talks there’s just no chance we could fit into an episode like this. But we do hand-pick a few of the talks that we feel like had the most comments, or the most positive feedback, or just that had really interesting takeaways.
The first one talk we’re going to talk about is from Peldi Guilizzoni of Balsamiq. He is a multi-time MicroConf speaker and he kicked off the conference with his talk, Victories in Tragedies: The Three Year Journey Building Balsamic Cloud.
Balsamiq has traditionally been a desktop app, one Peldi built, but they basically wanted to move it into the cloud. Part of his description of the talk was, “Build a SaaS app, they said. It’ll be great, they said. It turns out, running an online service is a big pain in the SaaS.” What did you take away from his talk?
Mike: The biggest takeaway I had was when he was talking about the data loss. I guess somebody had run something and it started deleting a bunch of customer data. They didn’t realize right away, but it started deleting very, very rapidly. I forget how long he said it has been running for. It’s six or eight hours or something like that before they noticed it. It already deleted a ton of data.
His advice for that was don’t have anything in production that’s going to delete a lot of data all at once. Have it parsed out over a long period of time like 30 days, or 60 days, or something like that. That way it will get deleted eventually, but you have more time to interject yourself into the process.
I think he said they’ve gotten about 20% done before they had noticed it and were able to do anything. If that time period were longer, then they would have more time to notice and do something about it.
Although I would question whether or not over that time period, are you going to notice it? What sorts of controls or things you have in place, especially for a new app that you’re building, and trying to figure out things as you go? You’re probably not putting every single safety precaution in place that you probably should and would it be something that you would notice over a longer period of time or not?
Rob: Yeah. That was the most memorable part of talk for me as well. It was partly just because how devastating I know that would feel. He said in the talk where they deleted, I believe it was 1200 or 1600, I forget which number of mock-ups. If you don’t know Balsamiq, you can mock up a web page or you can mock up a user interface or whatever, so across hundreds, if not more than 1000 customers, they deleted 1200–1600 of these work spaces, in essence.
My favorite part about it was when he said, “I turned to my co-founder, my wife, and I said, ‘Well this is it. We sure had a good run.’” He was basically implying like, “We’re done. This will kill Balsamiq.” That was how bad it felt. It turns out that wasn’t the case at all. There were a few pissed-off people. Most people didn’t care. I think a bunch of them had wind up being the example mock-up or whatever.
Bust just when you hear a story like that, I’ve never had a mistake as that big where you lose data, but I have had mistakes where we accidentally send double the emails to this whole list, or via a bug, or we accidentally didn’t send these emails and they were delayed by two hours and this person is doing the launch.
That’s how it feels at the 3time. It feels like this is unbelievable, this is catastrophic. and it’s not going to fix itself. In retrospect, it was three years ago, I think he said, two or three years ago. They obviously recovered from it and frankly I didn’t even know it wasn’t that big of a deal in the sense that I hadn’t even heard about that. It wasn’t like it got widely publicized and people on Twitter just railing on or anything.
Mike: I feel like you and I could probably to an episode at some point on the worst engineering mistakes that we made to that nobody noticed, like sending double emails to people and things like that. You and I probably both have a couple of pretty good stories about it if we could both share.
Rob: I know. We definitely have stories and some of them were back when I was an engineer than others were just the Drip team, just bugs sinking through because you’re shipping software fast.
That was a good piece of Peldi’s talk, but overall, the talk was that the three years that it took them to build and deploy this, the starts and stops, the highs and lows. I always love a good founder story, and they did a good job of having takeaways. It wasn’t just a story but this is what we learned from that and if you’re in the same place, this is what you can do as well.
Mike: Something else I noticed that was in his talk that caught my eye, which was something I wish I had found out a lot earlier than I did, was have a small dashboard that allows you to do different things for your early access customers.
For example, having a button there that just simply allows you to click on it and allows you to, say, reset the trial for this particular customer or delete this customer outright just because they’re gone and they’re not going to use it, or they just need to reset everything up because everything got completely screwed up and it needs to be blown away and restarted.
Those are the things that are simple enough to overlook but also important enough that you’re probably going to run into them time and time again. By the time you need it, it’s a pain in the neck to just say, “Okay. Let me whip this up for you,” and it takes 8 or 12 hours of work to do all that stuff. Then, the next customer comes along and you have to do it again. You may or may not have sat down and taken the time to think through all the different things that need to be done for that.
I think there were four different buttons he got on there and one of them was restart trial, one was delete the account, and there were a couple of other ones I forget what they were, but it was a very simple sounding piece of advice which have gone through the process a number of times before. It seems obvious, but in retrospect, it may not have been at the time.
Rob: It’s every admin console I’ve ever built had built for a SaaS app, but I like what Peldi went through. I wish I had a screen shot of the Drip admin dashboard which we called faucet because faucet drip, pun, water. That is what we called it. It’s a MicroConf joke. It literally was called that. We had all these buttons.
I remember early on I would say, “Derek, we need to restart someone’s trial.” He would go into the rails console and he would do it. It was a state machine, so he would say, “Set it back to the state.” But after asking him to do that two or three times, he’s like, “There’s now just a button on every user record. Just click that and all it does is change the state machine.”
There were a bunch of things, so actually I wished I had a screenshot of it. I’m sure I can go back and get one but…
Mike: My joke would be actually that he just didn’t want to talk to you, so he made a button so you could do it yourself.
Rob: Oh yeah. That’s not a joke. That’s an actual reality. It became more efficient and we had a bunch of buttons like that. It’s just something you run into as you’re running an app.
The next talk we’ll talk about is from Irina Nica. She works for HubSpot and her talk was a little bit about SEO, but the title was, How to Build Buzz and Backlinks on a Bootstrapper’s Budget, and it was more about getting inbound links. It was off-page optimization. We also had a talk that was more about on-page stuff.
This is cool because every day this is what she is thinking about. This is what she does full-time, she has a team that does it, and HubSpot is really good at this. We hear her run through the key things to think about if you’re going to take this approach. Coming from someone who is an expert in the space, I appreciate that.
Mike: She’s had some really great advice on doing podcast tours and guest posts and really talk about the process of getting backlinks in a way that looks organic, even though you have to work at it.
There’s a couple of different strategies. One is just throw your website out there and hope that people link to it. I think it’s what Google expects people to do, but it just doesn’t work. You really have to be proactive about it and find ways that are going to be useful to other people to get them to link to your site, whether it’s tools or you do a podcast tour. As part of that, you get links back to your site because people are linking to your profile, or your website, or what have you.
Even just doing guest post where you are literally writing and then you have in your byline you can have something there that says, “Hey, click here for more information about what I do or what we do,” or even if there’s just resources that you provide to them, that they can look back on your website. All those different things add up and over time, what you’re really looking for is for things to go up into the right in terms of the number of backlinks.
I also like how she had this internal dashboard that they use to figure out what the terms were that people were thinking back to the website she was working on. I thought that was pretty ingenious because there was basically a Google spreadsheet that she had up there and it would basically parse the HTML. I think it was a parse XML function or something like that, but it would look for certain key terms on the websites that they were linking back to them. I thought that was a really cool hack which I don’t think I’ve seen before.
Rob: They’ve taken what is often done is a haphazard effort of trying to build backlinks. They’ve really systematize, they’ve turned it into a repeatable system, and at their scale, with the team working on it, that’s what you have to do. It was an interesting insight into how that’s done.
From 10 years ago, SEO has gotten a lot harder, but in certain elements or in certain ways, it’s almost like there’s less competition because there’s less people doing it because it did get so hard, so if you’re able to execute on getting backlinks and getting high quality backlinks, you can really move the needle today.
Ten years ago, it was easier to move the needle if you’re willing to just buy links and do greyhat stuff or blackhat stuff, but the tide has shifted and I think we’ll continue to move around under our feet all the time because it’s Google and they just do what they want to. You have no exposure to that, do you, Mike? No experience with that.
Mike: None whatsoever.
Rob: The other thing we did is at every MicroConf, we tend to have this 30–35 minute slot where we do something experimental. Sometimes, it was a Q&A with Jason Fried at MicroConf Growth last year and that was an experiment as much as it was just a sloppy kind of comes together at the very last minute. Or we did a panel a few years ago in MicroConf Europe.
This year, you did an AMA and I kind of couched. The interesting thing is I don’t know if it was 40% of the people were new, maybe 50% new in the room and I didn’t want to assume that everyone knew your story or anything, so I started the first five minutes and basically talked about the years of MicroConf and your history with the podcast, then Bluetick and where you’re at, how you’re not happy with it’s not supporting you full-time, then we kicked in and people ask do anything. I was pleased with the range of questions that you received.
Mike: I love how you position it as this 30–40 minute slot where we try something experimental, and usually as we have it blocked off or something, we decide at the last minute that it’s not a good idea, and somehow I end up in that slot.
Rob: It has happened before, yeah. “We don’t want to do this. Mike, quick. Fill in.”
Mike: Yeah, I was cool. I was a little worried about whether the context of the questions that were going to be asked was going to be relevant to some of the newcomers, especially if they haven’t listened to the podcast or been following along with the story, so I think you gave us a great summary of that. There are some really interesting and challenging questions that came up. You were in the audience, so you would have a better handle on how it came across because I haven’t seen the video.
That’s actually something else we can talk about before at the beginning of the episode is we recorded this series of talks this year at MicroConf Europe, which is not something that we’ve done in the past.
Rob: That’s right. This is the first time I believe we’ve had a professional photographer at a MicroConf, so we got some good stills and then this is the first time we have a video recording of that Europe one. That will be interesting to watch your AMA.
I was in the audience, but I was running around with a microphone. I was definitely paying attention. but I was also distracted looking for the next hand to come up. There were fascinating questions about Bluetick. There was like, “How can we in the audience help you?” and at one point, someone asked you how it is that you managed to keep going, and they’re at it for themselves. We all get discouraged, we know you’re going through a tough time, I believe the guy said, “So am I,” or, “So have I been,” at different times, and, “How is it that you stay motivated to keep going?”
Honestly, AMAs, especially live, can be hard if you get hard questions, and I felt you did get a couple of hard questions. It wasn’t people trying to be mean at all, but it was just honest questions of, “How do you keep going, Mike? You’ve been through all this,” and I thought your your answers were clever. You’re at your best in this thing, so once these videos come out, you should watch this AMA because you were making jokes and your answers were just really honest. I didn’t feel you sugar-coated or BS’d your way through them.
Mike: Thanks, I appreciate that. I did feel the vast majority of the questions were, I don’t want to see easy answer, but they felt relatively straightforward and I felt comfortable answering them, as opposed to previous situations where I’ve been up on stage and either been asked questions I haven’t really thought about, and being put on the spot in terms of what I’m going to give as an answer or how I want to portray. I was just like, “You know? I’m just up here, I’m comfortable being up here, so I’ll just answer them in the best way that I can, with the knowledge that I have. If I hadn’t thought about it, then I’ll just say that I don’t really know yet.”
Rob: And I rounded out the first day with my talk, Lessons from the Field: Five Proven Strategies for Faster SaaS Growth. It was interesting coming up with this talk because in the past I have typically look back at the prior year, I’ve said what have I done that was hard, what did I done that I learned, and try to write a talk around it.
Basically, I tell a story, I try to pull the takeaways that people could apply their business, and that’s a formula that has worked for me. At this point, I’m not doing that anymore. For me to talk about building TinySeed just doesn’t make sense to apply that to SaaS apps.
What I do instead is I talked to most of the companies in the first TinySeed batch, got their permission to basically share high-level info about what they’ve been up to. We’re approaching halfway done with the first year and there’s a bunch of interesting information advantage, in essence, that I have and that I’m no longer working in one start up. I am seeing the inner workings, including the financials, the day-to-day, and see what they’re doing across 10 startups plus my investments.
I have another 10 angel investments and I’m not working with those as day-to-day, but I really do start to have a view that is differentiated from someone working on a single company. I’m seeing trends, I’m seeing things that three, four, five people in the batch are all doing, and seeing how it’s working for them. That’s however at the talk.
I literally took five things—with permission—that people in the batch are doing successfully and unsuccessfully. I didn’t just say they’re doing cold email or there are more people moving credit card or going freemium. I then dug into why I think that’s working and when I think that’s working. I talked about, “If you’re in this type of vertical versus that, I don’t think you should do cold email.” That was the gist of the talk.
Generally, I felt it came off well. When I get up on stage, I’m always like the first time I’ve done a talk. I don’t know how is this going to go. Even though I’ve rehearsed it 5–6 times in a row in real time, it’s not until I get up there that I really know how it feels.
Mike: Yeah. I think it was a really good talk. If I were to rephrase or reframe what you said about your standpoint on it, it’s almost like when you’re building your own start up you’ve got this silo of information you’re only privy to what’s there. The position you’re in now within TinySeed, you’ve got access to 5 or 10 of the silos simultaneously, versus previously you were looking at one silo, then you move on to a different start up, you look at a different one. But because the time frames are different, it’s not always easy to correlate lessons from one to the next.
Right now, you’re seeing them across all of them at the same time and you can use that to extrapolate what is and isn’t working, whereas there’s very few other people who’d really have that insight, or knowledge, or ability to be able to analyze that information. Other people have to be limited by it, not just their own information, but by the virtual working in their startup. You’re a little bit removed from it, not completely removed, but a little bit. So you can see what’s going on and then think about the implications versus those startup founders have to look at their own stuff and what they’re doing.
Rob: The other thing I did that I enjoyed is I had just gotten back maybe 20 or 30 of them at the time, but it was the initial rough graphs from the state of independent SaaS survey that we did through MicroConf last month. I had these bar graphs embedded in Excel. They’re accurate, they just don’t look great. They’re very plain, but I had pieces of those that I could share. I believe I should maybe four or five throughout the talk. That felt good too, to have some type of data.
I wasn’t trying to use them to say, “Oh, this is working. Look at these graphs.” It was more like, “This is added context of I’m super surprised at how many companies are not asking for credit card before their trial.” We have numbers on that now for more than 1000 nonventure-backed SaaS companies. So, I included that in the part where I talked about specific examples of TinySeed companies doing this. Then, I brought in the higher level of like, “Hey, there’s more the 1000 who responded and they’re doing it, too. This is an interesting trend. Let’s keep our eye on it.”
Another talk that went over well was Craig Hewitt’s talk and it was, Staying on Top of Your SaaS Metrics, Knowing What to Measure and What Not To, to Help Maintain Sustainable Growth. What’s your takeaway from Craig’s talk?
Mike: One of the things I liked that he drew attention to is the fact that he looks at his own metrics every day. There are a lot of different schools of thought on whether you should look at them on a daily basis or not. If you look at him every single day, then it’s probably going to be distracting and you’re possibly spending too much time on it. But he obsesses about his revenue on a day-to-day basis. Some people only look at it once a week or once a month.
He said that it almost doesn’t matter how often you look at it as long as you’re actually on the right track. If you’re going off-track, then obviously something’s wrong. There is a certain amount of personal value that he places on looking at it every single day, whereas somebody else is looking it at every week. It’s not right or wrong either way. It’s what you are most comfortable with. I think the correlation he drew between certain KPIs and saying these things don’t matter nearly as much on a day-to-day basis or week-to-week basis as these other ones. I think that was an important point to make.
The other thing I liked about what he did was he talked about the different phases of the customer journey and how you really need to concentrate some of your marketing on where people are in those. For example, for Castos, he talked about new podcasters and how people who want to start a podcast but don’t really know where to begin their problem or where, but then there’s other people who don’t even really understand that they have a problem. It makes a difference as to what it is that you’re building for, marketing materials, or the types of people that you’re targeting for the pieces of marketing collateral that you’re putting together.
Rob: Yup. I like his talk quite a bit and I the way he looks at metrics. He had his rules of thumb and, of course, I’m comparing my mental rules of thumb to his as he was doing it. He has a very metrics-driven approach and it reminds me of my approach of how I’ve built and grown SaaS apps. It resonated with me and in his thought process of, “Hey, here’s how to get in, here’s a look at the numbers, and here’s how to grow.”
[…] grow an app that if you’re charging $500 a month, $1000 a month, and knows your bottom-end prices, you don’t tend to do a bunch of split testing. You don’t tend to do these big, “Oh, I need to look at my churn number,” because when you only have 20 or 30 customers, one of them churning is this huge number, but it’s an anomaly because you just don’t have the law of large numbers going.
Whereas, when you’re building a service that is $20–$200 lowest price point and you’re in the $10,000–$100,000 month or up, you just have a lot of customers. That’s where looking at these things in aggregate and having these rules of thumb is really helpful for optimizing your funnel. That’s what he’s talking through.
And the last talk of MicroConf Europe 2019 was Shai Schechter. He’s the co-founder of RightMessage with Brennan Dunne and his talk was called, RightMessage Year One: From a $75,000 Launch Week, to Virtually Bankrupt, to Product Market Fit. I enjoyed his talk as that is a tale of going through it and he was pulling out these actionable things, the mistakes they made, things he felt other people could apply. What did you think about it?
Mike: I think that it was not obvious from somebody being on the outside of that company, what a dire situation they were in. I’m not sure exactly the time frame. It was probably about a year ago it seemed, where they were burning through money a lot faster than it was coming in, their churn was really high, and they essentially had to put the brakes on and say, “Okay, look. This is a problem. Our churn is so high that we’re bleeding customers faster than we’re getting them. We don’t have enough money coming in to cover all of our expenses.”
If you’ve got some level of funding that’s fine, but you still need to bridge that gap at some point. They were actually deviating from bridging that gap. They’re going away from it rather than closing it. It was interesting to see that they had a bunch of different options to try and they had to use all of them. It doesn’t sound like it was a pleasant experience in any way, shape, or form, but they were able to do it and they were able to essentially save the company and continue forward.
That’s not really something that I’ve ever gotten or seen from their company. I think it’s just interesting to see it laid out on the table like that, which is what you’d expect to see to MicroConf talk. There’s not too many other conferences I’ve been to where somebody will lay out the company troubles and say, “Yeah, we almost completely went under and if it weren’t for these things that we did, we would have.”
Rob: What I appreciated is, again, he didn’t sugarcoat it. He talked about how hard it was, he talked about where they made mistakes, and he talked about what he would do differently in the future. It wasn’t this, “Hey, look. We survived,” and, “Isn’t this an amazing success story?” He was still like, “Yeah and we’re not done. We’re doing better now, but it’s not a 100% complete Cinderella story now and we ride off into the sunset. There’s still a lot of hard work and a lot of stuff going on.”
I enjoy that talk and we headed off to watch the sunset from Vala beach, which is attached to the hotel. Overall, I really enjoyed this year’s event, not just because the weather is amazing. I got to meet a lot of new people, which is cool, but I also got to see the returning folks, the Kristoffs, the Benedicts, and all the other people I’m not going to name because I don’t forget somebody but just folks that I haven’t seen. Some folks are on every other year schedule and we haven’t seen each other for a couple years. It’s cool to settle back in and just see old friends and make some new ones. I appreciate everybody who came.
Mike: I agree. It’s always great just to catch up with those people in person that you catch them online, or through Twitter, or something like that, but it’s very different being in the same room and talking to them. We really appreciate everybody coming out to MicroConf regardless whether it’s in Dubrovnik, or Minneapolis or Vegas. It’s always great to just come together with other people in the community, talk business, and catch up on personal […]. I really feel there’s a lot of that too, not just the business aspect. It’s meeting other people, learning about them, their journey, their struggles, their family, and what’s going throughout their whole lives. It’s just nice to have those connections make those friends and revisit them every year.
Rob: We’re also up to our Twitter game this year. I know you didn’t see it because you’re not on Twitter, but Tracy Osborn was there helping out and she was taking a picture of every speaker I got on stage and tweeting that out. I was actually doing video interviews on my phone. I got this cool little attachment that just plugs right into the iPhone’s lightning port and this directional mic it’s really high quality sound even though you’re just filming with an iPhone. With the iPhone 11, the video quality was really high.
It was nice. I was just doing behind the scenes interviews and just throwing that up on Twitter as well. It’s something we haven’t done in the past, really haven’t had the time or the bandwidth, to be honest, because it’s pretty intense to run the event and then also try to do that, but that was pretty fun and I enjoyed it. I feel we got more.
There was more of a groundswell around this event. There were more pictures posted by us and there were also by the attendees. It leads to this social media momentum mostly on Twitter, but that’s a good thing. It’s something I hope we can continue to do, such that even if you aren’t able to make it, you still do get some concept of what the experience is like and you do know what’s going on at different times of the day. It’s just nice to be able to do that and include more than just 150 or 250 or how many people can show up in the room.
If this sounds interesting and you’ve never attended a MicroConf or you’re not on the mailing list, you should head to microconf.com and enter your email. We don’t email that much. We just email to let people know there’s an event coming up or a state of independence has survey. It’s not an overwhelming volume of it, but we’re going to continue to double down on MicroConf as we head into the new year. If this all sounds like fun, you should be in the know.
And that wraps us up for today. If you have a question for the show leave us a voicemail at (888) 801-9690 or email us firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt. It’s used under Creative Commons. You can subscribe to us in any podcatcher. Just search for “startups.” If you want a full transcript of this episode, wait a week or two after it’s posted and head to startupsfortherestofus.com for that transcript. Thank you for listening and we will see you next time.