In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer a number of listener questions on topics including pricing and customer development. They also continue to discuss Mike’s verification journey with Google.
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Rob: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Mike and I talk about pricing, talk about doing customer development in a crowded space, and about how much testing is too much testing. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 447.
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: And I’m Mike.
Rob: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes that we’ve made. To where this week, man?
Mike: Remember how there was a couple weeks ago where I mentioned there was this ongoing Google app authentication approval process I was going through.
Rob: Yes. Seems like that’s been going on for quite some time.
Mike: Yeah. Like I said, they had announced it back I think in October or November. But they didn’t really give any details on it other than what was published on their website and they’re slowly adding to it and then earlier this year, they started ramping up requests for information, and all these additional things. I got an email the other day saying that they’re basically going to start yanking access. I’ve actually been going back and forth with a couple of people inside of Google who reached out.
I just want to say thanks to those listeners who do work in Google and been listening, but they forwarded it over a couple of my emails, and started pushing through some things. Hopefully, things are moving a little bit faster, but I did just get an email this morning saying, “Now, you have to go through this security review.” I’m trying to figure out or find out more information about exactly what that looks like and whether it’s absolutely required. It’s just been a red date nightmare is what it really comes down to.
Rob: Yeah. I have questions for you about this. It sounds like this could be an existential threat to Bluetick, is that right? Could it basically put you out of business overnight?
Mike: Yeah. It absolutely could.
Rob: And does that scare you?
Mike: Yeah, it does. The whole reason I chose IMAP was because I didn’t want to be beholden to the Gmail API and I didn’t want to have to deal with anything that they could come in and say, “Either change” or maybe they say, “Oh, we’re not going to offer this anymore.” I didn’t want to deal with latencies and things like that associated with it because I knew people were running the problems with that kind of stuff.
Fast forward a bit, and they decide change policy and suddenly, policy says you have to go through all these red tape in order to verify your app. Now, because of what I’m doing, I have to go through security review and it’s a third party security review. The cost for that is pushed on to me and they don’t even give you an actual price for it. It’s like, I have to pay for it and it’s anywhere from $15,000-$75,000 on an annual basis.
Rob: And you totally have that in the couch cushions, right?
Mike: Yeah. Get the money from the tooth fairy or something. I don’t know.
Rob: It’s an existential threat and you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen. They can literally yank access in two days and just say, “You didn’t comply,” or whatever. Is that accurate?
Mike: I wouldn’t think that it’s two days. I suppose it could, but I could take an email like a couple of weeks ago saying that they were going to extend the timeline to I think, June 15. I don’t know whether the security assessment needs to be done by the 15th or there is something else in there that said, “If you’ve had it done before January 19th then you have to have it done by the December 15th or 19th,” or something like that. I don’t know whether there’s this six months’ time frame. If it’s been done in the past six months, you’re fine, but before that you have to have a new one done. I don’t really know. They’re not forthcoming with direct information when you ask them questions and it’s just slow responses.
Rob: Is this anywhere? Have you gone online to forums? Other people have to be experiencing this, right? Have you gone into forums and looked? Does anyone have clarity in this? Or who do we know that has an app like Superhuman, as an example—now, we don’t know the founders of that—but who has an app like that that also relies on Google or Gmail specifically, that you can connect with, and ask if they have any clarity on it because this does feel like something where it needs more than one person because it sounds like you are not getting answers. If we cobble together, three or four founders who’ve had experience with this, then maybe you can get some clarity.
Mike: Yeah, I don’t know. I can certainly go looking for those. I’ve been following there’s a—it’s not a blog—I guess it’s a set of blog posts from a couple of different people. Contacts.io was one that I was looking at. They have this blog article that they talked about where they’re basically shutting down the whole thing because they can’t meet the requirements. They’re like, “Yeah. We’re just done.”
Then there’s another one I’ve been following, I forgot the name of it, I’ve got it bookmarked, but they’ve been documenting the whole process of what they’ve asked, what they’ve gone through, what the responses where, what they said, and they got all the way to the point where they have to have a security assessment done, and they said out of respect for that company, they’re not posting how much it cost. But I was going to drop them an email today—and that’s a recent post that they put out there—I’m going to drop an email, and be like, “Hey, look. What does this actually involve? What does this look like because I’m not getting any answers I need either.” Since they’ve already gone through it, I’d love to hear more.
But things have been really rushed over the past two weeks because that’s when they started sending out those emails saying, “Hey, here are the days where we’re going to start notifying people who own these domains that you’re no longer going to be allowed to access the API.” Or, “Your app is no longer trusted or hasn’t been verified yet.” Over the course of the next four weeks or so, three to four weeks, they say that they’re going to yank everything if you don’t meet the requirements. But I just got an email this morning saying, “Hey, you’ve gone through this final verification.” I checked my database log, and it’s like, “Yeah, they actually logged in, they did add a mailbox.” Apparently, I’m past that point, but I still need to have this security assessment done.
I wrote a long email that I guess they’re forwarding around internally that basically, laid out all these things. It’s like, “I probably know more about security and compliance than most of the people you have working on this, and definitely more than the average developer, and not to sound arrogant about that but I actually do.” I pointed to different places where, “I’ve been the author of one of the centers for internet security benchmarks. These are independent publications where you can see my name is on them.” I offered them. “Isn’t there some sort of exemption that can be put in here? Isn’t there money set aside in Google for small companies? Isn’t there something there that says that if you’re below a certain threshold, it doesn’t apply to you? It’s not like I’m out here trying to scam the world or anything. I’m just trying to carve out an existence here for myself.” They’re like the government, I guess, that’s kind of how I see it. It’s like they’re large and inflexible, and I don’t know what to do. It’s like arguing with the IRS. You’re probably not going to get very far.
Rob: The hard part is that you know the scrutiny that they’re coming under now, with all the Facebook privacy security crap. So you understand why they might have a policy like this even though it doesn’t necessarily feel fair.
Mike: I do. I get it. I understand. But at the same time, when you look at the discrepancies between what the benefits to me are for having this security assessment done, like all that does is it benefits Google, it benefits their security baseline, benefits their security posture globally. What does it do for me? Zero. It does absolutely nothing. It doesn’t get me more customers. It doesn’t add to my marketing footprint. I don’t even get really listed anywhere where it’s going to get a large amount of traffic or anything like that. I get virtually nothing. I’m the one paying for it, and Google is reaping the rewards and benefits of it.
From that justification, “Why should I pay for this?” They’re making $15 million-$16 million per hour. They actually had to go back and forth with me to say, “Please create a free account for us so that we can log into your app.” It’s like, “Really? You can’t sign up for a free trial from Google. Nobody there’s got a credit card?” It just boggles my mind that they’re treating people this way.
Rob: The part about the credit card I get because, in a big company, very few people have credit cards, right? Because they don’t want people just willy-nilly—you can’t track all the expenses, and you wouldn’t know what’s going on. It’s not that they don’t have the money to have credit cards, it’s that tracking credit cards is a pain in the butt in an organization with thousands of people. That part makes a little more sense to me.
Mike: It makes a little more sense, but at the same time, it’s a free trial. There should have been a credit card someplace that they’ve got and said, “Look, there shouldn’t be anything paid going on this and if there is, contact whoever it is and if you need to do a chargeback, do a chargeback.” But that shouldn’t be a two-week back and forth between them and the developer. I literally waited for two weeks for them to get back to me. I was like, “What email address are you using to register?” Nothing. Two weeks, nothing. It’s not a hard question. I could have done it, and I did eventually hear back from them and got it all taken care off, but then even after I sent it to them, I said, “Hey, here it is.” It was still another week.
Rob: That’s the hard part, I think. To mean them not having a credit card, I would give them a pass on. I just know how it is at big companies, and on, and on. I don’t blame them at that point. The fact that it took them two weeks or three weeks or whatever you’re saying is, that’s the part that gets really hard when they have a deadline. You are trying to meet it, and they’re not getting back to you quick enough. It sounds like they’re not staffed up enough in this department, and some arbitrary person somewhere decided, “Oh, we have to be compliant with this by this day,” but didn’t actually make the decision to staff up or give the proper resources.
I think, to circle back on the audit, how it benefits Google and not you, I don’t disagree with. It’s the same thing with Apple and the app store—it is a monopoly in essence. They can do what they want, they can screw the developers if they want, that’s the hard part, that’s the bummer of building on someone else’s platform. Until it’s antitrust, and the government gets involved, you kind of can’t do anything. You’re in an odd position because I know that you didn’t intend to build on someone else’s platform and that you did the IMAP stuff on purpose.
You’ve said that multiple times. I remember talking in the early days, and that was the point is you were going to do something that isn’t reliant on someone else. For them to just come in and say, “You need to drop $15,000-$75,000.” They can do it, and it sucks, but I cannot imagine them bearing the cost for all the developers who use their API because I think that’s what you’re saying is, you want them to bear that burden of it. I don’t know of a large company, with such a large public API, that would do that. Are you thinking they would have their own internal team that will do it, and they would just have people on salary to do it type of thing?
Mike: I would think that they have something along those lines. Honestly, my initial thought was, “There are going to be companies that can bear the burden, and it’s not really that big a deal for them.” Fine. Those aren’t the ones that I’m publicly advocating for here. It’s the ones that are in a position like me where, very limited resources, I’m not funded, I’m not making the type of money that would make a third party audit like that particularly easy, I’m doing everything myself. If I had 5 employees or 10 employees bringing in $1 million every year, okay, that’s a very different story.
There should be something set aside or some sort of exception process in place for companies that are not meeting a certain threshold, very similar to when the government comes in and say, “Oh, if you are 50 employees or more, you have to provide healthcare for your employees.” But there’s that threshold there because the burden on super small companies is so incredibly high whereas Pfizer or Facebook or Apple, they don’t care, it’s a drop in the bucket to them. They even have an entire compliance division, I’m sure. But a six-person company? No. That’s not the case. When you get into those super small companies, basically, what they’ve done is, they’ve taken this blanket statement that says, “These rules and regulations apply to everyone.”
Personally, I understand why they’ve done that, I understand what their intent is, but the application of it and applying it to every single business—big or small—it’s skewed in a direction that benefits the big businesses by pushing the smaller companies out of business.
Rob: Yeah. The thing I struggle with is, I can see it from their perspective and that the smaller companies are most likely going to be the ones that have the security holes, I would think, right? Maybe not in your case because you know security and you did it for so many years, but think about how many two-year developers, junior developer, hacking something together in PHP getting the API key, they’re not thinking about the security at the level that you are or that Google would require. I actually think that the risk to them is higher on the low-end. I don’t think there could be exemptions. It’s almost like you want more of a scholarship. That would be it, right?
Mike: If you look at exactly what you just said, the risk for a large company versus a small company is actually very similar. The reason is because a large company will have a much larger footprint, so they have much more data available to them and a larger customer base; a smaller company would have very few customers. The likelihood of any one of those getting hacked or them getting hacked or something happening—some sort of security breach—even if it does happen, the footprint of that breach is going to be much smaller.
Think of like T.J. Maxx, however many hundreds of millions of credit cards got hacked is because they are huge. If let’s say that Stripe was hacked, that’s a very similar thing. If you look at something like Bluetick or Level, for example, which Derrick Reimer just decided that he was going to shut that down, let’s just say that he was, for whatever reason, storing credit cards on his server and that got hacked, how many people have put their credit cards into that? The answer’s going to be, it’s much smaller than T.J. Maxx.
Rob: Right. It’s a higher likelihood of it getting breached, but (a) fewer people are going to want to breach it because they know it’s small, and (b) even if it gets breached, it’s just isn’t as nearly as big of a deal.
Mike: Correct. It’s about impact at that point.
Rob: Yeah. Their policy is obviously, very hard on what you are doing. I think the question I feel like, as a founder is like, you’re fighting this now, if you somehow win this battle, this conversation, do you have concerns moving forward that this is going to continue to be an issue?
I bring that up because with apps that I’ve run in the past when Google or someone else broke when it was platform-built, they broke every year, 12-18 months, 6-18 months, whatever, they just kept breaking my stuff. It was an ongoing thing, and I think I want to post that question, (a) have you considered that, and (b) is that a reason to move on? I’m not saying you should, but have you given that thought, has that gone through your mind of like, “I shouldn’t be doing this? I should look for a different idea?”
Mike: It has crossed my mind, and I have given it thought. I think this situation is a little different in terms of the platform itself breaking because I’m relying on IMAP, not anything else. From that perspective, I don’t think that’s an ongoing issue. The policy changes could be because if they change policy once then, there’s no reason to think that they couldn’t decide that they’re going to change policy again.
Could that come up in the future? It absolutely could. Could come up next year or the year after? Yeah, it absolutely could. Am I worried about that side of it? Probably not because I think with Bluetick, it’s one of those things where I evaluate it and say, “Look, this needs to move forward at a certain amount of time, and if it doesn’t, then I should go on to something else.”
Rob: Yeah. That’s something I think we should probably dig into an episode or two. I know we don’t have it on the books today and no, we haven’t done a prep but I think it could be an interesting conversation, for you and I, to talk about where you are with Bluetick and just hear more how you’re thinking about it and where it stands in your mind especially given the light of what’s going on right now. I mean, this is a lot of hassle for—like you said—for an app that is not as successful as you want it to be.
Mike: Right. I even went in and took a screenshot of revenue and sent it to him like, “Look, this is how much this is making and you want me to do this? This is absurd.” I don’t know. We’ll see what they have to say. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, I’ll have more information. But I mean, I may not, I don’t know. I’m spending so much of my time with Red Tape right now—and I have been for several months now. I’m not moving. It sucks. I don’t know what else I can do.
Rob: Is it taking up that much time? I can imagine replying to emails, you screenshot, you make the argument, then you sent the email, and then don’t you have the rest of your day to then build features, or market, I would say? Maybe you shouldn’t be building features right now, maybe it should be more marketing, but whatever, to do things that push the business forward.
Mike: It’s really distracting. Having that in my brain bouncing around, it’s really been distracting. It’s a little bit harder to focus.
Rob: You’re saying, you fire the email, and then you’re hung up on it for an hour or two, and you’re half struggling to work done. Is that the idea?
Mike: Some of it. In the past two days, there were two different emails that I sent. Each of them took me like an hour to put together. It just takes time to do that, which sucks, and I don’t know, maybe I could provide a lot less detail. I don’t know.
Rob: Yeah. It sounds like it’s tough because when I hear that I think, “Oh man, that is a waste of time.” But if you don’t put the thought into it and write a well-crafted email in this situation, it could be business-ending, so where’s the time best spent? But if you spent an hour to send an email, you still have the other six hours of your day, or seven hours of your day, depending on how much you work. Are you then distracted for that time or are you able to just let it go because that’s where you got to get, if you want to move this forward is to let it go and be like, “I’m going to move forward.” You do have a timeline. It’s like two weeks, three weeks until you know for sure, I’m assuming.
Mike: Sure. So, this morning, I spent some time doing support stuff this morning, and then I spent an hour on one of those emails, and then I’ve got this call for an hour, and then I’ve got another call after that for an hour, and that takes me to 1:00 in the afternoon. My kids get home at 2:45 PM, and I haven’t even eaten lunch yet, so I’ll hopefully start getting work done around 1:30 PM, and I’ll have an hour and a half to two hours before my kids get home.
It’s hard to get things done when that ends up in your schedule, so I don’t know, I don’t have a good answer at the moment, but it’s something I definitely need to think about offline, but we can discuss it next week or the week after or something.
Rob: Yeah. Let’s do that because I do think this is worthwhile digging into. I don’t want to derail this whole episode, but I think this is such an interesting topic because this is the real side of entrepreneurship, right? These are the hard things that we all go through that are scary, and you often don’t know what to do, and it’s stressful. I have to imagine that when work ends, your kids get home, you’re probably stressed all evening—I would guess—unless you can let it go.
There’s a lot of ways we can talk about this. Thanks for sharing that, man. I know that it is not easy stuff to talk about, but I think this real conversation is important.
Mike: Moving on.
Rob: Yeah. I have some updates, but I’m going to leave them until the next episode because they’re just not that time sensitive. I wasn’t thinking […] I was doing. Let’s dive into a listener question, we got a voicemail question about pricing.
“Hi, Rob and Mike. First of all, thank you for your podcast. You’ve definitely made many […] journey and things like […] enjoyable. My question is yet another question about pricing. Something that’s been playing on my mind for a while. While I’m not trying to promote, I thought some background really helps these questions, otherwise, it turns into a whole load of, it depends. I run a successful SaaS called […], that runs digilization backups. However, the vendor lock in and the fear of digitalization releasing daily backups and making my life difficult is real. I’ve been working on my next product Ultimately. For SaaS products, they integrate payment gateway with your payment gateway, so you can do emails. Another work for that integration is without any code. It’s a bit like if Drip and Churn Buster have a love child. I’ve been struggling to work out pricing though. I want it to be in line with the value a customer receives, so I thought of a percentage of monthly recurring revenue, have it settle on a hidden percentage game saying, $9 per 1,000 MRR. However, talking to customers, the percentage model seems to strike fear into people with unexpected cost. Do you have a better suggestion before I roll with that because it’s just become a distraction. Thanks again, Simon. You can learn more about […] at […].com. Thank you.”
You have thoughts on this, Mike?
Mike: Yeah. Definitely. I’ve heard from other people who have apps that are kind of in the space and they have kind of reiterate the same thing that you’ve just covered, which is people really hate having a percentage model of any kind because they want it to be predictable. I think it’s interesting to see them make that argument because if you look at what you’re doing for them, you’re basically saving their money and preventing churn, and you don’t get paid unless they receive more money.
The reality of the situation is, they’re going to make more money by using your service, but they’re concerned about the fact that it’s going to cost them more money even though they’re making more money by using your service. For whatever reason, they have it in their heads that the cost fluctuates per month, and they’re not sure if they can afford it and this is a huge hang up for them. I’ve heard it time and time again.
What I would do is I would actually go and look at some competitors and don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Look at what they’ve done for pricing models and how they are putting things together and how they’re presenting them to customers. Don’t lean toward this model where people are going to hate your pricing. Find out what other people have done, copy what they’ve done, and then show how your solution differs from theirs. Don’t differentiate on your pricing model because that’s going to actually make your job of presenting it to customers a lot more challenging because they’re not going to understand it.
They’re going to look at your competitors and say, ‘”Well, they have this pricing model and that one, and this thing that you’ve come up with is completely, not insane or ridiculous, but it’s just very, very different.” They’re going to have a hard time processing it, and they’re going to mentally, cross you off their list because they don’t understand your pricing models.
Rob: Yep. I have tried to innovate with pricing models before. I have seen founders do it, and it is very hard to do. It’s like saying, “I want to invent a new category.” It’s like, “That sounds like a great idea. Call your app an integration email blah platform,” or something. People are like, “So, what is that? How are you different from MailChimp? How are you different from Zapier?” Those are the questions you get. People want to categorize that in their mind. Pricing is similar.
I think your advice is dead-on. The way I would approach it too is to at least look around at what other players who have similar models, how they’re approaching it. There are the ones that produce churn, but then there are also ones that help abandoned carts, there’s a whole gamut of things that make people money directly using email. Personally, I would pull out my Moleskine notebook, and I would just go around and do a big survey, boom, boom, boom, write it all down, and look at how that pricing is structured, and start from there. What you may find is that everyone does it based on a percentage as well, and you’ve just hit a few customers who don’t like it, and that’s fine. Your sample size is really small, and that makes it hard so far.
As you said, Mike, I would start there. Then the more people you talk to, the more data points you’ll get, and at a certain point, you will know. If you’ve talked to 20 people, and 19 will have a problem with it, it’s a real problem. But if you talk to 20 people, and it was the first two or three who said it, then it’s a little more clear cut.
I hope that was helpful, Simon. Thanks for sending your voicemail in. As always, voicemails go to the top of the questions queue. Our next question is from Martin at quoshift.com.
He says, “Hey, Rob and Mike. My name is Martin. I’m from Australia. I’m looking to start a new SaaS business in a fairly mature space. There are about three competitors in the $10 million to $100 million range in annual revenue that I would eventually like to compete with. I’ve compiled a large list of current users of those solutions. I’m going to go ahead and reach out to schedule some interviews. My platform would be easier to use while providing an objectively better technical solution than other companies. Easier to use, objectively better. What are the top three questions you would be asking these users to see if they would be interested in switching to my product? By the same token, how can I get people to pretty sign up to my solution?”
What do you think?
Mike: I think I would start by asking them what is the single thing you hate the most about what they’re using now because that’s probably going to drive them to switch. It’s not going to be, “Oh, this could be a better solution. It’s going to be better, technically or the UI is going to be better.” You have to hone in on the things that they absolutely hate. Use that as a lever to try and move them from whatever else they’re using because they’re going to want to avoid that pain, more than to incrementally improve, what they have now. That’s where I would definitely focus. Beyond that, just the language, I’d say, in the email is a little bit concerning because you’re saying that it is objectively better, technically. Dude, your customers are not going to care. It’s more about their experience with it and what they are going to get out of it.
Rob: Yes. Switching costs, whether they’re high or not, in actuality, they are always high in someone’s mental–in their mind. You can’t make an app that is 30% better and expect people to switch. You need to make an app that is two times, three times better and have a real, compelling way to communicate that to the customers. Building a better mousetrap is a really hard way to get people to switch SaaS apps.
The switching cost on mousetrap is not high—I’ll put it that way. I like your idea, the number one question of like, “What do you hate the most? What are two or three things that you hate most about this app?” I think, to tie it in, you talked about Derrick Reimer earlier deciding not to do Level. He wrote the blog post on derrickreimer.com, about deciding to shut it down, and the process there. He felt like he didn’t do it as well as he should have. He referenced the book called, The Mom Test—the subtitle is—How to Talk to Customers & Learn If Your Business is a Good Idea When Everyone is Lying to You. One of the big questions in there is not just, “What’s your biggest pain?” But that then followed up with, “What have you done to try to get around this pain so far? What have you done to solve this pain so far?”
Because if they say, “My biggest pain is I can’t integrate with this other product. If you build that integration, it would be great.” What have you done to solve that pain? Well, if they haven’t tried to hire a developer, or write any code to do it, or tie into Zapier, or do anything to actually fix the pain, then the odds are good that that pain actually, isn’t that big of a deal. In their head, they’re thinking, “Yeah, this is a pain. This is something I dislike.” But if they haven’t taken the time, or the money, or made an effort to fix it, it starts to sound like, “Well, maybe this isn’t that big of a deal. I think that’d be the follow-up question that I would ask about each of those pain points and I would […] The Mom Test, of course, to even hope further because there’s a whole bunch of questions in that book.
You know one other thing I would consider asking is because from a customer development standpoint, you want to find out what to build, and the early things to build. I would be curious to ask, “How long have you been using this product? How hard would it be to switch? Have you considered switching in the past? If you have, why didn’t you switch to another?” You know what I mean? Go down that logic, that path, of trying to really get into it to figure out when it comes time have they actually thought through what switching to your product looked like because if they haven’t, they can get right up to the end. They actually build all these integrations, and then like, “Oh, I haven’t thought that I’d have to get a developer involved.” That’s a no go. Those are the types of questions. That’s the path I wouldn’t follow. Thanks for the question, Martin. I hope that’s helpful.
I think we have more time for one more question today. This one is also about customer development. It’s about setting up initial meetings when all you have is wireframes. It’s from Scott.
“Hi, guys. I have a question for you. I’m trying to validate my idea by talking through wireframes with people, but before that can happen, I’m sending cold emails to people that I’m assuming are the target decision makers. In my case, it’s HR Managers of companies with around 250 or so employees, which may or may not be right. I wondered if you could talk about your experiences with getting those initial meetings set up. I don’t have a website at the moment, just initial product wireframes, do you think that’s a mistake at these early stage?”
He gave us a sample email, which I think is well-written. Any thoughts on this?
Mike: I like he led off the email by saying, “We’re in the early stages of building an app,” because I think it conveys to the person on the other end that you’re, I’ll say, as an aspiring entrepreneur. I found that that’s actually, a really good opening way to position yourself because you’re essentially soliciting them for their expertise and their advice.
A couple of things I would keep in mind though, the people that you talk to very early on like this—depending on how long it takes you to get your app out the door—it could be that these people are just not going to ultimately, end up being your customers. Just bear that in mind. Don’t bend over backward for every single one of these people, thinking that you’re going to get all of them as a paying customer once you start shipping the app or you have something to ship.
There’s a bunch of different reasons for that. But the fact of the matter is people switch jobs or their priorities change. All kinds of things can happen between the time that you first talked to them, and then you have something that you can show to them. I don’t think it’s a mistake to just show them wireframes. I mean, you need something to show them especially if you want to get any sort of prepayment or commitment from them.
The reason I would lean more towards that prepayment is because it essentially overcomes a hurdle which is that they’re saying they would pay for something, versus they will pay for it. If they give you a credit card as a prepayment, then they are willing to pay for it versus, “Oh, this sounds like a good idea. I would pay for it.” But the reality is, they want to see it, and they want to be able to play around with it. There’s going to be a bunch of people who fall into that category where they would pay for it except, and then they’ve got all these different reasons, that until you ask them for their credit card, they’re not really going to tell you because they want to be helpful. Nobody wants to be the person who says, “Oh, this is a bad idea.” If they’re trying to give you advice, they’re going to say those types of nice things which is going to what you want to hear, not necessarily what you need to hear.
Rob: Yeah. The hard part here is, if you’re an HR Manager of a company with 250 employees, you’re not going to prepay for something like this. Prepayment is such an SMB thing. When you’re talking to a single founder or a founder of a five-person company, yeah, they’ll totally give you a hundred bucks or whatever, put it in a credit card or whatever, but that type of thing, it works very differently as you get to the mid-market where they have these massive budgets, and everything is tracked.
You could feasibly do prepayment. But it’s going to be like, “Would you pay us $5000 or $10,000?” Then you’re going to need contracts. You’re going to have to go through procurement. That’s what this process would be like at that point. You’re trying to fund this based on customer pre-sales with larger companies, then it is definitely, much different—we would think—than if you’re dealing with just smaller companies.
Mike: Well, I don’t think you necessarily need to get to the point where you’re funding at with their money. In my mind, it’s more a matter of are they willing to commit to paying for when it’s ready. It’s a different goal than if you’re trying to get money from them to fund the development of it. That’s two different things, depending which direction he was trying to go.
Rob: Yeah. That’s fair. You don’t have to fund it, fund it yourself, but getting someone who runs HR at a 250-person company to give you their credit card number and say, “Yes, I’ll give you a few hundred dollars.” I wouldn’t do that. I worked at larger companies, and I just know the politics and everything that goes on in there, and you’re just so busy trying to push things forward that unless the solution is there in front of me, there are so many people marketing and trying to sell to these HR managers or to any manager at a company. That it’s like, them giving you the time to even give you feedback, and then them going out on a limb and then giving you money with the thought that you might build something. I mean, if they don’t know you, did they know that you’re going to build good software? Did they trust that you’re going to deliver […] ever? It’s a whole different ball game.
You’re not going to have a reputation like you might if, let’s say, I went to our audience and was like, “Hey, I’m going to build something that is going to solve whatever your problems.” There would be reputation factors, right? People know me, and hopefully, like me, and trust that I’m going to build something good, but he’s not going to have that with these HR Managers because it’s just cold outreach.
Mike: I think, what I would lean towards doing in that case is saying, “If the products says this, this, and this, so what are the roadblocks to you purchasing it and pain for it?” That gives you a little bit of insight in to the internal politics of how that company operates. If you’re asking that company that specific question, you’re going to get, I would think, a reasonably decent cross-section of how companies at that level operate in terms of purchasing and requisition.
Like, “Some are going to need to go through the IT department and they have to hand it off to them and the IT department has to purchase it. Some of them are going to have a credit card, they’re going to be able to just buy it themselves, and tell the IT department afterwards. Some of them purchases above a certain dollar amount, they need to go through somebody.” You can ask them about, “If the pricing was this, what would you think? If the pricing was this other thing, what would you think? What are the roadblocks that lead to those different points?” That’s what you need to know is how are you going to sell to these people assuming you built what they want.
So, one line of question is, “What is it that you want and need and what would make it so that she would pull the trigger and buy it and say yes.?” The second part is, “What does it take to actually get it into here?”
Rob: Yep. I think those are good points. He asked two other questions or he asked two questions in the email, and I don’t know if we’d addressed them very well. His first one was, “I wondered if you could talk about your experience with getting those initial meeting set up.” Yeah, the experience is, you have to send a lot of emails to get very few meetings. The funnel is wide, and people are busy, and they aren’t going to want to talk to you.
Other thing that I’ve done is use my network/audience to try to get that. Whether you’re going on LinkedIn, whether you are emailing everybody you know to basically say, “Look, I’m an aspiring entrepreneur or I’m a founder, and I’m in the early stages, I need advice on an HR product. Could you make an intro?” That’s how you’re going to get people who will at least talk to you on the phone. My experience is that it’s frustrating, and takes longer than you want and you get a lot of, “No, I’m not going to talk to you.” Eventually, your persevere, you figure it out, you talk to enough people.
Then his second question is, “I don’t have a website at the moment, just the initial product wireframes. Do you think that’s a mistake at this early stage?” I could go either way on this. I think wireframes is fine, but I think non-technical people have a tough time feeling wireframes as real things, but I’m less worried about how the screens worked, and I’m more worried about what is the headline. What is the headline of the website? There’s kind of this old marketing thought, and I think it’s good, it’s something that I’ve done from time to time, where you build the marketing page first, you build the landing first page. You go from there to then building the product. By the time you get that headline in there and some bullets of what the copy is and what it does. I mean, that’s how we did with Drip.
I’m trying to think, my book was that way too where it was five sentences on a page and then I took that and said, “Now, I’m going to go manifest this into reality.” That’s what I like about you building a marketing site is whether you do it in Squarespace or WordPress SaaS theme, it doesn’t have to look amazing, but it’s really about you getting it on paper, getting the marketing thoughts and the copy even in front of yourself, and maybe if they asked, you can send them there, it’s just an email opt-in, it kind of depends, but I think I lean towards in doing that. I think it’s a helpful exercise, especially for those of us who tend to want to go to the code.
Mike: I was going to mention exactly that. I don’t think that having a website in and of itself is going to help you, but I think the process of putting together the website makes you seriously think about what it needs to say, and how you’re going to position it, and it helps you craft a better story when you’re talking to people about the solution on a call, and you’re demonstrating those wireframes. It just helps you position it better so that if they look at your email, “Well, let me just take a look at the website before I reply back to this.” That should tell them very quickly whether or not they want to even waste their time at all or whether you’re serious. If you don’t have any website at all, who knows?
I mean, I feel like, this is definitely more me than anything else, but if somebody sends me some email and says, “Hey, I’m thinking about this,” and they’ve got literally nothing on their website at all or they don’t mean to have a website, it’s really hard to take him seriously that they were even going down this road.
Rob: Yeah. I think that’s a good point. Hope those thoughts are helpful, Scott.
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In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about customer development. Based on a Sujan Patel article, the guys walk through 5 tips for doing customer development the right way.
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 customer development. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 410.
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 build your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: And I’ve been drinking coffee.
Mike: It’s not whiskey?
Rob: It’s not whiskey. It’s 10:00 in the morning, so I was hoping it wouldn’t be whiskey. Mike, I don’t drink coffee very much anymore. I’m having coffee right now so this is going to be good.
Mike: I have a coffee cup that says, “This is probably whiskey,” on it.
Rob: Nice. I like that.
Mike: Anyway, we’re here to share experiences, help avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week, Rob?
Rob: Aside from drinking just a tiny bit of coffee this morning, which will hopefully come across as making me energized and sharp rather than wandering all over the place and to crazy tangents, I’ve been listening to a book called Valley Of Genius. It is the history of Silicon Valley, all the way back into the, I believe it’s 50s and 60s as Fairchild Semiconductor came up. It’s told in the words of the people who were involved. There’ll be a chapter telling the history and there’s a chapter or a bunch of quotes from Steve Jobs and Fairchild himself, and a bunch of people who worked in Atari, Nolan Bushnell and people who worked there.
Right now, I believe I’m in the early 80s. I don’t know when it’s going to end, if it’s going to keep going all the way to Facebook and Google or where it goes. I’ve really enjoyed books like this. I grew up there and I remember a lot of orchards and stuff that wasn’t developed and all these concrete tilt up started coming. My dad was in construction and he’s in charge of building a lot of fabs for Intel and they shipped that overseas. Then it was biotech. Then it’s was dot com stuff in the 90s. Then it became just more data centers.
It has a special place for me because I was there but even if you’re not, it’s not like you need to have lived there to get something out of this. It is purely history book. This is a fascinating telling of how these things all developed and really how Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley pretty much by accident. If you’re interested in that kind of history and hearing how things developed, Valley of Genius. It’s a decent book.
Mike: On my end, I’ve got a book recommendation that was sent to me from Keith Gillette and he runs tasktrain.app. He suggested Slicing Pie based on a previous episode where we talked about finding co-founders and how to split equity. I looked into it and it’s a very interesting book.
The Slicing Pie book talks about how to divide equity between co-founders based on a variety of different factors in it. Seems like it’s generally applicable to just about any situation. The general concept is that you divide the equity based on people’s contributions and if you believe in your startup, you’ll probably going to work more on it and you’re going to put more time, effort, and resources into it. But at the end of the day, it’s a gamble. You’re essentially placing bets with your time and money and those are essentially translated into equity points for lack of a better way to put it. Those equity points are divided among the co-founders and that’s how you come out with a final equity split.
I think it’s a fascinating way of looking at it. I didn’t dig into all the details. I’m sure there’s some interesting edge cases but definitely want to say thanks to Keith for sending that over to us.
Rob: Yeah. Definitely, appreciate it. I read that book or at least skimmed it when I first came out because I believe the author sent it to me or maybe he sent it to us. This was a few years ago. I thought it was interesting, although it was probably not an approach I would take.
I’m trying to remember even what it was but I think it was all the founders were starting off and it was a developer and a marketer and you’re just dividing. It’s three developers or whatever and I’ve always felt when I started businesses, we’ve always had brought different things to the table but might not just be task-based.
It’s like, “Oh, so-and-so has $1000 to bring to the table.” That really set things different. Or, “So-and-so has an audience they’re bringing and we’re going to build that on it,” and that has a lot more value than, say, building a certain feature or whatever. I think it’s a good model and frankly, it’s the only book I know that’s been written on this topic. It’s something to be thinking about. What are we talking about today?
Mike: Today’s we’re going to be talking about customer development. The title of this episode is actually Customer Development For Dummies but this is based on an article that was written by Sujan Patel on his blog and we’ll link that up in the show notes.
Sujan was a speaker at MicroConf Growth Edition in 2017 but he talks about customer development in a way that I think that most people can at least get a few takeaways from it and obviously, we’ll add our own perspectives on different pieces of this particular blog post.
Rob: And we’ll, of course, link that up in the show notes. It’s an article at sujanpatel.com and it’s called Five Tips For Doing Customer Development The Right Way.
Mike: His first tip is to talk to your customers, which I think is one of those intuitively obvious things that most of us try to do but I wouldn’t say that we’re all necessarily successful at it. But he’s got a lot of advice in here about how he went about approaching the market for when they were developing Mailshake and they going out to talk to customers.
The one thing that I think he pointed out here which is extremely interesting was that if you’re just trying to validate a product, you don’t have customers yet. So, instead you have to talk to new customers, you can go out and talk to the customers of your competitors, which I think is a really fascinating idea. It’s not just because it’s brutally obvious if you don’t think about it, but I hear a lot of people say like, “Oh, if I don’t have customers, who do I go talk to?” I think that’s just a perfect piece of advice for those people.
Rob: Yup and as a strategy, he says to find your competitor’s customers, going to a site like Capterra or GetApp where people are rating your competitors, and you’ll notice that most of the sites let people connect their LinkedIn or Twitter profiles, then you can reach out. He said, reach out to 30 or 40 people and in his experience, you’ll get 20%-30% success rate, and then ask what they like or don’t like about your competitor’s product. I think it’s a pretty clever hack.
Obviously, you could use something like BuiltWith or Datanyze but those are really expensive sales prospecting tools where you can get list of folks who were using things and this should be more of a freeway. Takes a little bit more time on your end, but more of a freeway to reach out to competitor’s customers.
There’s a lot of value in talking to competitor’s customers and even former employees of competitors, frankly, is an interesting avenue. I guess you wouldn’t get as much customer development. Maybe you can find out more about internal processes or at least approaches if that’s something that you need. It’s probably not something you need this early on but it’s something to keep in mind as you grow.
Mike: The other thing I like about talking to customers or prospective customers and ask them what they don’t like about the products is that it gives you a punch list of challenges that they’re probably having with those products and you can cater your own development to trying to solve those. That’s not to say that, that is going to lead directly to success but if you hear enough people saying the same things over and over that are bad about a particular competitor, then you can use that as a marketing point as well as an engineering point to say, “We are going to make sure that we solve this so that when people are looking for an alternative to this because they are so angry about this particular thing that happens, then we’re the obvious choice for them.”
Rob: Here’s a pro-tip. If you start doing customer development like this and you get the feeling or you get the sense that you’re going to have to build your entire competitor feature set, then make changes, adjustments, or additions in order to get the customers, that’s a red flag. Building out features that’s going to take forever. The best kind of market that you can get into is where a competitor or competitors are bloated and have huge feature sets but a lot of different niches or a lot of different verticals are using say, 20% or 30% of it and that 20% or 30% is broken but it’s the best option.
An example of that is QuickBooks. QuickBooks is a huge tool. It can do inventory management. It can do invoicing, AR, and AP. It can do all this accounting stuff. There’s probably a slice of small businesses that just need a pretty simple, kind of based like freelancers, where they just need some basic invoicing and keeping track of expenses. That’s where startups like Xero and LessAccounting came up, and they just built that part of it. They didn’t have to build inventory management because they were just pulling off of that part that didn’t work.
Another example is Infusionsoft. As we were growing Drip, we realized Infusionsoft has landing pages, shopping carts, affiliate management program, payment processing I believe is built-in, then they had email marketing, they had marketing automation, they had CRM, they had a lot of stuff. We did not build all of that. We just needed to be really good at the email marketing and marketing automation, and we were able to pull a lot of customers from Infusionsoft.
So, two examples of how I view markets. If you had to build all of the Infusionsoft or all of QuickBooks, you just can’t do it. It’s going to take you years to do it.
Mike: That leads to the natural question to ask while you’re talking to those customers is, what things do you not use at all? Or do you use very little? That will help give you an idea of some sort of relative ranking of the features of the competitor that you probably have to implement versus the ones that are probably complicated and going to take a long period of time to develop but most customers don’t use. If it’s not used by 80% of the customers, you probably get away without it.
Rob: Yup and one question that I ask during Drip customer development was, what’s your biggest pain point with tool X? Whether that was Infusionsoft or whether it was MailChimp or HubSpot or Marketo or Ontraport, what do you like the least about it or what do you wish they would fix or what do you wish they would add or how could they do better? AWeber is on that list as well.
The cool part is I started seeing patterns of, “Well, I like MailChimp and AWeber and they’re solid tools, but they don’t do this. You can’t tag people, you can do automations.” Someone said, “I like Infusionsoft but it’s really buggy. The Campaign Builder is too complicated. It’s way too expensive for what it is. Didn’t like the $2000 upfront.” There’s some real specific things that everyone referenced back to. If you’ll notice, that’s what we attack really early on with our marketing. We’re like these guys but better, we’re like this but different. It wound up being something that in 10, 20, 30 conversations that I had, could translate into our entire marketing message.
Mike: Yeah and you’ll find that there’s definite hot spots in those areas as well. As you said, you talked to 30, 40, 50 people, you start to hear the same things over and over again, and you just know where to focus your time and effort.
The next tip that Sujan has is to track your competitor’s pros and cons. I think that goes a little bit back to the previous one where there’s a difference between feature set versus what people like and what they don’t like, and what things they wished that the competitors had. The feature set is what they advertise versus how well they mash the customers’ expectations in terms of the pros and cons. There’s obviously some overlap in the feature set in that but there’s a definite difference between how the customer feels about the features versus what their marketing message is saying.
Rob: Yeah and Sujan says to google things like competitor’s name review, like QuickBooks review or QuickBooks testimonials, and visit as many results as you can trying to come up with a list of the top 10 things people like about each of the competitors as well as what they don’t like.
This is a way to do it without having conversations and I would view this as day zero research. You’re trying to put together a list or get a sense of the pros and cons of your competitors and you’re going to do this for multiple competitors. It’s not just one in general. Typically, more than one competitor has a decent market share.
The next step for me would be then to start having those conversations with either people who have signed up for your early bird list. Even if you don’t have customers, you can ask them, “What do you expect? What do you want? Do you use one of these competitors? Do you use QuickBooks? Do you use Infusionsoft and what do you think about them?” Or, if you don’t have that yet, start building it today and then go and do what we talked about in the previous step which was to go to Capterra, GetApp, and start having conversations with your competitor’s customers.
Mike: The other thing he recommends is that you track the changes to this list over time. I think that’s also an important piece that I’ve not really thought about in the past but tend to agree with them because the technology is going to change over time. The entire market itself is going to change over time. As time plods on, there’s going to be a set of features that is standard across all of your competitors and you need to make sure that you have those features. If you don’t, you’re going to end up being left behind.
That’s not say you should always copy every single feature that your competitors have but if you’re the only one who doesn’t have a particular feature, you might want to seriously consider adding it.
Rob: Tip number three from Sujan is to test before you build. He talks about how Hiten Shah does a really good job of going through a lot of testing. If you want to see someone who is really at the top of the game of pre-validating products and doing customer development, go to hitenism.com––it’s called Product Habits now. Sign up for his email list and just watch what he does because Hiten is, like I said, one of the best at this.
Mike: The reason why you want to test these things before you start building them is that you don’t want to waste a lot of time on building stuff that nobody’s going to use or that isn’t actually solving a problem that your customers have. If you’re just blindly copying a competitor, for example, they may have implemented a feature that they didn’t necessarily know that their customers wanted. They may have just said, “Oh, we think that they need this or somebody mentioned this and we’re going to build it,” and then you spend several weeks or a couple of months building something that, because you didn’t test the market, you didn’t know that nobody needed it either. You’re just copying somebody else. You want to find places where you can save time, not waste it.
Rob: You know why I realize is that we didn’t even really define customer development when we started. Some folks may have heard that and they may have an idea of what it is but there is a pretty solid definition because Steve Blank, who’s a serial entrepreneur and he’s now a professor or was a professor, was it Stanford or Berkeley, somewhere in California. He developed this concept called customer development.
It’s a four-step process. It’s customer discovery to start with. There’s a lot of conversations proposing an MVP, trying to figure things out. Then there’s customer validation once you start building it. And then it’s customer creation which is where you’re scaling and then you’re bringing in customers. And then it’s company building, which is where you scale operations and stuff.
If you google what is customer development, there is a pretty nice diagram of all that and we don’t need to go into those pieces for you to understand it, but just in case you are listening, thinking, “What is this customer development term?” it really just means we are focusing really on the first and second steps here, which are the conversations with your customers and then trying to find product-market fit. I think maybe Sujan is really focused on even just the first step in this article, because second, third, and fourth is more company building, scaling, and organization.
Mike: We talked a little bit about the types of ways that you can test things before you start building them. One that I used during the validation process for Bluetick was, I created a set of Balsamiq mockups and then showed those to people. Instead of building codes and instead of creating CSS mockups or Photoshop mockups of exactly what the app was going to look like, I just sketch it all out using Balsamiq and was able to link the pages together. You can see how the application was going to work without writing any of the code for it. It took me probably 20-30 hours or so to put that together, but that’s a lot less time than it took to build the application and put something that was completely functional together.
During the process of showing it to people, I got a lot of questions about, “Oh, what does this piece do?” or, “How would I go about doing this other action over here,” and it gives you a sense of where your design essentially is going to either fall short of what their expectations are or other areas where you should probably spend a little bit more time on it.
Rob: Sujan suggests getting a wireframe and going to sets like in five-second test or user insights, usertesting.com is another one, and that will give you UX stuff but it won’t tend to give you customer insights like you’re talking about, Mike, where you are actually talking to a group who you knew was interested in the solution that you’re going to be providing. I think yours is harder to do but it’s more valuable in my opinion.
Tip number four is to go to conferences or events where your customers are. This is an obvious one but one that a lot of people overlook. I think you can get a ton of value in a two- or three-day conference. You could talk to 50 or 100 people if you scheduled well. Maybe not 100, that actually sounds like a lot but maybe let’s say 30 or 40 people really quickly in person if you really made a point of having your stuff together, you’ve been having mock-ups.
I was at a startup pitch, was a competition. It was more like a demo day for local accelerator here in town the other day. Someone was talking about something and then pulled out an iPad Pro and was like, “Here, let me just walk you through.” He had, it was either mock-ups or maybe it was an actual app running on it. It was kind of funny to see him just pull it out during a conversation as we were having drinks and it got a better picture of what he was up to. Frankly, I was able to give him feedback of like, “Oh, I was confused by that,” or, “I don’t see my people would use that,” or, “That screen’s really nice.”
Mike: I have something that you can actually show to people. It leaps and bounds above just explaining it to them. When you’re explaining it to them, they’re going to have their own vision in mind of what the thing’s going to look like, how it works, and what it does even. You might say something like, for Bluetick it’s an email automation follow-up software or something like that. They’re going to have in their own head this impression of what something like that does based on their previous experiences and it doesn’t necessarily reflect what you are building. So keep in mind that if you can show them anything at all as opposed to leaving it up to their imagination, you’re going to be much further along.
The other thing Sujan points out is that in an informal setting such as a conference or an event, is much more conducive to getting feedback from people because if you’re getting people on to webinar and you’re doing a sales demo or something like that, people have a tendency to hold back a little bit. In an informal situation, you get, I’d say a little bit more honest feedback because they’ve realized they’re not really being sold to and they’d like to help you out. They want to give you feedback that is going to help you. In just any informal setting, that alone is going to help do that.
Rob: And his fifth tip for customer development is to live a day in the life of your customer. He talks about dogfooding your own product. It helps you smooth out the rough edges. This is one of the benefits of scratching your own itch. Scratching your own itch has been thrown around since 37signals said, “Hey, this is all you got to do because that’s what we did, and look, it worked.” It is cool. It is easier if you can do that but it’s not required. It’s not required to scratch your own itch to build a great product. I’ve seen it done for people entering a market that they’re not part of. However, either way, whether you’re scratching your own itch or not, you should dog food that product. You should try to use it as if your customer was using it.
If I recall, dogfooding was coined by—was it Bill Gates or someone at Microsoft because he learned that the CEO of a dog food company would eat the dog food to test it. Bill Gates was like, “We need to basically eat our own dog food which means we need to use our own software to make it better.” So if you’re curious about where that term comes from, that’s at least my anecdotal memory of where it comes from.
Mike: I experienced this first hand with Bluetick. It was a lot harder when I was working on AuditShark just because there’s only so many servers that I have, for example, so scaling things up is a little challenging in terms of using the app for a large number of servers. With Bluetick, I’ve used it to go out and do email follow-ups. It’s interesting to see the places where I’m running into challenges and whether it’s UI- or UX-related issue, things were just not as quick.
For example, there’s a bunch of shortcuts that have been added and it’s explicitly because I found that it was too many clicks to click between different things. Not one customer ever really said that to me but I also knew just from using it, that it was painful to do that if I had to use the main navigation without those shortcuts.
Those are the types of things that you’re going to find and by finding those things that are painful for your customers to use, you’re also going to be able to fix them and prevent them from moving off to other products because they get so fed up with those and they say, “Oh, this has got UI or UX issues and I can’t get around or it takes me too long to do my job.” You don’t ever want your customers to feel using your tool is a chore because you’re trying to solve problems for them and save them time and money. If you’re causing them more headaches, it’s just not worth it for them and they’ll move on to something else.
Rob: Right and using your own product shouldn’t just be done in the early days because once you have customers, you need to use it on an ongoing basis in a perfect world. That’s where, if it is something you use, you have that leg up because you will get in there and you’ll notice things that bother you about it that don’t bother your customers, and it keeps your product at that really high level of refinement, high usability.
You’ll notice a tiny, like a little misspelling or a like a four-pixel difference between this and that and it’s just something that, if you can catch that, because no customer is going to screenshot that and send it into you. Maybe a typo they will, but there’s just these little things that I used to see in Drip all the time when I was using it. It was like, “Man, that bothers me that that is not perfect.” I would send it over to our design team and say, “Hey, we got to fix this little thing.” It came across as a refinement rather than a complaint. It was like, “Let’s make this tool better.” All that’s safe if you’re able to use a product on a daily or weekly basis you think that there’s a lot of value there.
Mike: Just over time, just by doing that it will naturally get better and smoother over time. That’s really what you’re looking to do is just smooth out the rough edges there and make it a nice, clean experience. When people get that experience from one product and have used others where they didn’t get that experience, they talk about it.
Rob: That about wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail at 888-801-9690 or email us at email@example.com. 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 talk about how to recover from coding for months without talking to customers. Based on some questions a listener sent in, the guys give advice to the classic problem of spending all your time developing and not enough time talking with customers.
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Mike: In this episode of Startups For the Rest of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about how to recover from coding for months without talking to customers. This is Startups For the Rest of Us episode 347.
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: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week, Rob?
Rob: Well, I am back from Sweden. I had a great time attending and speaking at Brennan Dunn’s Double Your Freelancing Conference in Europe. He said it was going to be the last DYF conference he throws and then he’s going to only do small retreats after this so it was cool to meet up with him and his crew.
And then I spent a couple of days with Sherry in Stockholm. We had left the kids at home and we had a great time seeing the sights, painting the town red, and I got a good amount of work done. It’s crazy when you’re in a new environment. I was basically taking the days off, “vacation days,” but there was still stuff going on back here, back in the office so a couple of hours a day, 90 minutes or so, I could just hammer out a ton of email and Slack replies.
I had some really good ideas because I had the headspace to think about stuff so I noted them down and I’m starting to put those in the queue right now. It was actually a productive, I wouldn’t even say it goes far as to say as it was a workation, it was more like a light vacation with a bit of work sprinkled in. That’s, to be honest, my ideal thing because I think when I don’t work for like a week, I feel disconnected and I get bored just travelling and being in places without having something to occupy my mind.
Mike: I’d imagine that’s a lot like retirement as well. I’m not one who just likes to take extended vacations just for exactly that reason. I find myself getting bored.
Rob: Yup. I think that’s where having hobbies, like I do investing, which is fun, but I can only do so much of that in a day and think about it for so long before I need to do the next thing. After the conference was done, we would go see one sight and then we’d go to lunch and then Sherry and I would come back in the afternoon which is when this time zone was waking up and Sherry had a few calls and she was still doing quite a bit of consulting and stuff. It was good. It was a nice mix. I really enjoy that stuff.
I also enjoy getting away for retreats. Like we’ve talked about in the past, taking a full two, three days but seven complete days for me without thinking at all about the things I’m most passionate about, which is a lot of what I work on, is always a hard stretch.
Mike: Cool. On my end, I finally got the two step sign up process for Bluetick all squared away. There’s definitely edge cases in there that I just said, “Look, I’ll deal with this later.” Instead of making the whole thing bulletproof, I made it basically just work. I know that there’s going to be cases where something is going to come up and somebody goes to sign up and it’s going to break. I’m just going to have to figure it out at that point because I don’t really have the time to try and capture every single edge case.
Right now, it’s just going to show some generic messages if it goes sideways and certain ways that I just don’t know about because I don’t know all the different ways that Stripe for example, could say, “Hey, this card isn’t going to work.” I got that all squared away and finally got started working on the marketing and sales websites. I got the price and page all set and I’m working on the tour. I got to create a couple of videos to add in there, probably put one on the home page then work on flushing all the rest of the tour and figuring out whether I want to do just one page for the tour or I want to divide it up into several of them based on what different situations people are in.
I’ve got a bunch of different notes that I’ve aggregated from various customer discussions that I’ve had and different things that they’ve either keyed on or asked about during demos and putting those into specific places in the tour and try to essentially walk somebody through the decision making process for it.
Rob: Good for you, man. That’s exciting. I know it took a lot longer than you wanted to but it’s got to feel good to have that behind you and be able to pull the next thing off the list.
Mike: It is. The thing I don’t like about doing the stuff on the tour side of things is that it’s a completely blank slate and I’m not a designer. I’m sitting there, going through and trying to figure out how should the page be laid out and what should I say in certain areas and how should one thing lead into another. For whatever reason, it’s really hard for me to do that. I can conceptualize what I need to say but doing the layout for it, that’s the part I’m having a hard time.
Rob: Yeah, that is hard. I haven’t done that in years. When I used to do it, I wasn’t very good at it. It’s such detailed work. It’s tough. That’s what you got to do when you’re scrapping being bootstrapped and you’re counting the days until you can hire someone else. Get a contractor, even if it’s a contractor, get somebody because they’re so much faster at it and the end product will look better too.
Mike: Plus it’s all in WordPress. There’s only so much that I can do in WordPress. I’m just going to make do with what I’ve got and then after that, just look for a designer at some point down the road, when I actually have the funds for it.
Rob: For me, my other point of update is we’ve had some recent questions on the podcast about books, or resources to learn how to build a SaaS app and someone had pointed out the PHP spark framework, which I think is pretty cool.
There’s another one in the works now. It’s Marcus Wein. He’s in Austria and he’s working on a SaaS guide book for Ruby on Rails. I actually met him at Brennan’s conference. We talked about stuff and then he cooked up this idea and put up a landing page while we were there. I thought that was cool. He’s getting to work on that book and the URL for that is saasrailsbook.com.
If you’re interested in the fundamentals of how to build a SaaS app and are willing to either learn Rails to do it or you already know Rails and you want to just learn how a guy who’s built dozens and dozens of them would architect it and then all the things that he would think about, go ahead to saasrailsbook.com.
What are we chatting about today?
Mike: Today, we’re going to be diving into a problem that a listener had sent in to us. His name is Zac and he has a product called neverlate.io. He started working on it. He spent about three months working on it and has a basic MVP all set up but he fully admits that he made this classic mistake where he spent several months in his basement working on it and has come out of it and now he’s ready to try and find customers but he has no customers to go to or to show it to because he spent all that time working on the product itself rather than doing any customer development.
He’s tried a couple of different things to generate some traffic. He’s tried some AdWords. He’s talked to a few different people but really, he’s at ground zero at this point and he’s wondering, “What do I do here? What do I do to try and move this forward and make it work?”
Rob: The URL again is neverlate.io. It is an appointment reminder service. Right now, it is very horizontal. It doesn’t say appointment reminders for XYZ niche. It’s just a broad appointment calendar plus it can send automated text messages. I guess that’s it. It doesn’t look like it makes phone calls either. Anyways, I’m just looking at the home page. Obviously, I haven’t used the app, just trying to give the listener an idea of the business. It starts at $29 a month for up to 200 appointments a month and it has a $50, an $80, and a $500 tier.
Mike: This reminds me a lot of Patrick McKenzie’s appointment reminder app. Maybe, that’s where the idea came from. But to give a little bit more details on this, I’ve gone back and forth with him just to ask a couple more detailed questions. When he came back, he basically told me the product is functional but he doesn’t have a customer list. He doesn’t have a channel where he can start to do customer development. As you said, the bottom price point is $29 a month.
In terms of his target market, he’s a little bit unclear on where to go with that. He knows certain ones that he’s probably going to skip so he’s inclined to skip massage therapists, for example, because he doesn’t think that they’re going to be willing to pay more than like $10 a month. And then in terms of sign ups, he’s gotten some from AdWords. He spent about $50 or so in AdWords and he is getting people to sign up for trials but it’s not a lot and obviously AdWords can get very expensive.
In terms of lifetime value, he really doesn’t know yet. He’s thinking maybe a year or so of service so around $350 for lifetime value of a customer. His base question is really just what do I do at this point? Should I spend more money on AdWords? Should I do something else? What are my options and what are your recommendations about where to go with this?
Rob: We have an outline here but to kick us off, you’re in a real tough place because you basically have no customers, no list, and you have a me too product. There’s nothing that differentiates this product that I can see from, I won’t say a slew of others but I bet if I search, I can find a half dozen apps that do exactly what this does. Definitely back against the wall at the present.
Mike: I think that’s probably a situation that a handful of listeners have found themselves in over the years, probably more than a small handful, where you’ve built something and you get to a point where like, “Okay, yeah, I’m ready to take this to people and show it to them because I’m no longer embarrassed about what it is or what it looks like.” But you haven’t gotten far enough down the customer development road to figure out who it is you’re going to talk to.
I think in this case, your first priority is to prove, one way or another, whether or not this idea is going to be viable for you to execute on. I’ll put “prove” in air quotes because you’re really never going to be 100% sure that it’s going to work but you can get an idea of it. You can start looking down the road and you start doing that customer development and try and figure out does this look like it has legs or am I just wasting my time and money to try and to get this to work?
Along that lines, I think the first thing to do is really set a time line. For something like this, it seems like a six months time line is probably an appropriate timeline to set for this. Especially if you’re working on the side, if you are working on it full time, probably less since you have a fully functional MVP, take that time line, set it aside, and say, “Okay, I’m going to do X things during this time.” And set goals for that entire time line.
The first goal that I was thinking you would set up for six months, months one and two should really just be focused on trying to get a certain number of customer discussions, whether that’s five per month of five per week. Really, you can set your own pace and schedule at that. But you’re trying to figure out can I reach these people? How do I reach them? Once you start having those discussions with them, you learn more about who they are, what they do, how much time they spend in different areas, especially trying to solve this particular problem, whether it’s something that they’re willing to pay for.
Once you have that information, you ask yourself, how much are they willing to pay? Obviously, you ask them as well. But you want to find out, are they willing to pay for it, how much, and listen to the language that they’re using. Really, these first two months are just spent doing these customer discussions. Yes, if you can get them to a trial or on to a paid account, that’s great, but that’s not your goal here. Your focus should be getting a certain number of customer discussions because that’s going to give you an idea of how easy or difficult it is to continue doing that down the road.
Rob: Right. If you can’t get into these customer discussions, which are really about learning, as you’ve just said, rather than trying to build revenue, if you can’t find anyone who’s willing to talk to you, that’s a very, very bad sign. It’s a sign that you’ve built something that people just don’t care about, don’t need, don’t want, which is going to be something you could very well run into with any product that you launch. At that point, you have to decide am I willing to essentially continue to add things to this that actually make it unique so that I’m the only app that does this in this way, or to pick a niche and niche down.
Like you said, you don’t want to do massage therapist and I don’t blame you. Is there a group? Is it medical or dental because they have HIPPA so they’re really expensive and so they’re the $500 a month and up and you offer only HIPPA compliant so it’s important reminder for medical and dentist office. There’s probably some others in that. This is where you have to do this research. This is not the time to run Facebook ads to a landing page and see who converts and play it that way. This is an app where appointments are brick and mortar type of things. I can’t think of an online audience like designers, or photographers, or developers, or entrepreneurs, there’s certain audiences that are just online a lot.
Appointment reminder, if you can figure out a way to target an online audience, great, but if not, then you have to go through these much more manual steps. I don’t really see an angle here where you’re just going to rent some Facebook ads and convert people to trial and split test your way out of this. For the whole six months, you’re going to be learning that these first two months are going to be critical. They’re going to, like Mike said, tell you whether or not you should continue.
Mike: Along with that, in these first two months, you’re trying to figure out who that target audience is. I think early on, Zac had said he was probably going to skip massage therapists. Maybe there’s some data he already has to indicate that they’re not willing to pay for that. That’s fine. But are there other professions or other verticals that you can target and try to have those discussions with them and see if that’s going to work, see if that’s an initial traction channel that you can start to establish.
If it is, great. You can move on to the next steps in months three, and four, and five, and six that we’re going to lay out. Your focus at this point is trying to figure out who those people are and if you can establish a recurring channel of them to have those discussions with. If you can’t, then maybe it’s time to pivot to a different channel, a different vertical, or can the whole thing.
I probably wouldn’t can it after trying to find one vertical. If you go to massage therapists and they say, “No, we’re just not interested.” Okay, great. Go to dentists and then maybe pivot over to a solo practitioner doctor’s offices, for example, or plastic surgeons, or something along those lines. Each of those could be a one to two month effort but you’re trying to figure out is there a place where you can get customers on a recurring basis, at least in the early days?
If you go through several of those iterations and you still can’t find them, then that’s the point where you need to re evaluate your position and decide whether or not to just cut your losses and move on.
Rob: For months three and four, assuming that months one and two are successful and you figure out a niche or a group that you’re going to target, months three and four, your KPI is the number of paying customers after you’ve had a direct discussion. This is very, very much not scalable but what you’re trying to do is to learn objections. You’re trying to overcome them via discussions. You’re trying to close deals. It’s still learning but you’re trying to start making the rubber meet the road and actually get some revenue.
What you might find is that you get through three and four and you can’t get enough paying customers to make it worth your while and you have to go back and repeat months one and two and find a new group to target.
Mike: The whole point of this particular piece of it, I don’t know if some paying customers is like the sole thing that you should focus on. Getting them into the app and getting them active and using the app, that’s probably a much more important first step. Obviously, you want to keep them as paying customers and get them to convert from any sort of free trial that you put them in into a paying customer. But even if they don’t, you’re still going to learn from that. The focus is really finding a certain number of people that you can put into it.
Again, you can set those numbers yourself. You can base it on how many conversations you’re actually having because obviously, if you only have 5 conversations a week, you’re not going to get 10 customers a week. That’s simply not going to happen. From that, you can back that off and put people into the app and learn those objections. You can overcome them by talking to them. A lot of times, people will have a question that if they’re on your website and they have a question in their mind, it draws doubts for them. They will not sign up because of that.
When you ask them, “Hey, would you like to sign up for an account right now?” They’ll say yes or no. If they say no, you can ask, “Well, why not? What’s stopping you? What is it that’s holding you back here?” Those are the things that you want to write down. Every single question that somebody asks, you want to write that question down. That way, you can go back to that and over time, you’ll get a base of let’s say 20, 30, 50 people you’ve talked to. Start aggregating the number of questions that they ask and which questions they ask. You can identify which of the questions were most prevalent, which ones the most people had and use that in your marketing copy once you get to months five and six, which is where you are trying to land the paying customers or on board people without having those direct discussions.
Rob: That’s month five and six. It’s moving out of the I’m talking to everyone, I’m doing demos for everyone, and I might able to start getting people to overcome their objections and sign up for a trial just purely based on a marketing website.
Take these timelines with a grain of salt here. We heard from Jordan Gal last week and he was giving demos for six months, eight months. It wasn’t just the two months we have here or I guess we have four months. One and two, finding the audience and three to four is overcoming objections, and five and six is moving towards the more automated way. Their journey took longer. They have a more complex product, probably harder to explain, harder to demo. Appointment reminders tend to be fairly, I think it’s pretty easily understood by the prospect so perhaps you’d have an easier time or perhaps you’ll have a tougher time getting to five and six because again, your product isn’t differentiated from others that they could find with a Google search.
That’s the idea here. This third step, this third piece is trying to move towards having more automated things in flow and maybe you don’t remove demos altogether, maybe you figure out you have people self select that if they’re in the lower pricing tiers, then they sign right up and if they’re going to pay you three figures a month, it’s probably worth having a conversation with that person. You have a contact that’s linked. Even if you show your pricing, you still have some type of thing, how many appointments per month and immediately, you get a paying customer and have an idea that it’s worth reaching out to them with a calendar link, trying to set up a conversation.
Mike: With each of these sets of two months, months one and two is really about trying to get a certain number of customer discussions going and then month three and four are putting people into the app through those direct discussions and then five and six is getting those customers onboarded without having those direct sales discussions. That’s really just a logical progression. As Rob pointed out, your timeline may vary quite a lot. It could be closer to a year or it could be closer to two months. It depends on how complicated your app is, how far along it is, how many people you’re able to have those conversations with early on, how quickly you get traction, and it also depends a lot on what your schedule is.
If you’re working on it full time, you’re going to be able to move faster. If you’re working on it on nights and weekends, you’re probably not going to be able to schedule 25 calls during the week. It’s just not going to happen because you have a full time job and you’ve got other responsibilities. During the work week, it’s going to be very difficult for you.
But all of this is really just establishing this logical progression so that you can determine whether or not this idea that you have or the product and the MVP that you put together is going to go anywhere so that you’re not wasting too much time trying to make something work that’s simply not going to for you.
I think that’s another key distinction that we’ve made on this podcast before, which is that even though something could be a great idea and it is reasonably well executed, it may not be the right idea for you. If it’s not something you’re passionate about or you don’t want to do or you’re just not interested in it, you’re not going to do it as well as if it was something that you were extremely interested in and extremely motivated to do. You’re going to push things off and not be as motivated to move people forward in the sales funnel and do the website, coding, and everything else.
It’s going to be harder for you. Maybe it’s just not the right fit. Maybe some other product would be a better fit. Again, these are all things that you need to evaluate as you’re going through this process.
Rob: We call that in the biz, product founder fit. As you said, is the product a good fit for you, for your personality, for what you want to do for the customers you want to work with, for the features you want to build. It’s a bit of an amorphous concept and it’s hard to know upfront but what’s nice is that Zac said, right off the bat, “I don’t think I want to work with massage therapists.” That’s like, alright, good. It’s a good thing to know that. Don’t go after that market because you’re probably going to find out that you’re not, even if you found success, you’re not going to enjoy it. You’re not going to stick with it for the long term.
Mike: I think that’s an interesting side conversation. Even if that would work, do you want to do it? I think in some cases, the answer to that is probably not. There’s certainly groups of people that I would probably not want to work with or probably would not enjoy and everybody has their own either biases or people that they know in certain industries, they’re like, “I just don’t want to deal with any of that stuff.”
Again, it may work out. It’s just like marketing tactics. There may be some things that you’re really comfortable doing and the next person may not be comfortable with that at all.
Rob: Yeah, there was an app I almost acquired. I’m trying to think. It may have been after HitTail, or I still owned it but it had grown to where I thought it was going to grow and I was looking at other avenues before Drip. I looked at acquiring a bunch of different apps. One of them was going to put me marketing to and having a customer base of designers UX and usability folks. I had no reach into that market. Obviously, I have an understanding of what they do but I am not in that target market.
It was Ruben Gamez from Bidsketch who asked me, “You’re doing a market pivot by going from an SEO tool, which is at least marketing technology, into something that goes after a completely different audience, is that something that you want to do for the next three, four, five years?” Frankly, I have no qualms with working with designers and UX people, I think it would have been an interesting adventure but it would’ve been a huge learning experience for me.
I thought, “If I do this, I’m going to have an uphill battle to learn a whole new space and to learn what are all the sites where people hang out? Where are the blogs? I already know this from MarTech. That is one of the reasons that I wound up doing Drip. Because it’s not the same as an SEO keyword tool but it is another marketing SaaS and I already knew so much about the space because of my heavy involvement in evaluation of tools from my own personal use. It was just a different thing.
I think I still would’ve been successful. It probably would’ve taken longer had I done that. I would educate myself about a market, make myself a name in that market, which I really, really don’t have. And so, it’s just something to think about as you go through your ideas.
Mike: I think one of the last questions that Zac came up with was should I spend more money on AdWords or should I just abandon that and go do something else? I think, Rob, you’re probably in agreement with me on this one. But AdWords is probably not the way you want to go, especially if you don’t have a lot of money to throw into this because you’re going to spend money trying to learn. It’s not that spending money to learn is a bad thing but you’re going to probably spend much more money than you would if you had some customer discussions first and you waited until month three or four to start pumping up the sales funnel a little bit.
After you’ve gotten some of the terminology a little bit, you’ve narrowed down the market a little bit, if you’re just throwing money out there to try and figure out where the market is, it’s going to be very expensive to do that.
Rob: Yeah. The tough part is since the audience is brick and mortar, it’s going to be expensive and hard to find them. There are tools where everybody’s online and they’re always signing up for new things. You can do the curiosity play and get them to sign up and you have a low price point and you could test an idea with ads landing pages in more broader scope stuff if you had the money to do it. I don’t see an avenue to do that here. Just by nature of the potential audiences that we can come up with, I think you’re right.
I’m in agreement that AdWords is probably not where you’re going to get a bunch of learning at this point. Maybe you could run AdWords just enough to get that trickle of calls that you want. And again, it’s going to be expensive to get that trickle going. But if you have no other avenues, yeah, maybe AdWords or Facebook ads, or some type of paid acquisition, but if you can pay $10, $20 to find someone to get on the phone with you, who has some inbound interest, that’s interesting but you know you could just as easily do some cold outbound email or cold phone calls and perhaps get the same result with less money but more time.
Mike: That’s really what this is all about. It’s striking that balance between how much money you have available and how much time you have available. If you have more time than money, don’t do paid ads. Have those customer discussions, learn who it is that you need to target. If you have a lot more money than time, spend on AdWords and learn who but it’s going to be dramatically more expensive without having those customer discussions to guide you.
Rob: If you got value out of today’s show, we would really appreciate a five star review in iTunes, or Stitcher, or wherever you partake of this glorious audio adventure. You don’t even have to write a sentence saying how cool we are. You can just hit the five star button and we really appreciate it. It helps people find our podcast, gives us motivation to keep going.
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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. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob interviews David Cancel, of Drift, about whether or not to use freemium, innovating versus inventing, and the topic of asking for credit cards upfront. David also shares some upcoming topics that will be covered on future episodes of his podcast.
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