In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob flies solo and answers a number of listener questions. The topics include monetizing SaaS with ads, should a WP plugin company consider SaaS and more.
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In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, I kicked Mike off the show. I fly solo and I’m answering a bunch of listener questions, covering topics ranging from monetizing SaaS using ads to whether a WordPress Plugin company should consider launching a SaaS, as well as how to deal with the struggles of launching a two sided marketplace. This is Startups For the Rest of Us episode 383.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob, and Mike has no power for the past day or two. He has no internet, and I think a storm came through and knocked out a bunch of power. He won’t have it back he said at the earliest til midnight tonight. I jump into a car with my son, my 11 year old. We are heading to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for Gary Con in about two hours. There was no overlap.
Mike emailed me and let me know he wasn’t able to make it and so my goal was to find a guest this morning. I emailed three or four people short notice and no one is able to show up. Here I am, we ship every week, every Tuesday morning an episode comes out.
I dug into our listener question bag and we were down to one listener question last week, we’re up to eight or nine this week, which is great. I enjoy these episodes when we answer listener questions. We’ve been doing them a lot more lately. What I’ve noticed is it feels like there’s a lot more listener participation and it also feels like we’re keeping up with topics that are not just coming out of our heads.
These are really questions and topics that you, the listener, are thinking about. It feels like I enjoy these episodes because I feel like they’re as relevant as we can be to the moment of what you’re thinking about and what you’re launching as a listener base. We are here to share our experiences, to hope you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. Also, to weigh in on questions that you have as you’re growing, building, launching your startup.
Let’s dive into our first question. It’s from [Dylan Dee 00:02:10] and it’s about whether he can use advertising as a SaaS revenue model. He says, “My company is Dunwich Technologies, it’s a healthcare focused consultancy. We’re developing a SaaS app to help patients better understand their confusing medical bills. I see the value in one off uses, doesn’t feel like an app that could garner much daily activity or many daily active users. It’s more like an every so often use. This coupled with not wanting to charge for the app leaves me with few revenue options. Would medical/pharma ads on this app be the only or the best way to monetize it in your opinion?”
My opinion is this will not work at all. Because if you don’t have a lot of daily actives, then ad based revenue models are gonna bring in pennies for you. I would be shocked if you have people logging in once a month or once every other month. Let’s say you had 100,00 people using the app and they only log in once a month, you’re gonna make hundreds of dollar. It is catastrophically low, the ad rates are just very low these days. You look at a company like Facebook or Twitter, Google, and the only reason that ads work for them is because they have so many people constantly using the app.
If you’re going direct to consumer and you don’t think you can charge for it or don’t want to charge for it, I would think of this as more of a lead gen thing. Can it generate leads? Can you build up a free customer based and generate leads for your consultancy? Or, can it generate leads for another SaaS app that you may want to charge for, or a video course–I’m just throwing things out.
Obviously, you may not want to create a video course, you get the idea. If you’re gonna build something that truly is freemium but there is no ‘mium’ to it, there’s no premium aspect because you’re not gonna upsell. But actually, that is another thing you can think about is to launch this. See what happens, see if there’s any uptick. If you get 10,000 free users in there asking for more things, you could then consider going freemium and having a paid tier on top of this. Even if it does just a $5 or $10 a month thing.
It’s really hard to do B2C SaaS, it’s not done very often. If you look at even Dropbox, they are trying to pivot into the enterprise because that’s where more money is and the lower churn and all the stuff. Box.net kind of beat them to the punch on that. I think that Dropbox was conceived as a B2C company but if they really want to maximize the valuation frankly, they want to get into the enterprise because enterprise customers have higher lifetime values. And if you look at the stock market in public or even the private markets, companies serving mid market and enterprise, and even SMBs are valued higher than the same amount of revenue serving consumers because that revenue tends to be more volatile.
All that to say, I don’t think you have any chance of making any money that’s gonna move the needle using an advertising model. I would say if you’re gonna build it, if you really want to, give the thing away, see what happens, see if it becomes lead gen. If nobody uses it, then that’s fine too. At least you took your shot.
Our next question is an audio question. It’s about a WordPress Plugin company, whether they should offer a SaaS offering.
“Hey Rob and Mike. I love the show. My name is Kyle, thanks for taking my question. I work for a small WordPress Plugin company. We’re pretty well established and doing just fine, but looking to grow and take on some new exciting project. I have some ideas that I wanted to get your input on.
Basically, I want to see if introducing a small SaaS offering might make sense for our business? Obviously, we distribute our WordPress Plugin, that’s our business right now. Our customers are mostly in ecommerce but I was in the interest of helping our customers succeed and solve real problems that they have. Also becoming as indispensable to them as we can be while at the same time introducing new streams of revenue for our business.
I was wondering if maybe we should consider adding a SaaS offering which we make available only initially to our existing users. Not something that we market to our broad audience, but something that we just silently roll out to users of our plugins already. I’m thinking this could be something very simple, some tool like helping them with their email delivery or file storage, data backups, staging environments, remote site management, reporting businesses sites, something like that, I don’t know. We can make a simple tool, put it in front of existing users and say, ‘Click here to take advantage of this extra monthly tool.’
My questions are, how do you feel about the idea of creating some simple, light MVP simple SaaS product? Initially making it only available to current users of our plugin. Do you have any opinions about the type of SaaS product which would be the best for us to choose if so? Something simple yet still useful to our customers for mostly running ecommerce sites. Thanks so much and I look forward to meeting both of you this year at Micro Conf, thanks.”
This is a great question. I think a lot of WordPress Plugin vendors probably think about this because the appeal of having monthly recurring revenue versus the potential spikiness of WordPress Plugin in the one time sales, it’s appealing. SaaS and subscription revenue is the golden ticket that everyone is looking for.
I would say that just to start with, a, I think this is a great idea. I’m all for it. I think if you wanted to tip toe into it, you should definitely do it. I would say that when I talk to folks who do WordPress or do one time sales, they’re always talking about launching a SaaS. When I talk to people who have SaaS apps, so many of them are jealous of these one time sale products because those product price points tend to be higher.
You might sell a WordPress Plugin for $40 to $200 and you get that nice pop right off the bat. If you sell one customer, you make $200 that month. Whereas if you have a lightweight SaaS, you might make $10 that month from the customer and you gotta keep them around and you’re constantly working to do that to retain them. I know that with DotNetInvoice, which was an invoicing software I owned years ago, it was $300 for the product, for a developer to buy it and use it.
We only sold 8-15 copies a month. You think about that, you think about let’s just say 10, you think about making 10 new SaaS sign ups that stick around and become customers and that is catastrophic. Unless you’re very, very expensive, in the enterprise. But just the normal, let’s say you’re $20, $30, $40 a month, that’s slow growth. It’s gonna be agonizing. Whereas if we sold 10 of DotNetInvoice, it was $3,000 a month. At the time, I was looking to make a car payment or make a house payment and I was doing consulting. This was just a little side project that I didn’t spend a ton of time on. That dollar amount and getting all the lifetime value upfront from your customers, there is some appeal to that.
I would say don’t look that [inaudible 00:09:17]. Do realize that the couple beauties of WordPress are that you do get all the lifetime value upfront and that you have that built-in distribution channel of the WordPress repo, and that also ranks high in Google which then can bring people to your WordPress page and get that free download. With all that said, when I talked to a lot of WordPress folks who have plugins, are making some money, they are always thinking of how to get into SaaS, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. A, I think it’s great. SaaS is more complicated, it levels you up. There’s more to learn, it is that recurring revenue that you’re looking for.
Number one, I think yes, you should give this a shot. Number two, I think you have an advantage because you already have paying customers. I have no idea about this business if you have a thousand people who’ve purchased it or if you have ten thousand, but that is a great built in audience right there to start a SaaS from.
I’ve talked on the podcast and at MicroCon a couple of years ago about what I believe are the only four true competitive advantages in SaaS. It’s who you know, it’s your network. It’s who knows you, it’s your audience, that includes customers. And it’s being early to a space and being a growth hacker, someone who knows how to think through methodically and really grow anything.
This is a case where you already have an existing audience of customers, you do have an advantage over someone starting from scratch. You have customers who probably trust you and like you. If you build something with them in mind, you should be able to have a pretty good strat to your business.
In addition, you probably have a bunch of free users and I know they won’t convert as well but that should be a number that’s 10 or even 100 times the number of people who’ve actually paid you and so you do have some reach there. That’s the plus side.
The negative side is you building a SaaS is gonna take a lot more time than building a WordPress Plugin in general. There’s so much more, there’s the hosting and the infrastructure and uptime and all the stuff that you don’t have to deal with. It is gonna be a big learning experience. I wouldn’t want you to think just because you’ve built software, you’ve built products and you’ve sold it, you definitely have learned a lot but SaaS is going to be that next level up in terms of complexity.
In my opinion, if I were you, especially in the ecommerce space, I would start talking to my customers, you already have them. You can have a few ideas and I think in a perfect world you might have three of four ideas that you start running by customers and saying which one of these would you absolutely, no doubt, would sign up for tomorrow. Take that short list and run it by, I’m sure you know a bunch of them personally, and then start emailing a hundred of your customers at a time even if you don’t know them and being just like, “Hey we’re considering branching into this, would you buy it?” I think you’re gonna get pretty good feedback form that pretty quickly.
That’s how I would approach it, I think, asking my opinion, you’ve asked my opinion about what kind of app you should build, I have no idea because I don’t know. I don’t know your customer base or what you’re currently serving. I think that the best WordPress to SaaS progressions are things like Opt-In Monster where it was just a WordPress Plugin and then they just launched basically the same thing as the SaaS app. It was subscription, they already had the features that they knew that was killer, they had experience in it. They literally just turned the WordPress Plugin into a recurring subscription.
If you’re not on WordPress, you can still use it but you pay the monthly. Craig Hewitt is doing this with his WordPress Plugin Seriously Simple Hosting, and then it’s Castos now. Moving from this WordPress space and just building a SaaS out of it, I think that’s a good way to go because you already have experience with that. You already have inbound interest, folks finding you through the WordPress repo so you do have that traffic source and distribution channel.
Again, I think if you want to get in this and get into the recurring game, I think it’s a good idea and I do think you have some advantages given your current business. Thanks for the question.
Our next question is from Alex Baxter. He says, “Love the podcast, big fan. I’m attempting to bootstrap a startup in the job site space.” A job website, a two-sided marketplace. “As I begin to look for companies to post jobs to the site, would you suggest allowing companies to post jobs for free to get the initial supply of jobs up for candidates to view then worry about monthly fees later, or trying to charge from the get go? I’m leaning towards free but I wanted your thoughts.”
The reason I like this question is because it’s the classic two sided marketplace. Whenever I talk to anyone about a two-sided marketplace, I say basically the same thing. You’re gonna have to figure out which side you need to get first. In this case, you’re not gonna have any job seekers come to the site if it has no jobs. You have to get the jobs up first.
Yes, I would beg, borrow, and steal to get jobs on this site. I’ve seen new job sites launched and they’ll go and scrape Monster, Indeed, Hot Jobs and all these other things in order to populate their jobs and start form there and then spin out. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t do that but it’s a way to think about it. There are jobs postings out there that you would be able to populate on your site and it’s additional distribution for them.
In terms of offering for free to employers, I probably would, because you have no traffic. You really can’t charge them because you have no job seekers yet. In my opinion, it’s probably a, “Hey, this is going to be free for the first three months or six months or until we have 10,000 uniques a month, or until every job receives 50 views per month.” There’s something that just needs to trigger that they need to start paying you. Because you don’t want to get a bunch of your best employers and just be like, “Yep, this side is free to post,” because that’s not a business perpetually.
You have to take an approach that long term you’re not comping your best customers. That’s why it kills me, I‘ve seen people pretty often do this with SaaS where they get this launch list or they get 5 or 10 interested customers and they say, “Yeah, for your feedback, I’m just going to comp you lifetime.” I think to myself no, these are your first 10 people. You can give them a discount, you can comp them for six months, give a discount for the first year. You can do that because they are giving you effort but also providing them a ton of value with the software.
If they’re willing to sit and work for beta software with you, then they probably have a pain point that you’re also helping with. Don’t do that would be my advice. Don’t cut that revenue off at the knees, especially in the early days when you need it most.
For this, I would definitely consider just cold outbound outreach. I’m guessing this is probably a vertical and you probably know all the companies in that vertical and that would be cold emails, cold phone calls to basically just start with like, “Hey, I see jobs on your site. Can I repost these here? Do you give me permission?”
Technically, I got to be honest, I don’t know if you even need permission legally. Whether it’s an ethical thing. You’re providing them with more distribution, you’re republishing jobs, but do they have a copyright to the job posting? They may. You may want to check with them first. You’re gonna have to talk to a lawyer, just do your research on that, but that’s what I would do is if they already have jobs posted in their own site, I would look to just be like I will do this for free for the first three months since we’re getting started up and I will just pull all your jobs in, are you cool with that? Try to make it as easy as possible. I would either a scraper, an importer, hire a VA, I would do something that is able to pull in those jobs so these folks are not having to do the work and it’s just a simple and easy yes.
And then, your results are gonna make or break whether they want to pay you. That’s a cool and a stressful situation to be in. I think back to I believe it was TripAdvisor in their early days. Their big game is building all these SEO pages. They’ll have a destination and then they’ll have all the rankings and then they get all the search engine traffic. They were trying to monetize and they went to cut deals with travel ticketers, airlines, hotels, all of this stuff. They basically said, “Buzz off, we don‘t care.”
TripAdvisor already had a bunch of traffic, they turned on this [inaudible 00:17:22] to some of these ticketers, and I don’t know if it was airlines or hotels or just people selling tickets but whatever it is, people selling the things that they were talking about on TripAdvisor. They turned on this [inaudible 00:17:33] and just started sending a bunch of traffic, they didn’t charge for it and they didn’t get a kickback, they didn’t get a commission, but then they turned it off after two to four weeks. At that point, the people selling tickets said, “Wait a minute, what did you just do?” They said, “We turned the traffic off.” They said, “What do we need to do to get that turned back on?” That’s your conversation.
That’s where you start. You said, “Well, we’re gonna charge you. You need to give us a cut of the ticket sales.” That’s what you’re going to be, that’s the situation you’re gonna be in here is thinking about if you get these job for free for three months and no one applies to your site, they’re not gonna pay you. But if they get fantastic talent, it doesn’t need to be a lot, I’ve used a few job sites where I only got three or four applicants but they were all top notch because it was just a really small niche and I continued using them after that. Very good question, I appreciate that Alex and I hope it helps.
Our next question comes from Robert Andrews. He says, “I’m a long time tech journalist and editor turned content consultant. I’ve written a book it’s called Startup Blueprint: Seven Skills For Founders, Leaders and Builders. It was a bit of an experiment in discovering those skills, distilling them and frankly trying to make my first product. Think it turned out great. I have some good reviews but I’d love to get feedback particularly on the marketing strategy. After spending so long witting the book, I did almost nothing to get it in people’s hands. It’s the proverbial tree which no one heard falling in the forest.
My current approach is to offer a free sample chapter in return for an email triggering email sequence and weekly insights from the book as well as links to purchase,” which I think is a great idea. “Built out the campaign in Drip, put the sign up form on the site, but it has no traffic. I thought of driving sign-ups with Facebook and LinkedIn lead ads but I’m not sure these can be cost effective enough to market product like a book. Any thoughts? Appreciate it.”
This is a good question. I think, as Robert alluded to, this is somewhat of a common thing. Authors don’t tend to think about the marketing side of it. If you were to do this “right”, then you would be doing pre launch. You’d build a prelaunch list. If you listen to ZenFounder, you heard Sherry and I talking about our book for the past six months when we started writing it. You can even go so far–when Brennan Dunn works on a project, he’s actively sharing pieces of it on Twitter, on his blog, to his email list, and just build anticipation over time. That’s what I did when I wrote my first book back in 2010. I was sharing pieces of it getting feedback and that’s really the way to do it because it engages people and then by the time you get there it’s a no brainer for someone to buy it.
If you haven’t done that, then, yeah you are starting from a cold start and especially in this space, there’s so many people with the startup message and the entrepreneurial message. It is hard to stand out. I think Facebook and LinkedIn ads I do not believe will work just because of the cost. Typically, you need LTV of 150 and up to work but you know what? This is the learning experience.
You’ve said it, I totally, personally, would run some Facebook and LinkedIn ads just to see what it feels like. Maybe your conversion rate on a book because it’s so cheap will be way higher than the software that I’ve tried to sell using Facebook and LinkedIn ads. There’s a chance it will work, you can find a small subset of people or some some audience that will be willing to buy it. Even if you only breakeven, part of this is just getting the reach out there. Because every customer who buys from you, now they’re part of your audience. You have their email address and I think that’s a great way to do it.
I think another way is of course, I’ve talked about this a lot, is a podcast tour. If you have no name or no reach, then it is just gonna be cold emails to podcasts, you’re going to have to figure out what the story is because it’s not, “I just wrote a book. Can I come and talk about it on your show?” Because you’re gonna get zero yeses for that. You have to figure out what the angle is for that particular show and why that show’s audience would really want to hear about one of the concepts from your book. If you have any type of network in this space obviously, then that’s where you want to start.
And then of course public speaking, if you do any of that. If you get invited, you can often ask the organizers to buy a copy of your book for everybody at the conference, both Sherry and I have done that and it’s worked out really well. It gets it in more people’s hands, you give them a discount of course. But then you get up there and people get to here you and then you have a video that gets on YouTube or Vimeo and then you can promote that. There’s all these angles.
But I find selling a book a lot different than selling software because it’s so much more about your credibility, it’s about the person who wrote it, and it’s also about the message as well but it’s much less about the utility than software. Software has to solve a problem right away. People will churn out of it immediately. But a book can be an impulse purchase and it’s just about throwing a wide net and finding a lot of people who could potentially be interested. Like I said, it’s an impulse purchase. I will often hear about a book, and just as I’m hearing the podcast, jump into Audible and buy it because my Audible credits were so dang cheap.
I’m on the annual plan and I buy a bazillion books a year, very much an impulse purchase for a lot of people, especially if it’s a $20, $25 book. But the advice I would give is figure out how you’re gonna couch or position your book so that it’s different than everything else. Because when I hear the title, which again is Startup Blueprint: Seven Skills For Founders, Leaders and Builders, it sounds like a lot of other books, it sounds somewhat generic, it’s not super inspiring to me, personally. I probably wouldn’t buy it based in the title alone. You’re gonna have to figure out how do I further differentiate it from all the other books that are talking about the same topics.
An example is my first book came out 2010, it’s called Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer’s Guide to Launching a Startup. I had a couple of advantages. I had an audience of a bunch of developers who a lot were into products. I called it Start Small, Stay Small which was interesting title for a startup book because no one ever talks about staying small. It was like that’s curious. I really niched it down; A Developer’s Guide to Launching a Startup. I actually got a bunch of people telling me, “This isn’t just for developers, anyone can use this.” I said, “I know, but I really wanted, if you were a developer, to just basically be a no brainer purchase for you.” That’s what happened, and the book has done very well.
I’m trying to think what the most recent numbers are, it’s probably sold maybe 12,000 copies at between $20 and $35 a piece. Some of that’s been on Amazon, but yeah, hundreds of thousands of dollars literally I’ve made from that book. That was never the intent but it definitely did very well and I think part of that was because I had this small audience. This was before Micro Conf, it was I believe before the podcast or maybe right at the same time as the podcast was coming out. It was before a lot of this stuff.
I was really just a blogger and a guy who was making a full time living off of these small products and that was about it. It wasn’t like I had the reach or the network or anything that I have today and yet this book just kept selling. I think it also helped, it was a good book. It was well written, I put everything I had into it. I was super prescriptive and super detailed. It wasn’t like it was just a pure marketing thing, there was also a virtuous cycle of word of mouth that helped it continue to spread and sell over the years.
Good question, Robert, I appreciate it. I hope those thoughts are helpful.
I think that wraps this show. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail at 888-801-9690. You can also email an mp3 file or any type of audio file really to us at email@example.com, audio questions go to the top of the stack almost always, answer those first, but we do of course accept text questions as well via email. Theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next time.