In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob talks with Jordan Gal of CartHook about his big move to stop his free trials, move to demos, and increase his prices.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Bootstrapped Web Podcast
- CartHook Pricing Change Blog Post
- Lincoln Murphy blog post about Qualification
Rob: Welcome to this week’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us. I’m your host, Rob Walling. Each week on this show, we cover topics related to building and growing ambitious yet sustainable startups.
This week’s guest is Jordan Gal. You may know him from BootstrappedWeb. Also, the founder of CartHook. In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, I talk with Jordan about what I’ve seen as one of the gutsiest price increases and sales process changes by going up market that I’ve ever seen. The quote that I’m using in the title is, “We went from hundreds of free trials to a few dozen on purpose.” This is Startups for the Rest of Us episode 476.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome in building, launching, and growing startups, whether you’ve built your fifth startup or you’re thinking about your first. I’m Rob and today with Jordan Gal, we’re here to share experiences to help you avoid the mistakes we’ve made.
It’s a great conversation today. In fact, often times I say we have many different episode formats. This one is less of an interview and it’s more of me and just letting Jordan go on this topic. He thought about it so deeply with his team. It was their realization of, “Our churn is way too high and we’re just running on this treadmill that is getting faster and faster, and the business doesn’t feel healthy. How do we fix that? It’s not one tactic. It’s not changing, making people email to cancel you. It’s not moving to annual plans. It’s not the little tactics. How do we revamp our entire sales, onboarding, pricing process, and go up market to change the nature of our business?” That’s what we’ll talk about today.
You can tell during the interview that I’m obviously impacted by it. I was impacted from the outside. I’m an angel investor in CartHook. CartHook has raised a small amount of money. It’s still very much in that bootstrap indie-funded mindset. Jordan is super capital efficient. He’s not on the constant churn to raise that Series A to Series B and go there. He hasn’t raised that institutional money that forces him to go after that. He’s very much like a Brennan Dunn […] with the RightMessage.
A lot of the other companies we hear about that are in our MicroConf community, they’re in the Startups for the Rest of Us community, they’ve raised a small amount of money to hit that escape velocity. They’re not looking to unicorn or bust. They’re not looking to be that one billion dollar company, necessarily. Jordan’s in that camp. I love the way he’s meticulous. He really thinks these decisions through. I really enjoyed the conversation today.
To set the stage, if you haven’t heard of Jordan, years ago he ran an ecommerce company, ecommerce business. If I recall, it was with his brother. Maybe his dad. It was like a family member. They sold that. He had a small exit there. Then, he wanted to start a SaaS or a software tools for ecommerce. He wound up starting CartHook. Originally, it was just cart abandonment emails and they’ve since stopped doing that.
They eventually got to the point where CartHook essentially replaces the checkout on Shopify. The headline of CartHook is “Maximize Conversion Rate and Grow Average Order Value Today.” They have a real competitive advantage that’s very much differentiated from a lot of the other products in the ecom space, and he’s got a lot of traction.
As we talked about during the interview, they’re doing several million dollars in ARR, which is a big deal. They’re in the 25-30 employee range. He’s really just been grinding it out for years to get there.
What I like about this conversation is I was getting investor updates and then I saw a blog post where Jordan was talking about increasing prices. That’s always such a dicey proposition. I then started chatting about it. I asked him what the thought process was and how they’ve gotten blowback. They basically led to the conversation that we have here on the podcast today.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the interview with Jordan Gal. Jordan, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Jordan: Rob, thanks very much for having me on.
Rob: It’s great to chat again. There’s a lot that we’re going to dig into today. It’s been a fascinating journey. From the outside, I have an inside seat as an investor in CartHook. I’ve watched this transformation that you’ve taken over the past year or so. I’m really fascinated to begin with that.
The nugget for this episode actually came when I saw you raised prices. You did it so well, you did it so elegantly with (I believe) almost no pushback. I read a blog post, it was a blog post that you put on the CartHook blog, and I was like, “Man, I really want to get you on the show to just talk about what the thought process was there.” There was so much more to it. It wasn’t just a price increase. There’s this whole story that were going to dig into today. You want to kick people off with letting us know where we’re headed today?
Jordan: This is a topic I’m excited to talk about, something that I’m proud of. The best way to get started is to give some context around what these decisions are, what they entail, and why we got to a point of wanting to take these bigger actions.
What I need to do is to ask everyone to go back with me for about a year. The history of our checkout product, 2017, is when we came out with it. It was very difficult, technically. It was just one challenge after another. Then, we released a version two where we made a lot of big fixes. That’s when we start to hit traction.
2018 was our big year of growth, where we 3X revenue and got to multiple millions in ARR. That was this wild ride. It was fun. I look back on that year very fondly. That’s how I always want to feel.
The holidays in ecommerce are always big, obviously. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and then the holidays. The end of 2018 for us was gangbusters. Then, January–February 2019 comes around. We start to be able to catch our breath, really look at the company, and analyze how things are going. There was one number that stood out that was a problem. It was an obvious problem and something that could not be ignored. That was churn.
In January–February 2019, we’re cruising at 12%-14% monthly churn. Ecommerce itself has high churn. There’s a reason Shopify does not disclose their churn rate because it’s much higher than other software companies. It’s partly the nature of ecommerce, the nature of the market, whatever else. Still, 12%-14% monthly is unsustainable.
On first glance, it looks like the company’s a washing machine. It’s just bringing people in, spitting them out, and that’s not going to work out for the long-term. When we started to really analyze it more deeply, what we realized is that the situation was not nearly as bad as 12%-14% looked. What was happening was that we were attracting a top tier of merchants that really fit with our product. What they were selling, the way the company was set up in terms of the number of people, how technically savvy they were, all these characteristics from revenue point of view, cultural point of view, product point of view, and so on. We really lined up with this nicely. Those customers were sticking around for the longer-term.
The issue was that we were also attracting this lower-end merchant that did not fit with our business. It didn’t fit with the software, sophistication level required, pricing, all that. That large chunk was not staying. Those customers were coming in, doing a free trial, either leaving before the free trial ended, or paying once or twice, then leaving after that. There was a real bifurcation in these two populations.
The challenge was, how do we improve the health of our business, overall? We had a few goals. Why don’t I list out a few of the goals that we came up with when we start to tackle this? We wanted to do things like take more control of our business. A lot of it felt like we were not in control. We just had a ton of word of mouth. It was just a bunch of incoming demand. That did not feel like we were really controlling who was walking into the system. We obviously needed to reduce churn significantly.
At the same time, we also wanted to increase our pricing to align with the value we provide. We hadn’t changed our pricing since we launched and we were significantly better than we had launched. Overall, the saying that we came up with was “fewer, more qualified merchants.” That was our goal. To work with fewer merchants that were much better fit and much bigger overall. Those were the goals.
The way we did it was changing two big things. We changed our pricing and we changed our process. You started off this conversation talking about a pricing change. From the outside, it really looks like a pricing change. In reality, it’s more of a process change like a sales process, like how we bring people onboard. The pricing change served that larger process change.
Rob: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I have a couple of questions for you. You used this phrase, “To take control of our business.” You touched on that a little bit, but is it that you’re controlling who comes through the gate such that you only deal with customers that you deemed are nice or that are qualified? Or is it taking control? Are there any other aspects to that?
Jordan: There are a lot of different aspects to it. What’s happened over the past years as I have gone further away from the frontlines and from the customer interactions, is I have become shielded from the kinetic activity, actually talking and rubbing up against customers on a daily basis. I don’t feel that nearly as much as when I started to.
The anecdote I give was I had a conversation with our support team. I asked them, “What percentage of your work is for people who are in trial that won’t convert or people that have converted but are only going to stick around for a month or two?” They looked at me and said, “Probably 80%.” To me that sounded horrible. I’m setting up my employees to run on a treadmill at a very high rate of speed and looking at them saying, “How do we increase the speed?” That’s not a recipe for a happy employee.
What I mean by taking control over our business, it wasn’t just like this external-facing, “We only want to work with big merchants.” It was also, “This feels like a mess internally.” We’re doing an enormous amount of work for people that don’t fit. The reason we’re doing it is because they just walked in the door on their own and create a free trial. All of a sudden, we are forced to engage with them. It’s definitely unexpected that one of the biggest problems in our business is how to limit the number of people using the product. That’s not what I expected. I expected, how do I beg people to use our product and make them successful with it? That was a reality.
Rob: Yeah. You’re in a unique position, for sure, to be able to do this. There is no model for this. I’ve heard of apps going up market or changing. Drip went from generally as […] to focus on ecommerce. Obviously, that drove some people away in terms of that pivot or that focusing. There’s a model for that.
While you are going up market, you did it in a different way. You didn’t just raised prices. As you said, pricing is one piece of it. That’s where Ifind this whole decision and process super gutsy. It feels risky to me hearing about it. Did it feel that risky to you upfront? Were you just like, “No, I know this is going to work”? Or were you like, “Oh my gosh, this could completely tank a lot of things”?
Jordan: There was definitely a lot of fear. We’ll get into a bit of the math around what helped me overcome the fear was just being very objective in the math and saying, “No. This isn’t going to work out. Even if it’s not very successful, it’s still going to work out on the math and finances.” All of this comes back to the finances. If we had raised $8 million in a Series A, we would be trying to gather as much of the market as possible. That’s not what we’re doing. We raised a little bit of money. We want a healthy, profitable company.
If you want healthy and profitable, then you need to live within your means. The reality of our situation, just taking on as many customers as possible, was not leading to that outcome. It had churn way too high. The amount of work that was happening internally was too high for customers that didn’t make sense. That’s what helped us come to the conclusion of, “Okay, I’m going to take a risk, and we’re going to gather the forces. Let’s get into what we did.”
Rob: Jordan, I want to interrupt you real quickly. When you say it wasn’t working for you, I know that CartHook is doing several million in ARR. It was working to a certain extent, but was it really the churn? That double digit churn that wasn’t working for you?
Jordan: Yes. It’s all relative. Yes, I really shouldn’t be complaining. It is working to a degree because the revenue is where it is and all these. That’s from the outside perspective. From the inside perspective, sitting in my shoes, I have to acknowledge what’s good and what’s bad. Just because I can say we’re at several million in ARR does not mean everything is good. I was fine with that. A lot of this role is holding two things in your head at the same time that are completely in conflict with one another. That’s just the way it is.
The truth is, it wasn’t working for us in a sense that I didn’t like the way the future looked. There’s a straightforward formula that everyone can Google. I don’t remember exactly what it is. It basically tells you what your maximum revenue is. Given your growth and your churn, this is the maximum that you will reach. It will not go beyond that because that’s how math works. You will get to a point where a 12% of your revenue equals the amount of growth your getting, and then you’ll stay there forever, mathematically.
I looked at that and that wasn’t that far off on the horizon based on where we were currently. We still had room. We still had another 100+ MRR to get to that point but I felt that we need to move on this now before we hit that and then all of a sudden everything hits a wall. That’s what led into it.
Now, let’s get to the first big part of the decision. The first big part of the decision was on July 1st, 2019. We are doing two big things. We are shutting down the ability to create a self-serve free trial and we are changing pricing. Two massive things at the same time. A lot of complexity came out of that because when you do that, you don’t want to just do it quietly and not say anything. You do have to acknowledge it with your existing customers because they’re going to ask, “Hey. I noticed you changed your pricing. Does that mean that my price is going to change?” There’s a lot of communication with the existing customer base that went along with the changes that were intended for the non-existing customer base.
Rob: Yeah. I find that’s a good moment where, certainly, if you are going to raise prices on your existing customers, whether you grandfather them 6 months or 12 months or whether you don’t—there’s a whole conversation; we’ll probably going to get into around that—or if you’re not going to raise on them at all, it’s still a good time to get in touch. If you’re not going to raise on them right now or in the future, then you’ll let them know that. “Hey folks, we just raised the prices. We’re not going to do that for you. We’re going to grandfather you for now.” It’s a nice way.
If you aren’t going to grandfather them, it’s a perfect time to get in touch and say, “Hey, by the way, we’re going to grandfather you for a certain amount of time, but then change it up later and here’s why,” and give the whole defense or the reasoning behind it.
Jordan: That’s right. Now, for our situation, we did want to raise prices on existing customers. That’s a complicated thing because people are not used to that.
Rob: Yeah. I was going to ask. There is obviously a debate in the SaaS space. Every founder has their own opinions about it. It’s like, “I heard people say…” You know I’m not a fan of absolutes, right? So I hate it when you say, “You should always grandfather. You should never grandfather. You should blah-blah-blah.” I don’t think that’s the correct way to think about pretty much any of this.
I think there’s something in between and there’s a spectrum. I’ve often thought, “Hey. There are reasons to not grandfather, especially if you can communicate those reasons well in a letter, a blog post, or an email to your audience. If it makes sense to them and if it’s the right thing for your business, then these are the times when I would think about doing it.
I know that had been a hard decision. Grandfather for a period of time is what you ended up doing. Talk me through that.
Jordan: Yes, it was a hard decision and an easy decision at the same time. The math of it was very straightforward, that we would be foolish not to change pricing on existing customers. Here’s why. When we started the business, we didn’t have a full understanding of exactly how our business work from a financial metrics point of view. We thought we were on the software business, where we license our software to people to pay a monthly subscription fee to have access to the software. It’s a traditional SaaS.
The reason we thought that was because that’s what we had in our hands at that time. “Here’s the software. You can use it.” What we didn’t realize was the significance of the payment processing that we would be doing. We do significant payment processing. Hundreds of millions of dollars annually. We did not factor that into the business model. That resulted in our very heavily underutilizing our GMV (Gross Merchandise Value), the total amount of money being processed into our system. We were not monetizing our GMV.
If you look at, for example, Shopify, at scale, they make 50% of their money, $400 million annually around monetizing their GMV. That’s somewhere around $28 billion worth of GMV in total. They’re out over a basis a point. Over 1% of their GMV turns into revenue for them. $400 milion on $20 billion is 1.2 or so basis points.
We were well below that. Our pricing was 0.1%, a tenth of a percent. Shopify was making 10X what we were making on a monetizing GMV perspective. We didn’t realize that when we first started the business. Where we ended up was grandfathering pricing for existing customers on the subscription fee. If you pay $100 a month, $300 a month, $400 a month, or whatever that is, that will stay that way forever. On the GMV that you’re processing through our system, we move it up from 0.1% to our new pricing of 0.5%. It is a 5X but still very much in line with our competition, with Shopify, and with the market overall.
What we had to back it up was our software had just gotten so much better. It’s tough to describe how much better—how bad it was to begin with and how much better it is now. What we did is we put ourselves in their shoes and we said, “If I were a merchant and I had been with CartHook for a year, I had been around when it sucked, now it’s better and I’m happier, but I stuck with you guys this way, how would we want to be treated in that situation?”
What we decided to do was write that blog post that you alluded to earlier, that we should link up, because that was a very complicated blog post to write, and then make a promise that we thought was fair. That promise was, this is the new pricing for everybody, for new merchants. You will be grandfathered into your subscription price forever but your transaction fees will go up. However, we will let you go through the entire holiday, Black Friday season of 2019, and the price increase will only go into effect in January of 2020.
Basically saying, we’re not going to be bastards and raise the prices right before the holidays to maximize the amount of money we can make off you and you have no choice because you’re already using the system. We said, “No. We’re going to forego that revenue because that’s the right thing to do. But we will be raising it after the holiday’s over in January.” That makes sense?
Rob: Absolutely does. The thing I’m fascinated to hear is how did it go over? How many positive, negative comments? What was your sense of what your customer base responded with?
Jordan: The truth is we’re in the middle of it now. We’re halfway through. We sent out an initial email in July. Two weeks ago, we sent out another email. What we sent in July along with the blog post was, “Between now and January 2020, we have six months to earn that price increase in your eyes. Here’s what we’re planning on adding to the product and this is part of the justification of the price going up.”
What we’ve been very conscious of internally and from a product and prioritization point of view is that’s coming due. We will need to send an email to all those existing customers telling them that the price is going up next month and, “This is what we promised you and this is what we’ve accomplished.” We have an internal list of, “These are the things that are worth noting in that email that we can say these are significant improvements and significant additions that helped to justify the price increase.”
When we first sent it out in July, we heard nothing. Just no negative reactions. A few emails about clarification, a few questions, and then all good. That tells me that it went over pretty well and that a lot of people didn’t read it. That’s the reality of it.
Now, things are ramping up. We communicated again two weeks ago saying, “Hey, just as a reminder. In January 2020, your pricing is going to change. We will get back in touch in December before that happens to make sure that you are fully aware.” That communication started to cause a little bit more of a pushback. A lot of it was our fault because we communicated what the pricing change was. What we really should have done is personalize it.
“Last month, you did X and paid Y. In January, if you do the same X, then your pricing will be Z.” We should have laid that out more specifically and we didn’t. Because we didn’t, people started doing math themselves. If you do the math emotionally, you’ll get the wrong answer. We had a lot of emails back and forth just clarifying, “Look, it’s not going up 10X. Here’s the change for you.”
On the positive side, what it has also done is it has armed us with a bargaining chip with larger merchants. If you’re a large merchant and you’re processing $2 million a month in our system, and you don’t want to go from 0.1% to 0.5%, then let’s have a conversation to make sure you don’t go all the way up to 0.5%. Let’s set something up that makes sense, maybe get you in a 12 month contract. Let’s partner on this and do it the right way.
It has helped us get a lot of our larger merchants talking about pricing and moving toward annual contracts in order to lock down a predictable cost for them as opposed to something that’s variable.
Rob: There’s a number of things that I won’t even pull out of that because it’s the right way to think about it. It’s very smart, but one of the things you said was, “Let’s think about it from their perspective.” I imagined that that sentence, that phrase was uttered many, many times in your office when you were trying to make this decision. You thought it through. You and your team thought it through to the extent of some people could say if they were your customer, it would be a little outrageous. I could come out and say, “You 5X-ed my pricing. Even though technically I know I’m still grandfathered in the monthly, but 0.1 to 0.5 is a 5X. I’m going to come on and be outraged.” The fact that people didn’t do that indicates that you had (a) a case. You had justification. And (b) you communicated that in a way that made people feel comfortable. You weren’t screwing them.
Jordan: Yeah. It was not abstract. It was very real. It was, “How is […] from Native Deodorant going to react to this exact email that we’re about to send?” We’ve gotten to know these people over time. We worked for them in a long time. How is this specific person at this company going to take this? Are they going to go write to the Facebook page? Are they going to email us? Are they going to ask us for clarification? Are they going to want to get on the call?
Everything in that communication was based around real reactions. It was a lot of, “We’re here to talk about this. Here’s a Calend.ly link to set up a call with somebody if you want to talk about it.” It was thought through that way.
Rob: That’s the power of being a founder or a CEO who’s in touch with your customer base. Even at several million ARR and at 25-30 employees, you still know a bunch of customers by name. Not only do you know them by name, you know how they’re probably going to react to an email. You think it through deep. The best founders, best CEO that I see doing this, doing hard things and not pissing their customer base off, are the ones who are in touch with them. That’s a big key to this.
Jordan: Yeah and that’s gotten harder. I would say that it shifted away from my responsibility being super aware with these specific merchants, their personalities and relationships, and more just understanding that that’s important. And then, looking at my success team and saying, “Okay. Let’s think about these people. What’s your opinion on how’s this person is going to react?” Just knowing that that is a key thing to keep in mind is now more important than actually knowing and understanding the relationships themselves.
The conversations we’re having internally here is I’m asking my leadership, the people who are in these communications, in these difficult email threads of, “Does this make sense?” “Should I leave?” “You guys are being greedy.” These really difficult email conversations. What I have to do is I have to ask them to put two hats on. “Here’s your empathy hat for when you’re talking to people and we wanted the right thing by them.”
Then, I’m also going to ask you to switch hats, come to the conference room with me, and look at the spreadsheet that says, “When we make these changes, if 30% of our customers leave, and that still results to adding $100,000 to MRR, can you acknowledge that? Do you think 30% of our customers are really going to leave?” The answer is no. Can you carry both those things at the same time? Can you be very empathetic to people and make sure we’re doing right by them?
At the same time, acknowledging if someone leaves, we have to be able to accept that because the math will work out for us. That sets us up to be a healthier company, hire the people we need, and then get a bigger office that we need. We have to have that as part of the goal. It’s not just about what the customers want. It’s also about our business. It’s both together.
Rob: And that makes a lot of sense. That’s a big reason that you did have success with this. What’s next?
Jordan: That’s really the pricing change. Our existing customers, we had to communicate with them. That’s not done, but it’s going in the right direction. Now, the bigger change is the process. Making the switch from self-serve free trials to an application process with demos was the harder call. That was the scarier thing because we started getting good, we started getting to the hundreds of free trials every month. Then, you’re taking that flow of potential revenue and you literally just shut it down 100%. We took a faucet that was all the way opened and we closed it all the way. Now, people could not create a free trial unless we sent them a link to create a free trial. We shut the faucet all the way down.
We went from hundreds of free trials a month to a few dozen. That’s where it got scary because if you think about the nature of churn, it carries on for a few months. If we have this messy washing machine of merchants that don’t fit and only pay for one or two or three months, then they leave, when you shut down free trials, you are now going to hurt yourself both ways. You’re not going to be getting new customers and the customers from the past 90 days are still going to be churning.
It was like, “Alright guys, our revenue is about to go down. Everyone be okay with it. We’re going to keep calm. We’ve had this amazing run of growth. Everything’s going up. Now, we are purposely just going to chop off 10%-50% of our revenue over a 90 day span and we’re just going to be okay with that.” That expectation setting was super important so nobody freak out because I saw what was going to happen. We’re going to go from a few hundred to a few dozen and then the churn is going to continue on.
Rob: That’s really important to point out that, (a) you called that out to your team in advance, but (b) most people who have never run an app, where you have big waves of customers coming in and a lot of trials, if you shut that off, it’s exactly what you said. It’s like this huge wave. The churn is going to crash but it never crashes because your trials bolster it. It just keeps going up, and up, and up. But the moment I’ve had a couple apps where we had hiccups, whether it was suddenly Google downgraded us, the ads stopped working, whatever it is, our trials plummeted.
It wasn’t just, “Oh. We didn’t grow that month because we didn’t have as many trials.” It is devastating because oftentimes, your first 60 or first 90 day churn is way, way higher than your 90 day to infinity day churn. That’s the part that just crashes. If you don’t keep that constant influx top of funnel, it can be devastating. Like you said, 10%-15%, 20%-30%, I’ve seen with smaller apps. It’s painful if you’re not aware, if you don’t look at the math in advance.
Jordan: Yes. This […] back to what you’ve mentioned a few minutes ago, where I should be happy because things are going well. I knew internally that this is what was happening, that the trials were just keeping it afloat. The trial’s just kept overwhelming the churn. If anything happened at all to the trials coming in, then we’ll be exposed. Making this move was like, “Let’s do that on our terms instead of someone else’s terms.”
It’s also why we did it in the middle of the year, July 1st, literally right in the middle of the year, well in advance of the holidays so that we would have our act together now. That’s what happened. We completely stopped free trials and the churn kept going for 90 days. That hurt, but the benefits were amazing and immediate.
July 1st comes in and we just shut it down. You can’t see a free trial on our site. It’s apply for a demo. That terminology was super important to me. It was not “request” a demo, it was “apply.” It was a position of power. This is really good. You’ve heard about it. You’ve heard about the success people have with it. If you want it, you need to apply. We soft pedaled it on the site.
We’re not like, “Apply here to see if you’re good enough for us.” That sucks. That’s not good positioning. It was really, “Apply to see if we’re a fit.” People are like, “That’s […]. You’re basically just saying that we’re not good enough if you only want to work with successful merchants. We’re up and coming. You don’t want to work with us because we’re not big enough. That’s not cool.” In reality, it was much closer to, “Let’s make sure we’re a fit.” Think about all the things we’ve been talking about. It’s not just, “Do you make enough money?”
I read Lincoln Murphy’s blog post about qualification. He had a great write-up about the different types of qualification, where it’s strategic, cultural, financial, all these different things that are in line. We have some merchants that makes $1,000,000 a month, but we absolutely cannot stand working with them. That has now become a factor in the qualification.
Now, we have an actual pipeline. That sales process that was happening inside the product and a few interactions with support is now happening with people, with an application that people fill out, then every morning the success team comes in and either denies or accepts the application. Right now, we’re denying roughly 50% of the applications. We’re just saying, “It does not make sense for you to work with us. Here’s a link to our competitor that might make more sense for you.” We literally linked to the competitor in that rejection email.
Rob: That’s crazy. It’s such an unorthodox approach. It’s the Velvet Rope Policy. It’s just letting in exactly who you want. As we’ve said, it’s a luxury. Most apps needs all the trials they can get. You hit a certain point where that made sense, but I do think that more companies should think about doing this once they hit that point.
Jordan: When I spoke to other founders about this, I got the sense that people were like, “Can you do that? Is that okay?” To me it felt like, “That’s what I think we should do. It felt very strange to be like a slave to the fact that people want to use it, therefore we have no choice but to let them. What? That doesn’t make sense.”
Rob: I’ll tell you what, it’s way better to do it upfront than to let people in. Whether it’s just people aren’t qualified or they’re the toxic types of customers that you can identify pretty early on that you’re like, “Oh boy. This person’s never going to be happy with anything. They’re just going to rag on my staff the whole time. They’re going to Twitter the moment we don’t answer their email in four minutes.” If you can get them upfront, identify them that way, and not have to fire customers who’ve been with you for two or three months who are a pain in the ass (which all of us have to do, it sucks), for that alone, this is pretty valuable.
Jordan: Yes. We call them category four. We have category one, the best of the best direct-to-consumer brands that we recognize. We’d love to work with them, absolutely get them in, let’s give them the white-glove treatment. We have a category two that are a good fit. We have category three that are not quite there yet, it’s on the bubble. It’s the success team’s call whether or not they should come in or not. And we have category four that are jerks. It doesn’t matter how much revenue they make. If they’re just going to make us miserable, they just don’t get in.
Rob: Yeah. Isn’t that a hurricane category one?
Jordan: Yes. Think about what this has done internally. A few things that it has done. First is establish an actual sales pipeline that we can optimize. What we did there is first, we took a stab at what we think the pipeline actually looks like. Think about the different stages. We get a demo whether they get approved. They get the link to set-up a time to talk. Then, they get the link to sign up after that. Then, they create a free trial. Then, they’re launched and have a processed revenue. And then, they’re into the conversion piece of it.
Before, we didn’t have those steps. It was just a free trial and then hope the product does its job. Now, what we did is we set up the pipeline and those steps. We have in HubSpot, but I got a good recommendation from someone (I can’t remember exactly who) to put it up on the wall. I’ve got a bunch of index cards, we’ve got a bunch of markers, and we’ve got these tacky stuff that sticks to the wall. We created the categories as columns on our wall. Each prospect got an index card with their name on it and we would physically move the index card from stage to stage. It was just mimicking HubSpot. You would move in the HubSpot, you’d go to the wall, and you’d move it from one column to the next.
What that did is it showed the entire company in visual, physical format, what was happening with our sales pipeline, instead of just, “I don’t know. We have a few hundred trials.” The second thing it did is it was a dead obvious way to see where the friction was. The friction is the columns that have the most people, pretty simple. What it tells us is that stage in the pipeline is where we have a lot of friction, and that’s where we need to get the communications and marketing teams to create content.
Now, what does the success team need in order to help merchants get from that column to the next column and then start creating content, videos, support docs, to help people through that, so that the success team could provide those and the merchants can also get on their own?
We did it for three months or so. We’ve since taken it down. It’s no longer useful as it was in the beginning. At first, we made the switch. It just had this amazing impact. I have a bell on my desk. When someone became a paying customer, I would hit the bell. It was like this visceral experience for people. We’re not a company that just answers emails. We’re doing something specific. We’re finding people, identifying who the right people are, moving through this pipeline, and getting them to success.
Rob: I love that idea, the visual nature of it. Just seeing cards, it must be obvious visually and just be an amazing queue for you guys. That’s really cool.
Jordan: Yeah. They were just a very large vertical stack of prospects that didn’t go from, let’s say, approved but didn’t schedule the actual appointment to do the demo. Okay, we need to be better at that. An obvious one was also like they’ve created a trial, but they’re not processing revenue yet. They need to get over the hump of actually using the product.
One thing I did mentioned earlier on the pricing is that not only did we remove self-served free trials but we removed free trials entirely. We asked for the first $500 upfront at the time of sign-up that we have a 30-day money back guarantee instead of the free trial. It’s all toward the same type of positioning of, “Let’s make sure that you’re a good fit. Once we know that you’re a good fit, then you commit to us. We’re committing to you. You commit to us. Let’s do this together.”
Rob: Yeah. When you look at large, enterprise companies, let’s say HubSpot or Salesforce or something, they get a bad rap for being enterprises. They’re a pain in the ass to deal with, they’re too expensive, and their sales process sucks. You’re moving somewhere between self-serve and what they do. It sounds like there is less friction. Is your pricing public on your website?
Jordan: Yes, it is.
Rob: So the pricing’s public, that’s a difference. They tend to hide it behind a thing, then it’s a negotiation, blah-blah-blah. The difference is there. You put up the velvet rope. You’ve gone upmarket. They’re typically not free trials with these really expensive enterprise plans. It typically all annual. I don’t think you’re there yet, but my guess is you’ll be moving there because there’s a lot of reasons to do that. Both predictability with the merchant but also predictability for you. You are taking that step towards the upmarket playbook, right?
Jordan: Yeah. The results, if you think about internally, going from hundreds of free trials to a few dozen, what we’ve been able to do is give love to the right merchants. We’ve told our support team, “Guys, we’re no longer doing things. It’s not about crushing tickets. You could take your time. You can spend 45 minutes on an email as long as on the other end the person goes, ‘Wow. That was everything I needed and you took your time. I feel great about it.’”
The fewer, more qualified merchants is the theme. We’re much common internally. Our support staff finish things up by 11, then they’re doing support docs, they’re helping testing on the product team, and everyone’s happier. People who are jerks, no one feels the need to like, “Hey, I guess I can’t turn down money because it’s not my business.” Now, they’re empowered. If this person sucks, tell them to get lost. People are more empowered. They’re happier. Our monthly churn went from 12%. It continued on for those few months. Five or so months later, we’re at 5% monthly churn.
Rob: Oh, man. Wow. That’s crazy. That’s such a testament. On the podcast and in the whole MicroConf community, what’s funny is before we started talking about this, let’s say in 2010, there wasn’t just this common knowledge on a lot of things that we talked about. Lower price products have higher churn. The customers are more of a pain in the ass. We all know that now. You know that if you’re selling a $10 product, everybody’s price sensitive. Your churn is through the roof. They want all the features. It’s just known now.
Then, there’s the next step up of $50 price point average revenue per customer or $100 average revenue per customer. You guys were at such a high volume that even those numbers didn’t make sense anymore. It just didn’t make sense to service them because they were such a small portion. They were huge portion in your customer base, in your trial base, very small portion of your actual revenue. Now, we can only bother or we should only focus on $500 to $2000 a month average revenue per user.
That’s the step. It’s obviously very deliberate and I’m just struck by the impact. It’s not one thing. It rippled through the entire business in mostly positive ways, it sounds like. The fact that you support people now have the ticket, the ticket volume is whatever it is, a tenth of what it used to be, is just phenomenal.
Jordan: Yeah. The way we look at it is that we really made a healthier company. The growth in 2019 was nothing nearly 3X of the previous year. But now, we’re in a position to grow in a much healthier way.
Going back to the faucet analogy, now that we’ve tightened it up all the way, fully controlled everything, now that we have our systems in place, we understand who the right matches are, the systems are better, the people are happier, now we can start to open up a little bit on our terms, and grow faster but in our way. An example is when someone’s a category three, they’re qualified but they’re not one or two, we send them a recorded version of the demo. Now, we can open that growth back up, but on our terms and under control. If we don’t like the way that’s going, we’re just going to shut that back down.
Rob: We talked a lot about the positives. Was there a major negative repercussions to this?
Jordan: Just finances.
Rob: That’s short-term.
Jordan: Yeah. The short-term financial hit that hurt is just a stressful thing. We did that with what I felt was enough money in the bank, that we wouldn’t get to the point where I felt like I have to go raise more money. I wanted to get through this in a way that we come out to the other side.
Really, if you think about all the way back, the decision to increase prices on existing customers and that kicking in January, what we really needed to do was just get through this six month period. The increased pricing on that GMV that is coming on the door already is going to overwhelm all of the negative impact of it. Then, we’ll be in a position where we are much more profitable and much happier at the same time. Just six months of pain but all towards putting ourselves to a good spot in 2020.
Rob: Yeah, and that’s playing long ball. You have a long-term mindset. You’re not churning and burning, “Oh, how can I maximize revenue now to raise the next round? Or have an exit?” or whatever it is. You’re thinking, “If I’m going to run this company for years, what is the healthiest company? What company do we all want to work for? What’s best really for the customers that are the best fit? What’s best?” The six months of pain, I’m sure, has sucked but you’re basically coming out on the other side of that. I hope January is truly an amazing month for you.
Jordan: Yeah. Thank you, man. I appreciate the ability to talk through the whole thing. I’m actually writing a blog post about this. I’ll let you know when that’s out.
Rob: Sounds cool.
Jordan: I know it’s all unique to each individual business, but the big lesson I hope people get from it is that you don’t have to play by what you think are established rules. You should do what you think is best for your business.
Rob: Love it. We will link up the price increase blog post that you talked about. I have that link right here. I googled Lincoln Murphy’s blog post about qualification and hopefully it’s the same one. We will also link that up. If you get your post published before this goes live, we can throw that in there as well.
If folks want to keep up with what you’re up to, they can go to @jordangal on Twitter and carthook.com is your app. Any other places they should keep their eye on?
Jordan: Yeah. I also do a podcast with my good friend, Brian Castle, called BootstrappedWeb. Those are the three places: Twitter, CartHook, and BootstrappedWeb.
Rob: Sounds great. Thanks again for coming on.
Jordan: My pleasure. Thank you.
Rob: Thanks again to Jordan for coming on the show. Also, I should call out episode 452 of this podcast. Just a few months ago, Jordan came on and answered listener questions with me. If you’re interested to hear more of his thought process, go back and listen to 452. You can hear his take on several listeners questions.
If you have a question for me or a future guest, leave me a voicemail at (888) 801-9690 or email email@example.com. As you know, our theme music is an excerpt from a song by MoOt. It’s called We’re Outta Control. It’s used under Creative Commons. You can subscribe to us in any pod catcher. Just search for “startups” and visit startupsfortherestofus.com if you want to see a transcript of each episode as well, to see show notes, and comments by other loyal Startups for the Rest of Us listeners. Leave a comment of your own if you want to give a thumbs up, your thoughts, constructive criticism, whatever it might be on any of the shows. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.
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.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about what KPI’s to look at when launching, key metrics you should track, and what they should be.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about SaaS KPIs that you should focus on from day one. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 434.
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 Mike.
Rob: And I’m Rob.
Mike: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week Rob?
Rob: Well, I got my tan on in Mexico. I mentioned that last episode. We got out of Minneapolis for about eight days and it was good. It was interesting that that my two boys got so much sun the first day. They got a little sunburn, but it wasn’t bad. They then the next two days had fevers and it was almost like they had sunstroke, because we have been out in the sun so little since whatever, October.
It was a trip. I was like, did they get vitamin D overload? What was the deal? But they both got sick. It was Mexico. Several of us had stomach issues, but the boys didn’t and they had this different reaction to things. They were all hot and they were tired with headaches. It was definitely like sunstroke attributes.
Mike: Interesting. I wonder if it’s just a byproduct of living in California first of all.
Rob: What do you mean living in California?
Mike: Well, because you live in California and then you moved to Minneapolis. Suddenly you’re not getting any sun and then you go back. It’s almost like dying of starvation or thirst, you suddenly get it, and then you get sick because of it.
Rob: Totally. The thing was, my boys tan really well. Before we went to Mexico, they looked grey. They looked like this really odd grey color, because again no sun exposure because it’s so cold. It’s super sunny here in Minneapolis, but it’s just so cold. You don’t go out without coverage. Your face is typically the only thing showing. If you’re going to be out for an extended time, you have gloves on, you have stuff over your arm. It was a fun trip overall and I’d recommend it.
We actually went to this smaller town called Sayulita. It’s about 45 minutes north of Port of Aorta. I know you mentioned you’ve never been to Mexico. For your first trip, maybe do go to Cancun or Port of Aorta. Those places are fine, we’ve gone there. Once you go there once, it’s super touristy, it’s packed with people and you’re not among the locals. You’re just a bunch of other vacationers. You’re hanging out with other tourists.
Whereas Sayulita is small and it’s 45 minutes north. It was a much better experience. It felt slightly more authentic and we still had access to what we needed in terms of food and such, but it did feel just like a better experience. Folks listening, if you haven’t checked it out, I recommend it. How about you, what’s going on?
Mike: I’m in the process of going through the scholarship applications that came in.
Rob: For MicroConf, right?
Mike: Yes, for MicroConf. I really think that if I were going to make any predictions right now, that this would probably be the single biggest mistake that I will make for the entire year. I forgot to include the email address field until basically like 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through it and I didn’t notice it until then.
Rob: You have a scholarship application like a Google form or Typekit, you send an email to the MicroConf list, you send people to come apply for scholarships, they give all this information, and you have no email address form?
Rob: That’s nuts. There’s no way to map since it’s third party. I was trying to get you the link back because when they click through the Drip email, there’s going to be their subscriber ID and the URL, but there’s no way to go back and try to get that matched up or anything.
Mike: No, not from a Google Form. The thing is, it’s not even that I actually forgot it, it’s that it disappeared because I copied the application form from last year. I don’t know what happened. I must’ve clicked something and accidentally deleted it or something, I don’t know. I didn’t notice until well into it and I was just like, “Oh my God.” I’m in the process right now of going through and trying to figure out how to reach each of these people. The nice thing is, because it’s an application, it asks for a lot of information.
Most of the ones that are missing, I have at least Twitter account information for it. I can send them a message and try and get in touch with them through that. Then other ones I’ve been able to map back to some of the different email lists that we have. The one really helpful piece of information is that I ask where they heard about it from and if they say email list, then I can go look at the email at list.
If they say that they heard from a certain person, I think there was only one, possibly two that I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to get that information. But I think for the most part, I’m going to be able to clear it out. It’s just going to take time and effort though. That’s the part that sucks.
Rob: That’s the thing. These are those fixable problems that are a ton of ground work to get done. It’s like, “I could have saved myself hours taking through this thing if I’d remembered to put the email address.” I have done this plus way worse. These are things that happen as you’re moving fast and doing a bunch of stuff. That’s brutal.
Mike: Oh well, I got to do what I got to do, though.
Rob: Yeah. My guess is you will never ever again forget to put an email address on a form like this.
Mike: Like I said, I don’t think I forgot. I think it’s accidentally deleted.
Rob: It deleted itself, yeah. From my end speaking of applications, the TinySeed application process ran for a month from mid-January to mid-February. I guess around four weeks. We got just under 900 applicants. It was a lot more than I thought. I was ambitious in hoping we’d get 400. I had heard through the GreatFind that a lot of more well-known accelerators get 500 to 700 depending on location. I’m sure Y Combinator gets more than that I’d imagine. It’s a big number and it’s what I’m very happy with.
It also creates what we call a good problem to have. The good problem is we have a lot of applicants. The bad problem is, I’ve been sifting through almost 900 applicants for the past two weeks. It’s just a lot of work. I’m not complaining obviously because this is what I would want to be doing, but it’s definitely going to be a process to get through all these. I already started having conversations with founders as I mentioned a few weeks ago. It’s going well.
Mike: Awesome. The only other thing on my side is that I’ve got an upcoming webinar that I’m going to be doing for hr.com which is kind of, I don’t know, you look at those 2-letter domain names and you’re like, “Wow,” it’s nice that I was able to finagle that. I’ll be doing a webinar for them on personalized email strategies to drive traffic, engage leads, close deals, and more. That will be on April 29th and I’ll link it up in the show notes in case anybody’s interested.
Obviously because it’s for them, their audience tends to be people who are reaching out to HR professionals in that particular space. They have a couple of different audiences, but one of them is the HR reps themselves, and then the other one is people and vendors who are trying to get in touch with HR people. This is basically aimed at those people who are trying to get in touch with the HR reps. It’s more of a general presentation that I’m putting together for them. It could very well be applicable to people who are listening.
Rob: We will link that up in the show notes.
Mike: I know I did the intro today, but what are we talking about?
Rob: Actually, we designed the entire outline around a listener question. I’ll play the voicemail in a second, but it’s about what are the key performance indicators or KPIs. By the way, I hate that term. I feel like it’s such an MBI, I hate it. It’s a shorthand that everyone understands. What are the numbers, the metrics that you should be tracking when launching and growing a SaaS app. Let’s dive into the voicemail here.
Adam: Hey Rob and Mike, I’m Adam Hawkins. Thanks for running the show, it’s been awesome. I’ve learned a lot from you over the past few episodes and I appreciate that both of you mention metrics and discuss these app businesses. One of you mentioned that you needed to have X thousand visitors on your landing page to pull your funnel in a previous episode. That really got me thinking of a fellow bootstrapper. Here’s my question, what are the KPIs and target values in launching in SaaS? I’m kind of thinking something along the lines of numbers that will keep me on track in launching my own SaaS. That’s all for me. Thanks guys and keep up the good work.
Rob: The first thing I want to say about this is, when we make statements like you need X thousand people to hit your landing page to validate or whatever. Often that’s a rule of thumb and it’s something to start from, but please don’t take that as gospel. I think in the past we’ve said you need 30 people, or you should talk to 30 people and have them say yes to your product, and consider that validated.
With Drip, I only did 10. It just depends. It’s all a spectrum. It’s like a risk tolerance. These numbers are not set in stone. None of this stuff is set in stone. With that said, there are rules of thumb. From doing this for 15 years, you start to see patterns and you know that a metric is out of whack if, let’s say I have a SaaS app that’s $50 Bucks a month, I ask for a credit card upfront, and my trial to pay is 10%. I know that is way too low and we have a major problem in our funnel.
That’s what we’re going to talk through today. These loose ranges when I see an app performing at 40% versus 60%, how we think about that, and how it indicates where you might have an issue in your funnel. It really helps you figure out what to focus on, because at any given time, you’re going to have one or more things that are just going sideways with your business. It’s just the nature of doing startups. You’re always that duck on the pond where above the water, you look like you’re just gracefully moving along, and under the water you’re just paddling like crazy to stay afloat. Your numbers are sideways and you got to figure out what do you focus on.
That’s really the point of this episode. It’s to try to give you some guidance so that you’re thinking about it as someone with a background. Even if this is your first time that you’re kind of taking the wisdom and the rules of thumb from us. Basically, folks who have seen these SaaS apps, seen a lot of numbers, know what a healthy SaaS business looks like, and know where to focus on to help improve them.
Mike: Yeah. As you said, these are guidelines and general patterns. It doesn’t necessarily mean that if you are in this range, then things are going great. I think one of the big drawbacks of using this information as gospel is the fact that you never really know whether or not you have room for improvement or how much will you have room for improvement. If you have this general range, let’s say it’s between 2% and 4% for any given number, and let’s say you’re smack in the middle at 3%, that seems reasonable.
There’s probably other areas in your business that you should be focusing on, but is it possible that that number could be 6% or 8% depending on your type of business or the vertical that you are in. The answer is absolutely yes, it could be that high, but you don’t really know unless you are directly comparing yourself against other businesses that are similar to yours.
Again, these are general guidelines. They are helpful in terms of determining whether or not you should continue to focus on that area. Maybe you should, but chances are good that if you’re in the general ballpark, I’ll say that there’s other things you should be going to look at before you come back and try to optimize and double down on whatever that particular thing is to improve it.
Rob: That’s the thing, if you’ve ever gotten a piece of mail from your city water quality control board, they’ll show you all the lead and this and that, and then they’ll show you the acceptable ranges, because without the acceptable ranges, you have no idea what the numbers mean. It’s like one part per million of lead. Does that mean anything to you? It doesn’t to me, so then you want to see the acceptable range, or if you get a blood test, Mike. I know you’ve never had any test on you.
Mike: Of course not.
Rob: I’m curious. You’ve talked about it on the show, that’s why I’m bringing it up. I get a blood test every few years or whatever. There’s all these numbers that mean nothing without that guideline on the right that this is the normal range. That’s really what this is trying to do. I don’t want to over couch this and say, “These numbers? We’re just going to ballpark them and it don’t really mean anything.” They do mean things, but there’s always the caveats of, if you’re selling a $19 a month SaaS—I will try to call those out as we go through because I’ve sold $19 a month SaaSes—and then if you have one that’s $500 a month, the numbers are going to be different. We’ll try to talk through those differences as we go.
Mike: We’ve talked about KPIs and various metrics in a few other episodes. The first one was episode 112 where we talked about the startup metrics for Pirates and that’s based on AAARR. Is that what it is? I forgot.
Rob: Yes, something like that. It’s either AARRR or AAARR, I forget which it is.
Mike: I think it’s AARRR. There’s another one, Episode 187 where there is a whole slide deck that we went through from Andrea’s Cleaner. That slide deck is around 150 pages or so. It’s really in-depth. There’s a lot of good information in there. It specifically talks about the fact that your KPIs are going to change over time and very early on, there are going to be data points that you’re looking at. You have to be really careful about how you interpret them because the numbers are probably going to be much smaller, and your product market fit isn’t quite right yet.
There’s a lot of caveats to those very early numbers. We will call them out as well, but that’s something really important to keep in mind when you’re trying to figure out whether or not you should optimize something more or move on to something else. The third episode is Episode 231 with Ruben Gamez where you and him at the very end of the episode started talking about some of these general ranges that we’ll rehash in this episode.
Rob: I’ll be interested to see how close the ranges are. We literally did it off the cuff in that episode, and I’m kind of getting into it off the cuff again today. I’m hoping that the ranges are pretty close. What I’d like to do is start at the top of the funnel. Going from unique visits to your site and just go all the way down the funnel. Visits-to-trial, trial-to-paid, turn, blah-blah-blah, and go down the line.
So, starting at the top of the funnel with unique visitors. This is an interesting one because I don’t think there is a KPI for this. You want the most unique visitors you can get that are targeted at your website in any given month. I have had software products that get literally 1500 unique visitors a month that sold upwards of $4000 or $5000 a month in software. Now, it was not SaaS, it was a $300 one time purchase. The traffic was targeted, it was in a pretty tight niche, and it obviously converted quite well.
Whereas most SaaS apps I know, you’re going to be priced between let’s say $20 and $100 a month for your starting tier if you’re doing self-service. You really want to start getting into that 5000-10,000 uniques a month to try to start scaling it up. The challenge here is, if we’re talking about day one and you’ve just launched, unique visitors doesn’t have much meaning yet. What you really want to do is you’re still trying to validate your product, you’re trying to find product market fit, driving more traffic, trying to split test, and look at these aggregate numbers isn’t helpful yet.
In the early days, you should probably couch all of these metrics with that. In the early days, your numbers are going to be so small. When you have 10-20 customers and one of them turns, that doesn’t really mean you have 5% or 10% churn rate. It does technically, but it’s meaningless because you don’t have enough numbers to accurately measure things. I think that is another thing. Early day KPIs are different than later day KPIs. Early day KPIs are really how many people am I talking to? Do I think we have product market fit? Is churn going down? These are marketing resonating.
There’s a lot more qualitative questions that I ask in the early days than in the later days. You’re looking at more quantitative, because you’re just past that point. It’s hard to say for everyone, but I feel like when you hit about somewhere between 5000-15,000 MRR, that’s where I start to shift into that. You probably have 100-200 customers. That’s where you can start having numbers that are more easily measurable and you can start seeing trends instead of seeing these very spiky results because the numbers are small.
Mike: I think one of the interesting things about the number of unique visitors is that, as you said, all those not edge cases but those different factors that play into it like price point, how long it’s been around, do you have product market fit, all that kind of stuff. One of the really challenging things when you’re that early on is that a link on Hacker News, for example, can drive traffic through the roof and it is untargeted traffic. It’s good to get it and it’s nice to see that there are more eyeballs coming to your site, but what it does is it really heavily skews your metrics, because those people aren’t necessarily there as interested people, they’re there because you got a PR bump and that really seriously starts skewing your metrics.
You really have to be careful when you’re looking at everything else just because if you’re only averaging let’s say 3000 views a month, and then suddenly you get an incoming link and you end up getting 5000 over the course of a couple days, that 5000 is going to overshadow your typical 3000. And because it’s untargeted, your visitors trial and your trial-to-paid, all those numbers completely gets out of whack because of that. It skews them. It makes it a little bit more challenging to figure out what is my actual visitor-to-trial rate. You have to look at that and say, “Well, how well targeted was that traffic? Do I apply a percentage to that?” Well yes, 5000 people, but maybe only 0.5% or 1% of them were actually targeted then you multiply out from there and figure out what your actual visitor trial rate would be.
Rob: Yeah. The nice part about all these metrics but specifically visitor trial is, the more visits you get and the more trials you get, just that the further along you get, it does standardize. I used to be able to look in Google analytics or whatever dashboard I was running and just instantly know if it was a good number. My range for this is for SaaS, I want to specifically say that. For info products or for onetime purchases, you can get dramatically higher numbers, but people signing up for SaaS apps with a credit card upfront, I want to be between 0.5% and 2%.
The difference there could be a lot of things. It can definitely be your messaging and your marketing. It can be the quality of your traffic. It can also be your price point and that’s a big one. If I had an app that was $10-$20 a month for the lowest pricing tier, I would want to be closer to that 1.5% and 2% number of unique visitors translating into trials with a credit card on file. If I’m selling something that’s $50-$100 a month as the lowest tier, I’m going to be looking between 0.5% and 1%, 1% would be a pretty nice number to get on that.
Something else to think about is this is for one funnel. That’s like the visitors and turning into trial. You can also have a longer funnel that visitors turning into email subscribers and then you know how many email subscribers, over time, turn into trials. You can look at that number. If you have a good converting landing page, let’s say you’re sending either ad traffic or SEO traffic, and you’re trying to squeeze for an email address, and your offering something of value to folks with download in exchange for that email, I want the range to be between about 15% and 25% of people entering their email address on the landing page. I’ve had upwards of between 40% and 50% for certain calls-to-action with the really targeted traffic, but that’s pretty exceptional. If I’m below 15% I’m a little concerned and if I’m below 10% then I’m doing something wrong. The traffics mismatch or the call-to-action isn’t very good. If you’re going to do that, it’s a longer funnel, it’s a longer journey, but you need to then look at your email numbers in aggregate and see how many of these are turning into trials over time.
That’s where you need a good system with good tracking like Drip or I believe ActiveCampaign could do this. I’m not sure that Mailchimp, I haven’t used it in so long, I’m not sure that it’s easy to do that with Mailchimp. If you are going to go that route, you’re going to want to dial in the analytics at least to the point where you can have a relatively good insight into how many new subscribers are converting into trials. One other thing, if you’re not asking for credit card upfront and your unique visitor-to-trial rate is 5%, I’d say 5%-15%, but 5% is actually too low. I think I’d want to be more in probably 10%-20% range is where I feel comfortable. This one I have done very little because I tend to ask for credit card upfront. I have done tests with it and such, but I’ve talked to a bunch founders who run credit card free trials and that does tend to be the range.
Number three, the next KPI is of course trial-to-paid conversion. If I’m asking for a credit card upfront, I want between 40% and 60%. If I’m at 39%, I know that I have a problem. If I’m at 58%, I know that I’m doing quite well. I mean that’s really towards the top range. There was a time when Drip bumped above 60% at different times, then you know you’re kind of killing it and your onboarding is doing really well. When I took over HitTail, I acquired that in 2011, it was credit card upfront and the trial-to-paid was 15%, and so you know that there’s a major problem in onboarding. That was one of the first things that I cleaned up.
That’s why these ranges are fairly important is that you know you’re so out of whack there that if you fix that, you’re going to be going to be in a better position. If you’re not asking for credit card upfront, trial-to-paid, I would want to that one between let’s say 5% and 15% is probably a relatively decent mark. I mean I would want to be between 8% and 15% myself, but you’re just kind of a lot lower when you’re not asking for credit card, that’s kind of the nature of the beast.
Mike: One of the things that I think is probably the most challenging with trying to find out or to track some of this information is that when you’re very early on, these numbers are very misleading when one person cancels. If you’ve got 10 customers or 20 customers, having one or two customers cancel is a huge deal. One or two people who come through the funnel that don’t convert, let’s say you’ve got four of them through and not one of them converts, that’s 0%. Even having a couple after that, it doesn’t really put the number back to really where it should.
You have to eyeball those things and try to capture as much information from people who are leaving or not following through with the trial to figure out what it is that drove them away. Why did they not actually decide to follow through and sign-up for the service or continue using it. Use that information to try and figure out what it is that you’re supposed to do because the numbers are not going to be enough, especially early on.
Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t track those numbers, just that they’re going to be misleading early on. Over time, it will get better, but those first few that come through, first 100-200 that come through, is going to be hard. You have to talk to people to figure out what the reasons are for them to move in one direction or the other.
Rob: Exactly. The numbers aren’t going to tell you the whole story. Especially in the early days. That’s something you got to dig into. The fourth KPI we’re going to talk about is churn. I’ve seen people look at churn as a blanket number. It really obfuscates what’s going on underneath. If you go to Amazon and you see that the average rating for something is 2.5 stars, but there’s actually 101 stars and 105 stars, I guess that would actually average to 3%, but you get the idea. 100 0 stars and a and 100 5 stars in average is 2.5%.
If you just have the 2.5%, it looks like a crappy product, but as it turns out with five and zero, the zeros are probably either misunderstanding, or there’s something wrong, there’s more information under that data. Churn I feel is the same way. If you look at your churn across your entire customer base, you’re missing some information. What I’ve typically seen the most success with is to look at your first 60-day of churn, and then your post 60-day churn, and separate those numbers out.
Sometime it’s up to 90 days, but really, a lot of people do an extended trial where they might enter their credit card. When the trial expires, they pay one month. They never get set up. They never get onboard and then they churn, but really what they did is they were kind of like a trial that didn’t convert to paid. I started seeing these patterns, it was before HitTail, but when I got into HitTail and really dig into the numbers, it was a huge difference. Literally in the first 60 days, especially if you’re asking for credit card upfront, but it can happen both ways, you might see churn upwards and a per cohort of between 20% and 40%.
It can be a huge number of people that are canceling there and 40% I start to feel uncomfortable, 20% I actually don’t feel terrible about that for 60 days. Then post 60 days, you want to get your churn obviously as low as possible, but I feel most comfortable in let’s say for lower priced products that are not enterprise, not annual contracts, I think between 5% and 8%. If you’re at 9% or 10%, it’s pretty brutal, 8% is about the top in where I feel comfortable. Realistically, if you’re a big SaaS app, I think WP engine probably has negative churn at this point.
I remember Jason saying in the early days, they had 2% churn. I’ve had apps that have 2% to 3% churn in that post 60-day, post 90-day mark. That’s where you want to get to. The problem is, the lower your price point, the higher your churn tends to be. That’s why a lot of folks go up market, a lot of SaaS apps do. If you can, you want to get to net negative churn where you do churn out 2%, 3%, 4% but just the growth in your existing customer base of people upgrading actually wipes out the churn. It’s a crazy thing. I’ve seen it firsthand. It just catapults your growth. Those are my loose numbers that I keep in mind when I’m looking at churn rates.
When I see someone come through with a 12% monthly churn rate, I think that’s the first thing I would attack. If I see someone come through with a 3% churn rate, I think that’s amazing. I believe you have a product market fit depending on how many people you’re putting through your funnel. Let’s look at your other metrics to figure out where we should focus position not be on churn, if your number is that low.
Mike: One thing that we should probably drill into a little bit is the idea of that negative churn, because I think that some people might get confused about that. It’s not that you’re gaining more users than you have actually signed up. Although in some cases that may actually be true, because if somebody comes in and then they invite somebody else on their team, initially they sign up with one account and then they may fall into a different tier. That’s part of where that negative churn comes from because people are essentially upgrading to a higher tier paid accounts.
Whether they’re adding users, or going to a new pricing tier, each of those things can qualify. A question for you Rob, because I’m actually not sure about this, does it qualify if they upgrade from a monthly plan to an annual plan? I don’t think that it does.
Rob: No, it doesn’t. The annual plan should be divided by 12 and added to your MRR anyways. It’s not net revenue. It really is actual MRR that I’m looking at. I’m glad you brought this up because I should have couched this when I was talking about churn and the churn you should focus on is revenue churn, not user churn or customer churn. Revenue churn is when you look at, we started the month with $100,000 in MRR and we lost $10,000 in MRR, so that’s a 10% revenue churn.
First is we started the month with 1000 customers who are paying, 1000 credit cards on file, no matter how many users are within each account. We started with 1000 customers paying us and we ended the month with 900. That’s 10% user churn or customer churn. I’ve always looked at both. By far, the most important is revenue churn. I don’t think you could have negative customer churn, because you can’t add more customers than you signed up, but you can have a net negative revenue churn. That’s where you only lose a small amount of revenue from people canceling, but the rest of your customer base is either so large or they naturally move up tiers and pay you more for stuff.
Drip is a great example of this. As people’s lists grew, they naturally moved up in tiers automatically. There was just a natural movement towards paying more to your ESP. Those are the kinds of businesses that can have negative churn. Slack probably has a negative churn rate, because teams do tend to grow. Yeah, companies go out of business, there are layoffs now, but there are layoffs from time to time in your customer base.
In general, teams that sign up Slack and start paying, I’m guessing these are startups that are adding more and more people and Slack charges $6 or $8 a month per person. I would guess with the stickiness of Slack, they’re kind of gross churn is very low. I bet their net churn including expansion revenue is what it’s called, as people expand and hire tiers is quite substantial. That’s the holy grail of SaaS.
I know people say, recurring revenue is the holy grail of software, and that’s why SaaS is such a big thing. Net negative churn is the holy grail of SaaS if you want to get into it, because that just snowballs and it means that if you do nothing, your company grows. It’s crazy to even think about it when you actually look at charts, and you look at how the numbers work out, you look at graphs of it, once you hit net negative churn, you don’t need to do much. I shouldn’t say you don’t need to do much, but you need to do a lot less to grow a lot faster is what happens.
Mike: Is that where the passive income comes in?
Rob: Passive income, money wisely. Let’s run through the last few pretty quickly. The fifth thing is MRR and that’s just your monthly recurring revenue. As we said earlier, it can get tricky if you have annual plans, you’re supposed to technically divide by 12 that annual plan and then add it onto your MRR. Hopefully you have a software that can do that like Baremetrics or ProfitWell. MRR was the number that I tracked religiously. Every night I would get an email after billing ran and it would tell me what MRR was, what the daily billing was, and all that stuff.
It’s kind of a no brainer when you think all of us track it and it’s something that talks about the health of your business. The other one is MRR growth. I always looked at this as dollar rather than percentage. A lot of people talk percentages, but it’s like when you’re at $1000 MRR, or you’re at $100,000 MRR, the percentages obfuscate so much stuff. Truly, how many dollars did you add and you want to look at not just net add, but you want to look at how many did you lose to churn, how many did you add from new customers, and how much did you add from expansion revenue. Seeing those three different numbers and then the net. There’s four different numbers that you can get into and a lot of people who are really into their SaaS numbers know these numbers cold and know where they want to be with them.
The last one is ARPU, average revenue per user. I like to call this ARPC, which is average revenue per customer, because frankly when I’m charging people money, I think of them as customers, not users. Like Drip, one account might have 20 users in it, but to me that’s a single customer. It’s apples to apples, but it’s just a terminology thing. Average revenue per user, average revenue per customer.
Frankly, if your average revenue per user is $10 or $20 a month, you have a nice little business. You can grow that to something, but the odds of you growing that to a multimillion dollar business are very low. I’ve seen businesses with very low churn, good trial-to-paid, and average revenue per customer of $10 or $15 a month. I think that’s going to be a great 30K MRR business. That’s not a bad business to have, but you’re going to struggle to get past that 30K or 50K mark. If you want to build something into a 7-figure business, not across the board, not unequivocally but in general, you need that average revenue per customer to be upwards of that $40, $50, $60 and up price point.
You want to be in triple digits. You want to get there eventually. You don’t have to be there on day one, but aspiring to get into that $100 to $500 per month, per customer. That’s where you can scale, it’s so much easier to scale a business into that seven- and eight-figure range. Because you have the money to acquire customers, the payback is fairly quick. If most people are paying you $200 a month, you can spend quite a bit on ads and salespeople. Frankly, churn will be lower. It’s always counter intuitive to say this, but lower priced products, lower ARPCs tend to lead to higher churn.
Mike: Something we didn’t talk about when we were talking about the revenue churn between the first 60 days and then post 60 days was that, if you do any sort of a pricing change that can have a massive impact on what your revenue churn looks like. If you raise prices, let’s say by 50%, make things simple. If you raise prices by 100%, you double your prices. If you lose less than half your customers, then technically you’re coming out ahead because you’re making more money. In theory, your infrastructure costs have probably gone down. The obvious downside of that is, potentially losing customers after that first month or after you initially make that change, assuming you didn’t grandfather them. At least be a little cautious of or cognizant of, because that that can seriously change some of those numbers.
It’s not something you have to worry about, as you’re launching, but down the road when you are calculating these numbers and try to figure out how to grow the company, those are things that you should at least bear in mind when you’re trying to figure out if you’re running into financial issues and you need to be able to make more money. You can just do some calculations and say, “Well, if I raised by 10%, this is how much we could get, and how many of those customers are we going to lose the because of us raising those prices.”
The other thing that I was thinking about was that, all of this information sounds great to be looking at, but how do you actually go about tracking it? There’s a lot of different tools out there that you can use. Sunrise KPI for example is one. We can look this up in the show notes. CYFE is another one. Honestly, the simplest thing to do, instead of going in and trying to figure out a bunch of different tools and things to integrate, you can just use a spreadsheet. Whether it’s a Google doc or Excel spreadsheet, it doesn’t really matter. Throw your information in there, maybe update it. You can do it as much as once a day, but you could also do it once a week or once a month, and it really gives you a sense of where things are at and what you should be focusing on. If you’re not plugging this information in and at least looking at it, then you’re never going to do anything about it. That’s the big problem that most people run into is they just don’t even look at these things or they don’t update them and keep track of them.
Rob: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, I’ll admit with pretty much all, I think without exception, all the SaaS apps I’ve ever run, I’ve built a little scrappy page and these are just simple queries. You should have all the stuff in your own database, I’m imagining. I always did and it’s a little bit of a pain. Churn can be a pain to calculate that can take some time, but I remember hacking together a dashboard with most of these numbers in a few hours, one evening.
I was listening to music and have the lava lamp on sipping Bourbon and I just hammered through these one at a time. I really don’t have a very impressive life, do I, Mike? It’s kind of sad that that would, but it was a fun night, I’ll admit. Because once I had that, I was looking at that thing every day. It was super cool. Then by the time we were launching Drip, I remember telling Derrick, “These are the numbers I know I need. Let’s figure them out,” and it did take him probably a day to get the initial version done.
We had to kill a day of developer productivity to do it, but it was really nice to (a) be in control of those, to (b) have a all in one place, and to have them displayed in exactly like the order that I wanted. I mean, we even have trailing 7-day trials, how much each day it had, have it trailing 30-day. Then we modified it and adjusted it over time. The other cool thing is that whole dashboard and admin area became a nice training ground for new developers. We’d bring in like a junior dev or whatever. You may not want them to push production code into your app right away, because it could break something for customer, but that becomes a nice playground to be like, “Hey, let’s add this number or let’s tweak this,” and it becomes this code base that can get screwed up. If the admin console crashes or has some weird thing that happens in it, it’s not the end of the world, because it’s just us using it. That was kind of also a bonus to having that all built out.
Mike: I’ve daily email sent to me from Bluetick just to see a lot of those different pieces of data.
Rob: It’s a good way to do it. I always had it as a shortcut on my browser but it’s same thing, and that’s your pulse. We actually called it, the page that displayed all this, we called it Pulse in Drip. I always thought that was a pretty fitting name, because it’s the pulse of the business.
Mike: Got it, cool.
Rob: Forty minutes on SaaS Metrics, KPIs. I think the next episode needs to just be all jokes. You and I need to just talk about movies and jokes.
Mike: I don’t know if that’s going to be a very compelling episode.
Rob: That would be even worse than this one. All right. Let’s call it a wrap. I guess I’m the wrap guy today.
Mike: Yes, you are.
Rob: This whole episode was outlined based on a single listener question. If you have a question for us, you can voice mail number at 888-801-9690 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our 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.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer a number of listener questions. The topics include balancing development and marketing, overcoming hesitations about partnering, and the costs of technical debt.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Mike and I talk about balancing feature development with marketing, the cost of technical debt, and answer more listener questions. This is Startups for the Rest of Us Episode 386.
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.
Mike: I have the plague.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. You were sick all weekend?
Mike: Yeah. My eldest son got sick the last Wednesday, I think it was. It was like Wednesday and Thursday and we sent him back to school on Friday. Then my wife got sick between Friday and Saturday and then I got sick between Saturday and Sunday. It’s been a rough week to say the least.
Rob: Yeah. That’s brutal. Being sick just tears you up, means you can’t get anything done, especially when you don’t have vacation time, you don’t have to paid time off and you’re trying to drive a business forward, it’s like every hour is precious.
Mike: Yeah. Fortunately for us, it was kind of over the weekend but still we’re recording now, we don’t usually record till Thursday but today’s Monday and after this podcast episode, I’m probably gonna go to bed.
Rob: Right, right. Yeah. Today, we’re actually continuing kind of a continuation of last week’s episode. I had picked out several questions last week that you and I were gonna go through and answer and we only got through a couple of them because the GDPR conversation was so extensive. I think that was a good thing. I think we went in depth and gave ideas and feedback but it meant that we had this big block of unanswered questions and I wanted to keep going with them.
Now we have a few voicemails and some others today. But before we do that, I want to tell you, I know I haven’t talked about Drip features in a while but I’m pretty excited about this upcoming feature. We’ve been working on it for–I’m trying to think–it’s gotta have to be about four months now so it’s one of the larger features we’ve embarked on but it’s a visual email builder.
Mike: Oh, nice. What’s that involve?
We found some AltSize and trade secret workarounds that we found, we’ve really done a lot of research and I think I’ve done a good job with it. But what I’ve heard from folks who have built visual email builders is building the visual portion of it is one project and it will takes six months or nine months, depending on how many […] we have on it and how good they are. Then just doing the table-based rendering and getting all of that to work and working all the clients is at whole separate project. It can take as long as building the actual visual builder. This is why a lot of upstart ESPs don’t build them because the time investment is so extensive.
Mike: When you say rendering the stuff and the clients–I understand what you mean by the differences between them–but when you go back to the visual email builder, what advantages does that have over what Drip does now?
Rob: Right. Today, Drip just has a nice little WYSIWYG text editor and I’m still gonna use that. I never use visual email builders because I like the personal interaction or it just feels more like you’re getting a plain-text email when you send using our standard plain-text template. This is how I’ve always recommended doing it. I believe the conversation rates are higher when you do that.
However, there are a few industries where they have done tests–so they’ve done tests across many industries in terms of visual email with a lot of images and table-based layout, two columns and this and that versus just something that kind of looks like a plain-text email, much like we send out to a MicroConf list, or I send out to my blogs Software by Rob list, they tend to be more personal. It’s from Rob Walling, Founder, it looks like he’s actually typing it to you. But there are few industries—ecommerce is one and travel is another—where having back these more exotic layouts and emails can and will convert better.
Since we do have a large ecommerce contingent and since we’ve been focusing on commerce-based businesses, people who are selling things, we have found a time to break ground on a visual builder. It allows you to do the things where you see the fancy, neat template, you can just insert your images and have that layout. It’s not something I’m gonna recommend for everybody but there are instances and match your converts better.
Mike: Got it. Kind of like if you go over to MailChimp for example, they’ve got like 30 or 50 different templates you can choose from and okay, that makes sense.
Mike: That makes sense.
Rob: Right. We won’t have 30 or 50 templates to start with but obviously that’s a direction that you’ll wind up going and it’s become table stakes. Again, in certain industries if you’re doing ecommerce and you’re working with companies using let’s say a platform like Shopify, BigCommerce, or WooCommerce, or if they have their own custom solution for ecommerce, they tend to want to send emails with a lot of images and not just to frustrate top to bottom flow where it’s image-text, image-text, you wanna have things that just look nicer than that.
Mike: Yeah. Things that come to mind for that are things like Amazon, Newegg, or ThinkGeek, all those, it’s exactly the same. I totally get what you’re saying where that’s going, but it totally makes sense.
Rob: Yup. The reason I’m excited about it is because I feel much like we did with workflows, we went back to the first principles and said, “What did everyone else do wrong? What do we hate about builders? How can we do this differently?” It isn’t just look at what everyone did and copy the best features, just like we’re doing things that are different than anyone else. There are obviously gonna be commonalities. There’s stuff on the left that you’re text and your image block and your divider and whatever, then there’s the email on the right. That’s common stuff but there’s certain paradigms that we use that I think are superior and gonna make for a better user experience.
The team has been working hard on it and everytime I see it down the road, I’m like, “Man, this is super cool, actually. I wanna use this even though I don’t really…” Like I said, I don’t use other visual builders as a rule when I’m writing my emails because I’ve always liked the more plain-text feel.
Mike: Awesome. Let’s dive right into the episode and they’ve got a couple of questions outlined here. Let’s get started on this.
Rob: For sure. Our first one is a voicemail and it’s about how to balance feature development and marketing specifically for an IOS app. But let’s hear the question and we can figure out what form we wanna answer it.
Steven: Hi Mike and Rob. This is Steven Johnson with […] Plus, an iOS and Mac app for hikers. My website is […]studios.com. I have a question about how you work […] user feedback. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about my app on the Apple Watch, it’s still like I’m missing out on some opportunities as well as on just keeping up with where the market’s going.
However, right now I’ve really been prioritizing a lot of marketing efforts, working on conversion rates, lowering churn, […] partnerships with business development and […] by knowing […] you talk a lot about having more marketing always speeds out features and I completely agree with that. I’m just trying to figure out how do I kind of balance these two priorities and knowing how to balance user requests that come in, especially one that feel like the market’s making changes and I feel like am I missing out on something, maybe I am and maybe I’m not, but I know that there’s opportunities that I’m not capturing with my marketing, I know there’s conversion opportunities as well as churn that I need to work on. I’m just curious about your thoughts on that. Thanks for the show. Love what you guys do. Thanks.
Mike: I think this is an interesting question mainly because it’s an iOS and Mac app but there’s also the recurring annual subscription from productivity. I think the prices–there is a free plan–but then they range from $20 a year up to $80 a year which is of around what, $5-$8 a month, something along those lines. I think that the challenge here is identifying why that churn happens. Is it legitimately because people are churning out and they’re no longer using it or is it just they find that the app doesn’t help them nearly as much as they thought it would? I think it’d be easy to assume that, “Oh, you should be doing this.” Or, “You should be implementing that feature.” But I think I might dive a little bit more into the churn itself and start ask a lot more detailed questions about why the people aren’t using that.
My concerns/fear here would be that what you’re offering people is conceptually what they want but either the implementation itself is not really what they’re looking for or it doesn’t really quite match up with what the value proposition they were sold on is and it could turn out to be that somebody tries one app and they think that it’s gonna work and once they get out of the field and they’re using it, it sort of works or does most of what they want but it’s not quite enough so they just decide to switch and use something else. Maybe look at your performance metrics or your usability metrics to see like are people actually using it after three or four months in or is it that they’ve paid for and it was a low enough price point that they said, “Well, I paid $50 for this and it’s not a big deal so I’ll just try this other thing over here for another $50.”
As I said, the fear/concern that I would have is something that people use and it may just not be able to deliver on the promise. It’s not to say that you can never deliver on that promise. The fear that I have is it even possible to do what it is that they really want. I don’t know the answer to that, you have to ask people to find out. But as you said, the other component is like do you invest more on the marketing side and try and ramp it up or do you drill in and start trying to fix those things and add more features?
I think the first place to start to find out why people are churning out and what the fundamental issue is there and from there look back and say is it important enough for you to fix? The reason I say that is because there’s a question for road map and what is the most important to you, not roadmap, runway is more it than anything else, are you able to make ends meet with the app the way it is or are you chewing through runway and sort of losing money on it as you’re going along? In that case, you need to lean more towards scaling things up and then fixing things versus being able to make ends meet on a regular basis and you don’t have to worry about it as much. At that point, you can dig in and start fixing things in the app. That’s probably the place that I would start. Rob, I’m sure you have some thoughts on this as well.
Rob: Yeah. This is the age-old question. I think it’s a really good one to think about. I think in general, as developers, we think features are the answer, and in general, they are not. Not to say, all at all times because in certain markets, in certain niches, it really will make a big difference like Drip launching workflows was game changing for us, it doubled our month over month growth. It can happen.
But so many of the little features that are constantly being requested, if you have thousands of users you’re gonna get 50 or 100 feature requests a month and most of them you need to not build. Not only to keep the product simple enough that it doesn’t become bloated, but because you just don’t have the time to build them all. The caller is so much closer to his business than we are so it’s hard for me to make a recommendation to him, but my recommendation in general would be stir away from the mindset that I just need this one more feature to do this thing, unless everyone’s requesting it.
There comes a certain point where 10% of your feature requests are for the exact same feature. At that point, that’s when we break down–in the early days, we build a lot more now, we have a team of 18 developers or whatever, but in the early days when we were super cash and resource trapped, it was pretty much no by default and yes to these highly focused things that we knew were gonna move the needle. That’s how I balance it.
I think that the caller’s approach to doing joint ventures and focusing on marketing is genius. That’s exactly what I would be doing because the more marketing you do, assuming it’s effective, the more revenue you get, and that revenue will allow you to then hire a contractor in essence or perhaps the first time employee, how ever you wanna work it. But hire a developer that you can supervise because that will then, I should take one step back first, first person I would hire is a part-time VA to handle all your support, if you’re still handling that, because that will free up.
Then start thinking about hiring someone to write the code and this is the part that developers always struggle with because no one “is going to write the code as well as I do.” However, if you can free up 12-30 hours of your time in a week and features are still moving forward and you have some budget to pay someone, it can be game changing for your business and that frees you up to focus on really moving the needle.
I think marketing in the early days is such a big deal because you need to get the revenue to allow yourself to start stepping away from certain roles that while you may enjoy doing them are probably in the early days are less effective and what more if the needle is matched.
Thanks for the question. I hope that was helpful. Our next question is about overcoming hesitations about partnerships to move the business forward.
Joshua: Hi Mike and Rob. This is Joshua from [Perspexa Labs]. First, thanks so much to this podcast. Every episode is invaluable. My question is this, how do I overcome my hesitancy of partnering with someone to move the business forward?
For context, I run a B2B SaaS company that offers monthly subs in the range of 100-350 a month, and we’ve plateaued about $2,500 in MRR I co-founded the business with an office colleague but I just realized circumstances he really isn’t able to participate materially in the business anymore and our product is solid at this point but I know we need to move the needle and sell the marketing in a big way. Try as I might, I just can’t seem to crack that nut.
I know that finding the right person to bring onboard will probably do wonders and turn us into a vital business but on a do-it-yourself-er and I just have trouble, one, convince myself that I ought to do this, and two, coming up with the vital way to achieve it. Any advice for effectively a solopreneur who doesn’t wanna be stuck in a half business for forever? Thanks so much for the both of you. Everyone, go leave a review to this podcast on iTunes. Thanks guys. Bye.
Rob: Joshua was kind enough to also send us an email with a bit more background and he said, “The main product outreach is at [perspexalabs.com], we’ve got a core group of customers and service businesses like pest control and electricity and we’ll soon be getting into healthcare providers because our revenue is only $2,500 a month with margins of around 70%. It’s not enough yet to pay salaries. I’m guessing that bringing someone onboard will probably need to be an equity arrangement which I’d be fine with.
With regards to my own efforts to sales and marketing I’ve gone to the Traction book and tried several different approaches including online ads, cold-calls, cold-email outreach and attended a very targeted trade show. That really hasn’t generated fruit as nearly all of our current customers are referrals from other customers. Unmentioned to my question bills are related issue, should I let my current co-founder remain in the business? I’d really like him to be here if we can get into healthcare because of his connections, but I know this isn’t the first priority anymore.” What do you think, Mike? It’s a tough one.
Mike: Yeah. I think you can almost divide this into two entirely different things. One of which is what to do about the co-founder and then the other is how do you move the business forward when you’ve got $2,500 a month and not enough money to do a lot and you’ve also obviously got the co-founder onboard and I don’t know what the relationship there is in specifically call that out.
Rob: It sounds like it’s still amicable and he’d like to keep him on if they were to go into healthcare but not if they don’t. You don’t know if they vested so the first thing is that you should have done four year vesting probably so that your co-founder wouldn’t own the entire percentage that they had. Because if they decide to leave, that will go back into the pool to get the next person.
Mike: I think, with regards to what to do about the co-founder, that’s probably the first thing to do. It sounds like you wanna keep them on but the question is how much is he going to be able to contribute. As Rob said, the vesting schedule maybe he owns 25% because he’s stuck around a year, 50% because he’s stuck around for 2 years. That seems to me like the first thing to look at and try and figure out and if he has to walk away because he’s just not involved, that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t own a certain percentage of the business anymore and can’t contribute under the […] capacity or something along those lines. That’s something I think you have to work out with your co-founder and sit down and have an honest conversation about what him stepping away from the business really means for the business and for the relationship between you guys.
Then once you’ve figured that out, the next question to tackle is what do you do about the business itself. I think you didn’t specify what your own personal situation is or whether you’re taking money from the business and living off of it. But with the $2,500 a month, it sounds to me like because you’re a do-it-yourself-er, it might be a viable strategy to go out and find a business coach who can walk you through a bunch of different things and that does a couple of things.
One, is it avoids handing equity over to somebody else, and two, it still allows you to do those things yourself and you get that personalized assistance from somebody else and a sounding board from somebody who’s vested in the business because you are paying them to give you ideas and take a hard look at what it is that you’re doing and how effective those things are but you’re still doing those things yourself and you still don’t necessarily hand over control to a third party or a co-founder or another partner in the business and avoid some of those other issues that maybe you’re struggling with right now.
I don’t think that it’s wise to introduce too many changes all at once. That could be a nice bridge scenario where you are involving somebody else but you’re not handing over the reins to somebody else in a co-founder capacity while you’re having your current co-founder step away from the business a little bit. That’s probably where I’d start looking and see if that makes sense to you.
Rob: Yeah. I think you’re right, there are two separate issues here, it’s existing co-founder and then pulling on a new partner. I think given that the business you have to de-risk the business a small amount that bringing on a new partner, you could obviously give equity without giving an enormous amount. It wouldn’t need to be a third of the equity or something. It depends on your aspirations and think where the business is headed and who you can find but I’m thinking in the 10%-20% range given where you are. If you were gonna go raise funding and you’re gonna go try to find like a COO or something or a CTO, they get 5%, but you’re in a little bit different situation because it doesn’t sound like you’re gonna get so big so fast, that that’s gonna be warranted. As a result you have to bump that equity to 10% or 15% or whatever. But at this point, in my opinion wouldn’t just be an even split.
I think the hard part is finding that person and vetting them and it’s like a marriage because you guys are gonna have shared ownership of things and breaking that up later can be like a divorce. I think getting over your hesitation is one thing, but I think the harder thing is to find someone who is good enough or who’s gonna work with your style, who’s willing to be in the trenches with you, who I think it really wants to stick around and is able to work because it sounds like this is gonna be nights and weekends, people are not cut out for that in general, most people just think they wanna do it and then a month or two months and they just flick out or they just decide not to do it.
I think finding someone who meets all this criteria is really hard but I think if you can, then what I would look at doing is definitely have kind of a trial period, maybe 90 days, just to say how things feel, I would definitely have four year vesting on that with the one year cliff, meaning they don’t get any shares until they’ve been around for a year. I think that’s how I would approach it and I would look to be meeting people in person so I would be going to the MicroConfs and the businesses software and these conferences where there are folks who could potentially be in that pool for you separately regarding your current co-founder. I think you just need to make the choice sooner rather than later whether they’re going to healthcare. If you’re gonna go onto it and he wants to stay around, you wanna keep him around, that’s great, and if you’re not, then I think the decision is made there.
I know it’s not always that crystal clear but it does, given that information you’ve provided, seem perhaps how I would perceive. Thanks for the question, hope that was helpful.
The next question is about technical debt. Mike, does technical debt really come back to bite you?
Mike: Oh, yeah. No question on that.
Rob: Alright. The subject line of the email is actually, “Have technical debt decisions been easy to pay down later or did they really come back to bite you?” He says, “Love the show, listened for the past year, really love the practical advice. I’m looking for your technical perspective about what matters in the early days of getting a site running while keeping customers happy with mission critical data, building a data heavy B2B SaaS startup.
The frontend is in Angular, the backend is in Rails, intermediate self-taught developers, new things I haven’t done before can sometimes take a week or two to figure out. I’m making early technical debt tradeoffs hosting using Heroku versus AWS, database PostgreSQL versus Aurora, and the other miscellaneous things relating to data structures.
I’m not looking for technical help but the question is more geared to your experience of how much this stuff matters up front and really needs to be solved to get functional versus it’s not too hard to change it later. Theoretically important but won’t kill you so pick the simpler thing even if you know you’ll need it to change it after launch. Am I wasting a lot of time by taking the shortcut now and having to pull the app apart later to move it around when I have real customers using it in production?”
Mike, this is not gonna be as long as GDPR, I promise, but I feel like we have a lot to say on this, so go. Just start rolling with this. What do you think?
Mike: Yeah. Do we have like beeps cued up immediately for all the profanity that’s about to be dropped on this?
Rob: Yeah. Technical debt, it’s a *.
Mike: Yes, it is, yes, it is. I think looking back on this particular piece of it, some of the things that he had brought up, the things like hosting and the database selection and the data structures that you’re using on a backend, some of those can be really hard to change later on, versely impossible. In some cases, you’re looking at a complete rewrite.
You at least have to have enough technical knowledge to make those decisions in a way that is not going to completely kill the app later on or force you to do an absolute rewrite from the ground up. That said, I do know people who have done complete rewrites after they’ve gotten to a point where they’ve gotten customers onboard and it basically delays things, you may have to take three, six, nine months of accepting the fact that you’re just not gonna make any progress on the features in order to fix that fundamental positions that will bust it.
Then, there’s kind of a second level which is where you’re trying to make decisions about how do you structure the data or how do you create the database in such a way that it makes easy to do certain queries or provide a solid error handling, error returns to the API for example. I think in those cases, you can mitigate them to some extent by using dependency injection and creating these interfaces that sit in front of it and if you need to rewrite one, then you can, you’re almost swapping out an entire layer of the application for another in a very specific way.
I’ll give an example with Bluetick, like the backend storage system for storing emails has been rewritten four times. It’s because at first it was like let’s just get something working and then it was trying to optimize for local storage and then the next level was things are not working in local storage because there’s so much data coming in at all times like I just can’t scale that much on one machine and then I kind of move everything into the cloud and into the Azure tables in no sequel storage. Then the fourth rewrite was essentially making that more scalable and optimized.
Each level on the way like there was some level of rewrite but because it was essentially being able to flip a switch and say instead of using this set of data structures, you can do those on a per user basis or on small sub-segments of the users and not affect others. I would definitely do some research on dependency injection.
The other nice by-product of them is that it helps with writing unit test to be able to make sure that those things that are working from one version of your rewrite to the next in that particular component or module. Beyond that, there’s always gonna be things that you run into where you think that one way is a good way to solve a technical challenge and you turn around and find that it just wasn’t, you get down in the weed sometimes and you realize that you made a really, really big mistake and the only way to resolve that at that point is to rewrite it and there’s nothing you can do at that point.
The only way to have mitigated those four types of problems is to run into them and then realize after the fact that it was a mistake. It’s really hard to generalize from one application or problem space to the next and say like, “Oh, you should never do it this way. You should always do it this way.” Those things don’t apply. Each problem space has its own unique way of storing data or things that need to be surfaced to the user and you don’t always know what those are until afterwards. Sometimes, you just make the best decision that you have and you find out later that it was wrong, there’s nothing you can do.
Rob: Yeah. I would just say in general, technical debt is underrated in the startup space. I think people think that it’s not a big deal and it’s a way bigger deal than most people do because if you aren’t technical, it’s hard to understand why you can’t just quickly rewrite a piece or quickly change a decision you made later. These metaphors don’t always work but it’s akin to building a building and then needing to go back and replace the concrete foundation because you poured it incorrectly. You literally have to jack the building up and it’s just painstaking and agonizing to replace that and that’s what code is. You’re building things on top of each other.
I think of it like a 4×4 matrix where there’s basically two binary things. One is I know that this is a shortcut and I’m gonna take it anyways versus I don’t know this is a shortcut like I accidentally introduced technical debt. I think that’s the switch you’re talking about.
Then I think the other one is it’s easy to undo later versus it’s a complete fiasco to undo it. You can imagine that 4×4 matrix and we’ll go through all of those matching up but obviously any decision you make on purpose to introduce technical debt, you need to explore and thought experiment like how hard is this to undo later. If it’s hard, then don’t do it.
There were a lot of decisions Derrick and I made in the early days that were very slow, they caused Drip development to be very slow in the early days and it was pretty agonizing when we were bleeding cash and we couldn’t get the features out the door to keep people from churning because it was a very specific feature set that people wanted, and it was taking us months to build them and it was because Derrick wanted to build them very carefully with extensive unit test and he wanna do it right and he had to refactor the database twice in the first year of the app, because the app went from a very simple thing to very complicated thing.
It was agonizing but it was the right decision, because now, it would be catastrophic right now, we would probably have to have rewritten major parts of Drip. I don’t know if it would have impacted the acquisition or if it just would have been post acquisition or what it would have been but it would have been really hard and between he and I, we figured out a good sense of what was gonna be hard to change later–things that are easier to change later like you said where you can just build an interface and then swap it out later. Obviously those are the ones that you can maybe take shortcuts on.
But I think some people take shortcuts on like not running unit test, some people make cold-quality shortcuts where they just start hacking things together and later on, everything’s buggy because you took a shortcut and you didn’t build that right in the first place. In general, I have seen no less than half a dozen or maybe closer to a dozen companies get to the point where they’re between 10k and 50k MRR, they’re growing fast and they have to rewrite their entire codebase. I’ve seen some that have done it more than ones.
It is so painful to spend six months of standing still while your competition gains on you because you took shortcuts in the early days. Now, you’re just hanging out, waiting to build more features until your codebase can be completely rewritten. I would say proceed with caution, obviously, you’re always gonna have some level of technical debt, but be very deliberate about those choices because I think it’s easy to be in such a hurry to get to the point where you have more revenue and this is certainly a tradeoff because in the early, early days, when you just trying to get to $5,000 or $10,000 revenue, you’re gonna have to make some trade offs but try to take shortcuts on things that are easy to change later. That’s how I think about it.
Mike: I think one of the biggest places to make that trade off is that when you’re looking at unit tests, I’m not saying you write unit tests for everything because I certainly don’t think that that has a ton of value for a startup but I do think that there’s value in having like continuous integration server of some kind or a build system put in place so that later on you don’t have to figure out, “Okay, how am I gonna deploy my app?” You want that to be a systematic thing where you can literally just click a button and it runs through everything and is able to deploy the app.
But with that comes at least some level of unit tests or a mechanism for running those, and even if you don’t write a ton of unit tests, as bugs come in, you should be adding those unit tests to make sure that if a bug comes in and it breaks something that you had a unit test in there so that later on, as you’re making other changes, it doesn’t break that again.
Like I said, I don’t think you should write unit tests for everything, but I do think that as those bugs come in you should be writing them to make sure that once you fix a particular problem that you don’t have to refix it 3, 4, 5, 10 different times moving forward because it just keeps coming up.
Rob: Thanks for the question. I hope that was helpful.
Next question is from Jay Pablo Fernandez and he says, “I just finished going through all my newsletter subscribers and I noticed there are a few industries that are well-represented such as education, health, IT and government. When it comes to my product, they all use it in the same way. The feature set they made is pretty much the same. I wouldn’t say they are verticals in the SaaS way of thinking. I can sell to all of them or I can focus on one industry. Are there any advantages to either approach?”
Mike: I think this is a tough question, as you said you don’t wanna paint yourself into a corner and make people think that you don’t serve their industry. I think what I would do in this case sn focus on the specific problem that you solve and then maybe have different case studies for each of those industries and even segment your list a little bit so that when you talk to them, when you’re sending out newsletters or you’re sending out articles to them, maybe you’ll only send an article that highlights a case study for the electric and gas industry to those people who were subscribers that fit into that bucket. It seems to me like that would probably be an appropriate way to go, but at the same time there’s value to be had to for saying, “Hey, this also works in other industries because there’s gonna be some crossover between them.”
Let’s say that you have a case study on the nuclear power plant industry, if it’s safe enough for them to use, pure application, then whatever other industry they happen to be in, they would probably translate that and say, “Oh, well, if these guys are using it, then surely it’s passed master and I could use it as well.” I would think about it in terms of just trying to make sure that you’re covering enough of each of them but not focusing so hard on any of them that it makes people think that, “Oh, this is not for me.”
Rob: I think I might try to run an experiment. He has this list and he has these four sectors, four verticals, and I would consider trying to do physically exploratory calls, I don’t know if you wanna call it customer development or even just sales calls, if the product’s already there, across all of them, and figure out that you wanna validate your assumption that they use it in the same way with the same feature set. Because I find that a little bit hard to believe, just having run the apps that I’ve run, different industries tend to want slightly different feature sets and have a slightly to just enough it settle but by the time you really get and they start using it, it becomes a pain-in-the-butt to have four different industries or wanting something just slightly, “Oh, just tweak this one thing, oh, can I just have a setting to do this? But we have a permission in the reporting thing.” It’s just enough that there will be a difference. I guess it’s what I’m guessing.
If you have the time to do this upfront and just have a bunch of phone calls with these folks and try to do the demos and try to figure out is it truly gonna be something that they all can use, then that’s fine. But I do think you’re gonna find differences in payment terms, like you said sales cycle because government’s gonna take forever to come through, maybe in your early days since you’re trying to get ahead of funding running out or whatever, you go after the ones that close quickest, which I don’t know if that’d be IT, education, sure it seems like it’s gonna take a long time too, so focus on the one that are gonna close the quickest and get the early value in order to keep around long enough to focus on all four.
But I would try to answer that question, there’s still a question in my mind of is the product actually gonna serve all four? If that’s the case and you can work your entire list and work all four of them at once and try to get as many customers paying you on day one, then that’s what I would do. Right now, you’re just trying to get revenue and see how people use the app and if they’re gonna get value out of the app and there are across four different industries, then you’re gonna learn more about all four and maybe later you decide to focus down on one industry.
I do think that there are some advantages focusing on one industry in terms of how your marketing can really speak to people so you’re gonna close more deals probably, how you are sales conversation can focus on them, how your features set can focus, and how word of mouth would be such a big component of it. Assuming that people in your industry hang out at conferences, or hang out online, word of mouth if you just become the defacto in in the industry and in a vertical then you can land and expand words like, “Alright, we are the go-to for this task in the IT space. Now we’re gonna start adding on these other verticals.”
That’s the other way to approach it. It’s just a pick one based on your information so far, your best guess, and then later on, a year or two down the line, once you own a big chunk of this, you’ll expand into the others but I feel like you don’t have enough information to do either approach right now and I would try to close as many deals as I could, see if they actually will all use it and then try to make the decision once you have a little more information.
For our final question of the day, we have a question from Ed Freyfogle. He was a MicroConf Europe speaker this year. He says, “Hey, guys. Long time listener, first time asker. One target audience of my SaaS service is academic researchers. They are not the best customers as typically they’re low budget and they only need this service for a project or semester. Nevertheless their niche seems to like my service. Often they ask for academic discounts. My pricing is already very affordable and I offer discounts for annual purchases. Still, I can’t help but wonder if I might be able to grow this niche by offering an academic discount.
Alternatively, I have also thought about selling to universities and offering them a bulk rate. But so far I’ve always been busy with other things so I haven’t acted on this idea. I’m wondering if you guys have any advice on academic discounts in general, how to ensure they are not abused by other customers and selling to universities. Thanks for the great show, I learn a lot.”
This is a tough question. I like the fact that he’s thinking pretty strategically about it. I think that if you haven’t had the time to try to sell to the universities and offer them a bulk rate, if you haven’t made the time, it’s probably not that important. That’s where I found like this is right. It’s like you go toward the money’s coming in and your biggest fires are. I’m guessing that unless you are to hire someone to handle that that it’s not gonna make it to the top of your to-do list anytime soon.
I tend to think about discounts in two ways. There is academic and then there’s non-profit discounts. I don’t know if you have a non-profit discount as well, that’s something that I would consider modelling it after and there you just ask for proof of their non-profit status which can totally be abused. I think with DotNetInvoice we had profit one and it was maybe 1 in 20 or 1 in 30 who ask for it and show the stock seemed a little bit like, “You signed up with this just to get the discount.”
In terms of academic stuff, it depends on what volume you have coming in, it’s like if it really isn’t education it’s 1 in 50 people ask for it. You can always have an unpublished academic discount and you just need to get proof from them, I don’t know it’s a student ID or if it’s a professor ID, what it is, but it’s gonna be a process, it’s fairly lightweight. I personally don’t see a huge drawback to doing it. I’m curious when people email and ask for academic discounts and you say no, how many sales do you think you loose? Is it worth even doing any of this effort to get those sales?
Your pricing is already reasonable, if you offered another 20%, 30%, 40% off for academic discounts and that’s probably the range, I would think, although I haven’t done any research about this, but mentally it would be in that range. Is that worth it if you have to go through validation of some type of ID, I don’t know, there’s some trade offs here.
If the volume is high enough that you’re asking this question, I would probably just do an experiment where the next time I got an email about it, I would say, “Yes, we have a 25% discount, but you have to prove you’re a student or you’re faculty.” See where it goes from there and handle it as a one off to start and then I don’t know if it has support people or not, but if you distract them to do that and then tally up in a Google Spreadsheet how often it gets asked and which sales come through, you can start getting at least a little bit of data about it.
Those are my initial thoughts without a ton of experience, to back that up, it’s more of the got feel, so much of entrepreneurship is making enough as you go along. It’s just figuring out what’s the priority and making the best judgment call based on the information you have. What do you think, Mike? You have other thoughts?
Mike: I’ve looked at the academic discounts in the past. You just do a quick search for academic discounts for software and you’ll find that they can be upwards of 85% which is extremely high especially for something like a SaaS, I mean. Is the money that you’re getting even enough to offset the cost of you actually doing business for that person? I don’t know the answer to that. I think you need to figure out what that is.
Rob: Yeah. I know that Microsoft and Adobe and those guys discount because they’ve been pirated so much. Too often students who don’t have the money and they do these huge discounts. When you’re a SaaS app, especially when you’re Bootstrap like this and cash is important, there’s no chance I would offer a discount that large.
Mike: Yeah. I mean I think that part of the reason that those types of companies offer discounts that are high is one, it’s downloadable software so they don’t have to worry about their own cost, and two, they’re really just trying to make sure that there’s some form of legitimacy for the software that you’re using and giving that high of a discount helps them to get market penetration so that Microsoft has 90% market penetration on the best app for Office and Windows.
I agree, I wouldn’t go that high, but it’s not to say that you couldn’t have a discount for students versus a discount for academic researchers/the university itself. Because if somebody’s using it for a class, then they’re probably not going to be able to pay nearly as much as the person who’s doing it for the university and offering it on behalf of the class itself. I might think about that, but I do agree with Rob that you probably want to go through and run at least some tests to find out like what is it that people are using it for.
Something else to consider is that if somebody is purchasing it on behalf of the classroom because they’re teaching it, what’s the value of having those people in the class know about your product and then they leave and graduate and go out and do things in the workforce and having them know, “Hey, I can come over to opencagedata.com and buy this stuff off-the-shelf and we use it in our classroom so it has a lot of legitimacy.” There’s probably some value in that, I don’t know what that level is because I mean if you go through like an engineering degree, chances are good you’ll probably use Autocad some place along the way. When you get out into the industry like you first thought is, “Oh, I need to create some 3D models of something. Where’s the copy of Autocad?” There’s a student discount that you can get but once you get out in that at the real world, your company has to pay for it.
Having those people go to their bosses and say, “Hey, I use this data over here from opencagedata.com. We should buy a license for that.” There’s value there. I don’t know what that is but I definitely think there’s some value there. I would look into it, I don’t know how much time and effort I would spend on it because the return on that is probably gonna be wild. It’s gonna be a couple of years.
Rob: Yeah. Those are good points. I like your idea of not making an academic discount but making it a student discount. It’s an interesting thing because students really don’t have the money whereas if a university is buying it for a class, they do have some budget, and he’s right, his prices are reasonable like a university should be able to afford it.
Mike: Even with like a student. A student could probably get away with a free trial or even like the extra small plan that they have there for like a class or project or something like that but the university, if it’s for a class, and they’re buying it on behalf of the students for a class, I’ll offer them a 30% discount if you’re a student and you just want to use it for yourself, maybe it’s a 60% discount. I don’t know, but if you separate them, I think that there’s a way of targeting those people in that way that says, “Oh, we give individual students 60% and for universities we give them 30%.” It shows that you’re doing both. It shows you’re helping out on both sides.
Rob: It’s a question of whether or not the volume of incoming request warrant spending the time to figure all this out. If the answer is no, we have reasonable prices and we aren’t able to support any of these because you don’t have the bandwidth. It’s less about money and it’s more about Bootstrap startup with not a lot of time and just having yet another program to maintain and then we have to get a fax of your idea or an email with a screenshot and then check that off that it’s approved and then they just want more process that you have to wait if that’s gonna be worth it for in order to make another few discounted sales.
Mike: Thanks for the question, Ed. I think that about wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-96-90 or you can email to us at email@example.com.
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In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about how to evaluate per-seat and tiered pricing models. They give you their definitions and a list of pros and cons to each model.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Rob and I are gonna be talking about how to evaluate per seat and tiered pricing models. This is Startups for the Rest of Us Episode 375. 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 Mike.
Rob: I’m Rob.
Mike: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve been. What’s the word this week, Rob?
Rob: Well, my first ever angel investment in 2011 was Jason Cohen’s WPEngine. They just passed $100 million in annual revenue and they secured $250 million investment from company, a private equity firm called Silver Lake and it bought out the series A and B investors. It’s my first exit, as they say.
Rob: I guess it’s my second exit because Drip and HitTail before that, but you get the idea. My first angel investment that has paid back any money, how about that?
Mike: Well, I’ve got a napkin folding company, if you want to invest in it.
Rob: Really? What’s the value? If it’s low in valuation, I think I could do it.
Mike: I don’t know, that kind of reminds me of the joke I just made. I think that it was Jason Fried who had put out a tweet a while back about selling a small piece of Basecamp to somebody for like a dollar, and he gave him 1/1,000,000 of a percent of the business in exchange for that dollar which may have valued at, I forget what it was, it was like $300 billion or something like that.
Rob: Oh, yeah. Right, right. Yeah, I remember reading that article just about how you reduce the numbers and it doesn’t make any sense when you’re raising a lot of these VC rounds, they’re just stupid, valued at whatever it was, 50 billion or just crazy, crazy numbers. But it doesn’t mean you’re actually worth that.
When I was sitting down to consider raising as Drip was growing and we were kind of bursting at the seams and we needed cash, we were evaluating raising an angel round versus an acquisition because we were being approached pretty regularly by folks who wanted to buy us. One of the struggles I had with raising that round or considering the round is the valuation that you’re gonna raise that right now given our growth rating, given our revenue, is gonna be high, it’s gonna be a lot of money.
In order to then do, in my opinion, to do right by those investors, you have to sell for at least twice that. Getting to a purchase price that’s 2x to 10x what your funding valuation was is hard. I’m gonna make up numbers here, but if you can raise at a $10-million valuation, you can’t sell at a $10 million valuation, you could probably sell for $1 million or $2 million, the actual cash sales prices are substantially less than funding valuations because funding is driven by the market and by FOMO, and by all this stuff, people making bets. Whereas someone putting cash on it, they really do look at more financials, they’re just more picky about things because they’re not making a bet. They are really trying to do something, do right by their business.
All that to say, if you raise at a $5 million or $10 million valuation, but you’re only worth in cash, if you could sell at a million today, you have a hell of a lot of work to get to that $20, $30, $40 million mark and that was a big question in my mind, like again, those are made-up numbers. Those are not the numbers that we had but I kept thinking are we in it for that many years or is it better to take some money off the table?
Mike: Yeah. I think that’s a big challenge not just for you at that time but for anyone who’s considering going down that road because if you do take that money, you’re basically committing yourself to down the road not just selling the business but putting the business in a position where you have to grow to that point in order to be able to get anything out of it. I think in most cases, the investors are going to need to be paid back their money first before you get anything or before you get anything substantial. Even if you sell it, as you said, if you’ve raised it at a $10 million valuation and you sold it, let’s say, for $12 million or whatever, they’re gonna make their money. Even though you sold the business for $12 million or $15 million, you’re probably not gonna make very much at all just because of the way that those numbers work out, which kind of sucks, you built that business, and yes, it was with somebody else’s money, but you just don’t get nearly as much out of it as you probably could’ve if you bootstrapped it. The flip side of the coin is if you didn’t get the money, would you have ever been able to get to that point?
Rob: Right, that’s always a challenge. I think we’ve been clear in the past that we’re not anti-funding, certainly not anti. As someone who is now investing in businesses, I believe that there’s a time and a place and there are rational and good reasons for raising fund. We did an episode on this, probably a hundred episodes ago where we really talked through the difference between Seed Funding and Angel Funding versus Venture Capital, and kind of the pros and cons to that. I think we talked about fund strapping during that time and about companies like Card Hook and Lead Fuse and Term Buster that I’m invested in. They don’t necessarily wanna do the implied series A. They really are raising that round up front to move quicker, but to get to profitability, and then to build an actual business that will either exit someday or will throw off cash in the form of dividends. It is a challenging question.
I think I’ve publicly stated several times that I have no plans to do another one. I don’t plan to do another startup, I just don’t feel like I have it in me at this point. But if in some theoretical world I were to do it, I would probably raise a round. I would either raise a round for myself and self-fund it but with a substantial chunk of money, or I would go to my angel network and the people that I know and get some money into it because it just makes things so much easier if you’re an experienced, knowledgeable founder and you know the path, it can get you there quicker.
Mike: The Bitcoin rage, I think right now the initial coin offering, you could do an initial [walling 0:05:44] offering.
Rob: Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. The ICO stuff is so ridiculous. That’s a whole other show. If you wanna hear about that, go to https://p.nomics.com, that’s Clay Collins’ blog about Cryptocurrency and he has a podcast now, and he’s dived into that stuff. Yeah, there’s some serious insanity going on there. I think the SEC is going to crack down on people offering these – essentially they’re securities, they’re selling securities without vetting the people on the other end, and there are laws against that. I think it’s going to become a mess for some folks.
Mike: Yeah. I’ve seen some crazy things like some companies lately that are publicly traded companies where they have a price on the New York Stock Exchange, or on Nasdaq, or something like that. They come out with a press release or an article that says that they’re going to be creating their own digital currency of some kind, and then suddenly, I think it was Kodak, it was just last week and their stock price went up by 50%. I was like really, are you kidding me? This is Kodak. Yeah, I don’t know. Having spent a long time in Rochester, New York, Kodak goes through a cycle, every three years roughly. It’s Kodak and Xerox. It’s like one year a bunch of people are laid off and then the other company is hiring, and it’s just people bounce back and forth between those two companies like clockwork and it’s ridiculous. But neither one of them either really does anything.
Rob: Cool. Enough about ICOs and Angel Investing. What’s going on for you?
Mike: I had a bunch of customers to Bluetick this week. That’s a good feeling to get back on track and kick things off in the New Year. Right now, I’m dealing mostly with support issues and finalizing the website design I’ve been working on and the email course redesign. I think my biggest challenge right now is troubleshooting large numbers of requests that are coming into my server on occasion, so we’re trying to figure out either what’s going on and why certain things are being throttled. I’m sure it’s a configuration issue at some place, but I just don’t have the logs because it looks like certain things are just not getting through and I don’t see what’s going on, so that came up this morning.
Rob: Dude, if you have a segment.com integration, they have [00:07:50] so many time, accidentally. Someone hooks it up and they don’t respect our rate limits, and we’ve had extensive conversations with them and I’m just shocked that business at large, it’s 429 response that we give back and we say, “This is the rate limit. The next time you can send is in this many minutes.” It’s all in there, Zapier has rate limits and we parse them, we actually respond to them but Segment said they’re working on it, but man they have taken the RAPI down multiple times in the past year.
Mike: I’m the only one who’s like I’m getting API requests coming in and I’ve never really looked at the API limits in the past because before it was just my app and now as I’m starting to integrate into other things, as you said, you’re basically accidentally getting [00:08:33]. I’m seeing the logs, I’m responding to dozens of requests per second, but if something gets dropped, I don’t necessarily see it in those logs. I would just have to go poke around and see like are there other logs that I can go look at on the system itself.
Rob: Yeah. Once you have customers going and you start scaling up, these things take more and more of your time. Before we dive in, I had a couple of books that I want to just circle back on. As I say, I listened to a lot of audio books during the year. I recently finished WTF, What’s The Future and Why It’s Up To Us, and that’s Tim O’Reilly’s book.
I mentioned that I was maybe a third of the way through and was not digging it a few weeks ago. I came at it with a new mindset and I do think it’s a good book, but it didn’t blow me away. He analyzes how the future is gonna be. He looks at certain companies and how they’re operating and he did this back in the 90s. He did in the early 2000s with Web 2.0, and now he’s doing it here. He says, “Certain companies embody what’s going to happen, where the puck is going. He looks at several companies, Uber, and he talks about Amazon, he talks about a few companies that do it. It definitely got better for me towards the end, but not a resounding. It was good. It was just 6 or 7 for me out of 10, but it didn’t blow me away like I thought I would.
Another one is called Make Your Kid a Money Genius Even If You’re Not. I always like books that help me raise my kids better and give me advice about that stuff. Though I liked it, I think it’s worth listening to or reading. My one complaint is that it’s so much focused on teenage, college, and later. Since my kids are 7 and 11, there was a little bit on that topic but it was very, very limited, so I started skipping chapters towards the end about saving for college and all this stuff that I already have done, how to manage your money during college, how to do credit cards, and all that kind of stuff.
Then, the last one is a really interesting book I stumbled on, it’s called Accidental Superpower. This is if you want to feel good about the future of America. Not in like a nationalistic way, but in a, there’s always the thought or the threat of like, “Well, you know, India, and China, and Japan, and everybody, they’re just gonna eat our lunch and all of the jobs are going overseas,” and all that stuff. Read this fascinating book, it’s by a guy with a PhD in Geopolitics.
Geopolitics is how geography shapes the political climate and how it shapes our country and how it develops. It’s just a fascinating look at all the advantages that really North America has as this place that’s separate from Europe, about the navy, about the natural resources. I mean just on and on and on and it keeps going through if you really look at this, at least from his perspective that America’s gonna be fine, that United States is gonna be fine, and that there’s always gonna be challenges, but then it’s not as dire as so many people make it out to be.
Mike: Awesome. While you’re talking about that, it actually reminded me of something else. Do you watch Netflix at all?
Rob: Oh, absolutely.
Mike: Yes. There’s a new series on there called The Toys That Made Us.
Mike: If you haven’t checked this, it’s awesome.
Rob: I have.
Mike: There’s only four episodes for it, so for the listeners, it basically goes back to the 80s and 90s and takes a look at some of the different toys that became huge and really, really popular during that time frame. Obviously, some of them came about before that, but it goes through some of the history of toys like Star Wars, Barbie, He-Man, and GI Joe. Those are the four that they have. I don’t know if they’re gonna do another season or anything like that, but it’s a really fascinating look at the toy industry and how people weren’t marketing these toys, how they were getting them out in front of customers.
In some cases, it was the psychological hacks that they used in order to figure out what was gonna make a toy resonate with people and some of the struggles that they had to overcome in order to get the product out to market. It blew me away. It was awesome watching all four of them.
Rob: I’ve only done the Star Wars one, but definitely, I’d recommend, have the other three in my queue. What are we going to talk about today?
Mike: Today, we’re gonna be talking about how to evaluate per seat and tiered pricing models. This comes up, because yesterday I was talking to an entrepreneur about this exact topic and we also have a listener question in our queue about SaaS pricing models.
The short version of his question is that, on apps and services the post multiple projects, is project-based pricing a thing? What are the pros and cons and why would you not go down on one of these paths? He has a much longer version which I won’t get into but I thought that we could dig into the differences between per seat pricing versus tier pricing, talk a little about the pros and cons of each, and then also point people to a resource over on the cobloom.com website where they have what’s called the Ultimate Guide to SaaS pricing models, Strategies and Psychological Hacks. They dig really into I think about seven or eight different pricing models. Some of them are just variations on others, so instead of per user pricing, for example, there’s a per active user pricing model that you can look on. I thought that that’d be a good place to start our discussion.
Rob: Let’s dive in.
Mike: The first thing to talk about is what exactly is per seat pricing? The basic idea of per seat pricing is pretty straightforward. Each person that is using your software you’re going to charge the customer for. If they have one user, you’re going to charge them for one. If they have 25, you’re going to charge them for 25 users. Typically, each user has a given price for it, maybe it’s $5, maybe it’s $50 a month. But you can also have I’ll say a little bit more complicated model where you have different tiers for the users as well. Let’s say you have one set of features, it’s $5, or different set of features, it’s $10 per user and $15. I think that it gets really, really complicated, at least it has the potential to get really complicated, but at its simplest form, you have per seat pricing as just a set dollar amount per user that’s using the software.
Rob: Yup. Do you remember the rule for, I think we’ve talked about this, the rule for when you should use per seat pricing.
Mike: Yes. You mentioned it a couple of episodes ago, I think.
Mike: If I remember correctly, if somebody is going to see a different set of data or have a different view of what’s going on, then they should have a per seat pricing model versus a tiered pricing model.
Rob: There you go. Two examples is if you’re using a CRM system, then each sales person will obviously see different prospects and different flows and that’s why per seat pricing makes sense there. But if you’re using an email marketing system such as Drip or Mailchimp, typically, you don’t see anything different if you login. Limiting the number of logins or managing by users doesn’t really make sense because people will just share logins if they wanna do it.
I like per seat pricing a lot, but you should only use it when it fits that role, and if it doesn’t fit that role, then avoid it and do one of these other purchases we’re gonna talk about. It feels weird when it’s bolted on. It’s really obvious. It’s something like why are you limiting by this? It doesn’t make any sense.
Mike: Can you give an example of where somebody might try to bolt that on and it doesn’t make sense? Because honestly, it sounds like you’ve got a couple of examples in your head.
Rob: There’s 500 or 600 ESPs that we’ve kind of run across over the years, and I’ve seen ESPs, again, something like a Mailchimp or a Drip have maximum, you can invite users in, up to five users to this tier, and then if you have more than five logins, then you have to jump up to a higher tier. It just doesn’t make sense, your customers are not getting value out of that, they’re getting value out of either how many subscribers they have, how many emails they send, how much money they make, there are other things to base your pricing on that are not a number of logins. Whereas, if you have something like pager duty where it’s monitoring software that pages your DevOps team or a CRM system, the more people you have on there, the more value you’re getting and be the more kind of willingness to pay that you should have. Those are kind of two examples both against and for per user pricing.
Mike: A couple of different cons for the per seat pricing that you already called out was that people will share accounts if there’s no real value associated with having a dedicated log-in for them. I think the other thing, and I’ve personally seen this as well is, if you are charging on a per user basis, it in some ways limits the adoption of that particular product, because then you’re basically forcing the company or the customer to make a decision every time they have either a new employee, or a new contractor come in, do we create a user account for this new person because it’s going to cost us money to do that. By pushing that decision on them, a lot of times the answer’s gonna be, “Well, no, we can get away without it.” Or, they go towards what you had pointed out, they just start sharing logins and it becomes a detriment to you because then you have to just evaluate, are you gonna enforce the logins on a per user basis, or you’re gonna make sure that the only one session is connected at a time, or you’re just gonna ignore that issue?
Rob: Another con to per seat pricing. Again, per seat pricing works, but these are some potential negatives. You do have a potential for increased churn as a result of fewer people in an organization using it if they are trying to save money by not having everyone login. It’s one way that people might churn out of your app.
Mike: If we look at the benefits of the per seat pricing, it’s really easy to understand. It’s x-dollars per user, per month, and there’s really no complicated explanation for it. Another nice side of it is that it does scale with usage, you are not really leaving money on the table if somebody has 5 people signed up, you’re gonna get paid for 5 people, if they have 500, you’re gonna get paid for 500. You don’t have to worry as much about whether you’re leaving the money on the table or you’re selling yourself short inside the app.
Then, the last thing is that when you have a number of users who are using your product, the revenue itself is generally predictable, because you can see, not just that you have that number of users and it’s a month to month subscription of some kind, but also you can see when people are not using the product. If they’re not using it, chances are good that you can forecast a little bit and say, “Well, how long after they stop using it does this particular user or account fall-off, and then we no longer start getting revenue from it?”
Rob: That’s where this variant of per using pricing started to come about, it’s called per active user pricing and we’re not gonna dive totally into this but Slack does this. If you have a team of 50 people, 50 logins into Slack, but five people don’t use it at all during a month, they actually don’t charge you for that. That’s kind of cool way to do it.
Mike: Yeah. That is kind of a cool way to do it, and I think if you’re large enough where you don’t necessarily care whether all of your users are on the system or not, then that’s fine. But I think for a lot of smaller companies, that also creates some pain points around when you like somebody says, “Hey, can you cap on Slack and go take a look at this?” “Oh, I didn’t get that.” Or, “I haven’t logged in.” Then, they log in to check one thing and now you’re getting charged for them, it’s like okay, well, if they didn’t have the login to begin with, then you wouldn’t have to worry about that.
But, I don’t know, I think for smaller businesses, if you’re between one and five people, it can be kind of painful, especially if the price point is more than like $5 a month. $5 a month is not a big deal, but if it’s $50 or $100 a month per user, and suddenly you have two or three people log in extra just to check something, now you’re getting charged for them because they’re considered an active user
Rob: Cool. What’s next?
Mike: The next one to talk about is tiered pricing. I think that if you look back historically, I think it was Hiten Shan with Crazy Egg, they’re the company that I think you can kind of point to as putting together those different tiered pricing models, another one is Basecamp obviously with all of their different pricing tiers that they have. Being able to maximize revenue inside of their apps by offering a tiered pricing model.
The whole concept of the tiered pricing model is that within a given pricing tier, you have access to a certain set of features, and a certain number of users, maybe you have features in between the tiers, or maybe you have the tiers based on number of users, combination of those things, but essentially it allows you to put those things in different pockets, so to speak, and let people self-select which one is the most appealing to them. I think that this is interesting from the standpoint that you can allow the user to select those but the downside is that because you’re allowing them to select it, they could easily select the wrong things or they may have problems deciding because you didn’t put the gates between the different tiers on the thing that is most important to them, so there’s pluses and minuses to this approach.
Rob: Yeah. I would say when I think of tiered pricing like a strict definition, I think of it being based on a single metric or maybe two. An example to come back to ESPs is Mailchimp and Drip charge on the number of subscribers. That’s all the tier. The tiers go up and they go down based on that, and it’s not also based on features because I see feature dating as a separate or a more complex version of tiered pricing. True purest tiered pricing, remember Kissmetrics was based on, I think, it was the number of events in a given a month. Segment used to be based on the number of events, and I think it’s actually different now. They changed it. Zapier was like that. It’s not metered because meter would mean like AWS where you get charged for exactly what you’re using but it’s these tiers up to 100 subscribers and then 1,000, and then 2,000, and then 3,000.
Mike: I think the interesting thing is that if you go over to Basecamp’s website right now, the only pricing that I see listed is it’s $99 a month all inclusive. What used to be when you went to Basecamp and you sign up for their product, you get X number of projects and let’s say it was up to 10 projects and unlimited users, but then you had a limit on the file storage, for example, with limit on the number of active projects that you can have at one time. It’s just $99 a month flat rate as many users as you want, as many projects as you want, and they’ve gotten away from all of the pricing tiers. I think it’s interesting to see the evolution that they’ve gone through for their pricing.
Rob: Yeah, and that’s something that’s really common. If a founder comes to me and says, “Look, I’m just launching, or I have 5, 10, 15 customers, how should I structure my pricing?” My advice would be go as simple as possible to start with and if you’re gonna do per seat, then just do per seat. Don’t do tiers to start with and do $10 per seat, or whatever you’re gonna charge, or if you’re going to meter it, then do your tiers and see what happens.
Get 50 customers going and see what the complaints are, see how the revenue stacks up, see if there’s an opportunity to make it more complicated, but don’t start out with complicated pricing because it’s hard to simplify things. It’s easier to make it more complicated. Easier to add a V2 Pricing that has some differentiators once you have the data. That’s the thing, when you have no data or very limited data, it’s really hard to make choices and you’re likely to make the wrong choice the more complicated you make things. I do think that pricing should evolve overtime. If you look at like I said segment.com, pricing is way different than it used to be. It’s not even based on the same metric it used to be. As you said, Basecamp is different.
Most SaaS apps, if you look five, six years ago, their pricing is probably substantially different than it used to be. Even Mailchimp used to have a fairly linear pricing model, but now if you look at it, it’s a very choppy thing that it’s linear and then it flattens out for several thousands subscribers. Then it goes up linear and then it flattens out. I’m sure that they’re really smart over there at Mailchimp. I’m sure there’s a reason that they did that and it’s probably based on data.
Mike: Yeah. If you look at even at the bottom of Basecamp’s pricing page, it shows how many subscribers or how many customer they’ve had over the years. Back in 2004, it was 45, and then 2006, it was 100,000, and now it’s up to 2.5 million. I would imagine they have a lot of data to be able to back up their justifications for making some of these decisions. It’s not that they really need the money either, so sometimes it could be just that they got no point where they don’t necessarily care about it as much and they just want to attract as many users as they can especially on the higher end because if you’re only charging $100 a month, then it makes it very easy for larger companies to justify it and say, “Oh, let’s jump on this because it’s only $100 a month.” Then you just get it for the entire company.
Rob: Yup, makes sense.
Mike: If you look at a company like Crazy Egg, you go to their pricing page, they still have four different pricing tiers. This is what I was talking about where they will segment based on a couple of different metrics. There are two lower ends plans that’s visits per month, and then active pages, so it’s 25,000 visits and 20 active pages for their standard. Then below that, it’s 10,000 visits and 10 active pages. Depending on which of those two metrics you need to pay attention to, you’re gonna have to choose either basic or standard. If you go over one, you’re probably gonna have to switch over there. Then their plus and pro-plans, there’s also advance features that they use for that as well. Instead of daily reports, you can get hourly reports, and then there’s advanced filtering, mobile heatmaps, etc. You can get more complicated but as Rob pointed out, you have to have the data first. At the beginning, you’re just guessing and throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, and sometimes that’s what you have to do, but that helps you get the data.
One thing about tiered pricing that had come up at Microconf, Patrick McKenzie had mentioned this where he was working with the customer and he ended up sending out an email on their behalf to their customer based and had offered them an upgrade. Essentially, he looked across the customers’ customers and said, “How many of these people are close to the limit?” When he found that information, he sent out an email or helped him send out an email that basically said hey, “Hey, you are close to the higher end of your pricing tier, why don’t you upgrade and give yourself a little bit of headroom?” That was a very clear upsell to the customers and that consulting client of his ended up making a, I don’t know exactly how much revenue was from it, but it was sizeable enough that it made a difference and helped them justify bringing him on and moving the business forward.
Rob: Yeah. I always felt like that was an interesting tactic. I’ve never used that. If I got an email like that, I would think to myself, “Aren’t they gonna be auto-upgraded anyways?” But apparently, it works and it’s something that I know Patrick did with his consulting gigs and got the people to upgrade. Looking at this Cobloom article, they have I think six or seven types of pricing models.
One is flat rate pricing and that’s essentially what you said with Basecamp. Most companies, that’s not gonna be what you wanna do. You’re gonna probably wanna do a per seat or do a tiered model that’s based on one metric to start with. Another type is usage based which is pay as you go. Think of this like Amazon AWS or Google Cloud Hosting and Microsoft Azure. This is not something that I’d recommend for bootstrapped startups frankly because hearing winds up being a better way to go, it will make you more revenue and revenue, so critical for you at the time.
Of course, there’s tiered pricing, there’s per user pricing which we talked about. There’s this per active user pricing they have and then they have per feature pricing which can be done totally separately from tiers but I’ve typically seen it as you have tiered pricing based on a certain metric and then you also start sprinkling per feature pricing in there. I think kind of think of who, I know Zapier has done this. They used to have number of event executions per month and then if you wanted to use Drip or Hubspot, then you had to move up to a higher tier even if you had a small amount of events because they figured that if you’re using those tools, that you’re a more sophisticated marketer and you have a bigger budget. That’s one example.
The last one is Freemium, although I see Freemium as working with any of the above. You can have tiered pricing and then just have a forever free plan that is below those. Those are the seven models that they threw out just for completeness.
Mike: Yeah, I forgot who it was who was talking about Freemium and then referred to it more as a distribution model, not necessarily a pricing model.
Rob: Right, yeah. That’s how I feel about it and it’s a marketing approach more than anything else. That’s where my quote is that the Freemium Pricing model’s like a Samurai sword; if you know what you’re doing, you can wield it with great expertise, but if you don’t, you’re likely to cut your arm off. That’s how you see a lot of bootstrapped startups that just launch with Freemium because that’s what the big guys do, and then boom, that goes away, they shot their free plan down. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of companies, including Basecamp used to have a free plan, and they do not.
Mike: Cutting your arm off sounds like a great place to leave off this episode.
Rob: It sure does. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our 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.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike define revenue expansion, talk about how it differs from revenue growth, why it’s important, and ways to increase it.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Baremetric Article
- Price Intelligently Article
- Geckoboard.com article
Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are gonna be talking about revenue expansion opportunities. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 365.
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 built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: I’m Rob.
Mike: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. For this week, Rob, tell me the two most recent non mainstream board games you’ve played.
Rob: I played The Legend of Drizzt board game which is this $65 behemoth massive thing with these figures in it. It’s set in the D&D world. Drizzt is a character who’s been in a bunch of books, fantasy books by R.A Salvatore. It is pretty cool. It’s a simplified version of D&D in essence, you don’t have all the rules and the mechanics but it’s a lot quicker because you can play around in an hour.
I back a lot of games on Kickstarter so I could probably name five that are super not mainstream. There’s one called Mint Mint Tin Apocalypse. It was $2 or $3. It is literally a mint tin and then a couple wooden meeples and then some six sided dice. It’s cool because it takes 10 to 15 minutes to play and it takes 5 or 10 minutes to learn. It’s a long term, you’re gonna play all the time. When I know we just have a few minutes, you sit down and you can just hammer it out. It’s fun and it’s super cheap.
Mike: Aside from the board games, what else is new?
Rob: From the time this podcast airs, I will be wheels up to MicroConf Europe two days later. I’m excited to get to Lisbon. We’re gonna have folks speaking like Peldi Guilizzoni from Balsamiq, Andrus Purde who is the former head of marketing for Pipedrive, now has his own company called Outfunnel, we have Craig Hewitt from Podcast Motor, Mike Taber from Bluetick, Mojca Mars, a Facebook ad expert. We have several other speakers. I’m excited to get there and see some folks that we maybe haven’t seen for years as well as meet the new attendees who are coming for the first time.
Mike: On my end, when this podcast comes out, there will be an announcement for the tickets that will be available. I will be speaking at FemtoConf over in Germany in the spring. I believe it is the first week of March, it’s March 2nd to 4th. It’s over the weekend, it’s Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The tickets are actually going live the day that this episode goes out. If you head over to femtoconf.com, I’m told that they should be available, if they’re not it’s not my fault.
Rob: Aside from the fact that we like Christoph and Benedikt, I really like that they have the Drift right on their homepage, femtoconf.com, ladies and gentlemen. What are we talking about today?
Mike: For today’s episode, we are going to be talking about revenue expansion opportunities. I’ve been thinking about this a little bit just because it’s been on my radar for Bluetick to look at different ways that I can either rework the pricing or find other things to expand the revenue opportunities for Bluetick. I started looking into some of the different ways that that could be done but it also gave me the idea for this particular episode. We’re gonna be talking about revenue expansion.
Revenue expansion is different from revenue growth which typically comes from new customers. Expansion revenue is any revenue that is generated in excess of whatever the initial purchase price that the customer agreed to pay. If they signed up for $30 and they’re paying $30 a month, that’s great, that’s considered a new customer. It becomes expansion revenue if they move from a $30 plan to a $50 plan or to a $100 plan or if they add more users or purchase other services or other products that you have.
There’s a bunch of different ways that those types of things factor into it. The bottom line is when you’re defining expansion revenue, it’s really additional revenue that comes from your existing customer base that you would not have gotten otherwise.
Rob: The holy grail of running a SaaS app is having enough expansion revenue that you have net negative churn. I talked about this a few episodes ago. In essence, you always think of churn as lost revenue because of people cancelling. You can get to the point where if people are naturally upgrading to higher tiers as they use your product.
A good example of this is being ESP where as you add more subscribers, you naturally bump up every few months if you’re having any kind of success, you start paying more, that can be more, that amount can be more than the amount of revenue you’re losing because of people cancelling. When you see that effect, it’s called net negative churn. I’ll say it’s rare, it’s becoming more popular, strong word.
I’m seeing and hearing about it more as people catch onto how incredible it can be as a flywheel for growth because having low churn means you can grow at a certain pace. Net negative is super charge, it’s a completely different trajectory. If you’re lucky enough or smart enough, or both, to stumble into a business where people automatically have expansion revenue like ESP, I think web hosting if you do it based on maybe traffic or the number of sites.
I’m trying to think of other areas, Wistia for me. We had a small plan and we just keep adding videos and we’ve gone up. It’s not super often, maybe once or twice a year, we wind up going up. Mixpanel and Kissmetrics, they go based on number of events. As your website ramps up, you naturally go up the scale. I guess Help Scout or any types of support software where it’s a per seat, that’s a big one.
Per seat expansion is a big one because as a company has more success with their product, they are likely to either bring more people in because it’s working. What if they already have employees, they’ll add more seats or they’re likely, if they’re a startup, we went from 2 employees to 8 in the span of about 18 months. We just needed to add more people to all of our systems.
There are opportunities for some natural ways to get expansion revenue and to try to get to that Holy Grail as I’ve said, net negative churn. I hope I didn’t steal your thunder, I was going off the top of my head. Did I totally decimate this outline with that diatribe?
Mike: No, just the first little piece of it. We’ll link up in the show notes a couple of different blog articles specifically about how new recurring revenue is different from expansion revenue which is different from churn revenue and how those can combine to create that negative churn effect. Those blog articles, some of them are from parametric or Price Intelligently and then there’s also another one from geckoboard.com.
You already talked a little bit about why it’s important because it relates to negative churn. The bottom line here with going after revenue expansion is that it helps to offset your existing churn because, as Rob just said, when you’re losing people just on a regular basis, you’re going to lose people on a monthly basis or quarterly basis, whatever it is, that your billing cycle tends to be on. That helps to offset that.
It’s easier to get more money from your existing customers because presumably you’re keeping them happy, than it is to acquire new customers, it’s typically a lot more expensive to acquire those new customers. We talked about these acronyms like CAC which is cost to acquire a customer, that number tends to be substantially higher for a new customer than it is to get expansion revenue from existing customer where you’re doing some cross sell or upsell or you’re asking them to opt into this other thing.
It’s a lot easier to do those things because you already built that trust. When they’ve never purchased anything from you before, they’re much more reluctant to take that first step because they’re pretty sure that it’s going to take up time. It’s not that it’s not valuable to them but they’ve got other things that they’re doing in addition to paying attention to your product and other things that it can do for them. There’s only so many hours in a day for them to focus on the things that they need to do. That adds one more thing to their plate.
Let’s dive into some of the different ways that you can increase revenue. The first one, Rob alluded to this where some of the examples he came out were Mixpanel or Kissmetrics or hosting providers where as the customer becomes more successful, they use more of your services and by virtue of that, they start paying you more because they’re using more of the resources that you offer. This is essentially increasing their consumption.
There’s another way to look at it, which is to decrease the friction that it requires to use whatever that is as well. Some examples that come to mind are Apple’s iPod or the Fire TV from Amazon. Those things make it a lot easier to download music or to purchase movies or rent movies. Those devices make it a lot easier for you to consume them and to consume them at a faster pace. Those are some examples of that.
If you go over into the physical products world, this occurred to me a while ago, I’m sure somebody has talked about it at some point, if you remember going to McDonalds back in the 90s for example, the straws were insanely small. If you ever went and got a milkshake, it took you forever to drink the milkshake because the straw was so small. You go to McDonalds now, the straws tend to be substantially larger. They’re probably six to eight times the size that they used to be and put through a lot more liquid in there and drink it faster.
That leads you to increasing the rate of consumption, it also leads to larger portion sizes as well. As a consumer, you have to be careful but as a producer of whether it’s content or digital assets or something along those lines, if you can increase the rate that somebody is using your product or services by decreasing the amount of friction, that’s almost the same thing as being able to deliver more.
Rob: Another example that McDonalds was I think a pioneer of, we’ll talk a little bit later but that is cross-sells. When you’d order a burger, what was the famous saying, “Do you want fries with that?” We’re trying to encourage you to do that, and then they had meals. I remember, I’m old enough to remember, when you go to McDonalds and there were no meals. You order a hamburger and then you order french-fries and then you order a drink if you want that.
They started packaging the meals to do exactly this, increase consumption of overall amount of food. You could also call it a cross-sell. This of course can backfire on you, it’s very unlikely to happen to one of us running this small business. Remember that movie Super Size Me, it was a look at how bad McDonalds’ food was. That was the name of it, it was a take on.
You used to pull up to McDonalds and you’d ask for the meal deal, big mac meal deal and they’d say, “Do you wanna supersize that for $0.99?” You’ll get an extra-large drink and an extra-large fries or something like that. That was another way to increase consumption, it was an upsell in essence. A lot of people did that. There were complaints of you’re encouraging people to eat bad food and blah, blah, blah, the politics of it or I guess the morality or ethics of doing that aside, odds are you’re not selling unhealthy food to folks.
You are probably doing something like selling software, selling info products or ebooks. If people use or consume more of them, you can encourage them to do so, then that’s gonna help you increase your bottom line.
Mike: The next one is the very issue on that which is increasing the number of seats that people are using. Not every product is going to have a pricing model that’s going to be able to support this but there are certain cases where a per user model makes a lot of sense. There are ways to incorporate other people unto the team in an environment where there’s your customer or consulting companies that they use, whether they have contractors. Those people may need user accounts.
You do have to be a little careful with this because, as I said, the type of product that you have, you can easily end up in situations where people are just sharing an account and you’re trying to sell a single account for $50 and two accounts for $100 or maybe a slightly reduced price of $90. They won’t go for it because they’ll just decide, “We don’t need that, we’ll just share the account between these people. It’s not that big a deal.”
Just be aware that sometimes it’s an option, sometimes it’s not but there are opportunities to put people into a software package and other ways, other roles inside of it or other responsibilities which give them maybe different options or different features.
Rob: There is actually a really good rule for this on how to decide if your product should be seat based. This is hard and fast, I know lot of time we say, “This is a guideline.” I actually believe that you should not break this one either way. If someone logs into your software with their login, do they see something different than if they login as someone else? A good example of that is Mailchimp or Drip and ESP.
If you and I share an account and we both login with our own logins, we see the same thing, there really isn’t anything different. The only difference is if I were to login as you and do an export, you’ll get notified, you know any exports done but the minimal stuff. If I login to a CRM system or into Bluetick as me versus you, it’s a completely different inbox, completely different list of customers, completely different list of tasks.
The CRM always charges by seat because that’s their upsell and that is the differentiator. It is a minority of products that can charge by seat. Just ask yourself the question, “Does someone/should someone see something different if they login as a different person?” Trello is another example. If I look at my Trello account versus yours, they’re totally different. If we had a business account with seats, you should absolutely charge by seat.
I do see people make the mistake, you mentioned this, of trying to charge by seat when they don’t have the differentiator and then you just get one seat and then save it with everybody because there’s no difference, it doesn’t make sense. It feels to people like you’re being disingenuous if you did do that. I can’t imagine an ESP charging by seat.
There are some marketing automation platforms that charge by seat because they have CRM built into them. Infusionsoft, ActiveCampaign are examples of that. they do have per seat pricing. I’m almost positive if it did not have that CRM view, they would not do per seat stuff.
Mike: The next option for increasing your revenue is to have different upsells. These could either be a higher tier of an existing product or it could be add-ons, it could be additional integrations to give people access to, it could be plugins. There’s a variety of different options that you could give somebody that provide additional functionality on the base level package that you could use as an upsell opportunity.
If you’re using these, you can either have bundle deals on your website where you’ll just say, “Here’s a package deal. It’s $100 for these X things.” Or you can say, “Ala carte, you can get each of these if you want, each of these five but it’s gonna cost you $30 per piece if you’ll buy them individually. Buy them as a bundle, you can get them for $100.” That bundling is also an option for an upsell.
It doesn’t seem like it is but when you start looking at who the types of people are that are buying those things, chances are good that they’re not gonna use all five of them in that particular example. They’re gonna use maybe three or four but the package deal is appealing to them because they have in their head that, “I might use these things down the road.” Even if they don’t use them now, they may have an intent to use them later.
Whether they do or not is immaterial but you can get them to purchase that package deal whether or not they’re gonna use it especially if you position it as a good deal for them.
Rob: This is very different, there’s upsells. It’s different between info products and software. Upsells are very natural and tend to make a lot of sense with information. If someone’s gonna buy a book from you then you upsell them to the videos or you upsell them to a 30-minute console or some interviews you did, that’s pretty natural.
Software can be more of a challenge, it can take more effort. You can always upsell training, really hardcore training. You don’t just want documentation to be upsold, you want that to be free. Something that actually gives someone a mindset view or an architectural overview that they would normally have to pay for, there is that line of you look at pricing of segment.com, their tiers are less based on usage and much more based on the integrations that you use.
I’m sure they know that someone integration with Salesforce tends to have bigger budgets and a lot more value out of segment than someone not doing that. Zapier, I think it’s the same way. There are certain things that are locked behind higher priced paywalls. Drip tends to be that in these apps that integrate with a lot of things because they know if someone is using Drip, they’re probably a more sophisticated marketer, they probably have a larger list, they probably have a bigger budget, that type of stuff and they’re gonna get a lot of value out of these tools.
This takes a lot of thought. The hard part about this is knowing what to lock behind these feature gates and doing it incorrectly is pretty easy. I’ve seen it swing both ways and I do think that if you find one of these other paths where your expansion revenue can be based on number of seats or it can be based on number of subscribers or contacts or it can be based on number of events, there are certain things to fit in, storage size, if your Amazon has three, then go with those.
Probably stay away from trying the feature gate right now, feature gating meaning you can’t get this feature unless you go up a tier, you pass through this gate by paying more money. If you don’t have an obvious way to use one of those obvious numbers that everyone else is using or makes sense for your product, then yes, you do need to seriously start thinking about ways, how do you build tiers when you don’t really have an easy one number like seats or subscribers or contacts to look at?
Mike: That’s actually a really interesting discussion topic just because I think that people look at those features and say, “What should I put in here as a feature gate to create these different pricing tiers?” I remember when Segment used to feature gate based on which integrations you were doing because presumably if you were using Salesforce, you had the money to pay for Salesforce. Clearly, you had money to pay more for a segment license. I think that they’ve shifted their pricing model and you don’t have to do that anymore. When you sign up, they have three tiers.
Rob: I was just saying that they did, I was mistaken. Zapier still does that, Segment used to.
Mike: They used to do that, they don’t do that anymore. I think it’s partially because they got to a point where they were far enough down the road that they had the ability to dedicate somebody to take a hard look at those things and see whether or not they mattered. Having the conversation with the customers to try and find out what the more optimal pricing model was for them.
Rob: They do it now on monthly track users, empty use they call it. It can be dicey, although with Segment that makes sense. How many users are you gonna track in a given month? That’s actually pretty easy to get an idea, you can think of how many either customers or how many website visitors unique in a month. Other times you’ll see like Amazon has pricing like this where it’s number of elastic compute units. What does that even mean? It’s something that is not defined anywhere.
I’ve seen things based on events and it’s like, “I don’t know how many events I’m gonna have in a month. How am I gonna know that?” Kissmetrics and Mixpanel have that problem of trying to define what these things are.
Mike: Even Segment has that problem because the empty use that they advertise, that is for the number of tract users coming to your site, not necessarily the people logging in. It’s not your team. If your website suddenly gets a ton of traffic from Reddit or Slashdot or something like that, you could easily blow through that very quickly depending on the company. You could either end up in a world of trouble with a giant bill or they could say, “We’re gonna turn this off, we’re not gonna allow you access to the rest of this data unless you pay for it.”
Rob: Something that Segment is – I’m looking at not the pricing grid at the top but they have a breakdown of what the differences are between the plan limit levels. Without knowing what their internal data looks like, they both have empty use, that’s monthly tract users, plus they have seats, the lower end only has 1 seat, and the team one has 10 seats. I’ll go back to my question, if I log into Segment as you versus me, do I see something different because as far as I know, you don’t. I actually think that’s probably not a good idea.
They have sources which is how many sources are you going to connect to Segment. The developer panel has two and then all the others have unlimited. Maybe that one is harder to say right or wrong. When you’re first starting out, you don’t have the trust of the market, you don’t have a brand name, you look at people like Segment or Intercom or MailChimp or Drip, we have the luxury of having a brand name and people are actually seeking us out.
We can raise our prices and we can do more complex pricing schemes because people are willing to come and use a tool that they trust and a lot of people are talking about. In the early days, this was with Drip as well as Intercom as well as your tool today, I’m speaking to a listener there, you don’t have the luxury of being able to have super complex pricing because no one’s gonna wanna bother with it because you’re probably struggling to try to get people to come and try it out and try to use it.
I would go extremely simple and I would go for one of these numbers, per seat, per subscriber, per contact or something else that’s very noticeable and easy to figure out until you get to that critical mass. You’re gonna know it by the fact that people are gonna start telling you, “Boy, you should raise your prices, you’re too cheap.” Or you’re gonna look around and say, “I haven’t raised my prices in a year, I need to rethink this.” You should have pretty good flywheel growth by the time you get to that.
Drip is now on its fourth version. We have versioning for pricing. We’re on our fourth version of it in four years. We haven’t done it every year on the dot but we actually did it three times in the first probably year and a half or something and then we really haven’t done any restructuring of pricing since then. Do try to keep it simple in the early days and don’t try to copy companies that are way further along because they have the momentum and the flywheel and the brand and you don’t have that yet. You don’t wanna make this mistake of confusing people.
Mike: Everything that we just talked about is really adjusting your licensing model in order to create more opportunities for upsells using those pricing tiers. Another option that you have that’s available to you is offering some annual plan, whether you offer upfront or you offer it a couple amounts down the road after somebody has started using your product and he’s getting comfortable with it.
Maybe there are certain trigger points where you say, “Let’s offer them an annual plan or a special discount upgrade for three month upgrade. Try this out, the platinum tier for free for 30 days or 90 days.” There are different ways that you can position that and pitch it to people. What you’re trying to do is you’re trying to increase that overall revenue from them so that it decreases the number of times that they’re gonna have to sit down and think about, “Do I really wanna continue paying for this?”
I think Leadpages used to do that really well with their webinars, if you attended a webinar, you could signup for Leadpages account and they would pitch you on a two-year plan. For two years, you are probably not going to go look for another landing page provider because you have this account. Unless it’s not doing what you needed to do, you’re not gonna go look for something else because you’ve already purchased it.
Rob: One of the big benefits of annual plans, especially when you’re starting out is you’re tight on cash. To get someone to pay for 12 months of service in advance, even with a discount, that cash is invaluable. If you can figure out a way to get someone to pay you for that full amount of service and you’re doing any type of paid acquisition, you are gonna be in a great spot. Basically spend a dollar, get $3 or $4 right away. It is a flywheel, it allows you to then acquire more people faster.
It’s pretty incredible, the power of being able to get annual. That’s why you’ll see pretty hefty discounts, 20%, 30%, 40% on annual plans because the cash is just so important to startups in their early days.
Mike: We mentioned this next one several times throughout the episode, it would be cross-sells. If you have other products that you have to offer, cross selling them after somebody has purchased the first product if there’s another one that relates to it or integrates with it, if there are signatures that you can identify with the customer that would indicate that they would probably be a good fit for this other product that you have, then there’s obviously ways that you would wanna interject yourself into a conversation with them to put them in an email campaign or have somebody call them and say, “Would you possibly be interested in taking a look at this over here because we think that this would help your business as well based on what you’re doing and what we’ve seen other customers get in terms of benefits and the similarities between the customers.” That’s another one.
I’m gonna move on from that. The next one is services and customizations. I think this one is a key piece that most software people overlook because we’re trying to build software companies. Our natural inclination is to build a software and sell people software, but the reality is sometimes people need a little extra help, whether that’s onboarding assistance or they need you to do something for them whether it’s a productized service.
There’s lots of different pieces to your application, it’s not just signing up for and plugging in a credit card. There’s usually a lot of other things that the customer is gonna have to do in order to get the value out of that particular product. Because you have all the insights and the backend knowledge and the main expertise for that particular product, you can do those things a lot more efficiently than the customer can.
You can create a service that is going to use your product on their behalf to achieve whatever the goal is and now you’re able to do a lot more because you can dig into the guts of it. If something is not gonna work the way it’s written, you can find ways around it, you can import things directly into the database if you need to and then make the software do it so that you can deliver on that service that you’ve promised them.
They’re more likely to purchase those services because it provides a lot more value to them by having it as more of a done for you service rather than they signup and it’s self-service because that’s most of what SaaS applications are, most of them are self-service versus a productized service where you’re hiring somebody to do something or deliver some sort of value or output. That’s what you’re paying them for, you’re paying them for the output. With SaaS, you’re paying them for the license to use that tool for the duration of them paying for it but they still have to do the work.
Rob: I think there are two aspects to this. You said services, it’s like the productized service. There’s a second aspect which is customization. It’s going to be like if someone came to us, actually we’ve used this with DotNetInvoice all the time. It was downloadable software you run into your own server, it was like self-hosted Fresh Books, a simpler version of that. People would buy it and say, “I don’t want this this thing added,” more like yeah, we’re not gonna build that feature, we’ll pay you to add it.
At first it was like, we’ll charge you $150 an hour and then we moved up to $200 an hour because we just really didn’t wanna them. It made some money but it was a hassle. Consulting, if you wanna be in that business, go do it, it’s lucrative in the short term but if you wanna build something long term, it’s hard to mix those kinds of businesses because they’re two different businesses, serving clients, offering deadlines, doing the contracts.
What if they’re not happy with it, what if they request changes, that’s a type of business. Building your own software product is another type. You’re not gonna move forward full steam on your software product if you’re busy doing a bunch of consulting gigs. The problem is the consulting gigs are like the quick hit, it’s like the crack cocaine where you get the $5000 or the $10,000 because someone wants you to do something.
Of course you’re gonna run off and do that but that revenue isn’t worth nearly as much because it’s dollars for hours. You’re not spending that time marketing your product and building features that other people will use. Even the market itself speaks, if you were to go raise venture funding or you were to try to sell your company even through a broker or you were to go public or whatever, any type of valuation, software recurring revenue is gonna be 3X to 7X your revenue multiple.
Consulting revenue tends to be in the 1X, maybe 2X if you’re lucky. It is a third to a fourth as valuable on the open market because it’s just how these things work. I think you have to be really careful about taking the quick hit or the quick dollar because it is gonna slow you down. If you’re super desperate and you really need the cash, there’s times when it’s not an absolute rule, there’s times when you might need to do this but I advise founders against doing this if it all possible.
Mike: The last item on our list for revenue expansion opportunities is to have an affiliate offer. This could be in the form of a direct product that you are offering that is a third party product that you are getting a commission from or it could be a referral. If you have a good relationship with a provider and there’s a subset of customers that you know need something that you’re probably not going to do it but you have a good relationship with somebody who does provide that service or that type of product, then you could setup an affiliate relationship with them where you will refer customers over to them where you’ll get some commission or kickback or finder fees, something along those lines for referring them over.
You could also do this for free, I know that there are people out there who like those types of things and they’ll just say, “Here’s some free business because I know that you’re gonna take care of them and I don’t really want anything from it.” Those opportunities are available as well, you can probably find people who will do the same thing for you. I think it’s much more common to have some sort of an affiliate relationship setup so that there is a specific dollar amount tied to it or percentage. It makes it easier for you to quantify how much work and effort it’s going to take you.
Rob: If you have other ideas for revenue expansion that you feel like we missed in today’s episode, feel free to come to startupsfortherestofus.com, Episode 365. Post a comment or email us at email@example.com. That wraps us up for the day. You can also call our voicemail at 888-801-9690. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control, it’s by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startups. Visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob interviews Ken Wallace, of MastermindJam, about his new project Nugget. Nugget is a subscription based product that sends you startup ideas on a monthly basis. Ken talks about the origins of Nugget, some of the negative and positive feedback he got pre-launch, as well as his launch strategies.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob [00:00]: Before we roll this episode of ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ you may have heard that my startup DRIP was acquired by Leadpages in the last week. And if you tuned into this episode to hear Mike and I discuss it, unfortunately Mike was on vacation this week. So this week is an interview with Ken Wallace. I think you’ll really enjoy it. But be sure to tune in next week and possibly for several weeks after, where I expect there will be a lot of discussion about the acquisition, the thought process. There was so much that went into it. It was months and months of conversation. In addition, we’ll be talking about the mental side of this, the psychological side, over on my other podcast ZenFounder at Zenfounder.com. So if you’re interested in hearing more about that, sit tight. That’ll be coming. But for now let’s dive into this week’s episode. In this episode of ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ I talk with Ken Wallace about how to charge for startup ideas. This is ‘Startups for the Rest of Us’ episode 297.
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.
Ken [01:14]: And I’m Ken.
Rob [01:15]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. Mr. Ken Wallace, welcome to the show.
Ken [01:20]: Thanks for having me. This is amazing.
Rob [01:22]: Yeah, it’s awesome to have you here. So for folks who don’t know you, you’re probably best known for starting MastermindJam which has kind of the become the defacto recommended MicroConf and Startups for the Rest of Us service for finding other startup mastermind members. You’ve also been to several MicroConfs and you host The ‘Nights & Weekends’ podcast with our mutual friend Craig Hewitt.
Ken [01:44]: Correct. Yes. Sure. I’ve been to five MicroConfs actually.
Rob [01:47]: Indeed. Wow. Have they all been Vegas, or did you make it any of the others?
Ken [01:49]: All Vegas. Yeah.
Rob [01:50]: Cool. And you’re coming to us from Chicago, is that right?
Ken [01:53]: Yeah, the Chicago area. We actually live in northwest Indiana, so yeah. When I first started coming to MicroConfs, I was commuting the 90 minutes every day into downtown Chicago.
Rob [02:01]: And since then, you work from home now as well as with MastermindJam on the side?
Ken [02:04]: Yes. Correct. So full time working from home now, and MastermindJam. And then now Nugget.
Rob [02:10]: Indeed. And that’s what we’re here to talk about today. And the reason I wanted to have you on is I feel like there’s a lot of value in what you and Justin have put together in terms of doing something that may be counterintuitive to some of the common wisdom we hear about in blog posts. So when we were talking about this offline you said, “There’s common wisdom of like ideas aren’t worth anything, it’s all about execution.” And yet you’ve started Nugget, which is at Nugget.one. And so that’s Nugget.O-N-E. And, in essence, you are selling startup ideas. You’re selling access to new startup ideas.
Tell me about what you’re up to and kind of how you guys got here.
Ken [02:44]: Right. So, the selling access to startup ideas, we find that a lot of founders – a lot of entrepreneurs – seem to get stuck in a step. All entrepreneurs, I think, we have in common the knack of looking around the world and seeing a world of abundance, and seeing ideas everywhere we look. And the problem is how to pick one, how to validate one. And a lot of times entrepreneurs – especially tech founders -will pick one that feels interesting or feels close to home, but they don’t pick one that actually has a waiting customer on the other end that is willing to pay them money. So, what we do is we source ideas that are definitely from a person who is willing to pay money today to have this problem solved. And then we send those out to the paying audience. So what you get in addition to the actual business idea, you get a person that says, “I am dying to pay for this. I would 100% pay for this, or pay for it out of my own pocket if we could have access to software that did X, Y and Z to solve this pain point.” But then we also give you a community to help you execute on that idea and to clear the next hurdles that come up.
So, back to how we started. Justin Vincent – you might know him from the Techzing podcast – he approached me a few weeks ago asking if I was willing to help him out with Nugget. And he had kicked around a few other name ideas for this. But the point was one business idea every single day, and find a way to monetize it and find a way to really help entrepreneurs through this. Now Justin and I have kind of been – he’s been helping me out just kind of as a mentor maybe or a mastermind of two where we just kick around ideas for how to grow MastermindJam, and also kick around ideas for what was going to be his next business since he had a successful exit from Pluggio. And so, we’ve been talking for months. We met on another discussion forum, Discuss @ Bootstrapped.fm, where he posted an idea saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if there was a service out there that matched people to mastermind groups.” And at that time I was maybe eight months into MastermindJam, so the sphincter tightens a little bit and you’re like, “Uh, oh. Competitor.” I was looking at him as not only a competitor, but he had just had a successful exit, he’s got time on his hands, he’s got some money in the bank, he’s going to eat my lunch. Like right away. So I reached out to him immediately, and I knew a lot about Justin from listening to Techzing and listening to some ‘Startups for the Rest of Us.’ The two podcasts have kind of had a good relationship for a long time. And then so we just kind of developed a friendship from there. Basically, I reached out to a potential competitor, I opened the kimono, I showed him exactly how MastermindJam worked, what the business was like, what the challenges were, what the hurdles were, what the vision was. And he said, “I love it. I love that business for you. And I don’t love it for me. So what else can I do?” And from that point forward, we were just helping each other out to find a good business fit for him. And he helped me out tremendously for MastermindJam pricing or for different business model questions. So that’s how we kind of became friends.
Rob [05:24]: Very cool. And for those listening, there might be MastermindJam customers or people who’ve considered using your service. And you wanted to be very clear that you are not shutting MastermindJam down and that you’re basically pursuing both ideas at once.
Ken [05:38]: Yeah, that’s correct. MastermindJam is really at a point where it’s largely automated. So all the processes that match people into groups just happens automatically. You sign up, you get it put in the queue and, based on your answers to the onboarding questionnaire, the computer algorithm basically does the rest. Really I only need to step in every week if there’s a problem with that, where maybe somebody’s answered questions in a really restrictive fashion so that the computer can’t really find them a match in a timely fashion. Or if there’s something going awry in a group and members need me to step in and help out. That’s really what I do for MastermindJam. So, on an ongoing basis, I had a few extra hours every week to help Justin out with this. So, yeah. MastermindJam can keep doing that, can keep growing. There’s still some things I’m going to do to help with marketing for that because as the MastermindJam business is, it’s almost like a marketplace where you need a certain traffic of people to make the thing work in a timely fashion. So, I still need to market that to make sure it’s viable for the people that sign up.
Rob [06:34]: For sure. Yeah, and like your – You know the headline on Nugget is, it’s changing but it says, “Receive a new business idea in your email inbox every single day. Receive a shiny business idea, receive a fresh business idea.” And so the idea is that you guys are, essentially, sourcing business ideas. And are they limited? Are they mostly, let’s say, like SaaS business ideas? Or are they software-based business ideas? Are they B2B, B2C? Is it filterable, or have you just focused on a single line, like a vertical?
Ken [07:01]: They are all over the map. The ideas are all something that can be approached with an online business. So it’s SaaS, or it’s like an ecommerce site. You know, something of that nature. Something that can be focused on online, and marketed online, and the perspective customers can be reached online. Those are really the only requirements to get through our gauntlet. The ideas range from an app to help parents find video games and mobile apps for special needs children. That was the one that just went out this morning. We had a food truck owner requested an app to help him locate where the upcoming events are in my community, “Where I can go to find foot traffic for the food truck.” These are all kind of like software ideas. There’s some biotech ideas, there’s some healthcare ideas, there’s some eBay auction tools, there’s some Amazon FBA reseller tools to help them track cost-of-goods-sold in their FBA inventory. Really, from day to day, all over the map.
Rob [07:55]: Cool. So you’re offering these business ideas and you guys have been live for how long?
Ken [07:59]: We went live last Monday morning at midnight.
Rob [08:02]: Okay. So you’ve been live for about a week and a half and your launch was –
Ken [08:05]: Yeah, June 28th, 27th.
Rob [08:06]: Yeah. And your launch was pretty good. I know both of you guys but I didn’t hear about it from you that you launched. I heard about it from the broader entrepreneur startup community. You were on Product Hunt I knew. You said you got on Ask Hacker News. There was something else. Tell us the story of like how that came about, and was this a carefully kind of calculated launch? You and Justin got together and said, “We’re going to kind of hack this and submit it to all these places”? Or did you stumble upon these thousands of visitors that you received on your launch day?
Ken [08:33]: About three weeks ago Justin and I got serious about this and we’re like, “You know what, let’s move forward with this. I think we can maybe make this work. The only way to find out is just to get it in front of customers and see what happens.” Justin and I both are in a situation where we both have day jobs and a family and a limited number of hours we can devote to this. So it kind of dragged on for about a week and a half. And I think I was the bigger hurdle. Justin could devote more time to it than I could. But the problem was I was the tech guy. So he kept waiting on me to get the site up, and get the messaging out.
In that process of getting all the landing pages up, and the logo on things, and trying to choose a tool to use as our membership site and our discussion forum. In discussions Justin had with his Techzing cohost, Jason Roberts, and also Jason and Justin’s friend Phil – who is also on their show once in a while – they were adamantly against the name Nugget. So they pulled Justin aside and just grilled him for about an hour on why Nugget was a horrible idea moving forward, there’s a lot of upside to changing the name. And so, they kind of – three quarters of the way – convinced Justin that we needed to change the name. So Justin got on slack with me, and this was here about maybe ten days ago now. He said, “Look, we’ve got to change this name. Jason and Phil cornered me, and they really want us to change the name and here’s all the arguments why.” And I’m like, “Look man, you’re in charge of the branding and a creative. I’ll go with it. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think it’s a waste of our time. I don’t think our audience really cares about the name right now. I think they really care about solving those hurdles in their business. So, if we’re going to change the name let’s do it. Let’s make the decision tonight and let’s just get it done.” And then we spent many evenings in a row just trying to get everything transitioned over to the new name, the new logo; we’ll leave the placeholder on the old site so if somebody happened there they get redirected gracefully to explain the move. In the middle of all this, Nugget.one is still up collecting waiting list signups. In the middle of all this, somebody mentioned us on Ask Hacker News. And suddenly we have all this traffic, now, coming to the site.
So, previously it was six or seven hits a day, which were mostly Justin and I. And then suddenly we have 50, 60 people hitting us that hour. And I’m looking at the Google analytics thinking, “Wait a minute. Why is the meter pegged? Why are we getting so much traffic?” You track it back and it’s this thread on Hacker News. So I said, “Justin, we’ve got to stop and rethink about this. You can’t switch horses midstream like this. We’ve got this streamer traffic coming in and it would just be confusing to everybody; confusing to the people coming over, confusing to the original person that posted us. We need to rethink this. Maybe if this is a name change that has to happen, we do it later in a more organized fashion. But right now, this is like switching midstream. This is changing your name in the middle of your Super Bowl ad.” is the analogy I used. And so he’s like, “Fine. Fine. Let’s leave it as Nugget.”
Well, the problem with that is we had transitioned so much over. Now it’s, “Okay, put everything back to Nugget.” So we’re just wasting so much time on thinking about the name. So we finally get everything back, we’re going through the motions of doing all the testing that you do before a launch, and we didn’t really have a solid launch date in mind other than he and I were just kind of tired of not being live. We’ve got a lot of people that are signing up on our really simple landing page and we just wanted to know, we’re dying to know, how many of those people were willing to put a credit card down. We hadn’t asked them for money yet. A lot of people are always willing to sign up for Beta, but it doesn’t really matter until you ask them for money. So about 11:30, midnight on Sunday night, I sent out an email to a few people saying, “Hey, can you just double check, make sure the language is good, make sure there’s no bugs in your browser, that kind of thing.” Well, one of the people that I emailed with was Haydn Shaw. And Haydn shoots me an email back saying, “Hey, this looks great. It’s really interesting. Want me to post this on [Product Hunt?] for you?” And it’s just one of those moments where you’d really like to say no. It’s like in the pit of your stomach it’s like, “Uh, I don’t know if we’re ready for that.” But it’s like, “Yeah, go ahead. We would really appreciate that.”
The problem with that was at this point I still don’t know any details. I don’t know when he’s going to push it live, I don’t know. Is he going to do it right then? Is he going to do it Tuesday or tomorrow morning? I had no clue. So, the next morning – Monday morning at 8 a.m. – I get an email from Haydn, “Hey, I just put it on Product Hunt. You’re going to want to jump in there right away and start answering questions.” So, suddenly we go from, I think, up to that point in a week of having just the trial page up we had 180 people sign up for just the waiting list. Suddenly, that day 4.5 thousand people visited the site.
Rob [12:53]: That’s awesome.
Ken [12:54]: It was just off the charts. And suddenly, I had to actually turn off the stripe notifications because it was distracting. I would actually stop and try to look up the customer and just find out details about who could this possibly be. It was just distracting throughout my day job business day. So it was a good problem to have.
Rob [13:10]: It always is. The day that you turn off the trial notifications and the new sign up notifications. Awesome. Cool. So had you guys done any prior validation to this? I know that Justin had emailed me several months ago he asked my opinion and for some thoughts on it and I think he had a mockup of a PDF or something. But is that what you had done? You had emailed several people?
Ken [13:29]: Um-hmm.
Rob [13:29]: Did you have validation that like, “Yeah, you should move forward with this.” And got to the point where this launch started? I mean, we’re kind of working backwards at this point, but –
Ken [13:36]: He sent out a lot of emails like that and so did I. I talked to Craig on my podcast about it. Craig hated the idea [laughter]. I talked to the people of my Mastermind group about it. They loved the idea. I got a lot of mixed messages. And at the end of the day, we got enough positive signals that we thought it’s kind of like where there’s smoke there’s fire. And that’s what caused us to put up the initial landing page. It was a one-pager: “Here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to send you this every day.” There really was no talk of a community. There was no talk of any other add-ons. It’s just like, “At some point we’re going to ask you for money, but here sign up for this.” And 80 people did. So that just kept giving us good vibes that this at the core there was something there that people wanted.
Rob [14:14]: Yeah, to get 180 that quickly it tells you that somethings going on here. Whether everybody’s going to be willing to pay for it or not is another thing. But at least you have some validation that there’s interest here. So you guys have had a lot of conversation about the business model, I suppose. I guess it’s always been – since I’ve heard about it – it’s been a monthly subscription. I know that you probably started at a low price and have moved it up. Did you give it to anybody for free, or has it always been a paying service? Talk about how you guys thought about that and what levels you’ve been at and whether that’s worked or not.
Ken [14:41]: Right after the initial landing page went up, I saw Paul Jarvis and Jason Zook launch emojibombs.com. And it was kind of a similar idea where – I can’t remember if it was daily or weekly – but they send you basically emoji that’s been personified into a character. And they send it to you in an email at $11 a year. You just click “Buy Now” for $11 a year we’ll send this thing to you. And I know the PDF he probably sent you is a lot more complicated than just this simple one-pager, “click here to buy”. So he was like, “You know, just to validate that this is right let’s put up that landing page.” So that was kind of like the start of our talks. It’s like, well if people are willing to pay $11 a year just to have something fun, would people pay $11 a month to get an actual business idea that’s actionable, and that they can actually take it and run with it; that’s been vetted and analyzed. Would they actually pay $11 a month for that? And so we sent that around to a few people. Like, for instance, [Greg Polumbo?]. He got back to me. He said, “Look, the idea is interesting. But at $11 a month do I believe that you’ve got a business idea in there that could potentially earn me five or six figures every month?” He’s like, “No, $11 feels amateurish for what you say your offer is.” And I’m like that’s interesting. So people really do attribute the potential value of the product – even before seeing it – from the price. And Justin and I know how much time we’re putting into analyzing these business ideas, but we can’t also charge for that time. So, it’s not like a one for one. This is a $1000 idea so here, pay us $1000. So we just settled on let’s start at $49 and we can test up from there. And for a few people on our trial-to-paid conversion list we can actually test coupons or discounts if we need to if that proves to be too high.
So before the launch day – “launch day” because it was all kind of unplanned – the business model changed a lot. So initially, for the first day that we had the trial landing page up, we said, “This is free right now, but it’s eventually going to be $11 a month.” And to those people – the ones that signed up – we offer it for that, because that’s the deal they saw. So we’re willing to grandfather them in at $11. But we quickly took down that offer and took away any mention of price just so we could see if we could communicate with people on the side and see what price points they’re willing to go to; $25 a month, $49 a month, is this a $100 idea? The problem is you get a lot of confusing feedback from people. You talk to my podcast cohost and he figured, “I don’t want to pay monthly for this. Because if your business is good that means I’m going to churn after two or three months. But if your business is bad, and after three months and I’m still paying this monthly fee and I haven’t found a business idea, I’ve got to ask myself why am I still paying. Because your goal is to give me business ideas.” So this is all good feedback that we’ve been working through.
Rob [17:25]: Yeah. That makes sense. Pricing is really hard. My two cents is I think making this truly a monthly business is going to be tough, and that probably you’ll want to go with just an annual upfront or – I don’t like lifetime, but that’s the concept here. It’s that someone really is kind of just paying to have access to this for an extended period of time. It’s funny, I was talking at lunch with some folks and I said, “You know, SaaS providers, if you look at a lot of them, they’re trying to go towards annual and all the WordPress providers who do annual they’re trying to go towards monthly.” It’s like we’re all trying to go for what the other guy wants.
Ken [17:56]: Grass is always greener.
Rob [17:57]: All the annual guys with a one-time fee, they want more flat revenue, whereas the SaaS know that the flat revenue takes forever to grow so we try to go for the big upfront cash payment, which is the annual payment. So, I think in the end there’s pros and cons to both and my guess is trying to go for a higher price point, but perhaps not recurring or really infrequently recurring like annual, feels like a better fit than trying to pay monthly. Because your churn is going to be – the same reason everybody points out – if your service doesn’t work, they’re going to church. If it does work, they’re going to churn. You’re in the worst position there.
Ken [18:30]: This was an endless debate, because we feel that – equal to the value of the actual ideas – we feel that maybe the ideas are almost a hook to get you into the community to get you executing on the ideas. If that makes any sense.
Rob [18:41]: It does. And I think if you’re able to monetize either a community, or you’re able to add add-on services or if there’s anything else there –
Ken [18:48]: Exactly.
Rob [18:49]: – this could be killer lead gen. But you’ve got to get that stuff going.
Ken [18:52]: Yeah, come for the business idea, stay for the – It’s almost like a masterminder, the community that’s helping you accomplish your goals.
Rob [18:59]: And what’s funny is I was looking back. So Justin had emailed me May 9th, which was about two months ago, and he had sent a PDF of this. And I sent a few different responses and I said, “I think this idea might have legs the way you’ve presented it. It will have high churn but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, because if you can get it running you can start add-on services like landing pages and courses on building and launching and I think you should go for it.” And then I replied again and I said, “Oh, and by go for it I mean don’t write a line of code but get ten people to commit to paying you $50 a month for it. And then launch the damn thing manually and see how it goes.” And so, that’s kind of where you ended up. It’s kind of funny.
Ken [19:31]: Well, we had a long discussion about that too, because originally we thought, “What about $9.99, because nobody’s going to churn at $9.99 if you’re seeing business ideas coming through right. Because it’s kind of a fear of missing out kind of thing.” And it’s like Rob advocated $50 a month, so $11 is still more than $10. Your email kept pushing us higher up the value chain.
Rob [19:53]: Yeah, what a trip. I remember thinking about this and thinking the way that a lot of us would – gut feeling – we would want to make this cheap because you think, “Ah! Business ideas. They’re a dime a dozen.” But I think what you’re providing – from what I’ve heard. I haven’t used their service, but from what I’ve heard the vetting and kind of the depth that you’re going into with these ideas is far beyond just a two sentence summary of something in an email. And I think there’s a lot of value there. And even if you have one fifth of the customers, if you’re charging five times more I actually think you’re going to be better off, unless you really are going for a volume plan and doing up sales later. But if you’re going to make money from it, I feel like there’s value here. Speaking of that specifically, talk a little bit – like maybe one example of – what is included in these emails. Because when I heard – I think I heard you explain it on ‘Nights & Weekends’ – I was surprised and impressed with the level of detail that you’re going into and kind of the resources and the research and the other stuff that you’re including when you get this idea.
Ken [20:49]: Well, the one that went out just this morning I spent three hours on it. We give the industry it’s in – or the niche, whatever you want to call it – whether it’s B2C or B2B. We give you the original user – we call it the “user submission”, but you can think of it as a user story – the actual unedited “I really wish this pain were solved” text that we got from the potential customer. And then we go into our analysis, and we try to do kind of a who, what, and how with the analysis. So who is this target audience? Where do they hang out online? Are there ways to find them? Where are their forums? Where are their communities, Facebook groups, whatever? We look at the what. What is it they’re asking us to provide? Is this technologically feasible? Is this something that’s easily achieved or you need a huge funded team? Are you building Uber or are you building a new WordPress directory? What end of the spectrum is it on? And then we talk more about the how. We dive into the how of like you want to look at these competitors and these other technologies in this space. And so, we do kind of a really thorough kind of run-down of what questions you’re going to have before you would dive into even looking more into the business. Like, “Who are my potential customers?” How you’re going to achieve the technological hurdles that we describe. And then we have usually at least three or four – but the one last night had eight or nine – links of resources that was like must reading after you read this references from what we talked about.
Rob [22:05]: And so a question that might come up in someone’s mind is, so you’re sending these business ideas out and there are tens, hundreds or perhaps eventually thousands of people that are going to be getting these. Are they less valuable – or I would say they are less valuable if a bunch of people start them all at once. Do you have any mechanism to keep 20 people on your list from snatching one idea and running with it?
Ken [22:26]: This is one thing that we’re experimenting with. When we launched we had three pricing tiers. We had the free trial, then we had the middle tier which was the standard $49 a month or a yearly for $490, and we had the higher tier which is advanced access to Nugget. So you’d get the business opportunity seven days before anybody else saw it. That was $97 a month. We hit 2000 MRR in the first two days of launch because we had people signing up for all four of those paid plans. We validated that those numbers work, that people are willing to pay all four of those plans – the $49, $490, $97, $970. And so what we ended up doing was realizing we, at the time, didn’t have enough of these ideas in the queue to start giving people advanced access plus having the normal stream of people. And it was splitting our time in a way that we didn’t want to do. So we downgraded all the advanced access people to regular paying. So that totally adjusted the revenue curve right there. So everybody that signed up at $970 or paid for the year of advanced, they got downgraded to the normal plan.
So right away we were in conversations with those people that signed up for advanced access. So now we know, this guy signed up, he wants to see all these ideas before anybody else. So you reach out to him. “Why is that? Why do you want to see these ideas?” For a lot of these people, they said, “I don’t care about the community. I don’t want anybody seeing an idea before I get to. I want the opportunity to skim your database of ideas, cherry pick the ones I want and have exclusive access to it.” Almost like on Getty images or istockphoto, you can have exclusive rights to an image. Same kind of deal. So we do have an audience that wants that. But on the other end of the spectrum we have an audience that doesn’t care as much about the ideas and they really are begging for the community, which leaves us kind of torn. For instance, before you and I got on the phone, Justin and I had a 40-minute call with a customer just to talk about that, because he was really excited about the community and kind of ho-hum about the ideas.
Rob [24:18]: What a trip. So you’re split there and I’m wondering – I mean, I’m intrigued by someone willing to pay for exclusive access, because could it be something where everybody pays $49 a month and that’s kind of the entry level and then you see how many views certain ideas have had – or all the ideas – it shows 50 people have viewed this idea. And if you want to buy exclusive access which basically removes if from the database from then on, you pay a one-time fee of however much. $50, $100, $200 depends. Is that something that’s been discussed?
Ken [24:50]: Yes. We’ve been not only discussing that anytime a customer comes at us saying, “Hey, you should do this.” we’re like, “Great. How much would you pay for that?”
Rob [24:56]: Yeah. Totally.
Ken [24:57]: Because here’s the stripe link. That kind of thing. We had one customer say, “You know, I like the idea but I wouldn’t pay more than $3 a month.” And it’s like, “Well, thanks anyway.” Another customer reached out and said, “You know, I like this idea but money’s tight right now. I couldn’t pay more than $15 or $17 a month.” And so we said, “Would you pay $20 and here’s a link? We’ll make that happen for you.” So those kinds of discussions have gone on. Customers have reached out and said, “I would definitely pay for exclusive access.” We’ve been in deep conversation with those particular customers of, what would that look like? What would the community see? Would they suddenly see this idea vanish from nowhere? There was four days of discussion and it’s just gone. What happens at that point? So we’ve really got to dig into that. But we are definitely toying with that.
Plus, there’s the advantage here that once we get a corpus of these nuggets – 30 days, 60 days, 1000 nuggets even – suddenly you can build really cool tools that help people analyze. Because before we put out the nuggets – I mean we have all these things in a database and we have facets of information about each idea. So, “Is the idea bootstrappable or not? Is it more of a funded suited thing? Is it B2C or B2B? Is this a marketplace? Is this idea really a marketplace? What industry is it in?” So somebody could log on and if we had a search tool to sell them exclusive access to, and say, “You know, I’m not interested in the daily feed, but if I could just search and see if you have any healthcare ideas that are bootstrappable with this tech, blah, blah, blah, and just look at what you have. And then maybe even set an alert; like email me when something like that shows up. I would pay a monthly fee for that.”
So we’ve had customers that are like, “Oh yeah. We would definitely sign up for that.” We’re so early right now we don’t have enough of these opportunities in the can to make that kind of a tool even worthwhile because you’re not going to log into a tool that has ten ideas in it. You want at least a thousand.
Rob [26:39]: Yeah. I have a question for you piggybacking on that. I guess it’s really two questions. I’ll break it into two pieces. One is: from where are you sourcing these ideas? And I understand that this is kind of your secret sauce. This is your Coca-Cola formula so you don’t have to tell me everything precisely, but how much are you talking about that?
Ken [27:00]: Justin told everybody on his podcast so I think I’m okay talking about it.
Rob [27:04]: Alright.
Ken [27:05]: When Craig asked me that question, I was all cagy about it on my podcast.
Rob [27:08]: I remember.
Ken [27:09]: I was listening to techzing and he’s telling everybody how it works. Right now, we’ve got a few channels in mind that we’re going to eventually be sourcing from a lot of different channels. Right now, just to get started, we’re using Mturk – Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
Rob [27:22]: I knew it. When you didn’t reveal it on ‘Nights & Weekends’, I was thinking, “I bet they’re using Mechanical Turk in a very clever way.” The thing here is, you can tell us exactly how it’s done. It doesn’t matter, because I would never go to the lengths that you’re going to go to to find an idea and, yet, I would pay for ideas. You know what I’m saying?
Ken [27:39]: Yeah.
Rob [27:41]: It’s only going to be the people who are going to bitch and complain about your $7 a month price point that are going to go do it themselves. Anybody who is actually probably going to spend the time, and has at least a modicum of money, is not going to go through the process that you guys are doing today and that you’re going to get better at, right? If you do this for six months, you’re going to be way better than us even if you told us the whole approach to doing it.
Ken [28:02]: Yup. Mturk, I don’t know if you’ve used it, it’s kind of a hassle really. It’s not at all user friendly. And there are things that you can do through the API programmatically that you can’t do in their user interface. There’s a ton about Mturk that sucks. So we don’t want to be wholly reliant on that. Like, it was down for four days for no explanation, and it just came back up. But initially, when we first talked about this, just to see if it was feasible, Justin went on – it was like 7 a.m. on a Sunday – and for an hour he had this, they call it “”hits”, so he put the hit out and we were going to pay $1 for anybody who submits and idea to us. And then people, at 7 a.m., started submitting tons of ideas. That’s just how it begins. If we got this good a quality of ideas on a Sunday morning at 7 a.m., what would happen if we did this every day. So we’ve been testing what times a day that certain kind of people that have certain kinds of ideas that fit our audience are around answering these questions. So there’s a lot of learning that we’ve done on Mturk. But that’s right now how we’re getting the ideas. In the future, we can’t be wholly reliant on that but it’s doing good for now.
Rob [29:08]: Right. That makes sense.
Ken [29:09]: In fact, it’s given us more of a backlog than we can actually handle.
Rob [29:13]: Well, that was going to be probably my final question. The obvious question was when you’re talking about cranking out 30 ideas a month, 360-ish a year, you wonder – as an outsider – can they keep this up? Can the quality still be high? How many business ideas can someone possibly generate? And I guess what you’re saying is you’re not really generating them out of thin air. You’re using a massive distributed nervous system, essentially, of a lot of different brains.
Ken [29:40]:Yeah. Crowd sourcing.
Rob [29:41]: Cool. Well, sir, we’re at time. I really appreciate you coming on the show today. I feel like our listeners probably got a look into a couple things. One is how to cleverly use a third party service like Mechanical Turk to build a business on, which I think is cool. I always love ideas like that. And like another is that you guys have moved fairly quickly. I know it’s been weeks in between maybe the initial discussion, but I got an email from Justin less than two months ago and you guys launched within that period. And, as you said, got to 2000 MRR for a certain glimpse of time. And then, you’ve essentially gone against some conventional wisdom which says that business ideas aren’t worth anything. It’s all about execution. But you’re value adding is what it is. You’re not giving two or three sentence summaries, you’re giving this whole email with the research and like you said, you spent three hours on it and there can be value in that.
Ken [30:29]: Yes.
Rob [30:30]: Very cool. Well, if folks want to keep up with you, where should they look?
Ken [30:33]: You can go to Nugget.one. We are also on Twitter @_nuggetone. And also you can just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rob [30:41]: And if you want to hear more of the ongoing developments of this I would check out the ‘Nights & Weekends’ podcast with Ken Wallace and Craig Hewitt. Thank you very much, sir.
Ken [30:51]: Thank you. It’s been a joy.
Rob [30:54]: So, if you have a question for us you can call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or email us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from ‘We’re Outta Control’ by MoOt. It’s used under creative comments. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode.
Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about back of the envelope business model test. This episode is loosely based on chapter 2 of the book, Scaling Lean: Mastering the Key Metrics for Startup Growth. Some of the points discussed include defining your minimum success criteria and converting revenue goals to customer acquisition.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike [00:00]: In this episode of ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ Rob and I are going to be talking about back of the envelope business model tests for revenue. This is ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ episode 294.
Welcome to ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ the podcast 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 Mike.
Rob [00:25]: And I’m Rob.
Mike [00:26]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. How you doing this week, Rob?
Rob [00:30]: I’m doing pretty good. I’m coming off a series of split tests that we’ve been running on the homepage of Drip. And actually Zack on my team took that over recently. And after I had run a couple split tests with – basically the normal result of a split test is that you’re not going to have an improvement. If you run ten split tests you’re going to get improvement on one or two that’s significant. And so, my split tests were just chugging along and just taking forever to run. And then the first one Zack runs, he made some more dramatic changes, he saw a 41 percent improvement in the click-throughs. And so now we’re taking it another step and we’re actually installing – something we should have done from the start – but we’re installing the pixels. So we actually know if it’s not just click-throughs but it’s actually leading to trial sign ups and that kind of stuff. But it was pretty cool to see that kind of jump because that’s definitely a notable percentage.
Mike [01:19]: Nice. Now that you’re doing that and when you go back, are you going to track everything through because obviously you have to have some sort of a benchmark, right?
Rob [01:25]: Yeah. We’re going to track it through. We didn’t talk today about whether we’re going to rerun the same test now that we have the revenue pixel in place, or if we’ll just use this as the new benchmark and start from there. But either way this stuffs always fun. I geek out on it because it’s like the engineer – this is engineering marketing. Nowadays it’s called growth hacking but this is what we’ve been doing for ten, 12 years, where it’s like applying the engineering mindset to marketing. Which isn’t something that was commonly done, or maybe it just wasn’t talked about very much, except for by direct response guys before a few years ago when kind of this growth hacking thing became popular.
Mike [02:03]: Cool. Well, I just recently kicked off my Twitter ads for Bluetick again. And I’m hoping that they aren’t completely messed up like they were the last time. I think that I talked about that a little bit on the podcast, where just before MicroConf I had put a bunch of new ads out there on Twitter and people were tweeting back to me and commenting to me like, “You’re doing it wrong”. And I was just like, “What ae you talking about?” And I didn’t really think to go back and look to see what it was. I just thought it was people trolling a little bit. I got enough of them that I went back and took a look at it and, of course, the Twitter lead cards were all screwed up and it was like people had to click on them and then click on them again. It was just messed up so I had to redo not the entire campaign, but at least different parts of it. Hopefully things will go well this time.
Rob [02:42]: Good luck with that. It’s always touch and go when you first start any type of ad campaign, especially if it’s not proven because you just have to monitor it really closely. Once you get to that point where you have something that’s working and you have history behind it and numbers behind it, it’s so much more – I don’t know, comforting. Or it’s just less nerve-wracking I guess when you start it up. Because you generally know the range that it’s going to fall into. But at the start, man, you can turn it on and be paying crazy click amounts or you can just get no impressions and not know why and stuffs always frustrating when you’re trying to figure it out.
Mike [03:11]: What happened before was I was getting lots and lots of impressions but very few click-through rates. So I wasn’t actually paying for very much, which on one hand that was nice, but on the other hand I just wasn’t seeing any sort of results that I was looking for and I just hadn’t had time to go look at it at the time. At least now I have a benchmark of what I should not be getting.
Rob [03:30]: For sure. Cool. So what are we talking about today?
Mike [03:32]: Today what we’re going to do is we’re going to go through back of the envelope business model tests. And this is loosely based on chapter two of a new book that just came out called Scaling Lean: Mastering the Key Metrics for Startup Growth. And this is by Ash Maurya. And he’s written a couple of other lean startup books or at least books that are in that particular realm or genre so to speak.
But what I wanted to do was go through chapter two specifically and take a look at what some of the different thoughts are from him about how to look at a business model and determine what the forward looking plateaus are going to look like. And you can use this either for an existing business or for a brand new business that you’re getting off the ground. Some of the calculations that he has in the book are especially relevant just because they greatly simplify what he calls ‘customer throughput,’ which is your customer acquisition. And it kind of measures that against your customer churn rate as well, on a yearly basis. So taking those two things into account, you can sort of look at where your business plateaus are going to be and figure out whether or not you’re going to be able to have enough of a customer acquisition channel or channels in place in order to be able to just maintain the business – whatever your revenue goals are for the business.
Rob [04:43]: And keep in mind that unless you’ve run a business before and you kind of have some loose rule of thumb numbers that you use, some of the stuff we talk about today is going to be less applicable if you have no business at this point. Because you’re just pulling numbers out of the sky and you’re going to find that you’re pretty far off. But if you’ve already started and you have at least a few thousand a month in revenue, you have some numbers and you know your kind of trial to paid, and you know how something should go, you can be much, much more accurate with these calculations because you just have a concept of where you are and where you need to get to. Realizing that the numbers will change but in much smaller increments than if you’re just kind of throwing darts at a dart board as you would if you really do have a business with no customers to date.
The other thing I wanted to mention is keep in mind with books like this that they are written for a broader startup audience. And so not everything – if you do go buy the book, which I’m guessing is pretty good – if you do go buy it you got to take some things with a grain of salt. And we’ll try to point some things out specifically with chapter two, here, that I think may apply more to bootstrappers or ways that these could be shifted to people who are self-funded rather than the examples of the ten million dollar ARR after three years. It’s like that’s just so irrelevant to our audience in particular. We’ll try to call that out as we go through.
Mike [05:55]: Let’s dive right in. And the first step of chapter two is to take a look at the business itself and define what you would consider to be the minimum success criteria. And as I said before, the business model that’s shown in here can be applicable to either an existing business or to a new business that you’re trying to get off the ground and you’re trying to figure out whether or not it’s going to be a viable business. Take a look about three years out and try to think about what the business looks like specifically in terms of revenue. Now those two different things are extremely important. The first one is that you’re looking no more than three years out. And the second one is that you’re looking specifically at a revenue dollar amount so that you can make some sort of calculations.
If you try and go out further than three years, you’re probably not going to be nearly as accurate. And in addition, if it’s a business you’re trying to get off the ground, three years, trying to look beyond that and plan beyond three years is not going to be helpful to you because the business may just not be there or you may have a really hard time getting the customers. So looking at those in a much shorter time period, essentially time boxing your problem so to speak, is going to be really helpful.
The other side of it is being able to take a look at a firm dollar amount. You can adjust that later on, but the idea here is that you want to have a dollar amount in terms of the yearly recurrent revenue that you want to shoot for, that you can base most of your other calculations on. And we’ll talk a little bit more about how you can play with the numbers to kind of reach that revenue target based on lifetime value, customer acquisition rate, how long those customers stick around, etcetera. But those are just the two basic things that you need to think about when you’re talking about the minimum success criteria.
Rob [07:24]: And I’ll admit, to even think about thinking three years out feels crazy to me. It feels very MBA to even be talking about 36 months out because so much is going to change after you launch. When I’m first starting a business I tend to look six months out and think what can we get there. And if we hit product market fit where can we be at 12 months. With that said, this exercise, by the time we get to the end of it, it gives you a cool formula that I’m impressed with. It’s a high level way of trying to find plateaus and figure out where the business is going to plateau based on lifetime value and based on how many customers you think you can pull in.
So there’s a give and a take here. I don’t love the idea of looking three years out because I just think that you’re going to be way off. Even with the business as consistent as Drip, if I looked three years out I’m going to be way off and I know the numbers like the back of my hand. Take that with a grain of salt and realize that if you are projecting out and you’re thinking I need 120k per year, and maybe you want that after the first 12 months and you want that to be you quitting your job. But then you want the business – you’re thinking you want it to go to maybe double in the next year, and then go to 360 of 500k, kind of in that range is ambitious but I’ll say it’s not impossible for a bootstrapper to get there. Those are the kind of numbers that you should probably be thinking about in terms of this exercise. Assuming that you’re not going to have funding at the start and then you’re not going to try and grow a seven, eight figure business super-fast in the style of Silicon Valley; that you’re going to build it like a real business and hire based on profit and that kind of stuff.
Mike [08:56]: The second step is to take that revenue goal that you came up with and convert it into what he calls customer throughput. And this is your customer acquisition rate over time. And there’s a number of different steps to doing this. And the first step of that is if you’re building a new product you have to come up with some sort pricing on it. And if you don’t know what your pricing is, the recommendation is to use some sort of value based pricing to estimate the base price. This is essentially pricing your solution on the value of what it provides, not on what it costs to build and deliver. So that’s a difference between the solution value to your customers versus the cost structure on the back end to you.
Something else that you might look at is using cost based pricing, which is essentially taking your costs to deliver the solution, and then adding a margin on top of that. There’s a lot of business models that fit this particular mold of a service based model of any kind; productized services. Those tend to fit that. But those tend to fit that particular type of model. But if you can get away with it, if you can provide some sort of a value based pricing, you’re much better off. And going back to what we said before, if you have an existing business in place, you already have your pricing. You can essentially just use that number.
Rob [10:02]: For SaaS, I’d say it goes without saying that you’re going to want to shoot for value based pricing. That’s just kind of the way it’s done. You look at the value you’re providing, figure out if there is any competitors that are doing similar things and you either price above them if you want to be premium, or you price similar to them if you just want to be a better product. And I think another example – you mentioned consulting and such of using cost based – another example of that is kind of metered pricing, like how Amazon EC2 does it. I’m sure that they just look at their costs and then add some kind of margin on it. So, I think for the purposes of bootstrappers and folks listening in this, value based is 99.9 percent going to be the direction you want to go.
Mike [10:39]: The second step is to calculate the total number of customers at the end of the time period that you want in order to identify what your active customer base needs to be in order to make your ends meet for the revenue target. So let’s say that your revenue target is $180,000 a year, if you’re charging $30 a month then you need 500 customers in order to be able to reach that revenue goal of $180,000. That’s the kind of calculation that you need to be able to do. And this is why it’s so important to come up with not just the time periods but also what you are selling your product for and what your average price point is going to be for your customers. Obviously, if you have different pricing tiers then you kind of have to guess a little bit. So if your pricing tiers are $50, $100, and then $200 a month, your average price might be something like $75 a month or $90 a month. It really depends on where in the pricing spectrum the largest number of your customers fall. And obviously it can go in the other direction, too. You might have an average price point of $175 even though you have a bunch of people on the $50 a month plan. So take those things into account, but you’re trying to get down to an average price point per customer, and a lifetime value.
Rob [11:48]: Lifetime value is very hard to calculate if you don’t have a product. I think we’ll come back to that point. If you really are spit balling this, you’re going to have to use some rules of thumb and you’ll be off by a factor of two or three. If you already have a product this is much each because then you should know this like the back of your hand.
Mike [12:03]: I think if you don’t have a product at all, then using benchmarks from other similar companies to get to an estimate or just using what their pricing models look like – again, going back to what Rob said about determining whether or not you want to be a premium priced product or commodity based product or something along those lines. Just use a conservative estimate if all else fails. If you’re really not sure, come up with some sort of a conservative estimate for most of these numbers.
Now that said, once you have the numbers for your lifetime value and for the yearly target that you’re trying to reach, the calculation that he offers up is to get your customer throughput. And to do that you would take your yearly revenue, divide it by the customer lifetime value. And this comes out to the number of customers per year that you need to add into your business in order to be able to maintain the business at that level, at that point in time. Now that’s not on day one. It’s not on the 12 months in. It’s at that multi-year mark that you came up with in the beginning. So the recommendation was three years, if you’re using three years. And for sake of an example let’s go through that. If you’re trying to get to $500,000 a year at year three and you have a $50 a month product with a two-year lifetime value, your lifetime value is very easy to calculate, it’s $1200 lifetime value. But your customer throughput is that $500,000 divided by your lifetime value. And that comes out to 417 new customers per year that you need to add.
Now again, this assumes that your business is at year three. And if you just look at the raw numbers of the customers who are paying you on a monthly basis, your business would need 833 active customers to get to 500k in yearly revenue. But if you also take a step back and you look at that lifetime value, you’re churning out 417 of these customers every year. Which means that at 500k a year you need to add 400 every single year in order to just maintain the business at that level. And this is really where those calculations start to come into play and you can start figuring out where your plateaus are if you’re going to hit them at that particular level.
Rob [14:00]: And when I first saw this calculation, which again is called customer throughput, and it’s your yearly revenue target. So, like Mike said, that 500k divided by your lifetime value. And when I saw that my first question was why are we dividing by lifetime value? Shouldn’t we be dividing by the annual revenue per customer? And as Mike and I batted this back and forth offline, and in fact this formula works, the one that he’s given works. And he’s doing some clever math and canceling some things out, but suffice to say we tweaked around with different lifetime values, different lifetimes and different monthly price points and in all of them the math works. So, what I like about this is it’s a high level thing. Don’t get me wrong, this is not something that you’re going to sit down on day one and it’s going to dictate everything about your business. But what I like about this is it’s pretty fast to calculate.
And based on when I’ve launched products, you have a general idea of what your price is going to be. You know it’s going to be maybe around 30 bucks, or around 50, or around 75. You know that your average revenue per year should kind of be that based on what you’re launching into. And then you can always take a guess at your lifetime. When in doubt go with 12 months. That’s kind of been my rule of thumb for people who are starting a new business. You’re going to start off way lower than that when you kick off because you’re not going to have product market fit, your customer lifetime’s going to be like four or five months. But as you improve it you’re eventually going to hit that one-year mark and move beyond it. So a one-year lifetime is reasonable, and a two year means you’re doing pretty well.
In certain spaces like, let’s say Web hosting, where people just don’t churn out nearly as much, you might have a four year LTV or even a five year LTV. And big enterprise software is also like that. Maybe a HubSpot or a Salesforce, those guys have these really long customer lifetime values. And with lower price point software, typically let’s say average revenue fees are 20 to 99 bucks a month. You’re just going to have higher churn, you always will. So you’re going to have between, let’s say a one and three-year customer lifetime. So it’s pretty easy to kind of run a couple different scenarios on this. If it’s 50 bucks a month and you’re doing one year, then it’s $600 lifetime. And if you’re doing three years then it’s $1800. And then you can pretty quickly get an idea of how many customers you’re going to need to bring in each year in order to replace the people that are leaving and to maintain that revenue level.
This is not a projection of where you’re going. That’s a whole separate conversation. To project where you’re going you want to sit down with an Excel spreadsheet and it’s a whole different set of numbers. But what this is telling you is where the business is going to plateau based on your customer acquisition. So if you see this number of 400 new customers per year, if you’re already in your business and you’re trying to grow this thing, it’s going to be pretty obvious to you whether or not you can bring in 417 new customers per year. Because you know your numbers. And you know your traffic sources. And you know your trial to paid. And you know how many trials you get based on unique visitors and you can pretty quickly see you’re either going to be above that or below it and where you’re going to plateau. That’s the fun part.
From here I would actually take this estimate – it is a higher level, more ballpark estimate – and I would dive into real numbers so to speak, of like your exact churn rate. Because I have a big Excel spreadsheet that I use to do this but anyone can put this together if you have your true trial to paid and your true visitor to trial and your true first 60-day churn and post 60-day churn. It’s just much more complicated though, and it’s going to take you a few hours to put together. And you’re going to see an exact projection. But the cool part is that this one that you can throw together in like five minutes is going to be within the ballpark. Close enough that it’s a nice first cut to give you an idea of where your business is going to plateau if you’re accurate enough with your churn and your lifetime value numbers. So this could be more useful when you’re first starting out if you do use those benchmarks of other existing businesses you might be competing against. If you can get any idea about their pricing and their churn and that kind of stuff this can give you an idea of how many customers you need to acquire right up front. And just give a sanity check on, “Boy, can I really bring in 4,000 customers a year if that’s what it takes to maintain that revenue level?” It just stands as a decent five-minute sanity check, I think.
Mike [17:47]: The other thing that I think that this is really helpful in showing you is that because you have that high level number of – whether it’s 400 or 4,000 new customers that you need to add per year – you can backtrack a little bit and say let me divide that by 12 and figure out how many new customers I need to add per month. And let’s say that if comes out to 100. If you’re only adding two customers a month or three customers a month right now, then you know that looking forward to that particular point in time that it’s probably going to be really challenging to find enough customer acquisition channels to get from two to a 100. So it does give you that ballpark sanity check that you may need in order to be able to determine whether or not this is a business that is going to take you to where you want to go. Or whether it is something that you should probably offload and go look for a different business or just try a completely different business to start with depending on whether or not it’s an existing business that you have or an idea that you’re trying out.
Let’s move on to the next step. Once you have this customer throughput number, then you can go back and take a look at revising some of your previous estimates. And the first one that you can obviously adjust is that high level revenue target. That’s probably the last one that you want to adjust but it’s the first one that shows up on the list because that’s the high level, big, hairy, audacious goal that you’re trying to reach. You can adjust that; you could up or down. Chances are probably good that based on your estimates it will most likely end up going down. But that is one option.
The other option is to take a look at the lifetime value and try and figure out whether or not there are ways to either increase the lifetime of the customer, which is going to raise your lifetime value. Or raise prices in such a way that it also raises the lifetime value. And those are essentially the two ways that you can adjust this number. It’s either adjust that revenue target or increase the lifetime value. And those are really your only two options available to you.
Rob [19:30]: And again, if you’re doing this on paper before you started a business it’s harder because you’re just guessing at the LTV. But if you are a year or even six months into a business, you’re going to have a reasonable idea of your LTV and probably some ideas about how to increase that, whether it’s by reducing churn or increasing prices.
Mike [19:47]: The one thing I do like about this particular piece of it though is that – even if you are at a pre-revenue stage and you’re trying to validate things – if you have to look at your lifetime value and ten X it or 20 X it, or raise prices by ten or 20X then chances are good it probably points to the fact that this may not be a viable business model at all for you. Obviously, there’s probably other costs and stuff that you’re going to take into account. But again, you want to be using conservative estimates to begin with. So if these numbers do not pan out on paper then they’re probably going to be significantly more difficult to make work in real life.
That kind of leads us to our takeaway. And that’s the first takeaway. If you can’t make this business model work on paper then you’re never going to be able to make it work in real life, barring some form of miracle in terms of doubling your LTV or quadrupling it. Because those things are going to be very difficult unless your initial estimates were way off. Which is possible, but you also have to take into account that when it comes to math like this, if you have a bunch of estimates – there’s various theorems out there that say if you have all these different estimates or a number of different data points – chances are really good that your final number, because it’s an average, it’s going to come out in an average range. It’s not going to be at one of the extremes.
Rob [20:59]: And to give you ballpark ideas about lifetime values, it ranges very broadly because if your churn is high and your price point’s low, you can pretty easily have lifetime values in the $100 range. Like if you’re charging, let’s say $9, $19, $29 a month, if those are your tiers, you’re probably going to have a lifetime value that’s between – assuming you don’t have just crazy churn – you’re going to be looking at around somewhere between 80 bucks and a 150 bucks because that’s just where lower prices apps tend to churn out more than higher priced apps. And getting something into that range, let’s say that the 150 to 250 range is harder to do than you might think.
Now with that said, if you’re able to build an app that businesses depend on and that they really are using as kind of a core piece of their business, you can pretty quickly jump that above $1000 to $2,000 is completely reasonable for a business or for a SaaS app that has a monthly fee. Maybe the tiers are 50, 100, 150 and even on up for enterprise. If you’re building something people are relying on and they’re sticking around for a couple years – two to three years – that quickly gives you a lifetime value in that $1000 to $3,000 range, let’s say.
And moving on up, of course, you get a Salesforce or a HubSpot of whatever, which have lifetime values of tens of thousands of dollars per customer. And some even into six figures. And that is because the price points are so high and because they lock them into annual contracts, and because their entire business if focused on it. And so that’s your real range.
But if you’re listening to this podcast and you’re just starting out, you’re probably going to want to think my LTV’s going to be between 50 and 100 bucks. 150 bucks once you know what you’re doing. But it’s going to start out really low. Unless I’d say if you’re a repeat entrepreneur and you kind of know more of what you’re doing, you’re going to be able to push it into the several hundred dollars and then potentially into the low thousands. These are kind of ballpark guesstimates based on all the apps that I’ve seen.
Mike [22:44]: Another key takeaway is that the calculation for the customer throughput is really heavily dependent upon the inputs and the outputs to the model. And those inputs and outputs help you to define what is and is not actionable. So when you’re taking a look at the lifetime value, for example, that’s one of the inputs into this. And you can take action on that. You can raise the lifetime value of the customer by either increasing prices or increasing the lifetime of the customer.
In terms of the outputs, the number of customers that you need to reach on a yearly basis, you do have influence over that, and it is dependent upon the types of marketing channels that you use, advertising, whether you’re doing some sort of affiliates or leveraging other people’s networks. A lot of those things you have some level of control over. But obviously the math itself has to work. If you can’t make those final numbers work for you based on the inputs and the output, then the business model itself is not going to work for you at that point in time.
Rob [23:36]: I think some other things to keep in mind are this type of calculation, it estimates the viability of a business. It doesn’t give you an exact answer but it does give you a ballpark sanity check on whether or not this thing’s going to fly. In addition, Ash points out that time-boxed goals are more concrete and thus better than kind of simple revenue goals of I want to get to 500,000. It’s like without it being time-boxed what does that mean? And that’s something that I’ve always liked. I look ahead, like I said, six to 12 months and have a spreadsheet that’s looking at that. Because without the timeframe, it has so much less meaning because you have no concept of how many customers you’re going to need and how low your churn’s going to need to be. And therefore, how many trials you’re going to need. And therefore, how much traffic you’re going to need. If you know one step to the next what the conversion rates are, you can just back calculate from a 12-month revenue goal, you can back calculate to exactly how many unique visitors you need per month in order to make that happen. And if you’re complex enough you can include things like churn and upsells and downsells, and upgrade revenue and downgrade revenue.
It gets complicated but the idea is that this calculation that we talked about is that first swipe at it to give you the sanity check, and then you can dig into it as you get numbers that are better and that are real once you’re into the business. And then you can start plugging those in and figuring out how to improve them and how close your original estimates really were.
Mike [24:56]: Now I don’t know if this is something that Ash covers in a different section in the book, but one thing I think that we should probably talk about is a little bit about the difference between something like this versus your growth targets and your growth goals and how to look at those. Because what this gives you is that back of the envelope test to say at such and such point in time what does the business have to look like, how many customers do I need to acquire and how many will be leaving at this particular time. But that can be heavily overshadowed by your growth or your current growth. So if you’re growing at a very fast clip right now, it can be very easy to be distracted and look kind of micro focused at the business itself right now; how it’s doing, how you’re acquiring customers, doing split testing on all these different things and onboarding customers, doing support. And not really think about this down the road because you’re so hyper focused on that three to six-month timeframe.
But if you don’t take a step back and look at something like this then you can easily run into a situation where your business essentially flip flops and you almost drive it into the ground because you’re not paying attention. You’re hiring ahead of the curve or ahead of the need because the business is growing so quickly and you don’t realize that 18 months, 36 months down the road you’re probably going to run into serious customer acquisition problems or business problems because your customer acquisition needs are going to become so high based on your lifetime values.
Rob [26:12]: That’s the key here. These are not growth targets we’re talking about. These are plateaus. This is a heads up about a potential plateau. And this is something you need to be looking ahead at constantly as a subscription business. We had Ruben Gamez from Bidsketch on 50 episodes ago, I guess, to talk about how to identify and overcome plateaus. And this is the biggest hurdle that I see new SaaS founders hitting is not looking ahead and projecting. Given my churn, given my average revenue per user where are we going to plateau and how do we get past that? And the answer can be add more trials into the funnel. Sometimes that’s what it is. Sometimes the answer is we know that our funnel has no optimization so it may be running a bunch of split tests because you should be, at that point when you’re projecting, that you should be at scale. And I don’t even mean big scale like venture capital scale, but even if you just have 10,000 uniques a month or something, you can start running some split tests or even just making improvements on conversions on the site.
So there are a bunch of different ways to do it, but the idea is that when you’re running this business you have to be thinking ahead and projecting when am I going to hit the next plateau? And that’s what this calculation is about rather than growth projections. That’s probably another episode entirely.
Mike [27:24]: Sure. And then once you’ve identified what those plateaus look like and where they are likely to occur, then you can backtrack to where you currently are, plug in your numbers into a growth model and say, “when do I think that I’m going to end up actually hitting that plateau?” Because the business model might say it’s two years out or three years out, but looking at where your business is right now, if you’re growth rate is much higher then you could very well hit it in 12 months. And you really want to be in a position where you are looking at how to adjust the lifetime value of your customers well in advance of that. As Rob said, if you’ve done all those optimizations and then there’s not really other ways to address that, then you can start looking at your lifetime values and say, “how can I keep customers on longer? Are there ways for me to raise my prices or offer additional services?” And what that will do is that will increase your lifetime value, which will essentially push out that plateau even further.
Rob [28:15]: That wraps us up for today. If you have a question for us call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from ‘We’re Outta Control,’ by MoOt. It’s 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 and we’ll see you next time.