In episode 680, Rob Walling goes solo again, covering a wide variety of topics including listening to customers, but not necessarily their solutions. He also cautions against making decisions based on one customer’s feedback, but listening to the crowd. Finally, Rob highlights the importance of doing whatever it takes to succeed as a founder.
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Topics we cover:
- 1:52 – Paying attention to customer problems, not customer solutions
- 6:52 – Don’t listen to a customer, always listen to your customers
- 9:42 – Finding product market fit with limited information
- 13:01 – Identifying the appropriate time to grind out the work
- 19:18 – Don’t be above “taking out the trash”
Links from the Show:
- MicroConf Connect
- Ruben Gamez (@earthlingworks) | X
- Ruben’s repost of @sequence_film
- ComicLab (@ComicLabPodcast) | X
- Dave Kellett (@davekellett) | X
- Brad Guigar (@guigar) | X
- The SaaS Playbook
If you have questions about starting or scaling a software business that you’d like for us to cover, please submit your question for an upcoming episode. We’d love to hear from you!
It works this way for products too. Pay attention to the problem customers describe, not so much the solution they propose. This is an encapsulation and a really intelligent rephrasing of something that Derek Reimer and I started talking about probably I’d say 2014, 2015, which is your customers will come to you with featured ideas. Don’t build those features, dig in and find out what is the job that feature is trying to accomplish.
Welcome back to another episode of Startups For The Rest of Us. As always, I’m your host, Rob Walling. And this is the podcast where we dive deep into building real companies for real customers who pay us real money where we’re not constantly on the venture treadmill needing to raise money every 18 months or go broke. We’re not anti-funding, we’re just anti the narrative that the only way to build an incredible software company is by raising funding.
Today is a Rob solo adventure. I’m going to cover some topics that have been on my mind lately, including listening to problems, not solutions. Listening to your customers instead of a customer doing what it takes and maybe a few more topics based on how the time winds up. And one more thing, we’ve recently reopened the doors for our online community, MicroConf Connect. MicroConf Connect is our virtual hallway track. It’s a vibrant community of SaaS founders helping each other and discussing wins, challenges, and frankly how to grow faster.
A couple months ago we paused new signups to improve the platform based on your request. With MicroComp Connect 2.0, we’re rolling out three membership tiers packed with new perks like weekly coworking, exclusive discounts, a searchable content library and more. Whether you’ve been a member of Connect or not, you really should check it out. microconfconnect.com.
My first topic of the day comes from Twitter. I just refuse to call it X. I’m sorry. I saw a tweet from Ruben Gamez, Earthlingworks and he was quote tweeting sequence film. Sequence underscore film. Sequence was quoting comedian, Bill Hader on receiving feedback. And there’s a little video clip that’s, I don’t know, a minute long and it’s pretty insightful. But the quote that they post in the tweet is, “When people tell you something is wrong, they’re usually right. When they tell you how to fix it, they’re usually wrong. And Bill Hader is talking about being a standup comedian or being a writer in film and how people can tell you when a joke doesn’t land or when a concept doesn’t land.
But knowing how to fix it requires something that I’ve talked about many times on the show, which is that creative spark and taste to be able to find the right solution because there are infinite ways to try to make a joke or a scene better. And most of them won’t land.
So how do you find one or two that makes it really scream? And usually people giving you feedback are not those that are also creating. It is this interesting thing where you are on the outside and I’m listening to a podcast. And if I’ve never recorded a podcast, I have a certain amount of taste to say, “Oh, this is good or this is bad based on my taste, or this is high quality and this isn’t.” But for me to then suggest, “Here’s how I would change it. I would add different music here. I would’ve asked this question. That’s another level. That’s that Ira Glass level of your ability, your skill through hard work has to catch up to your taste.
And that’s what Bill is calling out here. When people tell you something is wrong, they’re usually right. And when they tell you how to fix it, they’re usually wrong. So why is Ruben Gamez retweeting this? Because he says it works this way for products too. Pay attention to the problem customers describe not so much the solution they propose. This is an encapsulation and a really intelligent rephrasing of something that Derek Reimer and I started talking about probably I’d say 2014, 2015, which is your customers will come to you with featured ideas.
Don’t build those features, dig in and find out what is the job that feature is trying to accomplish. Over and over we would receive different feature requests from folks who are trying to do complex workflows and they would come in and say, “I have an email sequence in Drip and I want to be able to have an if-then L statement and add a tag between them and then branch based on that. Can you add that to this screen?”
And we even had people mock-up the email sequence screen to work for their exact use case. Derek and I would get together and it never felt right. It was like that solution is terrible, but this problem is real. This person is this marketer, is trying to accomplish something that is very difficult or impossible with our current setup. So how do we build this in? And we mold it over four months, at least six months, maybe a year. And we took all these disparate points of feedback and you’d get that one and then you’d get one that was quite a bit different. But it was like, “Well, these are similar,” and that someone wants to do something off the cuff and they want branching decision-making.
How do we build that into the product in an elegant way? And of course, after six to 12 months of building and growing and we hired another engineer, it started culminating in the sense that we need something probably visual to allow people to do all of this stuff. And that was when we started looking around realizing, “Oh, there are actual visual workflow builders in email marketing and marketing automation and they allow you to do some of the things these folks are asking plus more.”
And that was a big lightning strike realization for me where I realized that a swath of problems, a swath of requests, could all be fixed with one feature. Now it was a huge feature and took Derek five months full time to build, which if you’re looking at it from a big company perspective, that’s actually very fast. And if you’re looking at it from a startup perspective, it’s agonizing that it takes that long. But that was our visual workflow builder in Drip and it solved literally 50 feature requests that had come through in the span of a year. And all these feature requests could have been individual settings, an individual toggle, an individual hack to a screen.
This is, in my opinion, what separates great product people from average. I wouldn’t say mediocre, but an average product person will listen to something and say, “Oh, the customer wants this. Let’s go build it and let’s add that checkbox. Let’s add that slider. And let’s hack this screen because It’ll get us to what this customer needs. Not looking ahead 10 moves, only looking ahead one move on the board.” And that’s what Ruben Gamez is talking about here is your customers are not going to have the product sense to be able to design your product. They don’t have the vision for what it needs to look like. They don’t have the vision for what the UX needs to be to keep the elegance in. They see a problem they have and the shortest path to a solution. And they’re not worried about maintenance or the user interface getting crafty.
They’re not looking three, five, 10 years down the road like you as a founder should be. So just one more reminder again in the words of Ruben Gamez, “Pay attention to the problem customers describe not so much the solutions they propose.”
My second topic of the day is a quote from one of the co-hosts of the Comic Lab podcast. I like listening to podcasts that are not in the startup space. Comic Lab is two comic artists who have made a living doing Kickstarters and Patreon. Their comics are quite funny, especially Dave Kellett. I’m a huge fan of Drive and of Sheldon. Sheldon is just tasty, goodness, nerdy humor that my sons and I have read and love. And the thing I like about this podcast is they talk about things like ventriloquism doesn’t work in comics. They talk about things like kerning and about drawing thought bubbles versus speech bubbles in comics, panel construction, thumbnails. These are things I have no understanding of and will never need to because I have no aspiration to be a comic artist.
But so many of the principles that they talk about as two 20-year professionals who have made it in a space that is very competitive and I would say is similar to startups. And the fact that there’s a lot of people that want to do it and a few people who actually do it, and even fewer who can make a living at it, and even fewer who can make a living at it for 20 years. So listening to them talk about the lessons they’ve learned, and realizing the massive parallels between that and starting up. And also taking some thought lessons, some thought experiment lessons away from them I think has been beneficial to me.
One of the quotes that co-host, Brad Geiger said was don’t listen to a customer, always listen to your customers. What he means by that is the squeaky wheel. There’s often one person who is so squeaky and so loud about a thing and they can convince you that just because they’re being loud and repeating it over and over that you should do that. So in their world, it’s making a T-shirt with this particular character on it or it’s publishing a book, collecting whatever particular strips on a theme that you could collect.
And in our world, it’s listening to that customer who is just so convinced that if you built this one feature that they need so badly that it would just blow your market wide open. In fact, they’re so shocked. They’re shocked it already doesn’t do this. Really surprised that your product doesn’t do this massive edge case feature that you’re probably never going to build. But boy, they just know. They’re a business person and they’ve run a business for 20 years and they just know that that feature.
It’s only going to take two or three months of development is going to make or break your business. And that’s a case of don’t listen to a customer, always listen to your customers. If five customers are starting to request this or 10, or 50, this is where being a founder or a product owner in any form requires a little bit of some science, but it has to have some art in it as well, right? There’s that founder gut. There’s the vision for your product mixed along with the actual hard left brain data that you’re getting.
This is where you have to balance that. And this is why finding product market fit specifically and then even the first few years of product development are so challenging because it’s a ton of decisions, hundreds of little decisions that you’re making, they’re very hard and they set the tone of your product and of your company. And you’re making them with dramatically incomplete information. It’s not like you have 50% of the information. You have 10, 15% if you’re lucky.
And that’s why if you take someone who does product management at a large company or a mature product that’s been around for 10 years and you put them in the spot of we don’t have product market fit or we have five customers get us there to where we’ve built something that people want and are willing to pay for. Usually they won’t succeed because they’re too used to having so much data and they’re used to making hard decisions with mostly complete information. But in your shoes, whether you’re on day one of your company or day 1000 a few years in, you’re still probably making a lot of hard decisions with incomplete information. And that’s why listening to your customers rather than a customer was a good reminder for me to hear from Brad Geiger.
Well, the exact application of it obviously differs between writing a comic strip and building a product. It can be especially hard when let’s say you have 10 customers and one customer says something over and over. It’s like 10% of your customer base. You just don’t have enough data to know if that’s the right way to go. And that’s why in that early phase you do have to think about how do I trust my gut and what’s my vision of the product? And that has to play a pretty big role in guiding where you are headed because if you let customers guide you, most of the time, they’ll just have you rebuild MailChimp or Basecamp or HubSpot.
They’ll just have you replicate that because that’s what they’ve used and that’s what they know and they’ll just keep suggesting those features and pretty soon you will have just a clone of another product. You have to ask yourself along the way, “Am I properly integrating my own vision for this product along with listening to my customers?”
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My next topic is about doing what it takes. Sometimes you have to roll your sleeves up and you have to grind. And sometimes it’s grinding for five hours on a Sunday afternoon and sometimes it’s grinding 60-hour weeks for two or three months when it really needs to get done. Now, that’s not necessarily a sustainable pace, but there have absolutely been many, many times during my career, especially as I became an entrepreneur where I had to work harder than I wanted to. I wanted to work 40-hour weeks and instead I worked 60 sometimes a little more when I was working a day job and working nights and weekends.
I get questions from time to time. Sometimes they’re directly to me and sometimes they’re on this podcast about how to balance that, about how it’s difficult. And frankly sometimes I get questions about how do you even manage it and balance it all.
Not me in particular, but how does a founder. How do other bootstrappers go about making this happen when doing what it takes can be hard and it can push you past a comfort zone. So to demonstrate this, I want to tell you a story. So as you know, over the summer I did a Kickstarter for The SaaS Playbook. That went really well, sold a few thousand copies, and once the Kickstarter ended, I wanted there to be an opportunity for people to be able to purchase the book because the day it ended, there was still all this traffic to the Kickstarter page and all this traffic coming to saasplaybook.com, which is where the book lives. It’s the home of the book.
And while the Kickstarter was on, there was a button that said, “Go back to the Kickstarter.” But the day it ended still getting hundreds of uniques a day, I want to be able to take pre-orders that are after the Kickstarter, right? So the Kickstarter had exclusives. It was a limited and one time print run of hardcovers. But when the Kickstarter ended, you could basically, I think pay the same amount and get a paperback copy that would come after the book was released.
So I was taking pre-orders. And while the Kickstarter was fulfilled by a professional fulfillment house, because of course it was thousands of copies of the book, the paperback copies, I figured they might sell 100, 200 paperback copies, which it is feasible to have an assistant as we had back then who comes to our house, drives our kid to school and then can help with little packing needs like that. She’s a part-time local assistant. And it’s totally feasible to have someone print shipping labels, pack up books and get them fulfilled.
So that’s what I did. I took pre-orders on The SaaS Playbook. It uses Squarespace cart and I ordered a couple hundred copies of the paperback print on demand from Amazon. And I waited until the book was released. As the release date of the book approached, because obviously I wanted to fulfill all the Kickstarters before shipping out anyone who had ordered after that. As that date approached, our assistant who had been with us for a couple years, decided to move on.
She’s headed off to a master’s program and she decided it was time for her next act and we wished her well. So I thought no problem. I have a 17-year-old in the house. He’s going to college in the fall, but certainly I can pay him $2, $3 a package to just fulfill… It’s about the same as you pay at a fulfillment house to print these and fulfill them. Again, if there’s 100, he makes two or $300 just sitting around listening to podcasts and watching YouTube and filling these out, doing it on a weekend day.
This is a great gig for him and it means that I don’t have to do it because I don’t particularly want to pack a bunch of books. And then as the timing approached and everything actually landed, the Kickstarter was fulfilled effectively the day that my son left for a two-week writer’s camp during the summer. And so suddenly it’s me and my 13-year-old. Sherry was here too, but she’s not going to fulfill books. So I asked my 13-year-old, “Will you help me fulfill these?” And he said, “No, not really. Seems like a lot of work.”
So I asked myself, “Do I wait two weeks?” Some people had ordered what a month and a half, two months prior for these books and it didn’t feel great to wait another couple of weeks to fulfill it. And I asked myself, “Do I try to hire someone on Craigslist? Do I try to find a local college kid? Do I just wait and not fulfill these yet?” There are all these options. And one afternoon Sherry went to trapeze as she’s apt to do. For those who don’t know she does a lot of circus training. That’s her hobby.
I sat down and I thought, “You know what? I’m going to fulfill maybe 50 of the orders just to see how hard it is and if I can get a system down, I’ll convince my 13-year-old to help me with it.” And so I sat down and I massaged the CSV. Man, it was like 30 minutes just doing that to get the CSV out of Squarespace and get it to work, and the shipping software that I’m using. So I’m messing around 30, 45 minutes.
Finally, I do it bulk prints, a bunch of labels. So then I’m sitting there and I think I was watching YouTube or I was listening to podcasts and I was like, “I have all these labels and I have all these envelopes and these books. I can totally just listen to it. It’s like doing the dishes. It’s just a rote thing. You pack, pack, pack. I was even writing notes if someone will say in Minnesota or California since I’ve lived there. I was like, “Hey, California represent.” It was a fun thing and I was able to write notes on it and say, “Hey, see on the Twitters.”
I’m packing these books and before I knew it I was maybe 90 minutes in and I had packed up 50 books. But still had a bunch more address labels. Maybe I was a couple hours in. I realized this isn’t fun per se, but this feels good to get this done. And is this the best use of my time? Can’t I pay someone two or $3 to pack these books? In a perfect world, yes. But the way it was working out, it was going to be hassle to do it, right? Because again, lack of assistant, lack of 17-year-old. I could go try to hire someone. It’s a one-off job on and on and on. It’s that thing of do I just do what it takes to ship these books?
And so that’s what I did. Honestly, at a certain point my back started hurting because you’re doing the same thing over and over. It took me about five hours, all told start to finish to get everything packed, labeled, boxed up for the post office. And during that time I thought a lot about how I used to do this when I worked construction. As an electrician, I used to prefab things where you prefabricate, you attach a box to some MC cable and you make a hundred of these. And then when they’re out in the field, they can just grab one. It’s a certain length. It’s marked with tape and they don’t have to do it on the job site and you are sitting in a warehouse doing it and so you can do it very efficiently.
It’s just fabrication, right? It’s like manufacturing of something. And that’s what this felt like. It was a rote process. And while I didn’t necessarily enjoy doing it, nor do I consider it something I would do again, nor do I consider it the best use of my time. I just did what it took to get it done. And I’m going to be honest, a lot of the founders that I see that succeed, they just do what it takes to get done.
Now, maybe they’re not packing and shipping books. Again, I’m not saying, “As a startup founder, you need to be willing to pack and ship books because that’s not the point of this.” The point is that even though today I run two successful companies, we’ve raised $42 million. We’ve invested in 130 SaaS companies. MicroConf has this incredible audience. Even though all that’s in place, I’m never above taking the trash out. I’m never above doing the dishes. I’m never above packing books when it needs to get done.
I’m going to be honest, so many of the founders that I see who are wildly successful, they do what it takes to get it done. When I look at what Jason Cohen was doing in the early days of WP Engine, now this is 12 years ago now, he just did what it took. He didn’t say, “I’m above that or since I’m a third time founder I’m not going to do grunt work.” He did the grunt work. He had the conversations,.he validated the idea. He wrote some code before he hired developers. He did what it took. When I watched Heath Shaw do his most recent effort, FYI, he was grinding on that trying to find product market fit for a couple years.
When I look at TinySeed founders who are building these incredible multimillion dollar businesses and we have quite a few of them now, I won’t say every single one of them we know is willing to just grind and go all in and do what it takes. But a lot of them are. And this is not something that you have to do every day, all day for the rest of your life. This is not 60 hour weeks, 12 months a year, but this is not five hours packing books every Sunday, five hours checking your support queue every Sunday, five hours writing content every Sunday.
But does this need to get done once in a while? Probably in the life of a business, especially when you are at idea stage and you’re just grinding, and you think, “I don’t know if I really want to do this.” If you’re not sure if you want to do it, you probably shouldn’t because I talk about how success is made up of hard work, luck and skill. Luck is something you really can’t control directly.
Skills are something that you can build over time. But the other thing that you can really control is putting in hard work. And when I think about the nights and weekends that I put in when I was getting started and how I didn’t really want to do that, but the end goal of quitting that day job and having enough income that I didn’t have to beholden to someone else and I didn’t have a boss, it was worth it.
So when I would stay up till 1:00 AM, I’d get off at five or 6:00 PM. I’d come home, I’d eat dinner. And if Sherry was out, I would stay up till 1:00 AM working on stuff, working on website copy, writing some code, doing support, and then I’d get up and go to work. Did I do that endlessly for years? No, I didn’t. But being willing to sometimes just do what it takes to sometimes work a little harder than maybe you’re used to is the quality that I think more entrepreneurs need to embrace.
I can imagine someone listening to this thinking hustle culture, work all the time. Again, that is not what I’m saying. But at certain times, there’s a time and a place where you have to buckle down and do what it takes to be successful. I hope you enjoyed the three topics for today about doing what it takes, not listening to a customer, always listening to your customers and paying attention to the problem customers have not solutions.
I’ll tell you a problem I have. I don’t have 100 five star reviews on Amazon or Audible. If you have read The SaaS Playbook and you think It’s worthy of a five star review, I would really appreciate it. If you go to amazon.com or amazon.co.uk or Audible, wherever you bought the book and leave a five star Review, it would mean a lot to me and it helps me tremendously in being able to spread the word about the book.
I believe The SaaS Playbook across the Kickstarter and all the other sales through the website and the Amazon ecosystem, and Apple Books, and all that, I believe it’s north of 5,000 copies sold now. I think it might be north of 5,500 if I’m honest, which is pretty dang good for a self-published book. I’m looking to continue to push that forward. I truly appreciate any support you’ve lent. I know many of you listening to this back the Kickstarter or have since bought the book from saasplaybook.com or Audible or Amazon. And again, I’m on a drive to get to 100 reviews on Amazon and Audible. I truly appreciate any help you can lend. With that, I’ll wrap up this episode. I will talk to you in one week. This is Rob Walling signing off from episode 680.