This week Rob talks with Steli Efti about selling during a pandemic. They also talk about how to set yourself up for success as a founder during a possible recession and how to adjust your sales process. You don’t want to shy away from sales, but you also don’t want to be tone-deaf to the current state of the world. Steli is one of the world’s experts in startup sales and B2B sales. He runs a successful app called Close.com. He has written a number of ebooks on the topic of sales, and he has been a recognized expert for over a decade.
The finer points of the episode:
- 4:15 – Two big sales trends that Steli has noticed during the COVID-19 crisis
- 9:09 – The main thing you can do for your business right now
- 13:55 – How to approach a sales conversation while being sensitive to the current circumstances
- 16:33 – How Close.com managed to increase their revenue and grow through 2020
- 25:00 – How Steli sees his sales process looking after COVID-19
- 30:25 – Best practices for sending cold emails during the pandemic
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: Welcome to this week’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us. I’m your host, Rob Walling. This is episode 498. We’re rapidly approaching episode 500 and I’m trying to cook up something a little special for you.
This week, I talk with Steli Efti of close.com. This is his third appearance on Startups for the Rest of Us. We dive deep into his knowledge and his advice on selling during a pandemic and what that looks like.
Frankly, we just don’t talk about selling during a pandemic. We talk about how you set yourself up for success as a founder, as we potentially enter a world-wide recession, and he talks about how you should adjust your sales approach in cold emailing during this time, whether it’s a pandemic, a recession, or however you want to define it. It’s just how to think about sales and how not to shy away from it but also how not to be tone-deaf during this time.
Before we dive in, I want to once again thank Basecamp for their partnership with MicroConf and Startups for the Rest of Us. We’re pleased to have them as a headline sponsor for MicroConf in 2020. Here’s a 60-second message from Basecamp.
Basecamp: We asked founders and entrepreneurs why they switched to Basecamp when their company started to grow. Christina Hedges hired some more people. When it came to internal communication, everything was all over the place. There was more work and more people than before and no way to keep track of it all.
Sometimes, information was in an email, sometimes in the chatroom. They spent too much time on conference calls to figure out what was going on. One day, they almost missed a deadline for an important customer because the information was in the wrong place. She knew they needed to get organized, but all the software she looked at seemed complicated and it would take too long to train everybody.
Then she found Basecamp. Basecamp puts all of your internal communication in one place so nothing slips through the cracks. Unlike other tools, Basecamp has an incredibly simple structure, organized around your teams and projects. Your team will immediately understand and start using it when they see the two-minute introduction video on our site. Go to basecamp.com to learn more and start a free trial.
Rob: If you haven’t heard of Steli before, he is one of the world’s experts in startup sales. Frankly, I would say just business-to-business sales. He speaks all over the world, he has a podcast, runs a company called close.com, which is a quite successful SaaS app that is CRM, software for salespeople.
Steli has been a many-time MicroConf speaker and he’s written a number of books and ebooks on the topic of sales. He’s been a salesperson for more than a decade. I always enjoy my conversations with him and I hope you enjoy the conversation we have today.
Steli Efti, thanks so much for joining me on Startups for the Rest of Us for your third appearance.
Steli: Thank you so much for having me back.
Rob: It’s always good to chat with you. I think we talked maybe seven or eight months ago and obviously, folks have heard your intro. They know you’ve just been steep in startup sales for what? Eight, nine, ten years?
Steli: Ten years.
Rob: Ten years. We’re getting older, aren’t we? I think today, I want to dig into some stuff that is related to the current crisis. Sales is one thing, but sales during a pandemic and quarantine, and just all the […] and uncertainty, I’m imagining that it has to have changed during this time. Just to kick it off, I would love to hear your thoughts on how you’ve seen that change, how you can help people adjust to this mindset. And then, I think we’ll dive into a little bit about how can companies position themselves. We will have a post-coronavirus world and how do we position ourselves to really be in a good position there.
Steli: Everything is part of the global pandemic as it turns out, finding toilet paper, hanging out with your family. Sales is indifferent in that sense. What’s funny is that the biggest thing that I’ve noticed is that the good and the bad just get amplified during a time like this. When you ramp up the anxiety level to 10, the weaknesses are just amplified so much. I think the sensibilities and sensitivities of people are just massively increased.
I see two big high-level trends. I’m sure we’re going to dig deeper and go to the nitty-gritty, the details, and the technical stuff for people. There are two big things that I’ve seen so far. One is counter-steering to even more selfishness and aggressiveness. Salespeople, entrepreneurs, business people, because their anxiety went up so much, kind of the worst side came out and they’re like, I don’t care. I need money right now. I need to hustle. I need to push. I need to be more aggressive than usual. I need to be more selfish than usual.
You’d get these emails that are so weird. I’ll give you an example. A business person I’ve known for 10 years, we’ve helped each other out. He has a couple of businesses, he does a lot of content, and we’ve always been friendly. I’ve always supported him with his stuff and he’s supported us with our stuff.
Then, we had an email exchange recently about me being on the podcast. First, it was a personal exchange and he was all about don’t worry about me, Steli. Life is good. Business is good. I’m doing fine. But then he was communicating with somebody on my marketing team and saying if Steli wants on the podcast, we have to charge $10,000–$15,000 for that because we have to survive. That was forwarded to me.
It was such a weird thing to do, like tell me directly everything is fine but then tell somebody on my marketing team I’m going to charge $15,000 so he can be on my podcast. No word about what’s in it for us, what is the benefit, what is the value I’m going to get. It’s such a selfish come on. I’m going to charge $10,000 because I need to survive.
I mean, I get it. We all need to survive, but that’s not a really good, compelling selling proposition for me. It was also weird because to me, the statement was the world is perfect, and to another person on my team the statement was I need to charge $10,000 or the world is ending.
Even worse, when I said let’s politely decline, let’s say thanks but no thanks, when the marketing person responded hey, that’s going to be outside our budget, but we wish you best of luck. Hopefully, everything’s going to be fine. He responded okay, just for you guys, $9000, but you have to take it this week or something like that. The weirdest thing ever. What is this? A special offer if I get this week or…?
Rob: It feels really tone-deaf.
Steli: It feels so selfish, so tone-deaf, so sleazy, and it only takes a moment to ruin your reputation. It really changes how I think and feel about this individual. I never want to deal with this person again. This is so weird.
To me, this is desperation and fear manifesting itself in the ugliest form possible. I don’t think that’s a way to succeed. I don’t think that that’s the way for you to make your business succeed. That’s not compelling. I don’t think he booked tons and tons of guests who will pay $10,000 because I paid attention and there’s no guest on his podcast recently. It’s just him.
To me, that’s one way to go, people being super selfish. Those are rare, to be honest. Most entrepreneurs and most salespeople have become uber-aggressive, but there’s a lot of tone-deafness in the world. These emails, you’ve gotten them, I’ve gotten them. People that listen to us right now gotten them where it’s like, don’t you know what’s going on in the world? Why did you send me this email? It seems so disconnected from what is happening in the world. That’s one thing.
The other trend that I see more often, though, and I think this going to be the problem the people that are listening to us now, which is the over-reaction, the difference in the opposite direction, which is people, salespeople, and founders having such high anxiety and fear to upset anybody, that they just stop communicating, stop selling, stop operating, because the thought was how could I ever try to do business during a time like this? People are going to get upset with me if I send them an email, if I give them a call, or if I try to close a deal. I can do that right now. People are hurting.
I think that that’s a really bad idea as well. I’ve told this to more people than ever before. I’ve had so many one-on-one conversations and my pleas are always the same. Lesson number one, the world is not going to become a better place by all of us stopping work. If I stop selling, my future is less secure, my family’s future is less secure, my employees’ future is less secure. Nobody benefits from me stopping to work because things are tough out there. I’m not helping anybody really.
So, it’s not the time to dig a hole and be, I’m going to just lay in here, lay low, and wait until all of this is over. The truth is that this might take a really long time to be “over,” whatever the hell that means—we all don’t know—and every day where you don’t do business, you are making the problem big and possible. You make the economy slow, the economy less secure, you’re making your family less secure, your business less secure. Nobody’s being helped by this.
My big ask to people has been—especially during a crisis—you have to keep selling, but you don’t do it in a tone-deaf way and I’m sure we’re going to go into more detail. My basic philosophy is I’m going to send a sales email. I’m going to make a sales call. I’m going to try to close a deal. I have done them. We’ll talk about this. We shifted a close.
We had one record month after the other this year from January up until May of prepays. Every month, we’ve had more prepays than ever before in the company’s history because we made that a focus. When we started, I didn’t know if this would work. Who wants to prepay for a year or two during a time like this. Probably nobody.
It turned out quite a lot of our customers wanted to and we can talk about how we did it and why it worked. You’d be surprised. People were still buying and selling, and you have to keep selling, but the way to do it in a (I think) respectful way is not to be overly aggressive and selfish. We need to increase our pricing because we have to survive. Here is the contract. You have two hours to sign it. That’s […].
But also not in an overly-apologetic way. I know everything is bad. Are you okay? Are you hurting? Are you afraid? I’m afraid. Did you read the bad news this morning? Nobody wants to hear that. People already have enough anxiety in their life. They don’t need you to email them with 10 links about world politics that are terrible. How is that helping them? That isn’t helping them. That isn’t making you look like a good person, either.
My approach has always been, during this crisis, you want to be honest. Not fake positive, not fake optimistic honest. Hey, is everything all right? Are you good? All right, how are things going right now? Are you continuing to do business? Are you stopping everything? Tell me about your world. Tell me about your forecast of the world. Do you think that things are going to pick up again in a month? In two months? Are there any signs that you’re looking for before you put the pedal to the metal and do more things or purchase more things, to invest in more things? How are you going to decide how to move forward?
I’ll ask someone these questions, but I always will ask them with what I would call high-energy. I want to talk to people not with fake enthusiasm, not with fake positivity but with energy because there’s a funny thing. During these times when everybody we’re talking to is excited, […], depressed, fearful, pissed, and all the news we’re reading are full of overwhelming facts, the last thing we need is one more person that talks to us, that makes us feel even worse about the world, that seems low energy, apologetic, or fearful.
That’s not the kind of energy we want to surround ourselves with. But if you can talk to somebody today, that even during these crazy times is honest, frank, and straightforward with you but seems to have energy, seems to have the ability to make decisions to do things, it makes people feel better. It makes people feel like I can have a conversation, I can make a decision, I can take action even during these times.
There’s this old quote from whatever her name is, Angelou or something. People can google her and find it. It’s like, “People won’t remember your name, people won’t remember the place, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think that, especially during times where we’re also anxious, afraid, and overwhelmed, when we interact with people that make us feel calm and confident, make us feel a little bit more energized than before, those are the type of people that we will want to gravitate towards and talk more to, and we will remember that these people stand out.
That’s how we’ve been selling it close and how I approached reaching out to people. Be honest, be frank, don’t be fake, but don’t be meek. Don’t whisper and don’t be apologetic. I know the time is so hard. Sorry that I’m talking to you right now. Nobody needs that. Nobody’s being helped by that attitude and energy that you bring to the table.
That’s the biggest thing. Don’t be afraid to sell. Selling is good for you. Selling is good for your family. Selling is good for your prospects if you’re selling them something that could provide value. We can talk a lot more about it, but that’s my big spiel around this. Don’t be so afraid because there is a way (I think) to do it, that won’t piss off all the people, that won’t make you a bad person, but it will make the world turn, the economy’s going to move forward, and your business still operates even during times where it’s harder to talk to prospects and close deals.
Rob: It sounds like what you’re saying is there is an elephant in the room. Address it upfront. Be honest, don’t be fake, have empathy, and ask questions with high energy (I think) is what you said. It’s like what is your forecast? What do you think you’re moving for? These are to get honest appraisals from people so that it’s not, again, this elephant in the room of COVID’s happening and we’re not talking about it. We’re ignoring it and I’m not bringing it up. You’re just basically saying bring it up, discuss it, and then move on with the conversation.
Steli: Yeah. Talk about it, but talk about it with curiosity and energy. Hey, what’s happening in your industry? I’m talking to lots of other people. I’m curious about you. What’s your outlook? How did you operate over the last couple of weeks? What are the signals you are waiting for moving forward? How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future? Ask those questions with curiosity and energy versus being apologetic. I know. You know? What do you think about the future? How do you operate right now? It’s the same question, but I almost feel obligated to feel bad when you ask it that way. I almost feel obligated to tell you that things are worse than they are because you make it sound like that’s what I should do.
That’s really it. People will talk to you and they will give you answers. Those answers will be very good guideposts on how to proceed. Some people you’ll be surprised. You talk to them and they’re very optimistic. They’re like, oh, this is […], I think the world is going to be better out of this. I’m very optimistic. I’m not slowing down. I’ve been making money. I’ve been driving revenue. I’ve had some creative ideas. We’re doing well.
Now that’s a very different starting point for now talking about maybe the solution that we have or the things we could do together. For somebody to talk that tells you, my father and mother are in the hospital. I’m a mess. I haven’t made money for the last two months. I don’t know. I think I’m going to close shop next month. That’s kind of important. That’s a very different foundation to continue the conversation.
Maybe when things are so bad, all you can do is just be like, okay, is there something I can do to help? Can I refer any business to you? Can I just get out of your way and maybe touch base again in a month and see how things are going? Maybe the best thing you can do is to leave the person alone, maybe send an email a month from now and ask, hey, are you all right? Is your family fine? How about your business? And then that alone might make somebody remember you and appreciate you because you were there, you seem to care, you showed some humanity which we all appreciate during tough times.
The other person who was gung-ho, My business is running, I’m making money, I’m positive, with that person you’re like, let’s get in business. Let’s […] more good […] right now, and you might go and close a deal. But don’t try to avoid talking about these subjects, but also when you talk about them, don’t think they do need to come across as if you’re discussing some horrific thing because it might not be for your prospects. You should just check before you proceed in that direction.
Rob: That makes sense. I googled that quote while you were talking. It was from Maya Angelou. The one about how people remember the way you make them feel. I am curious. You mentioned that at close your team has pulled off an interesting feat of getting people to do annual prepays. Can you talk us through how that’s happened and how you’ve handled that?
Steli: We had an ‘oh, […]’ moment in February where I was convinced that a big crisis was ahead of us, that we needed to act really fast and decisively to prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario, and we should do it ahead of time. Not wait, though it’s inevitable, but act really quickly. When it came to the way we were selling, up until that point the big focus of ours was to sign, sell, and close long-term contracts with some of our bigger new customers. We would sign one- to three-year contracts that were paid monthly (subscription revenue).
In fact, we met up with our sales team and we decided that if there’s a big crisis ahead of us and if there’s a big economic downturn ahead of us, a contract is not going to be worth much. A contract is only worth something in a stable world. If our customers are going out of business, that contract is useless. If they would go out of business unless they break the contract (they decide to break it) that contract is useless. We’re not going to start suing our customers during a global pandemic.
The first decision that we made was let’s pull away from contracts. They’re going to be useless during very turbulent times, so let’s not care about them. Let’s not focus on them anymore. What is going to be important during a crisis, cash is king. Now, fortunately (or unfortunately), we’re running a subscription business. Most of our customers are paying month-to-month and they have the option to stop at any time. That’s not good during a crisis or a global economic downturn because lots and lots of your customers could just decide to stop.
So let’s try to incentivize our customers to prepay. How do we do this during these uncertain times, in a very honest and direct way? Not sleazy, not trickster, just an honest offer. It’s quite simple. If you want to prepay during highly uncertain times where the risk of prepaying is much higher for you as a buyer, you should be getting a great deal. We’re going to give you an exceptional deal because these are exceptional times. If you feel like your cash situation is really strong, if you feel like your financial future is really stable, and you want to use this crisis to get amazing deals for you—fill that position as a customer—we’re going to make that an option for you. We’re going to offer you that.
Now, if you don’t want that, we totally get it. If you want to wait until the world is stable and safe again, that’s totally fine, but then you’re paying the stable and safe price, the price that everybody’s going to pay. You take more risk, you get a better deal. You take less risk, you get the worst deal. It’s a very simple, very honest proposition.
That’s what we did. We approached a lot of our customers, we offered them that, and for the self-service customers, we can […] up the offer if you prepay. Again, when we started I didn’t know if this would work. There were some voices when we were talking about this internally. They were saying aren’t people going to get really upset if we offer them this? I thought why should they get upset? There’s no lie. If I offer you an apartment for half the price because it’s a crisis, why would you scream at me? How dare you sell an apartment during a crisis! That’s a crazy thought process.
This is another thing that I would want to highlight here. Don’t assume what your prospect or customers could get upset about. Don’t assume it. Test it. Just test it to see. Maybe they’ll surprise you. So we did. We tried it and the first month that we really rolled this out was March and a lot of customers—to our surprise, honestly—were excited about it. Although at that point, everybody started knowing about what’s going on. They were like, this is just too good of a deal. We don’t care. We’ll do it.
March was an amazing cash for month for us. We said, well let’s continue doing this and see how it works. And April the same, and May the same. There have only been two cases out of a lot where people got upset. I’m telling you, Rob, it’s like hurt people hurt others, and upset people are getting upset. These two people got upset in very unreasonable ways.
They’re literally, hey, I saw your offer. I want an even steeper offer. Let’s say this is just an example. Your offer costs $100. I want it for $5 and I want to pay it monthly. It’s a global crisis, we’re hurting, and it’s your responsibility to give it to us. We said, hey, a lot of our customers are hurting. We’re hurting too. We’re a small business, we just can’t do $5. We’re really sorry but we can’t. We hope that you’re going to be fine. Then the person would be like, this is outrageous. I’m going to tweet about this. The world is ending and you can’t even give us your software for $5.
This person is unreasonable and I’m not going to bend my entire business for the few that are very loud and just going to get upset about anything anyway. I’m not […] me coming to your apartment going, Rob, I’m hurting. I need a place to stay. I want to buy your house for 10% because it’s a crisis. You’re like, Well, I want to still live here and it’s not for sale. I can give it to you for 10%. They’re like, outrageous. I’m going to write about this. People are dying and you can’t even give me your house!
People are crazy sometimes. There were two cases where I felt these people were just very unreasonable and I just assume these people were hurting so much that they’re kind of slightly out of their minds. We try to be empathetic, but we also keep it moving. We didn’t try to make them feel better because people are out of control. You just have to let them be. Nothing really happened. They then moved along and hopefully, they found some other solution that worked for them.
Most of our customers and most people either say, no, we can’t make that. We would want to take that deal, or, you know what? That’s a really good deal. We’ll think about it. Yes or no. It was a very simple thing.
Surprisingly, and just now, just in the last two weeks, our sales team has started seeing less prospect bite on the prepays. Maybe it’s because now, it finally is clicking for many of them. Maybe it’s just two weeks, so we decided that it’s too early to shift our strategy. Maybe it’s just the kind of deals that we got through the pipeline is too small of a sample size.
We’ll have to keep an eye on it. Maybe we’ll have to change the strategy at some point, but for the last couple of months, our cash position is drastically improved—almost doubled—which made our business a lot more stable, the job for people that work at Kohl’s a lot more secure, and also for our customers made it more secure that we’re going to be able to service them, offer them increased innovation and great support, and everything they need to be able to use our platform. Just a win-win-win for everybody.
There was no rocket science. There was no trickery, it was not some kind of a hack that we used. Just a very strong offer. We just approached our customers with it to see what the response would be and in our case—this might not be true for everybody—the response was really, really good.
Rob: That’s fascinating. You only approached existing customers, right? This wasn’t for new folks coming in?
Steli: Both, existing customers as well as new folks.
Rob: Got it. I feel like folks who are in a strong cash position, the stuff is on sale. Warren Buffett often says, “In a recession, stocks are on sale.” If I were a customer of clothes, I would view it as a wow. I’m getting clothes on sale right now because of this. And if I was in a strong cash position I would jump at it. I think big companies in that position have a real advantage, mostly coming out of a recession but going into it as well.
I’m curious. You’ve talked about how to sell during a pandemic, how to think about it in this way whether it’s getting cash, prepays, or whether it’s just being empathetic, being honest, and calling out the elephant the room. Let’s say three months, six months down the line, we are coming out of a recession. Maybe it’s nine months, whatever it is. Does the approach change?
At that point, let’s just make assumptions. I realize everything’s up in the air so I don’t want to make predictions, but let’s assume that we get through coronavirus and then it just becomes much much less of an issue over the next 3–6 months. Let’s assume that in 6–9 months, we’re in a recession and stuff is coming out. Is there a dramatic shift to how you would be doing sales now versus normal times versus coming out of a recession? Or is it basically the same?
Steli: It’s not the same. The fundamentals of selling are always going to be the same. At least I’m convinced of that said. That sense that never changes or shouldn’t change. I think the strategy needs to be more one where what I’m convinced of. Right or wrong, I don’t know what’s going to happen, obviously, but I’m convinced that the next 24 months are going to be hard to predict. It might play out like 15 months of quiet time, seems like we’re past and everything’s fine, then 3 insane months. It might be that every three months is big news. I just think it’s going to be hard to predict.
My sense is that there are a couple of really significant dominoes in the world that have fallen and we have not yet felt the impact of that. I think it’s going to come out later. My philosophy is very much one where it is a crisis until at least for three quarters in a row. No bad news or no new news has popped in terms of what’s going on. During a crisis time, I feel like it’s not the strongest or the biggest that will survive. It’s the most adaptable that do. I think the goal needs to be much more on being much more agile and quicker to respond to changing circumstances.
I think over the next 24 months, long-term planning, long term goals and strategies that you have to play out over a whole year, are going to be much riskier. Putting plans together that take a year to play out and assume that whatever is happening in the world today is just going to stay that way for the next 12 months, I just think it’s riskier. It might be good but it’s just higher risk.
I think from a sales perspective for the next 24 months, cash is king is going to stay true. I think that time to close the total deal value is going to stay true. What that means is that today, I would always prioritize closing deals a little faster and giving up a little bit of money for that speed versus trying to optimize for maximum money and taking more time to negotiate and close the deal.
Again as I said, today maybe you have a very large customer, maybe you were just days away from closing out of a $100,000 deal, but you think if you push a bit further you could get $130,000. But it might take you a month longer to do that. Today, I would advise you to take the $100,000 today, that will be wired tomorrow into your bank account, versus waiting for weeks and trying to get $130,000. Now, that might be bad advice because if the world isn’t changing, $30,000 extra would have been nice. But just as a general philosophy, whatever tactical philosophy you have during this time, you can’t win every single time.
My point of view is you want to close deals as quickly as possible during this time, not being rushed, not being uncareful, but not taking your sweet time as a negotiation tactic. If we let these people wait for another two weeks they are going to get more desperate and give us even more money. If you like Warren Buffett, you’re like, I have unlimited money in the bank and this is the time to really squeeze people and get great deals. Cool, that’s fine. But if you’re just operating a small business and you’re trying to get some big deals through, I would rather close the deal today than wait to make it slightly better and close it in a week from now.
I think having shorter cycles of planning, optimizing for cash flow and speed are strategies that I (at least) assume we at close are going to keep as our operating principle and guideposts for the next 12–24 months. That’s what I would advise people. What happens when we’re all convinced that we’re through this and the world is back to “normal” or the new normal, whatever that means? It’s very hard to say. I can’t really forecast. I assume fewer meetings in person, I assume that this time is going to accelerate the adoption of software and technology.
In many ways, this is going to benefit us, the people that are listening to this podcast, but in some ways it’s not going to be good for society. It’s a mixed bag. But travel, meetings in person, offices, offline, and any commerce, any selling that happens person-to-person, that happens in meetings, that happen to travel, I suspect is not going to rebound super quickly. More part of the funnel is going to be happening through technology, remotely through asynchronous communication. Again, I think that benefits startups and software funnels more so than many others in other industries.
Rob: Sure, because so many of us, especially in our community, are already remote. We’ve been doing it for years and people are finally catching up. I’ve heard some podcasters that I listen to, like the tech news space and the kind of cord-cutting space, that they have studios at their house with two fiber lines coming in. They’re hobbyists or one level above hobbyists, but they look really good on camera. They have nice HD cameras and really good microphones.
They’re laughing because the newscasters and the people who are used to doing this in a television studio who are now doing it from their home are using their iPhones with the crappy AirPods because they don’t have the studio set up. I think it’s funny that the rest of the space is catching up with those of us who have been doing it from home for years and being remote.
I think as we transition and start to get into wrap up, I’ve had several questions about cold email lately. I actually got a question a couple of months ago before the pandemic and someone said it would be great to hear a whole episode on cold email. Once the pandemic has started, I thought, is that worth doing now or should we maybe wait until things settle down a bit?
I’m curious to hear from you. I started getting cold emails (I’ll say) in 2011–2012, and early on I’ve hired a person to do cold email. I have bought software through it, but less and less these days just because you get so much. I feel like it’s such a shotgun approach that a lot of people are trying.
I’m curious right now. Given this space, you’ve already talked about the shift in selling during a pandemic, but is it still worth cold emailing right now? If so, what’s the adjustment to the approach?
Steli: I do think there is still power in cold emailing people. I think it still works in many areas. The question is always the approach. In a world where there is so much more cold email, spam email and whatever, you can’t just be average because average really equals noise. If you send me a really great email, it’s going to stand out more so than ever before because all the other emails I get are so terrible. But you really have to write great emails.
Great emails will never be out of fashion, but it’s just much harder work. It’s harder work. You need to be more thoughtful. You need to spend a lot more time and energy. People don’t like that. People just want to go and do a copy-paste email, send it to 10,000 people in one blast, and then assume that business is going to come in. Then, when that doesn’t happen they’re like, see? Cold email is that. It doesn’t work. We tried it. No. You just did it really, really badly.
I’ve always taught a principle when it comes to cold email that I think is timeless and just works now better than ever before, which is to actually think about it in UI/UX terms. A lot of times when we write cold emails, we think very selfishly. What do I want from Rob? Rob is an important business figure. He has money. He invests in startups, let’s say. I want him to use my tool to do investments, whatever the hell it is; let’s say I have a tool.
I’m going to send Rob an email telling him, Rob, I know you and I know you should buy my software because my software’s great. Here’s the link. Please give me money. That email is very selfish if you think about it. It’s just all about me, what I want from you right now. That’s not going to work well most of the time.
Now, what if I flip the script and I ask myself who is Rob? How does Rob’s email inbox look like? How many emails does he get every day? Why is what I have to offer could potentially be valuable to Rob? How can I first convince him to give me a little bit of his attention so we can start building a relationship, so eventually, I have a shot of showing him truly what I have to offer and he can honestly tell me if this is useful or not useful for him. How can I approach this email as a starting point into a long-term relationship I’m trying to nurture with Rob?
Then I’m asking myself how do I write a subject line so that Rob will pay attention to it? It will raise his curiosity, but it’s going to deliver what it promises. I can’t just send an email where the subject line is, ‘I […] children in my basement with a gun at their head.’ That’s going to get your attention. That’s going to get you to open the email, but that’s not a great start to a relationship. Some people try to be funny about these things and then they write, ‘Hahaha! Got you. It was just a joke. Now, let me pitch you my product.’
If you lie to me at the beginning of our relationship, I’m not going to want you in my life. Sorry for the terrible example here, horrific example, but the subject line can’t also be ‘Software that you’re going to need. Please click the link and pay me money.’ Anything like that you will know. Or ‘The 10 reasons why you should be in business with me.’ You’re not going to open that email. You know what’s coming. You know that this isn’t a good email for you.
I have to ask myself what can I do to start this relationship? Then, how do I think through the emails and step-by-step terms? What’s the very first question that you have when somebody emails you? When you open an email, Rob, from somebody that you don’t know, what’s the first thing you’re trying to answer?
Rob: First, I try to answer, do I know this person? If I don’t know this person, I’m always thinking about what they want from me? Are they asking for my time or are they giving me something? That’s what I’m figuring out. What do they want?
Steli: Who is this and what does this person want from me, right? That’s your focus. It makes sense to start with that. I can go on and on; we don’t have unlimited time. We’ll give people a resource later on like cold emails now to think about this. Let’s say I send you an email, Rob, and the starting point of my email list, hey, Rob. My name is Steli Efti. My company recently had a very big news on TechCrunch that we released a new feature. I think that you’re really going to enjoy the article. The other thing that I wanted to tell you is that there is a video attached that I think you’ll really enjoy. It’s a five-minute demo of our product.
At this point—at least I am this way; I don’t know how you are—I’m like, what the […] is this? Who are you and what do you want from me? Why are you starting off as if I already know? I don’t know what we’re talking about here and you’re already pointing me to links, homework, and videos to watch.
The reverse is somebody that talks too much about themselves. The first five paragraphs are like, hey, Rob. I recently listened to a podcast of you and you know? It reminded me of when I was 12 years old. I was 12, also like entrepreneurship. I never thought that I would move to Bulgaria one day and then make my way to Greece. You’re like, all right, it’s nice to hear all these things but who are you? And why are you assuming that I will read something that will take 10 minutes of my life about all these random things about you without me understanding what you want from me and what’s in it for me?
I could go on forever but these are just some examples of you writing this and you’re not getting to the point of, here’s who I am, here’s why I am reaching out to you right now, and here’s what I want from you. That doesn’t mean that if you do these things, that people are all going to respond, yes here’s all my money. But at least, people will quickly understand. Hey Rob, I’m Steli. I’m somebody that’s a micropreneur, that’s maybe the kind of audience that you have, the kind of people you’re talking to. I’m telling you why I’m reaching out right now. The reason I’m reaching out right now to you is I just finished my prototype. There are only a few people I think could give me feedback. You’re one of them. You’re one of the people that I respect the most, so I didn’t have a choice than to email you.
That’s kind of like, I get that. I don’t know about you, but if somebody sends me an email like that, I’m going to go, okay, I want to help this person. And then, here’s what I want from you. Please give me this amount of time. Maybe five minutes is already too long. Maybe watch a video is maybe too long already. But at least, it’s crystal clear. I know who you are, why you are getting in touch with me right now, and what you want me to do.
This is such a simple rule and 99% of the time, cold sales emails don’t get to these three questions quickly enough. They lose the listener or the reader before they ever had a chance because they ramble on over things. Either they assume you already know all these things, they jump the gun, and go too quickly into details. I’m like, wait a second. Who is this? What is this about? What are all these links? What are all these things?
Or they go too slow and I’m like, wait a sec. I haven’t said yes I want to read 20 pages about your life history before you tell me what you want from me. Just thinking through empathetically who is it that I’m reaching out, what does the inbox look like, what are the basic questions this person is going to have when they receive my email, and then designing an email in a way that answers the appropriate questions at the right time can make a world of a difference.
We put together a resource, Rob. It’s called actually good and bad emails during crisis. We collected really great sales emails during this pandemic that companies have been sending out, and really terrible ones, just as a resource for people. That’s just one thing we released.
A couple of other resources, how to lead sales teams through crisis, how to close deals through crisis. People want these resources and want to take a look. I have more questions. You can always get in touch with me, email@example.com. In the subject line, just type in ‘Crisis toolkit’ and I will respond with a link for you and you can get all the stuff for free, but these are just some high-level pointers of how to think about this.
I think if you think through what the world looks like or the person you want to reach out to, and if you answer those questions quickly, who am I, why am I reaching out to you today, and what do I want from you, you’re already way ahead of the curve. Again, not everybody will respond ‘I want to give you that money,’ but your chance is going to be much higher to see some success with this.
Rob: Awesome. Thanks so much, Steli. You always bring the resources and I definitely appreciate that. I’ve gotten feedback about past episodes of people emailing you and getting the ebooks and such, the giveaway. I definitely appreciate that. I bet some people will take you up on it and I think there’s a lot of value.
Steli, if folks want to keep up with what you’re doing, you have a podcast with Hiten Shah called The Startup Chat they can check out. You’re @steli on Twitter and they can drop you an email firstname.lastname@example.org. If they want to hear the crisis, what was the thing called?
Steli: Crisis toolkit.
Rob: Awesome. Thanks against, Steli.
Steli: Thank you so much for having me, Rob.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about how to launch a product into a mature market. They give a definition of what a mature market is, list some examples of established players in different markets, discuss how to tell if you should enter a particular market and how to execute on it.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups For the Rest of Us, Mike and I discuss how to launch a product into a mature market. This is Startups For the Rest of Us episode 425. Welcome to Startups For the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs to be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products. Weather you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, sir?
Mike: It’s the end of the year, so I’m just doing a lot of end-of-year paperwork that’s—mostly required government filings and getting ready for taxes and stuff like that. I had to submit, I think it was a affidavit of eligibility for my health insurance and it had to be done before the end of this year for my health insurance to be able to be renewed in April or something like that. It’s like, come on, you have to be kidding me. This far and advance and at the end of the year they’re requesting it but whatever you have to do it.
Rob: Yeah, that’s fascinating. The end-of-year stuff is always a pain in the butt. Because I’m always taking this time off. I take a week off, sometimes a week and a half off but it’s not fully off. I’m recording podcasts and doing a few calls here and there but a lot of thinking and planning scheming for the next year, and so it’s a bummer to have to think about government filings and that kind of stuff during this time.
Mike: How about you? What’s new with you?
Rob: Well, you probably hear I’m a little sick right now. Happy New Year everyone. This episode goes live on New Year’s Day. I hope your hangover is treating you well, and that Mike and I can be there for you. And for me, it’s another year, man. My birthday is December 28. So I turned 34 this year.
Mike: Did you say 34?
Rob: Yeah, I’m glad you caught that. Good. So listeners may or may not know how old I am. But everyone knows now that I’m definitely not 34.
Mike: I’m surprised you didn’t try to shoot for like 29.
Rob: Yeah, now that would have been good. I still get carded here in Minneapolis. So they’re funny. In California, they don’t card you very much at bars once you look old enough, but they still card everyone here. So it’s kind of not. It’s something you say, like, “Oh, I still get carded.” But it’s like, everyone kind of gets carded here.
Mike: Yeah, certain places I’ve seen where, like it’s just as a general rule. They’re like, hey, it doesn’t matter. Like, you have to card everybody. And depending on where you are, certain states or jurisdictions, they’ll say that if you have a violation of any kind, like you immediately lose your liquor license, and then, like, your entire business is gone. So I think that’s the case of the next town over here in Massachusetts, and they’re like, they’re not willing to take the risk. So there’s like, “Yup, we card everybody and if you don’t have ID, too bad.”
Rob: Yeah, that’s funny, you know, I found a retreat in California, and I walked into a bar and they carded me and when I walked an interval said they didn’t card him and was just laughing and laughing because they were like, “You look so old dude,” and he went with it but I think that’s funny when one person in a group gets carded and it’s kind of obvious you’re all the same age and I believe he’s like a few years younger than me as well.
So we have three new iTunes reviews. Three Mike, three in December. This one is from MJ SFS, says best Startup podcast. I’m on my fourth software, venture to battlemaps.co, and this podcast has been invaluable. Keep up the great work guys.
Another reviewer says a podcasting masterpiece filled with actionable product focused insights. It’s never moved from the top of my podcast list. Robin Mike are always full of enthusiasm, insights and great knowledge acquired from years of actually building products.
Thanks so much for those five star reviews. If you have not left startups for the rest of us a five star review. I would invite you to log into Stitcher or iTunes and help us get a few more listeners help us stay motivated and help us on those long, lonely winter nights when we’re sad and considering crying ourselves to sleep, and instead, we actually read our iTunes reviews to make ourselves feel better.
Mike: Because we’re not actually 34.
Rob: That’s because we’re not actually 34. So this week’s topic is interesting. I was going through our listener questions and there was a question that I felt like almost warranted an entire episode. So, I started just hammering out a quick outline. It turns out, it’s at least an entire episode and could probably be a book chapter. But the question asked, his name is Eric Roberts and he’s asking about how to launch into a mature market. He says, I know from listening to you guys, the competition in place is a good thing. But what about an overly mature market? How can you tell if a market is primed for a new solution to an old problem? And I think there’s a lot of nuance to this. I mean, there’s the idea of, what is a mature market, then how can you tell when you should or should not enter one, and how do you execute on that those are kind of the three angles that I was thinking it through. And so, that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Mike: Cool. So where do you start?
Rob: Let’s talk about, what is a mature market, a give a little definition and some examples. So when I think of a mature market, I think of a market that has established players that are well known. So, think of examples in CRM, it’s definitely mature market, there is Salesforce, there’s HubSpot, there’s Base, there’s Pipedrive, there’s a long list Trigger, CRM, long list of folks there.
In addition, I think in a mature market, there tends to be maybe two or three really obvious choices. So if I say CRM, a lot of people think of Salesforce, HubSpot, maybe Highrise maybe Base or Pipedrive, in email marketing, in ESPs, people think of MailChimp, they think of AWeber, they think of Infusionsoft. I mean, there’s this kind of short list, it’s the opposite of the long tail, it’s the fat head, it’s called where there’s a cluster of companies, be it one, two, or three that have the vast majority of the market and kind of sit at the top of the market share. In addition, I think the third piece of that is that there are these product norms that have developed.
So if you think about CRM, there’s this nomenclature of leads, and deals and contacts. And if you think of ESPs, there’s this, these norms that are developed, like lists and subscribers and forms. And so, while this may not be an exhaustive list of everything that defines a mature market, those are the three pieces that I think of, in my mind, that kind of defined it, that’s having established players, it’s having two or three obvious choices, and then having kind of norms or nomenclature that have developed through those products – and then in the other products that are also entering the space.
Mike: I think the easiest way to recognize whether or not something is a mature market is if you go out to a handful of people and say, “Hey, do you know of any companies that are in this particular software vertical, whether it’s you know, CRMs or mailing lists,” like if the people that you know, or who are in your circles who have any familiarity with that can name at least two or three or four different companies that are in that space then it’s probably a mature market, obviously, like if they’re if it’s a not well-known industry, for example, let’s say like virtual tabletop software. If you talk to a bunch of people who are in that particular industry, they’re going to know very well like who the players are. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a mature market.
Rob: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. I mean, anytime you see a forum post that’s like, what do you use for CRM, you know, and then you’ll get dozens of responses and almost everyone’s using a different one, or what do you use for your to do lists? And, you know, there’s, there’s dozens and bug tracking and issue tracking and all these things. So what’s interesting is, I don’t think, you know, a mature market doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a big market.
Mike: I was just thinking that.
Rob: Yeah, because to even think about like more aware software where they have a mature product in a market that has been around now for more than a decade. They build a SaaS app for countertop installers. People who install the actual physical tile that goes in a kitchen or bathroom and that’s not a huge market, right? That’s not a $100 million market. And yet if you were to try to enter that now they are so far ahead, the market has matured because they launched in, I don’t remember what it was like 2006 or 2007. And they’ve just kept adding things in and maturing the market during that time.
Mike: Well, I guess it makes – tt begs the question like, is it considered a mature market? Or is it like mature players in that market? How do you differentiate between those two things like CRM, lots of people use it so by definition you could call that a mature market but for table countertop installers, they are more aware as is very mature player in that market. But the market itself is small. So do you consider it a mature market? Because it’s not like there’s a lot of competition or a lot of people in that market? So like, is that a mature market. Do you consider that?
Rob: Well, I guess by my definition, I have three points or is there an established player or players in the countertop installer market? Yes, because there’s more aware. Is there one, or two, or three obvious choices? Yes, there’s more aware and I think they own most of the market, but there’s obviously at least one other competitor and have they developed product norms that may not have existed before software into the space. I don’t know their space well enough, but I’m guessing that there’s nomenclature in things in their product that they came up with that that didn’t exist before then.
So I would say yeah, I would say even a small market I understand your differentiation of mature product versus a mature market but I feel like once there is a mature product or two in a market the market becomes mature at that point yeah.
Mike: I was just kind of thinking about the product norms piece of it because if there aren’t a large number of products in that market and obviously like there’s room for that software to grow and for the products who are already in place to grow that’s fine but do the majority of countertop installers know about them? How many of them are actually using software of any kind or how many of them are looking for it? Do you see kind of the direction I’m going with that because like if there’s 100,000 countertop installers, but only 500 of them are using software of any kind. Does that establish a product norm, because that’s only five percent.
Rob: That’s a good point, yes, and imagine if they’d been around for, you know, if you’ve been around for 10 years. So you’d say, “Hey, this is a pretty mature product. There’s a lot of features, it’s stable,” all those things, but you only have five percent market penetration. Is that a mature market? I don’t know. I don’t know that I have a good answer to that, other than that either means that they’re not marketing very well. And we’ve now removed from more of our software that we’re doing a hypothetical at this point. But in that hypothetical where this company has been around for 10 years, they only have five percent market penetration, and there’s really no one else, it’s only five percent of market is even using software, then either that’s a really tough market. It’s a market that is highly resistant to technology, or that company is not marketing themselves very well, right? They’re not penetrating the market past five percent.
So I would then ask myself – If I wanted to enter that market, which of those is it, because if they’re not marketing very well, we’ll come in and out market them. But if the industry is just highly resistant to it, then that’s probably not a good market to throw yourself into.
Mike: And I would say that that’s probably a general rule. If it’s hard to get into them, then it’s because they’re resistant to change and resistant to adopting technology, then I would probably would avoid them in general. But it’s a very different story if they’re not marketing themselves very well. And you just trying to make a name for yourself there.
Rob: Right. And I think, that’s a good point. Because the kind of the second point that I wanted to cover, this question I want to answer is, how can you tell when you should or should not enter a mature market? I think we’ve just touched on one.
If you determine that, boy, this market is mature and really no one else wants to use software in it and I’m just going to have to be pulling from the existing competitor who only has five percent of the entire space that would give me pause, that tells me about the customer type and about the how they don’t want to change, right. So then that means that even getting them to switch from a competitor is going to be really difficult. I think also entering a mature market, I personally would not do that as a first time founder without money. One example that I kept coming back to of course is the one that I lived, entering a mature market with the drip, becoming an ESP and then becoming a marketing automation provider.
If I had not had the experience and the past successes that I had and did not have the self-fundability, you know, I was pulling money off of hit tail and other apps that I had, I don’t know that we could have made it. I don’t know that Drip would have survived because the market had so many mature players. Again, MailChimp, AWeber, Infusionsoft, and others – and it cuts both ways because, obviously, that’s what made it possible to grow Drip so quickly is that the market was – it did have opportunity. But if you’re a first time founder and you’re not going to raise funding, I would seriously reconsider trying to enter a mature market because these are the ones we can get a lot of success but these markets are very, very hard to penetrate, if you don’t have the right tool set.
Mike: I just have a quick search for, something kind of running through my brain is where we’re talking about what constitutes a mature market and there’s terms like total addressable market and then serviceable available market, which to me it seems like going back to the example of, if there’s a total of 100,000 countertop installers but only 500 of them are actually using that type of software then maybe your serviceable market is only about 1000 or maybe it’s 750 or something like that versus the total market which is 100,000. And you can look at that and say, well, if the established players have 50% or 75% of the serviceable market, which again is only 750 or 1000, then that’s a fairly significant chunk of those people. And it’s because those types of people are resistant to adopting technology or adopting software solutions for that. And maybe the delineation there is like, are they established players? Do they have most of the addressable market or the serviceable market?
Rob: Yeah, I think that’s a good differentiation there. As I think through this, when I think of mature markets, where there is a lot of adoption. So let’s flip back to the ESP or the CRM or markets where total addressable and serviceable are approximately equivalent, or at least 80%, 70% of the total addressable is already using some type of software and is able and willing to pay for this, I don’t know that I can think of a really good reason not to try to disrupt one of these markets if that’s your ambition.
Like, disrupting an existing market is where that hyper growth comes from and hypergrowth for us bootstrappers might be getting to seven figures in two years and hypergrowth for AirBnb and Stripe, maybe was getting to seven figures in six months, you know, past the point of product market fit. Because you think about AirBnb, did they invent a new market? No, they really essentially disrupted the hotel market. It was an existing place where people were already spending money on these things and they figured out a different way to implement it.
Stripe is the same one, I have them as an example later in this episode. Did invent a whole new market? Did payment processing exist before them? No, of course not. There was Off.net, there was PayPal Web Payments Pro. There were all these gateways and all these services that were really a pain in the ass to use. And Stripe came in and just made it a heck of a lot easier. And even, Drip is the same thing, I think about – there were already ESPs, there were already marketing automation providers. But that made it that much easier to basically pull existing people away who were unhappy with the current state of affairs.
That’s what I think you have to find, is if everyone in the market is using a product and loves it, then maybe you shouldn’t enter that market. But I don’t know of a mature market where people aren’t disgruntled and you think of QuickBooks. Everybody hates QuickBooks, but everybody uses it. So is that right for disruption, you think of Slack, everybody uses Slack but now we see level.app from Derek Reimer, there’s a couple other apps in that space as well.
The more I think about—if that’s your ambition, and you’re willing to really go to the mattresses because it’s going to be a hard fight. I don’t know that there’s a good reason not to try to disrupt. Honestly, if you want to build a little niche lifestyle business and generate that low six-figure income and have it on autopilot and be able to work five or 10 hours a week, then don’t go into a mature market. That’s where I would say, think twice about it, because I’ve had apps like that and they don’t have the great single channel of traffic, and they made whatever it is maybe $1000 a month, and maybe it was 10 grand a month. But there were these awesome little niche products. I mean, they were not—they were in these very nascent markets in these very tight niches and you could autopilot them, but they would never grow past that.
And so, I think that’s the thing to think about, your personal preference. Does it sound interesting, fun to do the hard work and the stress of going after these mature markets? Because I think my hypothesis is that, like, most mature markets right now are ripe for disruption in one way or another.
Mike: Now, one question I have about everything that you just said there is that, it feels to me like a lot of what you talked about relates to the product itself and not necessarily the channels at which those markets are accessible. And something that really comes to mind is enterprise sales for certain types of software, so anything that’s installed across the entire organization, whether it’s 500, or 1000, or 50,000 endpoints in that environment, it feels to me like those are cases where it’s probably a mature market already. You probably can’t start there on day one, you’re going to have a really hard time going into those and being able to offer something that is going to compete with existing solutions. One, because they’re so far ahead of you, but two, also to be able to have the resources to walk in the door and do that at 10, 50, 100 different potential customers, because you don’t necessarily have the time. So, I feel like the channel that you use, that you’re going to get in front of these customers has to come into play here.
Rob: Yeah, no, it absolutely does. That’s where bootstrapping versus raising funding comes into play. If you’re going to bootstrap then your point is dead on. Don’t go after enterprise sales and a mature market because you’re just not going to have the cloud, you’re not going to have the logos, you’re not going to have the time to execute on that.
I have a good friend here in Minneapolis, who has worked for two different companies over the past few years. Both of them were heavily, heavily venture funded and both were going after these massive and mature markets. One was like data storage and the other one, I don’t even really know exactly what it is. But it’s deep-tech stuff. It’s stuff that kind of competes with like parts of AWS, or it competes with stuff that HP or HPE has, or launches or whatever. And yes, they were upstarts but they had to raise buckets of funding in order to do that and build out a team in advance of having any real revenue. And if it works, then they’ll take part of this huge deck of billion dollar market, but that’s the gamble. If it doesn’t work, then they’ll burn through their funding. If they have enough traction after 18 months, they won’t be able to raise the next round.
Obviously, we tend to talk to more to bootstrappers and folks who are listening to this podcast or probably on that side, but it is possible it’s just a whole different playbook if you’re going to do that.
One other exception I can think of when I would give it a second thought as to whether or not I wanted to enter a mature market is if there are other startups also entering that same space who are getting traction. To me, I’m more scared of other startups than I am the big, lumbering, 800-pound gorillas in the space, right? I’m less scared of sales or competing with Salesforce and I’d be more concerned of competing with Pipedrive or one of the other like, smaller, more agile CRMs that I see kind of innovating and things.
Mike: Yeah, I would agree with that. Although there are certain times where if your features start to show up in Gmail or something like that, like you probably want to be a little concerned.
Rob: Yeah, I agree. That’s just Gmail or Salesforce is going to move so much slower that it’s almost by coincidence. I feel like, if you build a feature and one of them, build it within a few months, they’ve probably been working on that for six or eight months. They don’t move fast enough to copy a little upstarts, until you become not a little upstart.
Mike: Yeah, for sure.
Rob: The other thing I would think about perhaps not entering a space, is if you find a space that doesn’t have early adopters. So you find a market – because that’s what you’re going to need, right? You’re going to need, you’re going to need early adopters to basically jump ship on existing solutions who are willing to switch. If you found a space where there are no early adopters—we could go back to that example where we had the company who only had five percent market penetration, and it took them 10 years to get that, it’s pretty obvious no one wants to change. And so, there really aren’t going to be, early adopters.
I can’t think of another good example. I mean, maybe I think of like, the legal space. I know that, when I was a consultant, I worked for a guy who launched a product and legal space. I remember, he just had a really tough time getting traction, because there were not many early adopters in that space. So that could be, I don’t know, that space today and maybe there are more early adopters, but it’s spaces like that that I think are going to be hard to compete with where, the person’s motto is, “Well, I never got fired for choosing IBM,” or “I never got fired for choosing Salesforce.” If that’s really the mantra of everyone, then it’s going to be hard to penetrate.
Mike: I think the other consideration there is whether or not you have to essentially build something that is going to completely replace an existing solution, or you’re just solving an extreme pain point that an existing solution doesn’t solve adequately. And if people are angry about it and looking for a solution to that and they’re willing to plug your product, in addition to whatever it is that they already have as kind of a stopgap measure because it’s so painful versus you have to—it’s the difference between implementing two or three features versus implementing 250 because you have to completely rip and replace that entire product.
I think you have a lot easier time if you only have to implement a couple of things. And if you execute on them really well, people are willing to spend a little bit of extra money to get your solution in there because they’re in such a huge amount of pain.
Rob: So the third part that I want to cover is if you decide to do this, how do you execute on it? I think the thing that – maybe the common wisdom is you have to be 10x better in order to get people to switch. I would say yes and no to that. I don’t know that you need to directly build a 10x better product. I think you do need to build a better product. But I think there’s other things that you can improve upon that are not just product basis, not just a feature race or usability race. So I want to talk about three or four ways that I feel like you could be two-x better in each and perhaps they multiply together to give you more than more than 10x and this really comes out. I mean, the more I wrote this down, this just came out of the Drip playbook. It’s the playbook that I executed as we as we built Drip up and it was these four places where we innovate.
There may be more but this is what comes to mind. The first is, price and if you’re in a mature market and you have a huge player, they often have pricing power where they their brand name and they can charge a lot more than everyone else and you won’t be able to without that brand name. And not only can you not charge that much but you can use that strength of that player against them. And if your product—It’s easier to use and you’re cheaper, you can get these early adopters to start switching
Now, you and I’ve talked a lot about Don’t be the low cost provider. The point is not to be the low cost provider forever. It’s long term to raise your prices. But in the early days trying to price match a large competitor with a brand name, when you don’t have the feature set that they do, it’s going to be difficult.
And so, either price innovation, where you’re innovating on the pricing model itself, that’s risky, but you can think about it or just being cheaper. Again, it cuts in multiple directions. It can bring people who turn or who are more price sensitive in all honesty with drip. I mean, we were priced against Infusionsoft, and Infusionsoft was $300 a month to start and it had a $2000 sign-up fee that you paid right at the beginning.
And that was easy to be cheaper than them and still turn a heck of a profit, right. But we could start at $50 or $100 a month and still not have people who were super price sensitive because if you’re paying $50 or $100 a month, you still have buy-ins, it’s not like we’re going down to $20 a month or something. And so, that’s the kind of pressing I’m talking about, right? Or Salesforce, I believe, is $125 per seat per month, if I recall.
Think about being able to innovate on that and charge $20 or $30 a month per seat, that’s still a nice revenue stream as you’re getting started, and you’re not bottom of the barrel, you’re not a B2C pricing, but it is and can be a competitive advantage, especially in the early days.
Mike: Yeah, I think what you’re kind of referring to there is not using the price as just the sole way to get in the door and be cheaper like because, obviously, you don’t want to do that long term, but it’s really to unlock that the unwillingness to move by having the cheaper price and get them to take that step. You reduce the friction enough by lowering the price to be able to get them to say, “Well, you know what, I’ll give it a shot,” versus if you are priced exactly the same and you have an identical feature set or they have a much better feature set because you’re just not there and they’re mature in the market, then it makes it easier for them to justify giving it a shot. Or even just like saying, “Okay, you know what, I can’t buy into all that stuff because I can’t afford it right now.” Or I’m not even using 90% of it.
I’ve seen a lot of mature solutions out there where they will throw every feature under the sun into the product. And eventually it just becomes this model with that is difficult for some people to adopt. Because they know that they’re not going to use 80% of it. They’re like, “Well, why am I paying this much money for something, I’m only using 10% or 20% off.”
Rob: Second place, I feel like you can innovate and outmaneuver your bigger competitors with the sales model. Oftentimes, you’re competing against enterprise-ish sales models where they have high-tech sales process. You can’t sign up on the site, you have to see a demo. There’s often setup fees to pay the hefty commissions they’re paying to the sales processes. And so, if you bring them and make them, either no touch, or low touch, or even medium touch, you can innovate on that process.
Again, coming back to Salesforce, it’s very hard to go to their site. I don’t believe you can just go to their site and sign up for an account. You have to go through this long process. Whereas with Pipedrive, you can go and sign up for it. Same thing with with Infusionsoft versus Drip, that was always a differentiator, is that you could come and try Drip out, there was a free trial. Infusionsoft, you didn’t even get to see the product unless you were on a demo. They didn’t want to in there playing around with it. So that can be another way to, basically, bring your innovations to the masses and outmaneuver folks and it’s not a product, it’s not just a feature, usability, it’s actually implementing a different sales model that can be more conducive to bring on early adopters.
Mike: I would say that this cuts the other way as well. Because if there are products out there that don’t offer like the ability to get on to a demo because they’re trying to be mass market and they’re trying to have a low-touch sales process. If you go the other direction, then you can have a lot of success there because you can get those people who have given those solutions to try and they got confused or lost and they just said, “Well, how do I get on a demo or have somebody show me something.” And if that company doesn’t offer it and you do, then you can get them on a call and you can – I won’t say gloss over the things that your product can’t do but you can essentially offer to do those things for them and do that high touch onboarding process and thereby justify a higher price tag for your software.
Rob: The third area where I feel like you can outmaneuver the big competition is in product and this one I it’s really hard to do. But it’s pretty straightforward to describe it. You make it way easier to use, which doesn’t tend to be that hard when you’re dealing with larger clumsier companies with 10 or 12-year-old code bases, you ship faster—so you have a better shipping velocity of new features. And it feels like products are constantly improving versus there are once or twice a year launch cycles and you build a unique feature, or two, or three that no one else has for now. You try to figure out a way to go back to first principles and innovate on something that is really hard for them to do.
So, adding automation into your ESP, when it takes everybody else a year to do it. Because the code base and they’re already at scale is one way to do that, or adding a lot of integrations that you know, that the early adopters will use that your competitors have not added. Because again, they just move slower than you do. So, you know, you look around and you say, “Oh, there’s this whole new ecosystem around Stripe.” And there’s there, Baremetrics, and there’s ProfitWell, and there’s Termbusters, and there’s Stunning, and there’s all this stuff, it’s like, you know, Infusionsoft or Salesforce, they’re not going to integrate with those tools yet, because they’re just not on their radar. But if you integrate with all of them, you could scoop up this early adopter, you know, the bootstrapper crowd the, the online business folks, because they use those tools. Gumroad is another one, but I want to, underscore that having those features is a short-term thing, because if they are successful, other folks will implement whether other upstarts or you know big competitors will implement them. But that’s how I think about, product innovation.
Again, easier said than done. But that is the playbook that I see working as, as startups try to attack these more mature markets.
Of course it is because it was just recently built, but the look and feel of it can go a long way towards making people feel like you’re responsive to the needs of the customers and you actually care about how your product looks and is presented.
Rob: I think that’s a great example. I think Gusto is another example of a company that entered a very mature market and through—I mean honestly, if you look at these points I hadn’t—so here’s a great example, because I was thinking about Drip, and Stripe, and others, when I wrote these four points of price, sales model product and marketing, which we’ll get into next. But gusto came in their price was cheaper than paychecks. I think I was using paychecks before at Gusto and Gusto was cheaper, Gusto’s sales model was so much better, it was all self served. I didn’t have to talk to people, it was a lot easier for me the product itself was easier to use. It was a better looking as you said, and they file, I don’t know, all my stuff. I guess Paychecks did some of that too, but the experience of Gusto in the communication is all via email, like click and do things like it is so much of a better thing and then their marketing, I would say that I really heard about it from word of mouth and the other three price sales model and product really drove that for me, but obviously their marketing to get into the hands of early adopters like us, I think was a pretty deliberate decision.
Mike: Yeah, I think the word of mouth marketing, if you have a good enough product that, I won’t say, it sells itself. But like if the customers that you have love it so much over the other things that they’ve tried then that word of mouth is really going to drive a lot of revenue for your new customers. And I don’t know how easy it is to recognize that that’s what’s actually going on. But I have seen that happen. And, there’s certain products that I’ve recommended where you look around and you don’t see a lot of marketing for them, but you’ve recommended them a lot to other people or other people have recommended those products to you. It’s just easy to see when those things are actually working.
Yeah. When you’re in a mature market, and the number one player is big, but everybody hates using it. That’s when word of mouth is huge. Because you will be you will become the thing that we’re all talking about, on our podcasts, at conferences on our blogs. I mean, think of Gusto or, again, ZenPayroll when it came out. Think of when Stripe came up, a ton of it was word of mouth.
Zenefits, it’s basically likes Gusto but for health insurance and other benefits. Drip had a really strong word of mouth in the early days. You know, there’s others. I’ll give another example, ready to wrap up, but we’re working on something that’s really hard to generate in general, and it can be a cap out, when people don’t know how they actually grew. I’ll often hear founders say – Oh just word of mouth, and it’s like, Yeah, I don’t think it really was word of mouth. You know, you just don’t really know, you don’t track your metrics. But in this case, like a mature market where you have this reviled number one player, I think getting in there, building a better product, better pricing, better sales model can really lead to word of mouth and some good stuff.
I think the other thing that they don’t mention about marketing in a space like this is you can take the approach of being the underdog, right? It’s easy to market against big guys when you can basically talk about being the anti them. So Salesforce had their – especially in the early days, no software, right. They had the circle with the red line through it and it said software in it because they were saying, no on-premise software, no massive installation and server footprints and stuff – we are just this thing in the cloud.
They were anti software. Less accounting was kind of the anti QuickBooks. I don’t know that they mentioned QuickBooks by name but I remember one of their headlines was about all accounting software sucks or sucks less. I mean, it was it was a good—It was a really interesting approach to it. Drip was the not Infusionsoft, what was my headline – lightweight marketing automation that doesn’t suck and I was implying that most marketing automation software sucks and listed the Marketos and Eloquas and the Infusionsofts that are just not fun to use and they’re not fun to be sold because the sales model sucks and they’re really expensive and here’s all the reasons that you don’t like them and here’s why we’re the opposite of all of that.
So, if you’re going to enter this market embrace market leaders’ strength and turn it into their weaknesses. I think it’s Jiu-jitsu, where if your opponent is really strong and he or she swings you do a parry and you let their momentum carry them through and that’s a big part of marketing against these really big players in established markets – is what is their biggest strength can be turned against them as the biggest weakness.
I feel like we’ve covered this topic pretty well. I think the one last thing I’ll say is we’ve given a ton of examples of people doing this, talked about Stripe, Gusto, Zenefits, Drip, and a few others. The one other example, I think, that’s doing a good job of it today is Superhuman and it’s that email client that—they’ve changed the sales model, they’ve actually gone from no touch the opposite direction, there’s onboarding, every person individually. Their product, from what I’ve heard, is easier to use and it’s amazing. Their marketing is, obviously – they’re doing a good job with it. Now, their price is interesting because they’re more expensive than any other ESPs. So that’s a whole that’s a whole other thing from extremely experienced founders that they’ve, basically, made a gamble to say we think we can build something truly 10x better and we’re going to charge for it.
I think they charge $30 a month, which if you think about it, compare Gmail to Superhuman, Gmail is essentially free. Although, I pay for it now because of how much storage I use, but, very different pricing model there. So they’re one example that’s doing it successfully today. And they’re not following, you know, the exact playbook that we’ve laid out here. But I they also have buckets of money. They’re three and four-time founders. So that’s where you can, in my opinion, you can start breaking rules because you know which rules to break.
Mike: Yeah, and that’s really a matter of like, certain types of people are in so much pain, that they are willing to be the early adopters and they’re willing to pay more money for it because it just makes their lives that much easier. And whereas no knock against Gmail because I use it as well but there’s certain things about Gmail that I wish were just a little bit easier and I’ve heard the guy who runs Superhuman spoke before and he’s talked about like, how the experience is really what they focus on and I’ve seen him commenting on Twitter here and there and showing pictures of all the different things that they’re testing. Somebody said, “Oh, why don’t you support this products on,” such and such. And he showed them a picture of like eight different laptops, where they were testing different variations of like the browser client, and he’s like, “We’re working on it but this is what we’ve got so far.”
It’s incredible because it partly tells a story, but it also explains or demonstrates how much pain certain people are in to be requesting that stuff and still willing to wait for it.
Rob: Yeah, and they worked on Superhuman, I believe, for 18 months to two years. It was a small team of developers before they launched. So they broke they broke a lot of “rules”. And again, it’s because they did have a lot of funding, they had prior exits. I mean, the guy had started Reportive and sold it to LinkedIn. And then, he had even another one before that.
When you get to that level, you’re just at the point where you can make some difficult calls and pivot out of the risk because of your experience in funding. Frankly, which is something I talked about earlier in this episode.
Mike: I’m sure Data had something to do with it.
Mike: Well, I think that about wraps us up for the day. Thanks to Eric Roberts for sending us that question. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribes 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 SaaS marketing lessons you’ll wish you’d learned sooner. Based on an article on karolakarlson.com they break the list down to 9 key lessons including growth plans, mission statements, tracking metrics and more.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about SaaS marketing lessons you’ll wish you’d learn sooner. This is Startups for the Rest of Us, Episode 398. Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs to be awesome building, launching and growing software products, whether you put your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: I’m Rob.
Mike: We’re here to share experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word of this week, Rob?
Rob: The word this week is a little bit of wrestling with Google and they’re indexing in webmaster tools because I 301 redirected my entire old blog site, Software by Rob, and I got a new domain, Rob Walling, and I 301’d all that and got it all set up. There’s just always more complexity than you think there’s going to be. I had this seven-step checklist that I went through and, of course, parts of it went wrong and parts of it got cached while I was in the middle of troubleshooting and so you don’t know what the real version is.
I’m literally like–I texted Derek and I’m like, “Can you hit this URL and let me know what you see?” even though I flushed my cash and all that. It was just giving me–from different browsers, it was giving me different results. It wasn’t that big of a deal but then the redirect was fine, everything’s been working and then the Google indexing has really not started. It probably took–it’s been almost 10 days, maybe 14 days, and it’s just now picking up on the new domain. I’m looking at the search analytics and just starting to see 50 total clicks. It’s literally like one day’s worth of clicks or less than that, actually, has started to pick up.
Mike: The hard part about that is that, because Google has different Google-plexes all over the place, different people are going to be different ones so they’re not–the different indexes are in different places, which kind of sucks.
Rob: Yeah, I agree. This is just–it’s like try not to redirect stuff. You can totally do it and not lose traffic in the long term but, in the short term, it’s kind of always a bit more work and there’s always these loose ends that happen. By no means was it a disaster or anything; it was kind of a fun little thing to, I don’t know, stay busy with, but I’ll just be happy when everything’s moved over. Again, the whole site’s functional if you go to Rob Walling. You can go look around and everything’s there but, now, I’m just trying to get Google to make all the Google search results look use Rob Walling instead of the old site. How about you? What’s going on?
Mike: I was looking through some of the comments on some of our older episodes and there was one or a couple of episodes ago where we had talked about the moniker of “the Rest of Us” and how we should have trademarked that or something like that, not that we probably would have gone that road. Glen Bennett wrote and said that there was an Apple ad from the ’80s where they called it “The Computer for the Rest of Us” so we were beat by quite a lot on that.
Rob: Yeah, and that’s been a part of the English language for, I guess, 50 years. I have no idea what the first use of it was but I definitely heard it growing up, just people talking about that.
Mike: Yup. Yeah, so we definitely missed the door on that one.
Rob: Yeah, for sure. There were some other pretty interesting comments. There’s a comment from Rasmus on Episode 389, which was titled Pro Tips for Attending Conferences, and he says something else he does is go to the gym in the morning. It really makes your mind and body ready to listen and learn all day. That is something we forgot to say because I actually try to go to the gym when I’m at conferences, and it’s especially easy at MicroConf because of our 10:00 AM start time. When we used to start at 9:00, I never had time because I was too tired. That is something that I recommend, even to go for a short run, even if it’s only 15 minutes or something. I like getting up and getting out.
Another couple of comments on Episode 395, which was 20 Podcasts We Like, we had two more that requested. Kristoff Engelhart recommended How I Built This by Guy Raz. That’s at NPR podcast, I believe, and he said he specifically liked the episode with the Collision Brothers from Stripe, the guy from Home Depot and the one with the Founders of Ben and Jerry’s. I’ve listened to a few episodes of How I Built This and I liked it. I think I struggled with the fact there were some–the signal to noise for me was a bit low because it’s an NPR show and so it’s tailored to the masses and I always struggle to consume startup stuff made for the masses. Honestly, it’s a really well-produced show if you’re interested. It’s just in interview format, basically, and it’s as you would expect from NPR.
The last comment was from the same episode from Abdu, and he says, “I find it odd you didn’t mention Mixergy. Even Rob was a guest on it.” Yeah, I’ve been a guest on Mixergy six times, I think–five or six times–but it’s not something that I currently have in my rotation. I definitely used to listen to it but the volume of shows that comes out–it just hasn’t been on my radar for a while. Totally, I still see Andrew at conferences and every once and a while. When I hear that someone I know or there’s a particularly interesting interview on Mixergy, I absolutely download it and listen to it, but it’s not on my everyday podcast subscription feed anymore.
Again, that’s mostly due to the sheer volume of shows that come out of there and the interview format. Andrew was one of the early pioneers of that. They were folks who were doing startup interviews but he came on the scene and really revolutionized that, way before John Lee Dumas and several other folks who’ve done it since then. I have a ton of respect for what he’s built and, obviously, have enjoyed my conversations on Mixergy with him. I, in all honesty, listen to less interview shows than I used to. If you do look at that list of 20, there are very few truly just all interview shows. Even like This Week in Startups that we just mentioned, they do some interviews but I personally skip many of those and I listen to a lot more to the news round tables and even some of the pitching ones.
Mike: Going back to your blog redesign that you did for your website, there’s a missed business opportunity in there where somebody could have acquired Rob Walling and sold it to you.
Rob: Someone did. I bought it from another guy named Rob Walling.
Rob: Yeah, I bought it a couple of months ago.
Mike: That’s different. If you bought it from another Rob Walling whereas if you would have bought it from Mike Taber, then that would have been different.
Rob: I know. It was funny. When I emailed him, the guy was like, “Whoa, this is kind of weird.” He’s like, “I thought it was a trick email.” I was like, “No, this is actually another Rob Walling.” We had different middle names, of course, but he was funny. He said, “Well, I can tell by your name that you are a scholarly gentleman of great intelligence and manners,” or something. I was like, “Well done, Sir. This is going to be fun.” Just the negotiation and buying it from him was kind of fun.
Mike: That reminds me of when I was at Home Depot a couple of years ago. They paged Mike Taber over the intercom and so, of course, I go come to find out there’s a guy who works there named Mike Taber who lives nearby. It was interesting to meet another Mike Taber.
Rob: Yeah, totally. Very cool. What are we talking about today?
Mike: Today, we are going to be going over a blog article written by Karola Karlson, and it’s over at karolakarlson.com and we’ll link that up in the show notes. It is about SaaS marketing lessons. The title of this episode is SaaS Marketing Lessons You’ll Wish You’d Learn Sooner and what I did was I kind of consolidated a bunch of these things because there’s some things in here that overlap a lot with other topics, and there’s 35 different items in this particular blog article. We’re going to condense that down a little bit. I’m going to talk more focused about some of these different pieces where it applies specifically to the types of people who are listening to this show.
Rob: We have about 9, it looks like, down from 35.
Mike: 9 SaaS marketing lessons.
Rob: They’re making a listicle!
Mike: The first one is about finding your high expectation customer, and there’s another link that we’ll add into the show notes because there is a link over to a blog article that somebody else wrote all about finding what your high expectation customer is, and the basic definition of that is the type of customer who has very high expectations for your product and they know exactly what it is that they want to do. There’s a series of questions that you can answer very specifically about them. For example, “Who is it that needs the product? What does it do for them? How do they feel about it? What’s the true benefit for them?” and, “Will your product exceed their expectations?”
If all those criteria are met, then you have what’s called a high expectation customer because they know exactly what it is that they want and they need, and their bar is very high. If you can exceed that bar, then you’re going to satisfy a much larger number of customers. Early on, it’s going to be very difficult for you to meet that especially because they’re going to be an advanced customer; they’re not going to be an early adopter. Assuming that you can meet that bar for that customer, then you’re going to be able to sell to a much larger pool of people. This is going to help you to grow the business a lot just because of that much larger pool, and knowing those numbers helps you in a great number of other ways which we’ll talk about later in this episode.
Rob: Right, and when they define the high expectation customer, they say it’s the most discerning person within your target demographic. It’s someone who will acknowledge and enjoy your product or service for its greatest benefit, and that person needs to be someone who others aspire to emulate because they see them as clever, judicious and insightful.
Mike: The second lesson is to not sell to everyone. I think, generally speaking, this is obvious advice that’s repeated a lot by different people on the startups basis, but the real question is, “Why is this repeated so often?” It’s because it tells you who not to sell to, who should you not be targeting for your SaaS or your products, or your service. The real benefit of doing that is that, if you can get rid of those people in certain marketing channels or you avoid marketing to them because they’re not a great fit for your product, either that could be for a variety of reasons; either they churn out a lot or it’s an ancillary benefit to them, they’re not really looking for your products.
There’s all these different reasons why they might not be your ideal customer but, by removing them from the pool of people that you’re actively marketing to, then it’s going to yield a lot better ROI across all of your marketing channels and it allows you to focus much more on the types of people who are a good fit for your product versus the ones that are not as good a fit and you’re going to have to do a lot more work in order to sell them on your product.
Rob: Yeah, and, in the early days, this is all you can do, right? Especially if you’re bootstrapped but even when you’re funded. Five years ago, I thought about a venture-funded company and thought, “Man, they have infinite resources and they can just sell to everyone.” Then, of course, I worked inside Leadpages for 20 months and realized that, “No, even there, there are these massive trade offs. They just can’t hire enough good people.” Even with really high budgets, they can’t hire enough good people to sell to everyone.
I think your point about, “Yes, we hear this over and over,” is well-taken, but why do we hear it? It’s because people make this mistake over, and over, and over. In your early days, it’s really easy that anyone who gives you a dollar, you want to get the product to them because you want to maximize your revenue because every dollar means you can market more. The problem with that is you can quickly, especially if you’re a software product, go off the rails with folks who are requesting things that take you away from your core vision or the core vision that’s going to meet the needs of most people versus someone, again–if you’re selling to internet marketers or the SaaS founders and then a photographer who comes in, he can pay $1000.00 a year but he’s going to have totally different requests.
I went through this exact thing early on with Drip where we just got a request that was like, “We don’t really want to build that and that doesn’t help anybody else,” and so then that person was disappointed and they didn’t love the product. We eventually parted ways but it was a lesson I think each of us learns as we go, is just say no fairly frequently. If you don’t think they’re going to get value of it or they’re not in your core market, I would err on the side of saying no in the early days.
Mike: That kind of leads a little bit into the next one, which is to have a mission statement. I think, most of the time, this is probably not a great place to focus a lot of your time and effort but the reality is that when you have a mission statement about what it is that you are trying to do and what you are trying to achieve with the product and the business, then it allows you to use that as marketing collateral so you can tell your customers what it is that you’re trying to achieve, who you’re trying to do that for and who you are like and who you are not like.
By default, by having this mission statement, it allows you to decide what it is that you don’t do in addition to what it is that you are going to do. By having that mission statement, you can refer back to it when you’re trying to look at these customers who come in and one of them says, “Oh, I run a photography business.” You’re like, “Yeah, that’s probably not a great fit,” and you can tell that my going back and looking at your mission statement. I don’t think a mission statement is something that you can do on Day One just because it’s probably going to take some time to figure out what that is based on who your ideal customer is, and you’re not going to know that on Day One. That’s going to take some time and effort to figure that out over the course of many months or even, potentially, years. Once you have that mind, it gives you that reference point to go back and say no.
Rob: I would edit this one a bit. In the article, Kerola says that you absolutely must know your unique value proposition and your mission statement. For me, the unique value proposition comes way before a mission statement because the mission statement is that global thing of like, “Google wants to organize the world’s information.” I don’t think you know that from the start; very few people do especially if you’re bootstrapped, you’re doing customer development or even funded for that matter.
I know I often say that if you’re bootstrapped, then blah, blah, blah, but it applies to both in so many cases that if you’re just trying to figure out what to build, I don’t know that your mission statement matters as much as you’re honing in on a solution for your folks for the people who are using you or asking for you to make changes to the app. It’s like, “What separates you from the other solutions on the market?” and that’s what your unique value proposition is, the UVP. It’s UVP or USP, unique selling proposition, but it’s what makes you different.
When you’re building out an email solution, it’s like, “Well, how are you different than Yesware or than MailChimp, and you’ve just got to hone in on that because, if you’re not different, then it’s just a “me too” play. It’s possible to make a living doing that. It’s possible to build a business. Certainly, people have done it but it’s so much harder because you’re just going to be slogging it out for sales that you still don’t have enough of a differentiator. If you’re going to build something that’s a “me too” play, then you need to find a unique traffic source. You need to be really good at SEO and rank in the top three and outrank everybody else and just expect that a certain amount of people are going to sign up without looking at your competitions. There are ways to do this but, in my book, trying to figure out early on how you’re going to be differentiated from the competition is probably the number one thing I’d look at.
Mike: The next item on the list is that what you’re putting together your growth plans, you should focus on actions, not just not the numbers that you need to hit. I think both of them are absolutely important but, without those numbers, you don’t know what it is you’re trying to achieve but, without the actions, you’re never going to be able to achieve them because those actions are critical to being able to meet whatever numbers you put on paper. Based on the numbers, you can backtrack from there and decide what actions need to be taken in order to get that point.
I think in a previous episode, we’ve talked about, basically, mapping out what your goals look like and reverse based on the endpoint that you’re trying to reach and then backtracking from there. “What is it do I need to do before to I get to that point?” and continuing along that path but you need to have those actions and decide what order those actions need to be taken because, if you’re not doing it in the right order or you’re doing it in the wrong places–for example, if you want to do SEO on your website, that’s great and all in order to increase the footprint but what pages are the ones that you should start with. Certain pageants are just not going to matter at all versus other ones, and being able to prioritize those is critical.
Rob: I have mixed thoughts about this one. I agree that it should focus on both, in my opinion. I like focusing on actions, of course, because of exactly what you said and what she says in the article because, then, you’re just delivering–as Ellie said, you’re making those hard phone calls a day, not focusing on the end result and making X sails, but you’re just putting in the work. I’m also motivated by numbers and I’m motivated by the success of seeing things grow. I like to have a goal to strive for that’s not just going through the motions.
I know this is not just saying go through the motions but I think I could fall into the trap if I’m not also keeping my eye on the numbers of just doing things during the day. I think a lot of people can fall under that type. It’s like my actions are to tweet this and to do a blogpost. To do some Instagram on social media–and that could be your plan, but it’s like you have to then measure and make sure that’s moving the numbers, and maybe that’s where I’m kind of nitpicking this one, is I think it should be heavily correlated. You can’t attribute everything to numbers but, man, if you’re not getting out of the plan you’re doing, then you have to change that up. I think that’s where I’m saying–I think I focused on both actions and numbers.
Mike: Maybe focus is a wrong way to put it. It needs to include both as opposed to should focus on one or the other. If you have a growth plan and it’s just, “Hey, these are the numbers that I want to hit,” it’s going to be useless. You have to have those actions as well. If you’re going to go through those actions, you also need to do some sort of measurements and have numbers that you’re going to hit afterwards because, if you’re just doing actions, as you said, and you’re not getting any results of out it, then why are you doing those things? The critical piece here is where you have to have both; it’s not just one or the other.
Moving on, the next one is to optimize for growth, not leads, and it kind of ties back a little back to the growth plan. If you are optimizing for adding, let’s say, newsletter subscribes. That’s great and all, but how are you getting them through the rest of your funnel? Are you trying to optimize them to get them to become activated or sign up to download other things from your newsletter? Are you trying to get them over to the pricing page? What is it that you’re trying to get them to do next?
You need to track the customer or that prospect through the entire sales because, if you’re not doing that, then you can’t track those numbers and you have no way to identify how many people are moving from one step to the next. By tracking those things, it allows you to get rid of the lower IRO activities that you’re doing because those are time and money sinks, and it’s just going to take up a lot of your time and attention. You could be using to spend on other higher IRO activities because those are the things that are generated in better leaves and those and those better leads become better customers because they’re going to seek around for longer and because they’re a better fir for you.
Rob: This reminds me of a couple of conversations I’ve had over the years with folks who are measuring too early in the funnel. I was talking to one sort of founder who said, “Yeah, I have 10,000 uniques a month in my website. How many uniques do you have?” I was like, “That doesn’t matter.” It really doesn’t matter unless we’re talking about certain things but if we’re talking about just making sales, it’s like, “How many trials did you get out of that? How many converted to paid? How many stuck around for more than two or three months?”
It’s like, “Go deeper in the funnel,” which is essentially what this is saying: Don’t get hung up on these top-of-the-funnel metrics. Now, the top-of-the-funnel metrics can be important because they obviously feed the later metrics, but if you’re not closing and retaining people, you are leaking people out of the bottom of your funnel and you’re never going to grow the business. What’s funny is I think it was the same conversation. The guy said he had 10,000 uniques and, at the time, DotNetInvoice was doing 1000 uniques or 1500, but it was doing three or four grand a month, and he was blown away by that because he’s doing way more than his app.
I was like, “It’s because a lot of people who come–it’s highly-targeted traffic and so many of the people who come buy,” and it’s $300.00 a month. There all these reasons why the math work but it was just a head-exploding thing. Really, it’s just mass. It’s just, “Look at the top and you’re going to lose certain people out of each step of that funnel, whether it’s to a demo or to a trial, and then it’s to paid, and then it’s how long they stuck around. With the rules-of-thumb that we frequently covered in this podcast–have covered in talks, have covered in blog posts and such–you can tell which step of the funnel you need to focus on. That’s the biggest thing, is optimizing for growth means focus on that part of the funnel where you have the opportunity to make the biggest difference.
As you grow your app, that is going to move. It’s going to move down the funnel. Probably, early on, it’s going to be like, “Oh my, gosh. We’re not retaining anyone,” and it’s like, “Well, it’s because you don’t have product market fit,” and this can be like, “Oh my, gosh. No one’s setting up for a trial.” It’s because your marketing’s off with your product market fit now. Then, it’s like, “Oh my, gosh. We don’t have nearly enough people hitting our website. It’s like, “Yeah, it’s because you haven’t been focusing on marketing; you’ve been focusing on customer development and building your product.” You’re going to move up and then you’ll probably move the other way and move right back down one to two years in your product, assuming that you have something that’s reasonably successfully.
That actually takes us to our next one, which I think is Points 5 or 6, and it’s track the right metrics. It’s things like monthly recurring revenue, cost per acquisition, cost to acquire a customer and your lifetime value. You obviously need to look at top-of-funnel stuff like, “How many uniques to my website? How many trials am I getting? What is the visit-to-trial percentage? What is the trial-to-paid percentage?” You need to look at those, but those are not as important as the ones I just said, because the ones that MRR, cost per acquisition and the lifetime value are the ones that are optimizing for growth.
A loose rule of thumb is that lifetime value should be greater than or equal three times your cost to acquire a customer. That means it’s a solid acquisition channel if you can make those numbers line up. Now, one thing to say is that what holds true for funded companies and, typically, if you’re funded, you want to acquire a customer for less than one year of their value to you. The average revenue per user or even the revenue for this particular user is $20.00. Then, no matter how long they stick around or even if they stick around five years, if you’re funded, you tend to want to spend less than about $240.00 to acquire that person because it’s $20.00 times 12.
Now, if you’re not funded, cash is a real issue. Typically, I see folks wanting to keep their customer acquisition costs between two and four months of what they’re going to get back from that customer. I remember we hit tail on them on them with Drip as we got more money coming in, we extended that out to 5, and then 6, and then 7 and then you learn to manage your cash and you learn that this month’s cash is coming in and I can now spend more and more to acquire. The more you can spend, the more customers you can put through the funnel. You can’t do this without tracking the right metrics and you have to keep in mind not just these loose rules of thumb that are thrown around for fun in companies but, if you’re bootstrapped, it’s going to be a little bit of a tighter grip on that purse unless you have a big bucket of funding that you’re pulling from.
Mike: Just to reiterate on that piece that Rob had commented on, if you’re bootstrapped, you really want to get your money back a lot quicker if you can with Bluetick I’m going through the same thing where it’s very difficult to allocate a lot of money and resources towards acquiring customers in certain channels just because I know that it’s going to take a heck of a lot longer, and the reality is I just don’t have the money to be able to dump a lot in because if you–let’s say it costs you $500.00 to acquire a customer and, yes, you’ll get $1,500.00 out of it, but it’s going to take you a full year to get there. You can end up going broke if you try and dump all your money into that. You kind of have to play long ball there.
The point of that particular anecdote is that everything takes a lot longer than you want it to. You’re going to have to truck your funnel activity over a longer period of time, you’re probably going to get your lifetime value from these customers in a much longer period of time than you would like to, your tests will take longer to complete, then you’re going to have to analyze them and act on them, but everything is going to take a lot longer than you would like it to. That includes goals and stuff that you put forward as well. If you decide that, “Hey, we’re going to do this marketing campaign and we expect it to take 3 or 4 weeks,” it’s probably going to take you 5 or 6 if not longer just because of all the other things that are going on that are going to demand your attention in the business. Support tickets will come up, things like that, and it just takes longer to do just about everything.
Rob: Our second-to-last lesson you’ll wish you’d learned sooner is to publish with intent, and it’s basically to have a strategy behind what you publish to provide value in a consumable format, value quality over quantity and to track performance and double down on promoting content that does well. Five years ago, quantity actually went out over quality, not in every case but people just cranked out–companies that were cranking out 1 post a week, and then 3, and then 5, and then literally 10 a week twice a day during the week were winning the SEO game and the content marketing game.
That has switched. That’s changed up. Now, folks are focusing on much longer pieces of content, really pillar content, The Ultimate Guide to This and The Definitive Guide to That that might be 20-30,000 words, half the length of the book, and they make it available as a download but also, for the SEO, put it in HTML format. It’s fewer and bigger bats is what it is, and then you double down on the ones that work and you walk away from the ones that don’t. That’s essentially what Kerola’s talking about here.
Mike: The last SaaS marketing lesson you’ll wish you’d learned sooner is that prospects are people. Pretty much everybody on your mailing list that has signed up for it at some point, there’s a person behind every single one of those email addressed. People don’t generally like to be sold to; what they enjoy in going to a website is going to educate them because you’re the expert in a particular space and they’re trying to learn from you. Moving on from that, once you have established that trust, then you’re going to be able to sell your product to them, but it’s more of a situation where they’re the ones who are deciding that they’re going to take that next step.
This is mainly because it is an online marketing scenario. If you are in a direct sales demo, then you are essentially pitching, but you’re on that schedule within whatever the time of that meeting is, but when they’re coming to your website, they’re on their own schedule, and they can pick and choose when they’re going to move forward and you have very, very little control over it. The reality is you have to treat them like a person when you’re interacting with them through the mailing list and take time to build that trust; don’t try to pitch, pitch, pitch because it’s just simply not going to work. Going the education route, helping them to become better at whatever it is that they’re trying to do is going to be much more effective than trying to build all of the trust in a particular email and then sell them on a particular touch point. They’re not just going to go come to your website and buy something on the first shot.
Rob: Yeah, there are very few products that you can sell with one touch point. Often, info products are this way because they tend to be impulse purchases and you can put time constraints and reward pressure and all that stuff, and that is one reason that info marketers have these big splashy launches, is that it’s not a recurring payment. It’s just aspirational and you can sell a lot more of something when it’s aspirational. When it’s software, it requires people’s time and so, as you’re saying, folks are very unlikely to come and buy the first time and there does have to be some type of trust or relationship built up.
Now, there are ways to shortcut this. One of the ways is to have social proof, in essence, to have other people vouch for you. I should back up and say the first way to do it is just to build your own audience. You don’t have to do that to start a product. There’s a bunch of people who do it without ever having an audience of people that follow them. I’ve done it several times with several products, and it’s totally doable and it’s not a bad way to go. I don’t think building an audience is the only way to do it.
However, these days, it is easier than ever to build an audience if that’s your thing. You can do that to build trust in advance. The problem is you have to have a massive list. Let’s say you have a list of 1,000 people who are really following you and you want to sell a SaaS product that’s $10.00 or $20.00 a month. You’re not going to get to critical mass that way. You’re just not going to sell enough licenses or subscriptions to your software to make that work.
If you’re selling a book and you have 1,000 people really following you, you might sell 300 or 400 copies of that book. It would be an ambitious amount, but I’ve done it myself. My first book did that. That is enough to kind of get a ball rolling that could potentially result in stuff down the line. Those are kind of the two sides of building the audience yourself. Another way to do it, as I was saying earlier, is that the next step is to kind of have other people vouch for you, and whether that means testimonials or whether that means they’ll do joint webinars with you, in some way, endorsing your product, saying that they use it, assuming that they do.
That’s another way to kind of shortcut that trust and get growth faster than having to educate everyone individually about why they should trust you, and that was one thing that Clay Collins did really well in the early days of Leadpages, was to do the webinar model and to do with it a bunch of his internet marketing friends who would vouch for Leadpages because they were using it, and then, there you go, you have access to literally hundreds of thousands of people even though your audience is not that large.
That’s just one angle of this “prospects are people” but the real thing to think about is that every prospect, every person, makes their own decision based on what they know about you and the product and what they’ve heard about you and the product. It’s something to keep in mind, that just numbers and conversion rates can help you forget much to your detriment. To recap, the 9 SaaS marketing lessons you’ll wish you’d learn sooner are, number one, find your high expectation customer; number two, don’t sell to everyone; number three, have a mission statement; number four, growth plan should focus on actions and not numbers; number five, optimize for growth, not leads; number six, track the right metrics; number seven, everything takes time; number eight, publish with intent; and, number nine, prospects are people.
If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 8888-01-9690 or record an MP3 and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Out of Control by Moot, used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for startups and visit Startups for the Rest of Us 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 check in with their 2018 goals, and answer listener questions on topics including raising funding and marketing at events.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups For the Rest of Us, Mike and I revisit our 2018 goals, talk about raising funding, marketing, and events, and we answer more and listen to questions. This is Startups For the Rest of Us, episode 396.
Welcome to Startups For the Rest of Us. The podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: I’m Mike.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, sir?
Mike: Well, I recorded a video this morning for Bluetick with somebody who’s starting a partner program and we basically walked through a process for doing LinkedIn prospecting and then feeding the prospects into Bluetick to do the email follow ups and get people onto a scheduled call, which is kind of the whole premise or at least the starting point for where Bluetick really started anyway. It’s good to see that it’s making, I’ll say, not really making a name for itself, but it’s going to be getting out there into much more people’s hands.
Rob: Do you consider Bluetick more of a cold email tool or a warm email tool?
Mike: A warm email. It does work for cold email, but cold email is basically a subset of warm email, so really like with cold email you’re just trying to make that initial contact and there’s lots of companies out there that do.
But, typically, once you’ve gotten them to reply, then they are completely hands-off, whereas, with Bluetick I’m trying to do a lot of things to structure it such that it will help you manage the conversation moving from the point where you’ve initially made contact, all the way up to the point where they become a customer, and then even after they’ve become a customer, still managing some of that sales communication, the upsells and things like that or even if somebody stops becoming a customer, you can add them into an email sequence that’s like an offboarding email sequence, for example, and feed that information back into the system, so that’s the general direction, I’ll say.
Rob: For sure. Cool. From my end, I have a couple of more podcast recommendations that came to us via Twitter and our comment thread for episode 395. Then, I have a couple of books I want to talk about that I have attempted to or have been listening to.
The two podcasts that came through, one is from Josh Duty and he is a longtime listener and MicroConf attendee, and he talked about EconTalk, which is a podcast I’ve never heard of.
He said it’s a must listen podcast for your list. I’ve listened to every episode and it’s probably the single most valuable intellectual resource I found. It’s great for understanding economics, but he’s branched out to interviews and lots of other areas over the past years. I can’t recommend it enough, so interesting podcasts. I’ll certainly add it to my list and listen to a few episodes and see if it strikes my fancy.
The other podcast is called Exponent and it’s recommended by Joe Hopkins. He says, “Hey, Rob and Mike, thanks for sharing your podcast list. You might like Exponent by Ben Thompson, the creator of the Stratechery blog,” I like the blog a lot. “It explores the business models and strategies of major tech players like Google, Apple, Uber, Facebook. Somewhat contrary, but provides a different point of view, more well-thought-out point of view than a lot of media.”
Those are two to potentially add to your podcatcher and then a couple of books that I’ve been listening to. One that I really like is called Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in Silicon Valley and it’s the story of Theranos. Have you heard of Theranos, Mike?
Mike: Yes, I have.
Rob: So you know the story of how it imploded, so the author John Carreyrou is basically walking through the whole history and he interviewed a bunch of people and particularly got emails and he’s doing direct quotes. It kind of feels a little bit like a Nick Bilton, like a hatching Twitter or a book like that where week by week it tells the story.
The founder of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes was like 19, maybe. She dropped out started when she was 19, but it was definitely in her early 20s and she had this youthful hubris, and so young, and so naïve, and she basically was like faking demos early on with this.
It was basically a patch that was supposed to take blood samples and look at stuff in the blood and the product never worked is an essence what, it sounds like, this book is saying. They would fake demos even to investors and they would fake demos to potential clients like Pfizer and these big drug companies.
It’s just mind-blowing, it’s like you just can’t do that, but it was like she had this reality distortion field they were saying she was trying to be Steve Jobs and she switched to kind of a wardrobe of wearing black turtlenecks, and she would bully her people, and they would just turn over constantly, turned over the entire senior leadership team over the course of a year. They turned over most of the employees and then they would just hire new ones.
It’s just this insane tale of like mismanagement hubris and thinking that the end justify the means and they would sue anyone. Like the employees would leave and then they would like sue them if they spoke out at all. It was like they were trying to keep everybody silent to the fact that this thing didn’t work.
Anyways, I’m probably 25% of the way in. It’s a really good story. It’s a little bit aggravating, because she thinks she’s Steve Jobs and that always pisses me off. It’s so irritating when people take that tact of like, “Well, he did it and so I can do it, too.” But it’s like, “Yeah, but it worked for him and you’re not going to be able to reproduce that.”
Anyways, it’s something that if you can stomach it, it’s kind of painful to listen to but if you can stomach it, it’s a really well told story.
Mike: Awesome. Yeah, I’ve seen them in the news quite a bit and, obviously, like all of the stuff that’s coming out after the fact, so I definitely kind of seen the inside scoop on some of that. I totally agree with you about people who are going out and thinking, “Oh, I’m going to be the next Steve Jobs and the end justify the means.”
That can be true to an extent, but you have to be successful at it, because if you’re not then the whole thing is going to implode, like there’s no way around that, like you’re really skating on thin ice, and you can’t violate the law when you’re doing that either, you just can’t.
Rob: That was a big problem and that’s the thing. It’s like when you look at someone like Steve Jobs who people say really was very hard to work with and he was a bully, and he just had all these really odd traits, but he figured out a way to make it work. One of the ways is that he was a deca millionaire by the time he was 21, and that kind of helped like they have that success with the Apple 1 and the Apple 2.
If you don’t have that, and you try to have this attitude, and you basically burn all of these bridges, and you burn out all of your people, and you burn your relationships like it just crumbles, and the odds of you then even achieving that first success just plummet in my opinion, so it’s a tough one.
The other book that I started reading or listening to and then just bailed on it, if anyone is considering reading this book, I really didn’t enjoy, it’s called Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story and it follows like three or four aspiring founders in a sense, but it really doesn’t.
I get the feeling the book really didn’t know what it was about. It was just kind of wandering and it talked about the Thiel Fellowship and then it talked about these founders doing stuff, and eventually I was just like, “I just don’t care about the people and I don’t care about the stories that are going on,” which is a bit disappointing because I loved these tales of startups but, again, if you’re going to come out listening to it, I would probably or reading it, I would probably recommend maybe skipping that one.
Something else I wanted to do today Mike is revisit our 2018 goals. It is approaching midway through the year and I think we talked about them back in maybe February or March. We have listener questions that we’re going to dive into, but I think it’s always helpful to kind of get status updates a couple times a year as we progress to figure out where are we with our goals, have our goals changed, and just trying to check where we’re at.
Mike: I guess I’ll kick things off, one of my carryover goals was logging at least 100 days worth of exercise this coming year and I’ll say the first couple of months I was a little lax just because I had a lot of things going on, but I am happy to say I think the last month I logged 13 days at the gym, so slowly getting up there. I think I’m a little bit behind right now. I’m thinking around 130 or so something like that.
It’s June now, by the end of June, I should be at 50, so if I did 20 days which is probably unlikely this month, just because I know I’m going to be gone for a week for family vacation. Then, I would get to about halfway, so I’m slightly behind, but I think that I’m definitely optimistic that I’ll be able to catch up and hit that goal this year.
Rob: Very cool. My first goal was to write a virtual reality program that allows me to roll around in a mattress of bitcoins. Wait, that was the goal that you set for me, remember that?
Mike: Yes, I do. How’s that coming, by the way?
Rob: I’ve not started doing that yet.
Mike: You’ve got seven more months.
Rob: I do. It’s not even going to be VR, it’s just going to be an R program, a reality program, where I actually roll on a mattress of bitcoins, a bunch of thumb drives. No, my first serious goal was to be in fewer meetings, under 10.
Mike: I think you cheated on this.
Rob: Under 10 hours a week.
Mike: You cheated.
Rob: I didn’t.
Mike: You cheated.
Rob: I did not know in December of 2017 what was going to happen in 2018, but I have nailed this one, Mike, just nailed it.
Mike: I’m sorry, man. You cheated.
Rob: No, man, I love it. I love it. So for those who aren’t understanding what we’re laughing about is by leaving Drip at the end of April, basically, I’m in almost no meetings now. This is probably the only recurring meeting I have on my calendar now as you and I recording, so I definitely achieved that. I’m looking forward to maintaining that through the rest of the year.
Mike: My other carryover goal was to make Bluetick profitable, including my time. So far I’m cautiously optimistic on this one, revenue has been going up, cleared kind of another hurdle this past month, so moving things forward.
I don’t know, I’ve got a couple of annual plans that I’ve sold as well, so those are definitely helpful in terms of the revenue. Like I said, I’ll keep people posted on it. I don’t know how much of the numbers I’m actually comfortable sharing at this point, but we’ll see. It’s something I kind of have to think about.
Rob: Do you feel like you’re on track for this by December or is it, it depends?
Mike: I don’t know if it’s an it depends. I mean, obviously, it depends, but I think the issue is like there are certain pieces of it that I’d really like to have in place for teams. I’ve had a couple of conversations lately with companies that have teams and I know that they want to add multiple people in, and it sort of supports that right now, but it’s not a great experience.
I’m just curious or I question how interested they’ll be once they see how it actually works versus what their expectations may be, and it could be just like by the time I get them to the point where they’re signed on, and on-boarded, then I’ve got that stuff in place, and it doesn’t matter, but I don’t necessarily want to churn them out before then either, do you know what I mean?
Rob: Yup, I totally do. So if this happens, keeping this goal, do you feel like it’ll be in the last couple months of the year?
Mike: Yeah. I mean, I definitely think that it’s going to be a later rather than sooner thing. The other thing is like summer right now, so I don’t expect a whole lot of it, a lot of Bluetick to be sold over the next couple of months. But once the end of August hits, I would expect things to kind of start ramping up again.
It’s also like, because it’s summer though, and I know that companies feel like the summer kind of trends downward, email follow up––interest in it might go up, because they know that they’re going to have to follow up with people more, so it may save them time. I’m not sure. It’s hard to say.
Rob: It was interesting. What I was seeing seasonally with really most of my apps, that include SaaS, and non-SaaS that I’ve owned is certainly December tends to be a train wreck, with one time purchase software, it would plummet. I remember doing an invoice plummeting like 80%.
Not every December, but there were months when it would do 1/5 of the revenue that it had done in November. But SaaS apps tend to be pretty flat in December unless you specifically get around that and do promotions and such. Then, right around tax time, it was either April or May, it would tend to not be great months.
I never noticed dips in the summer and what’s interesting is growing up in California, we really don’t have strong seasons. I mean, there’s rainy season and then there’s a lot of sun and there’s drought season, which typically in the last seven years. But, really like my work didn’t slow down in the summer like it does now that I live here, like living in Minneapolis, like I want to work a lot less, and you’ve talked about this, too.
It’s like if you live in a place where it’s snowy and the winter sucks, I feel like I get more work done in the winter, because I’m indoors and then less work done in the sunny times of the year. Whereas, again, in California, that just wasn’t the thing. We just kind of work year-round, because it was kind of the same.
I guess it depends on where your customers are coming from. I would not anticipate that the summer is going to be flat for your growth. I just don’t think. I think people are still doing business and they’re still thinking about it now. Certainly, if you have a lot of Europeans as your market and you’re looking to do something in August, I bet that month is terrible because I know a lot of folks go on month long vacations then, and there are other factors playing to it, but all of that said, I would not count on any growth in December for you.
Then, I think from now until, basically, Thanksgiving, which is the last week of November, I think you’ve got a pedal to the metal this time.
Mike: Cool, that’s comforting, I guess, but we’ll see how the actual numbers shake out. Predictions are worth what you paid for them, I guess.
Rob: Exactly. My next goal was to do at least three days of exercise per week. I have far exceeded that. I’m probably averaging five days a week, and when I was still working the day job I was hitting three then. Sometimes a day of exercise is like it’s 10 or 15 minutes.
It’s just what I can get and it might be a quick bike ride around the lake, which is like 3 miles, so it’s not the longest ride of all time or I’ll do like a 10 minute CrossFit thing, but just something to get the heart rate up, and that’s been going. So I feel like I probably need to, I don’t know if I want to increase this for next year, but definitely I’m meeting and exceeding that goal, and it feels good to do that.
This is the first year, probably, ever or I mean since college that I have consistently exercised.
Mike: Next one on my list was to read one business book at least every two weeks and I think at this point I actually might kill this one. I’ve only read a couple, but with my backing off of podcasts earlier in the year, I’ve been backing off of like just consumption of stuff in general, I don’t know if this is even realistic even if I were to try at this point, like I just don’t see it happening, so I think I want to kill this one.
Rob: I think it’s a good one. I would agree with you. I feel like it’s a distraction from your real goal, which is to stay physically healthy with exercise and to get your business to the place of profitability. Cool.
My last goal for 2018 was to ship something. I wrote a little paragraph in December when we originally talked about this and it said this, I’m not sure what it’s going to be yet, but I’ve been laying low for about 18 months, 2017 was supposed to be a rest year, and it was a hard year. So the first part of 2018 is going to continue to be rest, but I need to start shipping, either consistent blog posts, a book, a new podcast, of course, software or something.
I will say that Sherry and I shipped the entrepreneurs guide to keeping your shit together, which Sherry did the vast majority of the work on that, but I assisted with the launch, and the promotion, and writing the copy and writing emails and stuff like that to market it. In addition, we have a course that is coming out.
It’s actually a good time to talk about it actually. I haven’t talked about it yet on the podcast, but if you go to ZenFounder.com, one of the products under the how we help menu is founder family date night video course, and it’s a six-part video course. It’s 20 minutes to kind of get you in the mindset of something and then there’s a handout that you take and you’re supposed to go on a date with your significant other, it’s all about keeping you connected.
Founders don’t have a lot of time and don’t have a lot of head space in general to connect with the person that probably is the most important to them, their life partner, their significant other, and that’s what this course is designed to do is just shortcut that and give you pre-built stuff to go and have a conversation about different topics. If you’re interested in learning about that, you can always go and sign up for the ZenFounder mailing list, and we’ll be selling that probably in the next few weeks, I believe.
I was involved to filming, there was a half day or full day of filming, and then I’ve been involved honing the landing page and the copy stuff. It definitely feels like I am keeping busy. It feels good, so I don’t know. I guess the verdict is out. I feel like those count towards this goal of shipping something in quotes to kind of ramp up, and I’m guessing in 2019 I’ll need to be a little more specific and perhaps a little more ambitious with this one.
Mike: The other goals on my list, the first one was hire somebody to take over Bluetick development, and the second one was to speak at six plus conferences or events this coming year. I’ve spoken at two so far. I’ve not reached out to people to expand my profile or whatever to get on the docket for different speaking engagements, so I’m not sure how that one is going to turn out, so we’ll kind of see how that plays out.
But the other one for hiring somebody to take over Bluetick development, I’m wondering if I should actually change this from Bluetick development to implementing certain marketing strategies, because I think at this point I don’t think that I could hire somebody at the level that I need to take over Bluetick development.
I just don’t think that I could afford it. I do think that I could outsource certain parts of like marketing, sort of like different marketing campaigns, for example like, “Hey, I need this to be done and these are the things that…” like scope out what needs to get done, and then hire somebody to do them.
When I had, for example, all of the copy rewritten for the website, that was something that was a lot easier to outsource, because it was skilled labor, but it needed to get done, and it was an expertise that was, I’ll say somewhat unfamiliar to me, and it was easier to just hand it off to somebody else versus with the Bluetick development, there’s a lot of stuff there and it’d be, I think, really hard it and really expensive to hire somebody. I don’t know that given where I’m at and my goals for making it profitable by the end of the year, I don’t think that I could get there, not without funding, for example.
Rob: What was the mindset behind that goal?
Mike: It was to allow me to do the marketing. That was it. It was because I needed time to do the marketing and the development stuff needed to get to a certain point and it is, I would say, that it’s not necessarily too far off. There’s a few, I’d say, two or three major things that need to get done in terms of development and then I could probably push much more harder on the marketing side of things.
I don’t know, it’s a balancing act, I’ll say, do you know what I mean? Because like I said there’s just tons of code there and it’s all in different technologies and it’s just hard to find somebody who’s familiar with most of them.
Rob: Yeah, it always is. I mean, it’s always a balancing act, like you’re saying. That’s like the struggle of starting up from a standing stop and trying to get something to the point that is profitable. These are definitely the hardest and most uncertain time, so you may adjust that goal then is to hire someone to help take over other stuff.
Rob: Cool. Well, now that we’ve done that, we’ll probably visit these again in three or four months. Let’s dive into a few listener questions. Our first voicemail is actually a listener success story.
Kevin: Mike and Rob, Kevin Wagstaff here from Spectora. I wanted to call in and give you guys a long overdue thank you. We have taken our company Spectora as a bootstrap startup from zero to 40 MRR in 16 months. We launched January 2017 after many months of listening to every single one of your podcasts and we have come out the gate screaming, so we’ve had ton of success I wanted to share with you guys. I hope to be on your success stories at some point and may be even be on the show. We’ve learned so much from you, thanks.
Mike: Congratulations to Kevin. That’s awesome news that you’ve gotten that far with Spectora in such a short amount of time. It sounds like you’ve really gotten a lot of value out of the podcast and really appreciate you just ringing back and letting us know that you’ve been able to take your business to the next level because of it.
Rob: Yeah, that’s awesome to hear. Just one note there, he said zero to 40 MRR, obviously, that meant 40,000, so that’s a perfect bootstrap startup to do that in 16 months, it’s pretty sweet. They’re in, it looks like, home inspections software space, which I’m imagining could be both challenging, but also a challenging vertical, would also one that if you got in there and you become kind of the name, it would be really, really hard to topple you from that.
The next question is actually a comment from Matthias Bedard from SWAAAP.com. It looks like SWAAAP has three A’s, SWAAAP.com.
He says, “Hey, Rob. I’ve thought I’d reach out and congratulate you on the Drip acquisition and your current unemployed status. I was listening to your parents on the Rogue Startups podcast, that was on a couple weeks ago, and I found your take on micro fundraising interesting, since that’s more or less what we have done. It’s cool because we’ve been able to maintain control on most of the company, but we have had to put in a lot of our own money, spent a lot of time applying for government grants, and take on a lot of side projects to keep the lights on. In the end I’m glad we took the route we took. We’ve definitely learned a lot doing so. I treasure the learning experience, but I think if we had an investor or someone on board with more knowledge of the SaaS base, and monetization strategies, we could have moved faster and take more advantage of some of the tech we’ve built, like our event matchmaking platform. I’m also an avid listener of Startups For the Rest of Us. I just want to say I really appreciate that you guys take the time to throw a bit of your knowledge out every week, cheers.”
It sounds like they didn’t take funding, but they wish they had that he feels like it would have kept them from having to do the side projects, the government grants, and, basically, they said they had to put a lot of their own money into it. It’s an interesting take on it.
Mike: Well, that’s always the trade-off, like if you take money, then you don’t have to do those things, but you also are going to have to give up some or probably more control of the company, so it’s just a matter of like how much you’re willing to give up, and sacrifice in exchange for that equity.
Rob: Our next question is a voicemail from a longtime listener and a question asker, his name is Owen, and we’ll roll that right here.
Owen: Hey, Rob and Mike, this is Owen from Bitesize Irish Gaelic. I’m a long-time listener, so I have to start by saying thanks so much for all of the information, and knowledge, and opinions that you have shared over the years.
I remember Rob talking about thinking about doing something different after HitTail, I think, and then it turned out to be Drip, and then it turned out to be selling Drip after growing it, and ending your time there, Rob. It was really cool to follow that whole journey, so thanks for sharing it along the way.
My question is, I have what you would say is against wisdom, it’s a B2C SaaS app for learning the Irish language. We tag people outside of Ireland, so they’re the people who emotionally want to make a connection to their Irish heritage by learning to speak some of that language. There are local groups that get together. They have immersion weekends, yearly events in different places.
My question is how would you think about trying to tap into those audiences to get our app in front of those people? Like, probably, I’m thinking sponsoring an event and getting our logo displayed just wouldn’t do anything. The one idea I did have was asking the organizers to send a direct email to attendees and offer some kind of discount for our app that they could click through. Anyway, if you have any thoughts, ideas, I’d appreciate it, and thanks a lot for your time, anyway, see you.
Mike: I have a bunch of thoughts on this, so there’s two answers to this. First one is a general thing that says that if you’re going to try and market at an event or sponsor an event that you’re not attending, it’s probably not going to work. I say that in reference more to larger events, so if you’re talking 100 to 200 people or larger than that, it’s probably not going to get you nearly as much as if you were to attend it.
But it sounds like Owen is after from the sounds of it like an immersion weekend where it’s probably not a huge number of people. You’re probably talking less than 50 and I think in those cases what you could do is you could approach the organizer and say, “Hey, I’ve got this workshop in a box that you could give to everybody there.”
Take an hour to go through and give them all of the materials for it, and then see if they’ll go through that workshop as part of like whatever your sponsorship is for the immersion weekend. From there, once the people are done with that workshop, then, you give them a handout of like, “Hey, here’s a coupon code that you can go and sign up for this if you’re interested in hearing more about it.”
That way they get to experience it and somebody is personally delivering it and that person is not you, but I think that you have to do a really good job about that, Bitesize Irish Gaelic in a box thing that you send to them. I wouldn’t shy away from sending them something physical, where they’ve got handouts and things like that, and just ask them, “Hey, how many people do you have?”
That can be part of what you’re doing as sponsorship, because when they walk away from the event with something in their hand, they’re much more likely to be interested and they have that thing that they can always reference as opposed to something when it gets sent in an email, which may easily get lost or overlooked, but it avoids the spam filters as well.
That’s probably my advice for something like that. Generally speaking though, sponsoring an event from afar isn’t something that generally works, but I was a member of Friends of Redgate program for a while.
One of the things that they did was they would send their Friends of Redgate around in exchange for giving them free software they would have them do demos essentially on their behalf. It worked out well in both directions, but it got them the marketing experience or the marketing exposure that they needed to smaller groups by having somebody just do the demo, and that person-to-person interaction is really the key.
Rob: That’s what I was thinking. If you could find a way that the organizer or someone there could do a demo and if you sponsor the food that they eat or whatever, even whatever amount of money you decide, it’s worth to test out. You have them do a demo and I guess the trouble there is if you think they’re not going to do a good job of it, then maybe you have to record your 60-minute Screencast commercial in essence that they play it at the beginning, and then they do get something. I like getting mentioned in the email, so that it’ll remind them, as Mike said, it could go in spam filters or could get misplace, but I think it’s the multiple touch points.
You want to get mentioned at the start. You then want to have that software somehow demoed, so people can get their heads around it, because typically most non-techies struggle to understand how software is going to help them and so seeing how easy it is or seeing what it actually does I think would be the game changer, and I think if you can’t get a demo, and like you said if you just get your logo somewhere or you just get a screenshot, I don’t think it’s worth even a small amount of money to do it, but getting the software working in front of them, I think, is a much bigger deal.
Mike: Well, that’s why I said the workshop in a box thing, because if it’s like an immersion weekend, you’re not guaranteed to have an internet connection either. So by having it there, it gets around that, and then if you give them a video file that they can play it locally through an iPad or a laptop or something like that, then that gets around to any internet connectivity problems that you might have.
I also wouldn’t go with like an hour-long demo. I might do five minutes to open like a video and you talking about it, and then have the organizers essentially manage the rest of it for whatever it is like half hour or 45 minutes or something like that. But it really has to be the right event for that kind of thing. I think it’d be hard to do it if it was immersion weekend for some other language or something like that, I think it would be tough.
Rob: I like your idea. I think that workshop in a box is a really savvy approach. Our last question for the day is about the IP of feature requests, IP standing for intellectual property. It’s from Scott and he says, “Can you guys talk about accepting feature requests from users of SaaS apps? Are there any IP concerns or something we should add in our terms of service to cover feature requests and ideas submitted by users?” What do you think, Mike?
Mike: That is a really good question and I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know. I don’t know, I would think like having an idea for something that should be added to a product is not something you could ever ask them to put in there and then have any expectation that they’re going to do it, and that you would own it, because it was your idea.
It seems to me like that’s a foregone conclusion, but maybe there’s something in most Terms of Service that say specifically that ideas submitted are not subject to that, and you’ll get no compensation for them. I don’t know, it’s not something I’ve really given a lot of thought to.
Rob: I’m also not a lawyer, but I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve never noticed anything like that in terms of service and I haven’t read a lot of them, but I read enough terms of service, when I’ve had lawyers draw them up for me that I’ve never noticed that offhand. You could certainly just go to a big company, look at GitHub or Dropboxes or Leadpages or Drip’s terms of service, because they have big legal teams who draft these things up.
If there’s no precedent for anyone ever suing and somehow taking ownership of an idea they sent you or posted on some board, then there probably isn’t anything in this terms of service, and you’re probably fine.
Also if you wanted to throw one sentence in, just like any feature requests or ideas submitted become the property of us, you could do that. I want to say I’ve never heard of anyone being sued over something like this or even it being an issue where people requesting things feel like they own the idea or something. I don’t know, I’ve just never thought about it in all honesty.
Mike: I think that about wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at email@example.com.
Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Out of Control by MoOt” used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for startups, and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer marketing and growth questions as well as give advice on starting a new venture.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of the Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be answering marketing and growth questions. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 393.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products, whether you built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: I’m Rob.
Mike: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week, Rob?
Rob: You know man, I appreciated that you and Zander pulled the joke on me and put unemployed on my badge at MicroConf. It was hilarious. Everybody was commenting about it. It was super fun.
The big question people were asking me was like, “How’s unemployment/retirement treating you?” Now that I’m a couple weeks into it, it’s everything you imagine it would be in a good way. I haven’t felt this relaxed and focused almost, it sounds like an odd thing but for me, it’s like having the headspace to dive deep into topics that I just have the time to do.
It’s the freedom to not need to generate a result next day or next week based on what I do today but realizing that long term, yeah, probably we’re going to do something again, something interesting, but to have the freedom to just float from one thing to the next and do it, I haven’t felt like this since before HitTail, which was the 2010-2011 timeframe, we had our second son and I spent about 10 months where I worked 10-15 hours a week and it felt amazing.
It wasn’t until I got 4-6 months into that before I really started getting bored and anxious and wanting to do the next thing. That’s my first report of how it’s going, it’s I’m definitely not bored yet and I will, at a time when I think I will get bored, but I’m certainly feeling my days at this point.
One example of this, man, is, since we have a live in nanny a year or two ago and she was here for about six or eight months then her mom had a health issue and she moved away. Ever since then we’ve just struggled to have stable child care. It’s been a real problem because Sherry is trying to work, I was going to the office a few days a week and it was always a struggle.
Today, Sherry’s out of town speaking at a conference and one of our kids is sick, one of our 7 year olds. She stayed here at the house, but it wasn’t a big deal.
Obviously, I’d prefer during the day to do my stuff, but I don’t have to. It wasn’t this big scramble of, “Oh no! I need to tell my team that I can’t make these meetings,” or, “I had deliverable that now I can’t get done because I’m hanging out with a kid.” It’s that kind of flexibility that I hope that I relish and enjoy in the coming months.
Mike: I can definitely see that. When I’m out of town, my wife owns her own business, it’s
a fitness studio. She’s got things going on at the studio pretty much all week, so when I’m out of town for MicroConf for example, it’s makes it a lot more difficult for her to manage things and then there’s always stuff that comes up where somebody’s going to have to deal with it.
The other day, one of our kids fell in the driveway, literally just before school. That’s going to be dealt with as well. You can’t just say, “Oh well. I’ll deal with it this afternoon.” You’ve got to deal with it at that point and push other things around in order to work through whatever the issue is.
Two people having their own business in the same household is actually really, really hard.
Rob: Totally. Two businesses and kids. All of that. There’s just too many unknowns and there are too many surprises and there’s too many–schools get cancelled because of snow or some other thing, they have problem with busses, or one kid gets sick, or parent-teacher conference–there’s always something going on that is screwing with your schedule and your focus.
Mike: That’s why the general advice on kids is to get a fish instead.
Rob: A fish instead, indeed. How about you, what’s going on this week?
Mike: Now that MicroConf is winding down, I’m starting ramp up the marketing efforts for BlueTick again and I don’t have to worry about things from MicroConf interjecting in into that. Although, things with MicroConf Europe are going to probably interfere a little bit moving forward, but I don’t think that it’s going to be nearly as bad as with MicroConf in Vegas just because there were the two conferences and the sheer number of speakers that we had to work with but there’s just a lot less going on just because it’s only one conference.
But with the marketing efforts like I’m starting to get into the point where I’m focusing on doing things like webinars and the onboarding emails are getting better, there’s a few product updates that are going to go out there, are going to make things a lot easier for customers to do what they need to do in the app and guide them through it a little bit better because right now, I typically do on-boarding for people manually, which is helpful, but it’s not necessarily scalable.
There’s all these low hanging fruit that I still have not done yet because there were pieces of the app that I knew had issues and most of those have been cleared up, but I was waiting until after MicroConf was over in order to do the big marketing push again.
There’s been a couple of times in the past where I felt like things were ready to start pushing on the marketing and then I started to go down that path and then find something wrong. I’m hoping that that doesn’t happen again, but we’ll see how that works out. Nothing goes as planned but I feel reasonably confident again.
Rob: On my end, I found a couple of new podcasts I wanted to mention that are in the bootstrap
software space or the product space, because I have a Google alert for MicroConf, so if you review MicroConf on your podcast, I will tend to listen to at least that episode. It just so happened that there were a handful of podcast that mentioned it. One of which, I already listened to, but I wanted to call them out here and announce them for folks who were looking for other folks like us. It’s the Micropreneur, Startups For The Rest Of Us, MicroConf Crowd, and who are talking about the things that we’re doing.
First one is called Hooked On Products and this is from Phil Derksen and John Turner. Phil and I have known each other from Fresno for years and then John Turner is the co-founder of SeedProd. He’s been on the podcast.
The next one is Build Your SaaS. It’s Justin Jackson’s podcast. He co-host with his co-founder of transistor.fm, and then of course The Art of Product which is Derrick Reimer, my co-founder’s podcast with Ben Orenstein.
We will link those up in the show notes: Hooked On Products, Build Your SaaS and The Art of
Product, but definitely, if you’re looking for some new podcasts along these lines, those are the early 2018 winners at this point.
We have listener questions. First set of questions, it looks like three questions in the same email. It’s from Michael Palteon, and he says, “I have a couple questions. The first is, I’m working on a SaaS app in a server management/scaling. I have a large LinkedIn network and I’ve started posted the progress of the development on a weekly basis. I know Rob did something once with Derrick when he was building Drip, but I feels like the post or the content only stay on LinkedIn. What’s your view on posting the same content on possibly multiple channels? Like Medium, a blog, or maybe even a podcast versus focusing on LinkedIn.
Mike: I think the danger of focusing on just one place to post them like LinkedIn is that that stuff doesn’t tend to work it’s way out into other areas. By posting it on your blog and on Medium and on LinkedIn, then you start to cast a wider net, but I think that I would also be careful of posting them all on the exact same day, you space them out, so let’s say that you post an article on LinkedIn and then the next week, you post the same article on Medium, and then the next week after that, you post the same article on your blog. That’s going to cast a bit of a wider net because then you’re not only reaching more people in different channels, but you’re spacing it out such that you’re probably going to catch the people who would have caught it on LinkedIn on your blog, or on Medium in other ways.
There’s got to be some overlap between them, but by spacing them out a little bit, you get the advantage of getting it in front of people more than once, but you’re going to have to look into what’s going to be an appropriate schedule for that, and I don’t know off the top of my head what that would be. Obviously, it depends on a lot of different factors.
That’s how I would think about it. I don’t think I would just say, “Oh, just post it here.” Unless you have a newsletter or something like that where you’re telling them flat out, “We’re going to be posting exclusive stuff and it’s only going to be in our blog,” for example, and “You’re only going to get it if you’re on this newsletter.”
If you’re going to do that, do not also post it in other places because then you’re essentially lying to the people who are signing up for your mailing list, they’re not going to appreciate it.
Rob: This is a tough one. I think syndicating to multiple platforms tends to be a good idea. Back in the day, it was the duplicate content penalty from Google. I know that kind of exists these days and Google will pick a canonical version, but it’s this balance of trying to digital share crop on other people’s land which is the LinkedIn or Medium, or build your own following on a blog.
These days, it’s just so hard to do it on your own and to try to get people to come read it because you have to get those traffic sources and it’s harder to share on all these things.
I would probably lean towards doing both that if you do have something long form to put it on your blog, post it on LinkedIn and link back. You can say, “This was originally published on blank,” and link back to your blog. You could do the same thing on Medium.
The thing that I wonder is whether it’s going to help at all, whether you’re going to notice it. That’s something to test. When we did this with Drip, at a certain point, we were building the blog up, then we switched to where we were posting first on Medium just to try to see if we could gain critical mass there. We never did.
We switched back to doing both and it was fine. Posting to both was not a big time investment and so we kept doing it and it had a nominal return, but it was not some mind blowing growth engine or anything like that.
I think you’d either reeling to discover a clever hack or perhaps that time has passed for things like the Medium and the LinkedIn. You’ve got to get in early and get traction and be an early person and get a lot of followers, then you can do it.
You should try it for 60 days and just see what happens, but I have question if it’s going to move the needle at all, and then in terms of maybe doing a podcast, to me that’s a different question altogether, because if you’re going to write it and put it out, that’s one thing.
If you’re planning on just reading them on a podcast, you could certainly try it. Hopefully it’d be interesting, but like podcasting is such a different game than blogging. I think there’s a whole
different question you want to ask yourself is, “Can I make this entertaining? Will people want to listen to it?” That kind of thing versus writing one of articles, people will just stumble upon it.
Michael’s second question is, “I’ve been thinking about starting my own podcast for some time. But I like shows with two hosts. My question is how would you go about finding a co-host for a podcast? I don’t think I’ve heard you guys met and decided to start the podcast. It would also be interesting to hear that as well.”
Mike: Do you want me to take that one?
Rob: Yeah. I think we both know the story. Take it up.
Mike: The way Rob and I met was back in 2005. I had left the startup company that I was working for, went off on my own. I think Rob, you’ve talked a little bit about how you were doing independent consulting around that time.
Working from home alone is isolating and back at those days, there were not very many blogs and there were no communities for people who were a single founder working out of their living room or their kitchen or the basement. I looked around and the closest I ever found was the Joel on Software Blog.
Obviously, a lot of people were reading that, but I looked at that and said, “Well, I would like to blog about my own experiences.” I started doing that and I was looking around for people who are doing the same thing and I came across Rob’s blog.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Rob was also doing the same exact thing and had come across my blog. We were peripherally aware of each other, but didn’t know each other, knew who we were. I think fast forward a little bit, Rob had ran through a bunch of different products and one of them he sold, he was selling from his blog. I looked at it and said, “Hey. I’d be interested in buying that.” We got in a conversation, I bought it from Rob.
I think it was for the next year or so, you and I traded blogpost back and forth before we posted them just because we weren’t real comfortable blogging on our own yet and just went through it like an iterative editing process and then once we got comfortable, we just went on our separate ways and that was around 2007, I think.
Fast forward a couple of years, you had started the MicroConf Academy and that was based on building a course around all the stuff that you had learned and you are just basically busy or too busy to turn out all the content with it and you looked through your Rolodex and I showed up
on the shortlist somehow and we got to talk and worked something out, and I basically joined you as you the co-founder of the MicroConf Academy. That was 2009; 2010, we started the podcast. Is that right?
Rob: I think so. 2010 podcast and 2011 MicroConf.
Mike: That’s how things worked out. I don’t if there’s a good lesson there in terms of finding a co-host for the podcast, but there was at least some level of familiarity there between us from editing each other’s blogpost and stuff before we got on to the podcast.
I don’t think that you need that. I don’t think you need to go into a business relationship with somebody before that part, but you have to at least be able to get along and know that I think that your general values and ethos are aligned. That’s our story. Rob, are there specific lessons that you can think of for that?
Rob: He’s asking how would you go about finding a co-host and I’m wondering, do you really want to start your own or do you want to find a podcast for the single host and try to get on an existing one.
Jordan Gal and Brian Casel did this. Brian had the podcast Bootstrapped Web first and then Jordan joined him later and made the podcast a lot better. I think you could consider doing that. If someone else is already doing it and they’re delivering and you get a little bit of an advantage of coming on late. That’s probably the first thing I would consider.
The other thing is if you’re starting it to talk about fun stuff like entrepreneurship or hobbies or whatever, then just go ahead and do it and start it and you’ll find people. If you’re starting around your business and you really wanted to be this super professional thing up front, then yeah, I do think you need to spend more time thinking about the concept and looking around.
There are podcasting forums, there are podcasts about podcasting and those that have communities. I think probably getting that intersection of people who listen to those podcast and listen to Startups For The Rest Of Us or go to MicroConf, if you’re going to talk about bootstrapping, then that’s going to be it.
You have to find that Venn Diagram, an intersection of someone who is interested in the topic and able to talk about it and also wanting to do it in a podcast form because it is no small commitment to do this. Ask anybody who podcasts. There’s an amount of time that you have to set aside and an amount of time that you have to that you have to have.
Podcasting is different than blogging where if you blog once a month, nobody really cares. It’s fine. Hey, it’s a good article and I got up on Hacker News or Product Hunt or whatever. If you podcast once a month, you might as well not. Unless you’re Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History which is a four hour thing. That’s an exemption. But for the most part, you need to ship fairly frequently, it is a commitment from that start that I would say if you don’t think you can keep that up, do not waste your time.
Mike: I think that commitment is something that people overlook and you really have to have an episode at least every week in order to start building an audience. I remember back when we started Startups For The Rest Of Us, we were doing it every week and then we decided, “Let’s change this up and let’s do every other week.” We did every other week for three or four months. It was very obvious that the growth slowed down. Once we went back to every week, it went right back up again. You have to be mindful of that.
I know that there’s articles all over the place that say, “How many times you should post? How many times you should create a new podcast and how long they should be?” And all these different things. It really boils down to the function of how much time and effort you have, and what it is that you’re going to do with it, what’s your goal for that? There’s just a lot of different factors, that’s all.
Rob: He’s third question. He says, “It’d be great if you guys could do another run down of the podcast you listen to or recommend.” I’m going to table that one for now because maybe in the next few episodes, we’ll do that. I’d like to revisit, it changes so frequently with me that I think it’d be worth doing.
He asks, “What equipment and recording devices do you use? Many other great podcast that
I used to listen to are no longer publishing new episodes as often and I’m also not sure why this happens to most podcasts.” That’s exactly what we were just saying. It’s because it just takes time and if you don’t have some type of something that you get out of it, whether it’s a personal brand or whether you’re selling conference tickets or whether you’re promoting an application where you’re getting some type of feedback loop, it is too much work to justify just doing a podcast for the sake of doing a podcast.
That’s why I’m sure a lot of these fade is they just figured the ROI isn’t there given the amount of work there is. Aside from that, what equipment and recording devices do we use, Mike? What complex, intricate system do we use?
Mike: Are you mocking me? We’re mocking ourselves.
Rob: We use USB headsets that we have for 10 years. I know sometimes now when I listen to podcasts I hear the plastic in the headsets jangling around. I’ve tried the Blue Yeti, and I’ve tried the Snowball and I don’t like the sound quality nearly as much in the finished product as these Plantronics (DSP) Digital Signal Processing headsets. I’m not going to name the exact model because they’re discontinued and whenever they come up on eBay, I buy them.
I have about 8 or 10 in the drawer in my house because I burn through them because they break. The mute button stops working, they get to janky, their cords are broken. I’ve probably gone through five or six in the past 10 years and I have another stock in this drawer here that Sherry and I share.
But what I would say is if you’re going to do this, you can get the Yeti or the Snowball, those are the recommended ones. You just have to have sound baffling, you have to have a very quiet environment. If you have kids five rooms away, it will totally pick that up.
If you want to do the USB headset where you can move your head a lot, definitely go USB and don’t go the audio auxiliary and then test several out. That’s what I did. I bought six or eight of them at the start and tested them all out. It was a noticeable difference in the sound quality.
Mike: Just some general advice when looking for headsets, you probably want something that’s relatively light. You don’t want something that’s massive and bulky. You definitely want something that has a boom or a microphone that is stable and is going to sit in front of your face.
As Rob had just said, the problems with the Blue Yeti and microphones like that is you really have to be speaking directly at them and hold your head at about the same distance the entire time. It can really be uncomfortable, especially if you’re the type of person that fidgets. I know Rob tends to walk around sometimes when he’s podcasting, I sit at my desk, but I also look around the room. I’m not always looking in the same direction. That screws with the sound quality.
I think that’s what most podcasters who are much more visible about what equipment they use, they talk about these things, “Oh, the sound quality for this and that.” The USB headset works fine. It doesn’t matter that much. You don’t have to go all out on all of these equipment.
I think the USB headsets that we use, I think they cost $40 or $50. It’s not very expensive. I have seen versions of the ones that you are not willing to talk about or disclose like $200 or $300 at this point because they are much newer versions. I’m using one right now that I can find for $60 or so and it’s a slightly different version than you use. It works fantastic.
Rob: Again, that’s Plantronics headsets. It’s not the super lightweight one. You want the one with the bigger mic with the pop filter and all that. Several of them will work for you, I don’t think you have to get so detailed and know exactly which models or whatever we’re using.
Mike: We used to just record over Skype and use either call recorder or Pamela. Pamela was on Windows that would hook into Skype and then Call Recorder is on the Mac. It worked reasonably well, but the problem is they record at both sides, so if your connection drops from Skype or it was not a great connection which happens frequently and feels like it happens more and more frequently these days with Skype, then you may end up recording the podcast again.
I’ve had entire podcast where we’ve had to dump it, not with ours, but with other people’s where Skype just dropped everything. There’s nothing you can do at that point.
We use a service called Zencastr right now. zencastr.com. It records the audio on both sides through the browser, there’s no additional software needed. You hop on it, records on both sides, uploads. I have to send it into Dropbox. It works out well.
Rob: I think the switch to Zencastr was definitely a good move for us. A lot less headaches. I don’t go on to Skype at all anymore. I do all my meetings through Zoom and then recordings through Zencastr. When someone asks to Skype me now, I’ll groan, I get figure out how to make a call because they redo the interface every four months and you don’t even know how to do it. It’s kind of a mess.
Mike: Your response should be, “Do you still have a yellow corded phone?”
Rob: Thanks for the questions Michael. I hope our answers were helpful. Next question is from Alex and he says, “Hello. I am interested in creating my own ecommerce website that will host new entrepreneurs’ products on my site for a subscription fee. Ideally, this will be for those who want cheaper advertising and not at the level of having their products on Amazon yet. My niche is American businesses and my goal is the support of small business. I’m still working out all the details. This is a new business platform but I’d love to hear some feedback.”
What do you think Mike?
Mike: I’m not sure what he’s selling.
Rob: I think this is a tough one. He’s trying to setup a website that can host ecommerce like physical products for people who don’t want to put their products on Amazon yet or on at the level. I just don’t know of any product that’s like that. It’s a theoretical of like they want cheaper advertising, but have you run into anyone in your life who fits this bill?
Rob: Yeah, and I haven’t either. That’s the first thing I would do, Alex. I think it’s good that you asked. First thing I would do is you need to go out and find 10, 20, 30 people who have this exact need because I don’t believe that there are that many people. If there are, and if they’re not at the level where they want to have their product on Amazon, which is not a very high bar. I’m guessing that they’re not going to have enough money to want to pay a subscription fee to host it on your site.
Mike: Yeah. This is a classic case of saying, “It’s too expensive for me. So it must be too expensive for other people,” and you’re trying to squeeze blood from a stone at that point. It’s not a good business model.
I recognize and empathize with the desire to help the people who have no money, but you can’t do it by charging them, like you have to go up market, charge people who do have money and then turn around and use that to invest in products and services and things like that that can help that people at the bottom.
Honestly, that’s one of the things that we’ve done with the scholarship program this year with MicroConf. We got MicroConf to a certain point and it was growing and scaled up and we got enough people there now that it’s like, “How can we help those people at the bottom who could use that help to get up to our level? How do you bring other people up?” To do that, you need money. You can’t charge the people who don’t have any money. It’s not going to work.
Rob: I’m glad you asked the question because I’m guessing that if you don’t go out and validate this, you can spend a lot time either building it or hiring someone to build it or whatever. The first step that I would do is just figure out if this is viable at all because I think red flyers are going out for both you and I about the idea at least the way that he’s described it here.
He has a decent amount of engagement. “The majority of my subscribers came from a few post on Designer News, which is like Hacker News for designers. The post brought almost 800 subscribers last May and June, but the growth of the list has slowed down since then. I’m also doing blogging and guest blogging. I didn’t do much SEO intentionally, but many told me that they found the site by Googling. I have attached a chart of the history of my list with explanation of key events. Let me know if you need more data.” And he has a bar graph for us.
He has questions for us. It looks like maybe three or four. He says, “Does this product feel like something that will work?” That’s an interesting way to phrase that. I’m not sure what work means. It just depends on your goals. Do I think you’re going to sell copies of it? Absolutely. Do I think you’re going to make six figures from it? No. The list is too small. It’s not too small. The list is too small to make six figures from is what I’m going to say. You’ve got to start somewhere.
If you haven’t engaged with these subscribers and that’s the part I don’t know. I would be keeping them warm and then I would be taking other approaches that are probably free marketing at this point. If you watch the talk this year from Adam, that we talked about Adam Wathan. We talked about in the last episode, that was the blueprint of how to do this. It’s a lot of social media stuff and it’s a lot of getting into that community and having a reach in there.
Mike: I was going to mention as well. He talked to me about this product because he attended Growth edition and Adam spoken as Starter edition and Adam’s talk, go over to the MicroConf recap website and look up Adam Wathan’s talk, there’s all the notes there from the Christian Genco took and there’s a lot of detail there that you won’t get the full context of the talk but there’s a lot of stuff there that you’ll be able to take away.
I think that that will really help you figure out how to make certain things work and how to scale them up. But obviously, with your questions, there’s a lot of–it depends in there. How far do you want to take this? How much time do you have to dedicate to it? Do you want to grow into this massive business or do you just want to keep it small and put something out there that you can use a resume builder, but something to point at and say, “Hey, I’ve done this, so I have experience in this area.” It depends on what the purpose of it is.
If it’s a build a business, then yeah, you’re probably making into a business but as Rob said, not with just 1300 subscribers. That’s a great start, but you need to find other channels and I think, as he had mentioned in this email that most of those came from a Hacker News post. You need to find what those other channels are and whether that’s Twitter or Facebook or doing paid ads.
I think the difficult position you’re in is one, the product is not finished and two, you’ve already presold some of it. Preselling an unfinished product, especially with tiers is something that Adam had actually advised against.
Rob: What’s interesting is we’re talking about this list of 1300 people and that’s a great start, and can you make $5000 from this or $6000 or $7000 from that list? Yeah, I think so, if they’re engaged. I don’t think that’s an issue at all. But this is not anything that’s going to replace your income so it does depend on your goals.
His next questions is, “That is priority right now is to finish the course or should I work on growing the list at the same time? Most people have told me that it would be better to spend half of my time on both.” I agree with that. If you are just hammering the course out and not doing any list growth, I feel like you should be partitioning your time. Because keeping that list warm and keeping it going is how you’re going to build this business.
If you go through fits and starts where you’re going to try to grow the list for six months and then you’re going to build a course for four months, and you’re going to stop building a list, unless you’re at critical mass where you do have that 10,000; 20,000; 30,000-person list, that’s when you can start thinking about backing off growing it.
Do you agree with that Mike or what do you think?
Mike: I totally agree, but I think that there’s a little tactic that you can throw in there whereas you’re building the course, as you’re finishing it, you can take little snippets of that and post it on social media in order to help augment your existing list. Whether that is specific post on Twitter or on Facebook or you put something out on Medium that says, “Hey, I’m working on
this and this is what I’ve learned so far.”
Educating people about how to do something and talking about the struggles that you’re going through as you’re going through that process, that has a tendency to resonate with a lot of people. It’s not to say that everyone who joins your list is going to become a customer, but if they’re interested in the stuff that you’re teaching, not just the process but the content itself, those people will eventually turn into customers.
It also gives you the ability to take those things and email them out to your existing list and say, “Hey, just an inside view of what this looks like and where it’s at.” That will help keep the list warm as well, because the last thing you want to do is spend 80%, 90%, or even 100% of your time just finishing the product and then four months from now, you haven’t send a single email to your list and you drop an email on them that says, “Hey, this thing is now available, please buy it.” You and I have seen people do that for SaaS applications and software and it doesn’t work.
The reason it doesn’t work is because they’re like, “Oh, I totally forgotten you even existed.” They’re not excited about it.
Rob: Right. His next question is, “What else could I do to grow my list. Blogging and a free email course seems to work okay, but it takes a lot of time to create the content. I have seen others using ads. What you recommend?” My thoughts on this are the way that you typically do this is through social media, through blogging, through podcasting, through getting out there and doing a bunch of free marketing. That’s because most people don’t have a ton of money to spend
in the early days.
If you have money and you’re interested in running ads and that’s something that excites you then go run ads. Go run ads on Facebook or buy ads on Designer News, he talked about sponsor email newsletters and test that stuff. That stuff is always fun for me.
I’m some type of twisted individual that I enjoyed paying to see if I could get a sustainable flywheel. Other people hate that. If that is their business, they don’t want to do it. You look at how Rob and Mike built their list? How has Justin Jackson built his list? Through being out there and recording a podcast every week. Justin Jackson, he’s got a bunch. That’s how he built his list. It took him a few years, but it’s figuring out what it is that interests you that you think you can do long term and that you’re actually going to double down on.
Do I think ads could work? I absolutely do. But you have to ask yourself, is that something that you’re interested in doing? I know Brennan Dunn started with ebooks and courses and blogging and tweeting. It’s was a big social media thing, and then he got it to the point where it’s making enough money and he knew that for every person that gets on his list he gets X dollars back. Then he started running ads.
He doesn’t even need to be that good at running the ads because he had such a high LTV on list subscribers. You could take that approach, too. You build up the social following, you build up the brand, and then later you run the ads, you could do ads from the start. I think any of these will work, it’s a question of what am I really excited to do and to get up every morning and do. If it’s like, “I love the blogging and the rush of trying to get to the top of Hacker News, Product Hunt, and Designer News,” then go all in on that and blog three times a week.
If you prefer to podcast, then go all in on that. If you prefer to do ads like I was saying, which some people get more excitement out of, certainly, I think you could invest time in that.
Mike: His next question is, “Is it realistic to have a goal of 10,000 subscribers in the next year?” He says he spoken to some people who have 5000 subscribers, all of them have been writing and building their list for 3-5 years. “Have you see anyone who was able to grow a high quality list quickly?”
This is a hard question because it depends so much on what you do. Is it possible? Absolutely. It depends so much on the things that you do. These people who’ve been writing and building their list for 3-5 years, what tactics and techniques have they done? Have they systemized it? Have they created processes that are things that are repeatable and scalable and can be done without their input and toggling the different switches? Because if you’re relying out of process that depends on you doing something every single week, it’s less likely that you’re going do it.
It’s not to say that it is impossible and there’s definitely people who do it. We pump up this podcast every single week, almost without fail at this point. But it takes time and commitment and do you have the commitment to do whatever to toggle that switch or pull that lever every single week? If you don’t, it’s not going to happen, therefore it’s going to be pushed out.
Honestly, in a way, it ties back to email follow ups, that’s why I built Bluetick. I don’t have the mental capacity to sit there and write all of those follow up emails every single time because it’s hard to do, it’s hard to make yourself do it if you don’t want to. You need to find those things that you’re going to be able to do on a repeated basis or to automate in such a way that you don’t need to be directly involved in it. It’s still going to create Rob’s flywheel effect.
Rob: Yes. 10,000 subscribers in a year, absolutely possible. I have known many people
that do this. It’s not easy and it’s not just going to happen just by throwing things out, you have to be deliberate about it, you’ve got to be focused, you’ve got to ship either some type of content or some type of thing on a really recurring basis.
Product launches also help. If you do a big product launch, it will help you build the list, joint ventures would be a huge one. If you find anyone else that you could promote their product, they could promote your product, that is going to build the list because even if people don’t buy your product, they will sign up to hear from you about future stuff that you’re doing. Doing a podcast tour, there are a lot of ways to do this and if you really focus, yes, I think you can do it.
I think building a 5000 subscribers in 3-5 years sounds like a nice even keel side business pays where it’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to blog about this this week.” Which is fine, but it’s not. If you’re really aggressive about this and you want to get to 10K, I think you can absolutely do it.
Thanks for the question Linton, I hope our answers are helpful.
If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or email at us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control, it’s by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer a number of listener questions. The topics in this episode include GDPR, SaaS pricing, sponsoring events as a marketing strategy and subscription box companies.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Crated with Love
- Bigfoot Capital Solutions
- Angel List
Rob: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Mike and I talk about SaaS pricing, sponsoring events as a SaaS marketing strategy, subscription box approaches, and even revisit GDPR once again, and we answer more listener questions. This is Startups for the Rest of Us Episode 390.
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, or even your second, or third. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What is the word this week, sir?
Mike: No, I doubt it. I learned that back in 2011 not to do that.
Rob: You’re pacing yourself these days especially because it’s four days for us now which is definitely a bigger deal because we have obviously growth for two days and starter.
Mike: Definitely. I head out on Friday so I’m there from Friday to Friday. It’s not just four days, it’s seven days.
Rob: Dude, that is a long time to be in Vegas.
Mike: I know.
Rob: Drink a lot of water, go to bed early, use chapstick. All the things we said last week on the episode, you’re going to really want to double down on those.
Mike: Yeah, last week’s episode was sort of a reminder for me like, “Hey, these are all the things to make sure you remember to do it just so you can fix yourself.”
Rob: Yup. I’m in Vegas one day less than you are and I will be thanking my lucky stars. After about three or four days in Vegas, man, I’m done.
Mike: Yeah. I considered staying until Saturday but I decided against it.
Rob: That would be a tough call. My grandma used to live in Vegas and so we would visit her couple of times a year. I’ve been to Vegas 30, 40 times. I live in California so it’s a super quick hop from Oakland Airport. Yeah, they would always be 2-3 day trip and it was a perfect amount of time, it was like, “Oh yeah, that’s what this place is like—” Then by the time you’re three days in you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s what this place is like.”
For me, I just came back from a two night, almost three day retreat, it’s the longest retreat I’ve taken in quite some time. I was trying to think, because I took like a one day last year and then in 2016 I took three days and got away but I got strepthrough so it wasn’t exactly a restful retreat, it’s more like recovery. But I really enjoyed it. I drove 2 ½ hours North up to Duluth, Minnesota which is right on the southern tip of Lake Superior. Lake Superior is so big you can’t see the other side. Aside from there being no waves, it kind of feels a little bit like the ocean because there’s no beaches as well, no planes flying over with the little banner saying rent the surfboards and stuff.
But I thought about a lot of different things, probably stuff that I’ll talk about in the coming weeks and months on the podcast. But a good reminder, if you haven’t taken your retreat for 2018, check out The Zen Founder Guide to Founders Retreat, go to zenfounder.com, and Sherry wrote like a 30-page guide that I use religiously, has all the questions, and all the things you should be thinking about if you go on a founder retreat.
Mike: Awesome. What’s the word for this week?
Rob: We’re answering some more listener questions, they keep trickling in at an even pace which is really nice, allows us to do these Q&A episodes pretty frequently. The subject line of this email is, “Loved episode 384, GDPR. I’m Chris Duke. I’ve been listening for a while in my walks through town. This is the first time I probably laughed and shouted out loud. I try not to use the word stupid very much but it is hard these days and GDPR is one of those things that brings it to mind. Not the basic idea, it’s good to make those of us in technology business think about protecting data but the people who think of things like GDPR completely clueless and I have no business coming up with the regulation on something they don’t understand.
I keep thinking about one example, MailChimp. If I tell them to forget me, does that mean they have to forever take my email off of every list? What if removing my data from an application breaks something in the app or someone else that I willingly given permission, has used my email, it’s called referential integrity. Thanks for talking about this, guys. We’ve already written a sequel script to delete data in my SaaS app, we used it as part of our development and testing. That and some clarity on our terms is about it for me. Keep up the great work.” I know the answer to this one, do you know?
Mike: Didn’t we talk about it last week or the week before where the forget me is on a per-provider basis? Let’s say you and somebody else are my customer and people have data for both of them. If they tell you to delete it, the other person does not have to. The person has to go to each of the individuals and it has to do with who’s the data provider and who’s the data processor.
Rob: In the case of MailChimp, If you emailed MailChimp and said, “My email is on a bunch of your customer’s email lists, forget me,” MailChimp would say, “You have to contact the MailChimp customers.” We can’t delete it out of their account or we’re not required to, I guess. Now if you went to meet MailChimp and said, “Remove me from your list and forget me,” obviously they could do that from their own list that they own, but that’s exactly right.
Mike: I still don’t think that it answers the question of how do you remember that you deleted somebody.
Rob: That’s right. Yeah, if they sign up again, I don’t think you’re supposed to block or I don’t think you’re required to block them. Because like you said, you have to keep their email if you are not going to allow them to sign up again.
Mike: The other thing I’ve wondered about is if you could just anonymize their data so it’s no longer personally identifiable and you just overwrite the IP addresses with all zeros or all ones or something like that.
Rob: I think that’s a realistic approach the people should evaluate because in complex systems, you don’t delete stuff. As a rule, you don’t delete rows from database tables especially as you get larger and more complicated. As a listener out there, if you’re thinking about this, just changing their email to email@example.com to firstname.lastname@example.org, like you said overwriting their IP with blank stuff and having some probably on a flag or whatever that this is anonymized but I do think that’s an interesting approach.
Mike: No, I don’t even think it says that it’s just an interesting approach, like in certain business situations you almost have to do that because it’s not even just about deleting the data, it’s about knowing historically how different things that you’ve done turned out. Like if you go in and you have to delete a bunch of data for all these people that came in and visit your website for example on a certain month, it skews all of your reporting for all those months so you can’t really see how things went or what happens during that time. All of your decision making moving forward is completely screwed up, you can’t delete it, you have to just anonymize it and be done with it.
Rob: Cool. Thanks for the question, Chris. I hope that was helpful. Our next question is from Kenneth. He says, “Hey guys, as always, love your podcast, been a fan for a few years since I read Rob’s book, Start Small, Stay Small in 2011. Rob’s book was a huge inspiration for me. However, I realized it’s been almost a decade or about eight years to be exact since he wrote it. Obviously many things have changed since then in the internet, it’s totally a different world today.
My question, if Rob were to update or rewrite the book in 2018, what would he change? Would he remove chapters, focus more on certain points include new topics, etc.? That’s about it. Thanks for all the resources, podcast stories, etc., that you guys have openly shared. Been a constant inspiration for me and hopefully one day I’ll be able to share my own story on how much you guys have impacted my life. Best regards, Ken.”
Mike: I think I know the answer to this, you’d rename it to Start Small and Get Big.
Rob: I don’t think I would.
Rob: No. Because that’s the thing. Obviously that’s what I wound up doing when I was starting small and then going into something much bigger than I had originally intended. But I still think there is a really good case to be made for doing this kind of micro SaaS or micropreneur approach where you just have a lifestyle business and you never need to worry about all the headaches that I dealt with starting in 2013 of growing this company larger. It obviously came with rewards as well but I also think it’s a totally viable approach to start small and stay small. I wouldn’t presume just because I did something that everyone should. You know what I’m saying? I think it’s totally legit that startup business make low six figures and if you’re happy with that, man, that’s a great life.
Mike: I was just pointing out that it should have been renamed to Start Small and Get Big just because on your website where’d you go to sign up for your newsletter, it says exactly that. And then there’s also that in the Drip widget where you can sign up for the newsletter.
Rob: Yeah. Which I did that once Drip started getting big. I realized I’m not just talking about staying small anymore, isn’t even that appropriate. I need to rename that headline anyway. I’ve kind of neglected that unfortunately. That’s on my personal website at robwalling.com.
This question is interesting. I’ve thought about it a bit over the years. To be honest, I had not opened my book, I mean it’s been five years since I went back and looked at it all, maybe more. This forced me to go back and take a copy and flip through it. What I’ve realized is that so many of the concepts are still 100% valid today, it’s some of the tactics that are not. I go really deep. I thought it was like half the book where I deep-dive and then like break out, I forget micro-niche finder, or market samurai, and I click this button, and I have screenshot, almost like it’s some web tutorial but it’s only 5 or 10 pages of the book is that and that’s the part that I would remove because that part changed so fast. It was like probably less than 18 months after it’s published, a bunch of those links and screenshots were just invalidated. Realizing that it’s a book and it’s not a living, breathing online course that I can edit easily, that is part of it that I would pull out.
I would still talk about niching down, I have a lot of concepts in there to still hold but I would remove some of the tactics that—and again it wouldn’t be a huge chunk of them, it would be a small part of the book—but there’s tons of stuff about outsourcing and hiring VAs, the mindset, and product last, market first. All that stuff I still hold true.
I was trying to think of anything else that I would add today, certainly there are marketing channels I didn’t even cover like Facebook ads that are probably mentioned. I would double down. I had a whole section of building your email list, I would probably expand that given how much more powerful I believe email is today and how much more I know about it.
I wrote the book in 2010 in essence, you can say I’ve learned quite a bit about it in eight years so there are parts that I would expand. I have butted this around obviously for years and I get talked about every since I started going even slightly how the data I was going to do an updated version or second edition, I toyed around, I talked to a couple of publishers, talked about doing a little more of a mainstream release. It’s still in the back of my mind somewhere to go back and revise it.
Flipping through the book made me realize I always thought that’s going to be too much effort, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of time, might as well write a new book, but that’s not the case. It wouldn’t be near the effort of writing a new book. As I flipped through it I was like, “Oh, this stuff’s still really good content that’s applicable.”
What do you think? You think I should go back and redo it?
Mike: I think that there’s definitely room for a second edition. It really depends on whether or not you want to go through and have a second edition versus writing a new book. Obviously if you write a new book, it’s going to be a different topic of some kind. But whereas if you’re simply revising the current book, it’s obviously a lot less work and you could probably bang that out in like a couple of weeks. It’s not like it’s that much effort, I don’t think, because really you’re just cutting out a bunch of pages where it’s hyper-specific, and the tools themselves or the URLs have changed, or maybe you replace the tools or you drop the pages entirely, and there is probably a few things that you left out that you want to add, maybe stories that you’ve shared over the years that resonated that with people that never just made it into the book or better examples you have of different things. I think that with the book itself you’re mostly concentrated on your own experiences. I doubt you’d go into sharing things that you’ve heard from other people but like specific examples from other people but I don’t know. It’s a toss up, I guess.
Rob: I think that’s a good point. As you were talking, I realized that was the one other thing that I felt was a bit dated with the examples I used. I used a lot of my own examples because there was really no one else that I knew. It was like Patrick McKenzie, Ruben from Bidsketch, Harry and Ted from Moraware. Then I used a bunch of the sites that I owned in Basecamp. It’s like there just wasn’t that much going on in 2010 when I was reading this in terms of the bootstrapping and the Micro-SaaS in the micropreneur space. Now I have dozens if not hundreds of examples. That’s where I could really beef it up.
I don’t know if I would go so far as to interview people or you and I just know the stories of so many people who have taken this approach, whether they’re Founder Cafe lifetime members, or they’ve come to MicroConf, or they listen to the podcast, or they’ve read one of our books, we just have that knowledge so much more. There’s so much more of a community than there is today. Now I’m kind of fired up about it as you’re talking about it.
It would be almost fun to go back and see, because you’re right if I write another book, it can’t be on that same topic and I wouldn’t even have the interest to really focus on that exact same topic today. But rewriting it and just making it better is actually something that I think would be interesting. Thanks for the question, Ken. I’ll definitely keep noodling on it and see if it leads anywhere.
Our next question is a question about SaaS pricing. It’s from François at cloudforecaste.io. He sent us a couple of questions I think. He says, “I’m reaching out to you again because we’re trying to figure out our pricing model for a new feature. Here’s my question, cloudforecaste.io is currently helping our clients monitor their AWS cost and we are now working on a new feature to help them save money.
The new feature will tell them how they can easily save money by fixing naive mistakes, unused resources, reserved instances, etc. on a weekly basis. We have a hard time figuring out the pricing since the first email is much more valuable because there’s a lot of potential optimization then the email in the third month, or the fourth month, or whenever. The first one’s going to have a lot of value.
The value also depend on the size of their AWS account. Here are a few ideas we have in mind, first one is a percentage based monthly price based on their overall spend. Second one is a flat-monthly price based on their overall spend. Third one is an expensive first email followed by a low flat-monthly price. The fourth one is remove the weekly cadence offered as a stand-alone product, and charge a percentage of what they can potentially save. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this. Thanks for the podcast.” What do you think, sir?
Mike: I think this is a really interesting question just because there are situations where people can really undervalue what a piece of software can provide for them. I can definitely see, there is an analogy for this situation which I saw, I think it was an online tool where you could go and somebody would basically build an example of how to use as your services or something like that and they were letting you put in your email address and find out if it had been hacked across hundreds of millions of records. It was coming back too quickly. People did not believe the results that they were getting because it came back so fast. They ended up inserting some artificial delays into it to make it appear like it was doing more work than it actually was.
I’ve heard similar examples in other places as well from different people doing different things and this seems to me like that’s one of those situations where people may look at that and say, “Oh, your software is doing this but I don’t value it as much even though I’m on paper saving a heck of a lot of money.” I wonder if the solution to this would not be to price it like as a stand-alone thing but to price it as, “Hey, here’s a service that we offer and it’s X thousand dollars or a percentage of whatever the monthly prices that’s saved,” and you offered it as such as a service, not as something you can just go in and automatically get this report that shows you all this information. That way gives the impression that you’re doing all this extra work and analysis.
The reality is most of it’s automatically generated but it’s based on all the work that you have done already. Then the ongoing monthly reports could be some flat-monthly price that is related to their overall spend to kind of help them save money. Because that first email, I totally agree that if you’re saving them a heck a lot of money up front, then trying to go down the path of having a SaaS pricing model that is variable in some way that reflects the value that you’re providing to them is really not going to work very well. I think that positioning it as a service as opposed to like, “Hey, here’s this off-the-shelf thing that you can buy that the software will do everything for you, that’s probably the approach I’d at least look at and test it out with a few people first.
Rob: You’re saying like present it as, “Hey, we do this manually type thing,” maybe not coming out and saying that but like, “This is a valuable service the we offer,” and don’t imply that software is doing all of it.
Mike: No. I wouldn’t say that, I would say that it is not something that you can go in, you can just click a few buttons, and automatically get the report. You have to talk to somebody in order to get it.
Rob: I see. Yeah.
Mike: Yeah. That way you can look at that and you could almost give them a ballpark estimate or price based on what you’re seeing from the stats and say, “Hey, this is the price that we have for this and we think that you’re going to save probably in this neighborhood.” You could give them a range like they’re going to save $10,000-$20,000 a month. You can tell them that and you say, “This is going to be $5,000 and just ballpark looking at what you’ve got, this is what we think you will save.” Then when you give them the actual report, it will show them exactly the steps they need to do that will both give them $17,000 a month in savings.
Rob: Yeah, that makes sense. I think that’s a pretty good approach, actually. I’m kind of torn on a couple things, I think the percentage based on how much they spend, it’s very logical, I’m curious to see what customers think of that. I guess it all depends on what the percentage is. I guess it makes a lot of sense, you can tell I’m torn on it. I like that you have better flat pricing but I actually do think the percentage could make a lot of sense because when we were tiny, and bootstrapped, and AWS bill was $5000 a month and if you said it was 1%—that’s $50 a month—that would probably have been a no brainer for me. Then of course once you’re doing $30 or $40 a month it is worth more, and at $300, $400 a month kind of feels equivalent. That’s probably what I would lean towards as this percentage.
I think trying to make the first email more expensive, I think it’s kind of a tough call. I don’t think I would go that way. But I would consider making this kind of an annual only thing that you give, they can get a sample email or they can get the first 20% of what the email looks like. You give them some information to prove that it does something.
Then like you said, they have to talk to someone in order to get this and it’s relatively high-priced and you do annual. The challenge with annual is their spending’s going to go up and down over the years, so how do you build a whole year when metered in a sense, with that you can either do it on a credit-based system or you can bill them where they are today and then bill them just the incremental each month, if they’re up or down you can keep it there.
I think this is an interesting thing with their two data the points in essence and I think talking to either existing customers or prospects is going to be your next step to basically say, “We’re going to do it based on a percentage and it’s going to be quarterly only or it’s going to be annual only. Do you want to sign up?” That, you are going to see if the rubber meets the road at that point.
Our next question is about sponsoring events as a SaaS marketing strategy. This is from Ed Freyfogle who is a speaker at this year’s MicroConf Europe. He says, “Given that you’ve run many events, I’m wondering what you think of sponsoring events as a marketing strategy? Particularly, I’d love to hear any tangible tips or best practices you’ve seen from sponsors as a way to make the most out of an event in terms of general brand building, but also specifically winning new customers.” What do you think, Mike?
Mike: Obviously, I run the sponsorship side of MicroConf so I have a lot of thoughts on this and I’ll try to keep them briefer than I would if we were doing an entire episode on it. When you’re looking to sponsor events, the thing I would keep in mind is that before you even try to figure out which events you’re going to be sponsoring, figure out what your goal is.
If your goal is to build brand awareness, then make sure that you know that in advance. You don’t try to do things that go outside of building brand awareness. That would include going to events or conferences where it’s not the right audience for building brands, like if you’re selling a marketing tool, going to a developer’s conference, obviously like there’s probably a little bit of crossover if you’re going for entrepreneurs but you don’t want to just build brand awareness with developers if they’re not the ones making the decisions. Because if you’re trying to get customers, you want to be able to get in touch with the decision makers, not the people who are at the other end of it, like the bottom layer of the organization.
The other thing I think to keep in mind is that when you are talking to people at a conference or an event, how close are you to the decision maker? How many hops are you going to have to make between the person that you talk to and the rest of the team or the people who actually make the decision? Because you may be able to run into the people who would use your products but they don’t necessarily care.
For example if you sell transactional email service of some kind and you go to a developer’s conference, those developers may not actually care about deliverability rates. The marketers would, but they’re not the ones that you are talking to. You’re going to have to convince the developer to give you an introduction to the marketer or whoever the VP of sales is that is going to say, “Hey, this deliverability is important to me and we should possibly switch providers in order to get better deliverability.” Those are the types of things that I would think of to start off with, and then beyond that, you want to stand out from the other sponsors.
If you have an opportunity to customize whatever it is that you are doing, whether it’s a specific giveaway to the audience or you are trying to drive traffic or drive conversations with people, figure out ways to do that so you might do like up Q&A session that is informal either during lunch, or after the conference, or during one evening event, something along those lines. If you do give away, you can provide people with that giveaway as a link and then you capture their email address.
The other thing is make sure that when you attend these events, if you try to sponsor an event from afar, it’s probably not going to get nearly the level of engagement or awareness that you’re looking for so make sure that you have business cards to hand out and make sure that you collect business cards or contact information from people while you’re there. Then once you’ve done that, absolutely make sure that you follow up with those people to take it to whatever the next logical step happens to be, whether it’s to having other conversation, or to get on a demo, or to just discuss what sorts of things you’re doing.
The last piece of advice I’d say is to make sure that if you can lead things in that direction to get to a promise of a future conversation and not suck up somebody’s time at the conference, that’s also not a bad thing.
Rob: Awesome, yeah. I’m actually going to leave it there because I feel like you have so much more experience dealing with this topic. I think that was a pretty good little primer there. We’ll probably do a whole episode on that, huh?
Rob: Our next question is a subscription box company asking about technical issues and funding. It’s from Tyler Turk at cratedwithlove.com. He says, “I’m a Fresno-based startup and I have a question for you. I own a subscription box company. I found the company with my wife while attending Fresno State in 2015. In our first three years we’ve accumulated over $500,000 in revenue. I’ve been pretty much on my own from a business perspective doing all the ideation, curation, and even packing and shipping. My wife helps occasionally.”
They’re a monthly box subscription company obviously and it looks like they’re kind of date night boxes. You would buy it and then there’s activities and stuff for you to do with your significant other. Our biggest weakness right now is our technology and product market fit. We have a large amount of subscribers that have been with us for two years or more and the average active subscriber stays about eight months. But our churn is higher than we’d like. I know where the holes are in our website but I lack the technical skills to fix them.
In addition, I think the future of our company is more digital but I’m having a hard time figuring out how I pitch the future technology based on the data from the physical products we sell now, especially since the biggest needs are technical. I feel like I’m in a vicious circle where I won’t be able to raise money I need to scale until I fix our churn problem, but I can’t fix our churn problem until I get funds to fix the technical problems. I have two questions, is a startup from a smaller market with no relative experience in fundraising or network in larger markets, where should I start? Second, how do I transition from a product-based company to a tech company or a hybrid of both using the data I have now to support our pitch?” Do you have thoughts on either of those?
Mike: With these two questions, just before I answer them, I do want to kind of at least comment on one thing. Tyler said that he has a large number of subscribers that have been there for two or more years and the average subscribers stays about eight months but the churn is higher than they’d like.
I’m not sure exactly what the problem is on the website that would have any bearing on that. I’ll say an open question that I might have on that. If you’re sending those emails to them and they are making purchases and sticking around for a while, what is it about the website that would make them go away? Are things fundamentally broken which are causing people to drop through the cracks or is there something wrong with your email provider? I’m just kind of curious about what that is.
But neglecting that, going back to the two questions, the first one which was as someone who have no experience with fundraising or network some larger markets, how should I start? Coincidentally, one of our sponsors from MicroConf this year is called Bigfoot Capital. They provide funding for subscription-based businesses. I think that they’re focused mainly on SaaS businesses but this is a subscription business so it might fall under their wheelhouse, you can go check them out at bigfootcap.com.
Basically what they do is they look at your financials and they have a wide variety of people that they have provided funding to and they give you a loan. That loan is whatever percentage but it’s going to be based on the risk that they see, and you’re probably going to have a much better chance or opportunity of getting a loan to address some of the technical challenges that you have from somebody like that than you would from a traditional bank who has absolutely no understanding of online businesses. They just don’t get it.
He asks with $500,000 revenue over 3 years, they may be able to do something but my guess is that they just do not understand. I would look for some sort of private funding like that. I don’t know about fundraising—Rob, you could probably speak to them.
The second question he has is, “How do I transition from a product-based company to a tech company or a hybrid of both using the data I have now to support our pitch?” I think we’re going to have to make some assumptions here because I don’t really understand what you are specifically intending by that. But my assumption is that what you’re trying to do is take your current offerings that you probably sent to people physically through the mail, whether it’s worksheets, or PDFs that you deliver digitally, basically make them into online worksheets that you can fill out on the website and share them, or through your app, or something along those lines.
With that in mind, I think that you need to test some of these things out and get information from the subscribers that you currently have now. Can you get hard data that really says, “Hey, this is why I left, and it has to do with like the convenience factor.” Because I think that if you try to look at this as a way to simply cut costs, like if you’re suffering from a problem were your cost of goods sold is too high and you’re trying to cut into that, I don’t know if going down the road of automated things and putting all this technical stuff in place is going to really change that because developers are going to be expensive to build all custom stuff for that. I think that you’re really just going to end up burning a hole in your pocket to try and build that stuff.
In the meantime you’re still paying those current costs for the goods that you’re selling. Later on, you’re still going to need to have ongoing updates, and maintenance, and things like that. There’s always going to be a subset of people who do not want to switch from the physical stuff that they are already getting, so then you have to make some decisions about do you cut those people off and abandon them, or do you try to move them over and say, “Look, if you don’t move, we really can’t do anything for you,” or you just force them. Those are the things that I would have to say about that. Rob, what are your thoughts on this?
Rob: Yeah. I would definitely agree on the second part about trying to move into software I think is a great long term play but I would not do that without funding if you’re not technical because it’s just going to be really expensive and you’re going to get more bang for your buck if you take whatever earnings you have and put them essentially back into the business.
I do agree that this is the kind of business where funding is actually kind of meted like physical goods are just really time consuming and really expensive. At a certain point you’re going to need a small warehouse, you’re going to need to pay rent, and the margin on physical goods obviously is nothing like software. This is one of those cases where I think, especially since you have some traction—because if you look at an 8 month lifetime is 12%, 12.5% churn and that’s not terrible. You want to improve upon that, obviously, and it sounds like you have some ideas on how to do it but there are companies raising funding that are pre-revenue in let’s say the $1-$3 million dollar range. If there’s like a proven founder, they can raise $4 million or $5 million pre-revenue. If they’re in Y Combinator, they can raise $10 million or whatever.
The fact that you have revenue, and you have some type of numbers, and you have a business model, and you’ve shown the hustle over three years, it’s a big plus. For angel investors, I’m not saying it’s going to be a slam dunk, it would be great if you had a network but if you raise $250,000, I would say you’re not raising enough. I think you probably need to raise half a million. I mean you really need to look at what you want to do with the money. If you want to do a series A later, then you have to think, “I want this money to last about 12 to 18 months.” If you never want to raise a series A and you want this to get you growth and then take you to the profitability, that I think somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000 is a decent number.
In a couple of ways, I would get on AngelList, angel.co, I would try to connect with either local investors because there is money to be had, I know it’s crazy but there’s money, to be had in the Central Valley of California. It’s lot of farmland but there are a lot of people who’ve made money and want to invest especially in local startups.
Since I happen to have the hometown advantage of having lived there, industries downtown, that’s the tech hub for really Fresno and the Central Valley, that’s why I would somehow get on their radar, they have pitch competitions every once in awhile, I attended one when I still lived there and there were three or four startups that pitched. With your story, I really do think that you could hustle and raise the money. You’ve already shown that you have the hustle to see this business through for three years on your own and sort of me raising funding is not actually going to be that difficult for someone with the focus and the kind of the grip that you’ve shown already.
That really would be my next move if I were on your shoes is to go out and again I would raise an angel round. I would probably stay away from institutional money where it’s someone investing in someone else’s money because they want quite a bit of control and there’s complications with that but it certainly is interesting and a vortuitous place to find yourself in.
Really nice work on this, man. You’ve done something that not many people can do, A, getting in business to last for three years and essentially I guess break even or be profitable, and B, to do it with physical products. Good for you. Thanks for the question, Tyler. I wish you the best of luck moving forward.
Mike: Are we all set for today?
Rob: We are, that will do it.
Mike: If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email to 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 and we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer a number of listener questions. The topics include balancing development and marketing, overcoming hesitations about partnering, and the costs of technical debt.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Mike and I talk about balancing feature development with marketing, the cost of technical debt, and answer more listener questions. This is Startups for the Rest of Us Episode 386.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us–the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: I have the plague.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. You were sick all weekend?
Mike: Yeah. My eldest son got sick the last Wednesday, I think it was. It was like Wednesday and Thursday and we sent him back to school on Friday. Then my wife got sick between Friday and Saturday and then I got sick between Saturday and Sunday. It’s been a rough week to say the least.
Rob: Yeah. That’s brutal. Being sick just tears you up, means you can’t get anything done, especially when you don’t have vacation time, you don’t have to paid time off and you’re trying to drive a business forward, it’s like every hour is precious.
Mike: Yeah. Fortunately for us, it was kind of over the weekend but still we’re recording now, we don’t usually record till Thursday but today’s Monday and after this podcast episode, I’m probably gonna go to bed.
Rob: Right, right. Yeah. Today, we’re actually continuing kind of a continuation of last week’s episode. I had picked out several questions last week that you and I were gonna go through and answer and we only got through a couple of them because the GDPR conversation was so extensive. I think that was a good thing. I think we went in depth and gave ideas and feedback but it meant that we had this big block of unanswered questions and I wanted to keep going with them.
Now we have a few voicemails and some others today. But before we do that, I want to tell you, I know I haven’t talked about Drip features in a while but I’m pretty excited about this upcoming feature. We’ve been working on it for–I’m trying to think–it’s gotta have to be about four months now so it’s one of the larger features we’ve embarked on but it’s a visual email builder.
Mike: Oh, nice. What’s that involve?
We found some AltSize and trade secret workarounds that we found, we’ve really done a lot of research and I think I’ve done a good job with it. But what I’ve heard from folks who have built visual email builders is building the visual portion of it is one project and it will takes six months or nine months, depending on how many […] we have on it and how good they are. Then just doing the table-based rendering and getting all of that to work and working all the clients is at whole separate project. It can take as long as building the actual visual builder. This is why a lot of upstart ESPs don’t build them because the time investment is so extensive.
Mike: When you say rendering the stuff and the clients–I understand what you mean by the differences between them–but when you go back to the visual email builder, what advantages does that have over what Drip does now?
Rob: Right. Today, Drip just has a nice little WYSIWYG text editor and I’m still gonna use that. I never use visual email builders because I like the personal interaction or it just feels more like you’re getting a plain-text email when you send using our standard plain-text template. This is how I’ve always recommended doing it. I believe the conversation rates are higher when you do that.
However, there are a few industries where they have done tests–so they’ve done tests across many industries in terms of visual email with a lot of images and table-based layout, two columns and this and that versus just something that kind of looks like a plain-text email, much like we send out to a MicroConf list, or I send out to my blogs Software by Rob list, they tend to be more personal. It’s from Rob Walling, Founder, it looks like he’s actually typing it to you. But there are few industries—ecommerce is one and travel is another—where having back these more exotic layouts and emails can and will convert better.
Since we do have a large ecommerce contingent and since we’ve been focusing on commerce-based businesses, people who are selling things, we have found a time to break ground on a visual builder. It allows you to do the things where you see the fancy, neat template, you can just insert your images and have that layout. It’s not something I’m gonna recommend for everybody but there are instances and match your converts better.
Mike: Got it. Kind of like if you go over to MailChimp for example, they’ve got like 30 or 50 different templates you can choose from and okay, that makes sense.
Mike: That makes sense.
Rob: Right. We won’t have 30 or 50 templates to start with but obviously that’s a direction that you’ll wind up going and it’s become table stakes. Again, in certain industries if you’re doing ecommerce and you’re working with companies using let’s say a platform like Shopify, BigCommerce, or WooCommerce, or if they have their own custom solution for ecommerce, they tend to want to send emails with a lot of images and not just to frustrate top to bottom flow where it’s image-text, image-text, you wanna have things that just look nicer than that.
Mike: Yeah. Things that come to mind for that are things like Amazon, Newegg, or ThinkGeek, all those, it’s exactly the same. I totally get what you’re saying where that’s going, but it totally makes sense.
Rob: Yup. The reason I’m excited about it is because I feel much like we did with workflows, we went back to the first principles and said, “What did everyone else do wrong? What do we hate about builders? How can we do this differently?” It isn’t just look at what everyone did and copy the best features, just like we’re doing things that are different than anyone else. There are obviously gonna be commonalities. There’s stuff on the left that you’re text and your image block and your divider and whatever, then there’s the email on the right. That’s common stuff but there’s certain paradigms that we use that I think are superior and gonna make for a better user experience.
The team has been working hard on it and everytime I see it down the road, I’m like, “Man, this is super cool, actually. I wanna use this even though I don’t really…” Like I said, I don’t use other visual builders as a rule when I’m writing my emails because I’ve always liked the more plain-text feel.
Mike: Awesome. Let’s dive right into the episode and they’ve got a couple of questions outlined here. Let’s get started on this.
Rob: For sure. Our first one is a voicemail and it’s about how to balance feature development and marketing specifically for an IOS app. But let’s hear the question and we can figure out what form we wanna answer it.
Steven: Hi Mike and Rob. This is Steven Johnson with […] Plus, an iOS and Mac app for hikers. My website is […]studios.com. I have a question about how you work […] user feedback. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about my app on the Apple Watch, it’s still like I’m missing out on some opportunities as well as on just keeping up with where the market’s going.
However, right now I’ve really been prioritizing a lot of marketing efforts, working on conversion rates, lowering churn, […] partnerships with business development and […] by knowing […] you talk a lot about having more marketing always speeds out features and I completely agree with that. I’m just trying to figure out how do I kind of balance these two priorities and knowing how to balance user requests that come in, especially one that feel like the market’s making changes and I feel like am I missing out on something, maybe I am and maybe I’m not, but I know that there’s opportunities that I’m not capturing with my marketing, I know there’s conversion opportunities as well as churn that I need to work on. I’m just curious about your thoughts on that. Thanks for the show. Love what you guys do. Thanks.
Mike: I think this is an interesting question mainly because it’s an iOS and Mac app but there’s also the recurring annual subscription from productivity. I think the prices–there is a free plan–but then they range from $20 a year up to $80 a year which is of around what, $5-$8 a month, something along those lines. I think that the challenge here is identifying why that churn happens. Is it legitimately because people are churning out and they’re no longer using it or is it just they find that the app doesn’t help them nearly as much as they thought it would? I think it’d be easy to assume that, “Oh, you should be doing this.” Or, “You should be implementing that feature.” But I think I might dive a little bit more into the churn itself and start ask a lot more detailed questions about why the people aren’t using that.
My concerns/fear here would be that what you’re offering people is conceptually what they want but either the implementation itself is not really what they’re looking for or it doesn’t really quite match up with what the value proposition they were sold on is and it could turn out to be that somebody tries one app and they think that it’s gonna work and once they get out of the field and they’re using it, it sort of works or does most of what they want but it’s not quite enough so they just decide to switch and use something else. Maybe look at your performance metrics or your usability metrics to see like are people actually using it after three or four months in or is it that they’ve paid for and it was a low enough price point that they said, “Well, I paid $50 for this and it’s not a big deal so I’ll just try this other thing over here for another $50.”
As I said, the fear/concern that I would have is something that people use and it may just not be able to deliver on the promise. It’s not to say that you can never deliver on that promise. The fear that I have is it even possible to do what it is that they really want. I don’t know the answer to that, you have to ask people to find out. But as you said, the other component is like do you invest more on the marketing side and try and ramp it up or do you drill in and start trying to fix those things and add more features?
I think the first place to start to find out why people are churning out and what the fundamental issue is there and from there look back and say is it important enough for you to fix? The reason I say that is because there’s a question for road map and what is the most important to you, not roadmap, runway is more it than anything else, are you able to make ends meet with the app the way it is or are you chewing through runway and sort of losing money on it as you’re going along? In that case, you need to lean more towards scaling things up and then fixing things versus being able to make ends meet on a regular basis and you don’t have to worry about it as much. At that point, you can dig in and start fixing things in the app. That’s probably the place that I would start. Rob, I’m sure you have some thoughts on this as well.
Rob: Yeah. This is the age-old question. I think it’s a really good one to think about. I think in general, as developers, we think features are the answer, and in general, they are not. Not to say, all at all times because in certain markets, in certain niches, it really will make a big difference like Drip launching workflows was game changing for us, it doubled our month over month growth. It can happen.
But so many of the little features that are constantly being requested, if you have thousands of users you’re gonna get 50 or 100 feature requests a month and most of them you need to not build. Not only to keep the product simple enough that it doesn’t become bloated, but because you just don’t have the time to build them all. The caller is so much closer to his business than we are so it’s hard for me to make a recommendation to him, but my recommendation in general would be stir away from the mindset that I just need this one more feature to do this thing, unless everyone’s requesting it.
There comes a certain point where 10% of your feature requests are for the exact same feature. At that point, that’s when we break down–in the early days, we build a lot more now, we have a team of 18 developers or whatever, but in the early days when we were super cash and resource trapped, it was pretty much no by default and yes to these highly focused things that we knew were gonna move the needle. That’s how I balance it.
I think that the caller’s approach to doing joint ventures and focusing on marketing is genius. That’s exactly what I would be doing because the more marketing you do, assuming it’s effective, the more revenue you get, and that revenue will allow you to then hire a contractor in essence or perhaps the first time employee, how ever you wanna work it. But hire a developer that you can supervise because that will then, I should take one step back first, first person I would hire is a part-time VA to handle all your support, if you’re still handling that, because that will free up.
Then start thinking about hiring someone to write the code and this is the part that developers always struggle with because no one “is going to write the code as well as I do.” However, if you can free up 12-30 hours of your time in a week and features are still moving forward and you have some budget to pay someone, it can be game changing for your business and that frees you up to focus on really moving the needle.
I think marketing in the early days is such a big deal because you need to get the revenue to allow yourself to start stepping away from certain roles that while you may enjoy doing them are probably in the early days are less effective and what more if the needle is matched.
Thanks for the question. I hope that was helpful. Our next question is about overcoming hesitations about partnerships to move the business forward.
Joshua: Hi Mike and Rob. This is Joshua from [Perspexa Labs]. First, thanks so much to this podcast. Every episode is invaluable. My question is this, how do I overcome my hesitancy of partnering with someone to move the business forward?
For context, I run a B2B SaaS company that offers monthly subs in the range of 100-350 a month, and we’ve plateaued about $2,500 in MRR I co-founded the business with an office colleague but I just realized circumstances he really isn’t able to participate materially in the business anymore and our product is solid at this point but I know we need to move the needle and sell the marketing in a big way. Try as I might, I just can’t seem to crack that nut.
I know that finding the right person to bring onboard will probably do wonders and turn us into a vital business but on a do-it-yourself-er and I just have trouble, one, convince myself that I ought to do this, and two, coming up with the vital way to achieve it. Any advice for effectively a solopreneur who doesn’t wanna be stuck in a half business for forever? Thanks so much for the both of you. Everyone, go leave a review to this podcast on iTunes. Thanks guys. Bye.
Rob: Joshua was kind enough to also send us an email with a bit more background and he said, “The main product outreach is at [perspexalabs.com], we’ve got a core group of customers and service businesses like pest control and electricity and we’ll soon be getting into healthcare providers because our revenue is only $2,500 a month with margins of around 70%. It’s not enough yet to pay salaries. I’m guessing that bringing someone onboard will probably need to be an equity arrangement which I’d be fine with.
With regards to my own efforts to sales and marketing I’ve gone to the Traction book and tried several different approaches including online ads, cold-calls, cold-email outreach and attended a very targeted trade show. That really hasn’t generated fruit as nearly all of our current customers are referrals from other customers. Unmentioned to my question bills are related issue, should I let my current co-founder remain in the business? I’d really like him to be here if we can get into healthcare because of his connections, but I know this isn’t the first priority anymore.” What do you think, Mike? It’s a tough one.
Mike: Yeah. I think you can almost divide this into two entirely different things. One of which is what to do about the co-founder and then the other is how do you move the business forward when you’ve got $2,500 a month and not enough money to do a lot and you’ve also obviously got the co-founder onboard and I don’t know what the relationship there is in specifically call that out.
Rob: It sounds like it’s still amicable and he’d like to keep him on if they were to go into healthcare but not if they don’t. You don’t know if they vested so the first thing is that you should have done four year vesting probably so that your co-founder wouldn’t own the entire percentage that they had. Because if they decide to leave, that will go back into the pool to get the next person.
Mike: I think, with regards to what to do about the co-founder, that’s probably the first thing to do. It sounds like you wanna keep them on but the question is how much is he going to be able to contribute. As Rob said, the vesting schedule maybe he owns 25% because he’s stuck around a year, 50% because he’s stuck around for 2 years. That seems to me like the first thing to look at and try and figure out and if he has to walk away because he’s just not involved, that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t own a certain percentage of the business anymore and can’t contribute under the […] capacity or something along those lines. That’s something I think you have to work out with your co-founder and sit down and have an honest conversation about what him stepping away from the business really means for the business and for the relationship between you guys.
Then once you’ve figured that out, the next question to tackle is what do you do about the business itself. I think you didn’t specify what your own personal situation is or whether you’re taking money from the business and living off of it. But with the $2,500 a month, it sounds to me like because you’re a do-it-yourself-er, it might be a viable strategy to go out and find a business coach who can walk you through a bunch of different things and that does a couple of things.
One, is it avoids handing equity over to somebody else, and two, it still allows you to do those things yourself and you get that personalized assistance from somebody else and a sounding board from somebody who’s vested in the business because you are paying them to give you ideas and take a hard look at what it is that you’re doing and how effective those things are but you’re still doing those things yourself and you still don’t necessarily hand over control to a third party or a co-founder or another partner in the business and avoid some of those other issues that maybe you’re struggling with right now.
I don’t think that it’s wise to introduce too many changes all at once. That could be a nice bridge scenario where you are involving somebody else but you’re not handing over the reins to somebody else in a co-founder capacity while you’re having your current co-founder step away from the business a little bit. That’s probably where I’d start looking and see if that makes sense to you.
Rob: Yeah. I think you’re right, there are two separate issues here, it’s existing co-founder and then pulling on a new partner. I think given that the business you have to de-risk the business a small amount that bringing on a new partner, you could obviously give equity without giving an enormous amount. It wouldn’t need to be a third of the equity or something. It depends on your aspirations and think where the business is headed and who you can find but I’m thinking in the 10%-20% range given where you are. If you were gonna go raise funding and you’re gonna go try to find like a COO or something or a CTO, they get 5%, but you’re in a little bit different situation because it doesn’t sound like you’re gonna get so big so fast, that that’s gonna be warranted. As a result you have to bump that equity to 10% or 15% or whatever. But at this point, in my opinion wouldn’t just be an even split.
I think the hard part is finding that person and vetting them and it’s like a marriage because you guys are gonna have shared ownership of things and breaking that up later can be like a divorce. I think getting over your hesitation is one thing, but I think the harder thing is to find someone who is good enough or who’s gonna work with your style, who’s willing to be in the trenches with you, who I think it really wants to stick around and is able to work because it sounds like this is gonna be nights and weekends, people are not cut out for that in general, most people just think they wanna do it and then a month or two months and they just flick out or they just decide not to do it.
I think finding someone who meets all this criteria is really hard but I think if you can, then what I would look at doing is definitely have kind of a trial period, maybe 90 days, just to say how things feel, I would definitely have four year vesting on that with the one year cliff, meaning they don’t get any shares until they’ve been around for a year. I think that’s how I would approach it and I would look to be meeting people in person so I would be going to the MicroConfs and the businesses software and these conferences where there are folks who could potentially be in that pool for you separately regarding your current co-founder. I think you just need to make the choice sooner rather than later whether they’re going to healthcare. If you’re gonna go onto it and he wants to stay around, you wanna keep him around, that’s great, and if you’re not, then I think the decision is made there.
I know it’s not always that crystal clear but it does, given that information you’ve provided, seem perhaps how I would perceive. Thanks for the question, hope that was helpful.
The next question is about technical debt. Mike, does technical debt really come back to bite you?
Mike: Oh, yeah. No question on that.
Rob: Alright. The subject line of the email is actually, “Have technical debt decisions been easy to pay down later or did they really come back to bite you?” He says, “Love the show, listened for the past year, really love the practical advice. I’m looking for your technical perspective about what matters in the early days of getting a site running while keeping customers happy with mission critical data, building a data heavy B2B SaaS startup.
The frontend is in Angular, the backend is in Rails, intermediate self-taught developers, new things I haven’t done before can sometimes take a week or two to figure out. I’m making early technical debt tradeoffs hosting using Heroku versus AWS, database PostgreSQL versus Aurora, and the other miscellaneous things relating to data structures.
I’m not looking for technical help but the question is more geared to your experience of how much this stuff matters up front and really needs to be solved to get functional versus it’s not too hard to change it later. Theoretically important but won’t kill you so pick the simpler thing even if you know you’ll need it to change it after launch. Am I wasting a lot of time by taking the shortcut now and having to pull the app apart later to move it around when I have real customers using it in production?”
Mike, this is not gonna be as long as GDPR, I promise, but I feel like we have a lot to say on this, so go. Just start rolling with this. What do you think?
Mike: Yeah. Do we have like beeps cued up immediately for all the profanity that’s about to be dropped on this?
Rob: Yeah. Technical debt, it’s a *.
Mike: Yes, it is, yes, it is. I think looking back on this particular piece of it, some of the things that he had brought up, the things like hosting and the database selection and the data structures that you’re using on a backend, some of those can be really hard to change later on, versely impossible. In some cases, you’re looking at a complete rewrite.
You at least have to have enough technical knowledge to make those decisions in a way that is not going to completely kill the app later on or force you to do an absolute rewrite from the ground up. That said, I do know people who have done complete rewrites after they’ve gotten to a point where they’ve gotten customers onboard and it basically delays things, you may have to take three, six, nine months of accepting the fact that you’re just not gonna make any progress on the features in order to fix that fundamental positions that will bust it.
Then, there’s kind of a second level which is where you’re trying to make decisions about how do you structure the data or how do you create the database in such a way that it makes easy to do certain queries or provide a solid error handling, error returns to the API for example. I think in those cases, you can mitigate them to some extent by using dependency injection and creating these interfaces that sit in front of it and if you need to rewrite one, then you can, you’re almost swapping out an entire layer of the application for another in a very specific way.
I’ll give an example with Bluetick, like the backend storage system for storing emails has been rewritten four times. It’s because at first it was like let’s just get something working and then it was trying to optimize for local storage and then the next level was things are not working in local storage because there’s so much data coming in at all times like I just can’t scale that much on one machine and then I kind of move everything into the cloud and into the Azure tables in no sequel storage. Then the fourth rewrite was essentially making that more scalable and optimized.
Each level on the way like there was some level of rewrite but because it was essentially being able to flip a switch and say instead of using this set of data structures, you can do those on a per user basis or on small sub-segments of the users and not affect others. I would definitely do some research on dependency injection.
The other nice by-product of them is that it helps with writing unit test to be able to make sure that those things that are working from one version of your rewrite to the next in that particular component or module. Beyond that, there’s always gonna be things that you run into where you think that one way is a good way to solve a technical challenge and you turn around and find that it just wasn’t, you get down in the weed sometimes and you realize that you made a really, really big mistake and the only way to resolve that at that point is to rewrite it and there’s nothing you can do at that point.
The only way to have mitigated those four types of problems is to run into them and then realize after the fact that it was a mistake. It’s really hard to generalize from one application or problem space to the next and say like, “Oh, you should never do it this way. You should always do it this way.” Those things don’t apply. Each problem space has its own unique way of storing data or things that need to be surfaced to the user and you don’t always know what those are until afterwards. Sometimes, you just make the best decision that you have and you find out later that it was wrong, there’s nothing you can do.
Rob: Yeah. I would just say in general, technical debt is underrated in the startup space. I think people think that it’s not a big deal and it’s a way bigger deal than most people do because if you aren’t technical, it’s hard to understand why you can’t just quickly rewrite a piece or quickly change a decision you made later. These metaphors don’t always work but it’s akin to building a building and then needing to go back and replace the concrete foundation because you poured it incorrectly. You literally have to jack the building up and it’s just painstaking and agonizing to replace that and that’s what code is. You’re building things on top of each other.
I think of it like a 4×4 matrix where there’s basically two binary things. One is I know that this is a shortcut and I’m gonna take it anyways versus I don’t know this is a shortcut like I accidentally introduced technical debt. I think that’s the switch you’re talking about.
Then I think the other one is it’s easy to undo later versus it’s a complete fiasco to undo it. You can imagine that 4×4 matrix and we’ll go through all of those matching up but obviously any decision you make on purpose to introduce technical debt, you need to explore and thought experiment like how hard is this to undo later. If it’s hard, then don’t do it.
There were a lot of decisions Derrick and I made in the early days that were very slow, they caused Drip development to be very slow in the early days and it was pretty agonizing when we were bleeding cash and we couldn’t get the features out the door to keep people from churning because it was a very specific feature set that people wanted, and it was taking us months to build them and it was because Derrick wanted to build them very carefully with extensive unit test and he wanna do it right and he had to refactor the database twice in the first year of the app, because the app went from a very simple thing to very complicated thing.
It was agonizing but it was the right decision, because now, it would be catastrophic right now, we would probably have to have rewritten major parts of Drip. I don’t know if it would have impacted the acquisition or if it just would have been post acquisition or what it would have been but it would have been really hard and between he and I, we figured out a good sense of what was gonna be hard to change later–things that are easier to change later like you said where you can just build an interface and then swap it out later. Obviously those are the ones that you can maybe take shortcuts on.
But I think some people take shortcuts on like not running unit test, some people make cold-quality shortcuts where they just start hacking things together and later on, everything’s buggy because you took a shortcut and you didn’t build that right in the first place. In general, I have seen no less than half a dozen or maybe closer to a dozen companies get to the point where they’re between 10k and 50k MRR, they’re growing fast and they have to rewrite their entire codebase. I’ve seen some that have done it more than ones.
It is so painful to spend six months of standing still while your competition gains on you because you took shortcuts in the early days. Now, you’re just hanging out, waiting to build more features until your codebase can be completely rewritten. I would say proceed with caution, obviously, you’re always gonna have some level of technical debt, but be very deliberate about those choices because I think it’s easy to be in such a hurry to get to the point where you have more revenue and this is certainly a tradeoff because in the early, early days, when you just trying to get to $5,000 or $10,000 revenue, you’re gonna have to make some trade offs but try to take shortcuts on things that are easy to change later. That’s how I think about it.
Mike: I think one of the biggest places to make that trade off is that when you’re looking at unit tests, I’m not saying you write unit tests for everything because I certainly don’t think that that has a ton of value for a startup but I do think that there’s value in having like continuous integration server of some kind or a build system put in place so that later on you don’t have to figure out, “Okay, how am I gonna deploy my app?” You want that to be a systematic thing where you can literally just click a button and it runs through everything and is able to deploy the app.
But with that comes at least some level of unit tests or a mechanism for running those, and even if you don’t write a ton of unit tests, as bugs come in, you should be adding those unit tests to make sure that if a bug comes in and it breaks something that you had a unit test in there so that later on, as you’re making other changes, it doesn’t break that again.
Like I said, I don’t think you should write unit tests for everything, but I do think that as those bugs come in you should be writing them to make sure that once you fix a particular problem that you don’t have to refix it 3, 4, 5, 10 different times moving forward because it just keeps coming up.
Rob: Thanks for the question. I hope that was helpful.
Next question is from Jay Pablo Fernandez and he says, “I just finished going through all my newsletter subscribers and I noticed there are a few industries that are well-represented such as education, health, IT and government. When it comes to my product, they all use it in the same way. The feature set they made is pretty much the same. I wouldn’t say they are verticals in the SaaS way of thinking. I can sell to all of them or I can focus on one industry. Are there any advantages to either approach?”
Mike: I think this is a tough question, as you said you don’t wanna paint yourself into a corner and make people think that you don’t serve their industry. I think what I would do in this case sn focus on the specific problem that you solve and then maybe have different case studies for each of those industries and even segment your list a little bit so that when you talk to them, when you’re sending out newsletters or you’re sending out articles to them, maybe you’ll only send an article that highlights a case study for the electric and gas industry to those people who were subscribers that fit into that bucket. It seems to me like that would probably be an appropriate way to go, but at the same time there’s value to be had to for saying, “Hey, this also works in other industries because there’s gonna be some crossover between them.”
Let’s say that you have a case study on the nuclear power plant industry, if it’s safe enough for them to use, pure application, then whatever other industry they happen to be in, they would probably translate that and say, “Oh, well, if these guys are using it, then surely it’s passed master and I could use it as well.” I would think about it in terms of just trying to make sure that you’re covering enough of each of them but not focusing so hard on any of them that it makes people think that, “Oh, this is not for me.”
Rob: I think I might try to run an experiment. He has this list and he has these four sectors, four verticals, and I would consider trying to do physically exploratory calls, I don’t know if you wanna call it customer development or even just sales calls, if the product’s already there, across all of them, and figure out that you wanna validate your assumption that they use it in the same way with the same feature set. Because I find that a little bit hard to believe, just having run the apps that I’ve run, different industries tend to want slightly different feature sets and have a slightly to just enough it settle but by the time you really get and they start using it, it becomes a pain-in-the-butt to have four different industries or wanting something just slightly, “Oh, just tweak this one thing, oh, can I just have a setting to do this? But we have a permission in the reporting thing.” It’s just enough that there will be a difference. I guess it’s what I’m guessing.
If you have the time to do this upfront and just have a bunch of phone calls with these folks and try to do the demos and try to figure out is it truly gonna be something that they all can use, then that’s fine. But I do think you’re gonna find differences in payment terms, like you said sales cycle because government’s gonna take forever to come through, maybe in your early days since you’re trying to get ahead of funding running out or whatever, you go after the ones that close quickest, which I don’t know if that’d be IT, education, sure it seems like it’s gonna take a long time too, so focus on the one that are gonna close the quickest and get the early value in order to keep around long enough to focus on all four.
But I would try to answer that question, there’s still a question in my mind of is the product actually gonna serve all four? If that’s the case and you can work your entire list and work all four of them at once and try to get as many customers paying you on day one, then that’s what I would do. Right now, you’re just trying to get revenue and see how people use the app and if they’re gonna get value out of the app and there are across four different industries, then you’re gonna learn more about all four and maybe later you decide to focus down on one industry.
I do think that there are some advantages focusing on one industry in terms of how your marketing can really speak to people so you’re gonna close more deals probably, how you are sales conversation can focus on them, how your features set can focus, and how word of mouth would be such a big component of it. Assuming that people in your industry hang out at conferences, or hang out online, word of mouth if you just become the defacto in in the industry and in a vertical then you can land and expand words like, “Alright, we are the go-to for this task in the IT space. Now we’re gonna start adding on these other verticals.”
That’s the other way to approach it. It’s just a pick one based on your information so far, your best guess, and then later on, a year or two down the line, once you own a big chunk of this, you’ll expand into the others but I feel like you don’t have enough information to do either approach right now and I would try to close as many deals as I could, see if they actually will all use it and then try to make the decision once you have a little more information.
For our final question of the day, we have a question from Ed Freyfogle. He was a MicroConf Europe speaker this year. He says, “Hey, guys. Long time listener, first time asker. One target audience of my SaaS service is academic researchers. They are not the best customers as typically they’re low budget and they only need this service for a project or semester. Nevertheless their niche seems to like my service. Often they ask for academic discounts. My pricing is already very affordable and I offer discounts for annual purchases. Still, I can’t help but wonder if I might be able to grow this niche by offering an academic discount.
Alternatively, I have also thought about selling to universities and offering them a bulk rate. But so far I’ve always been busy with other things so I haven’t acted on this idea. I’m wondering if you guys have any advice on academic discounts in general, how to ensure they are not abused by other customers and selling to universities. Thanks for the great show, I learn a lot.”
This is a tough question. I like the fact that he’s thinking pretty strategically about it. I think that if you haven’t had the time to try to sell to the universities and offer them a bulk rate, if you haven’t made the time, it’s probably not that important. That’s where I found like this is right. It’s like you go toward the money’s coming in and your biggest fires are. I’m guessing that unless you are to hire someone to handle that that it’s not gonna make it to the top of your to-do list anytime soon.
I tend to think about discounts in two ways. There is academic and then there’s non-profit discounts. I don’t know if you have a non-profit discount as well, that’s something that I would consider modelling it after and there you just ask for proof of their non-profit status which can totally be abused. I think with DotNetInvoice we had profit one and it was maybe 1 in 20 or 1 in 30 who ask for it and show the stock seemed a little bit like, “You signed up with this just to get the discount.”
In terms of academic stuff, it depends on what volume you have coming in, it’s like if it really isn’t education it’s 1 in 50 people ask for it. You can always have an unpublished academic discount and you just need to get proof from them, I don’t know it’s a student ID or if it’s a professor ID, what it is, but it’s gonna be a process, it’s fairly lightweight. I personally don’t see a huge drawback to doing it. I’m curious when people email and ask for academic discounts and you say no, how many sales do you think you loose? Is it worth even doing any of this effort to get those sales?
Your pricing is already reasonable, if you offered another 20%, 30%, 40% off for academic discounts and that’s probably the range, I would think, although I haven’t done any research about this, but mentally it would be in that range. Is that worth it if you have to go through validation of some type of ID, I don’t know, there’s some trade offs here.
If the volume is high enough that you’re asking this question, I would probably just do an experiment where the next time I got an email about it, I would say, “Yes, we have a 25% discount, but you have to prove you’re a student or you’re faculty.” See where it goes from there and handle it as a one off to start and then I don’t know if it has support people or not, but if you distract them to do that and then tally up in a Google Spreadsheet how often it gets asked and which sales come through, you can start getting at least a little bit of data about it.
Those are my initial thoughts without a ton of experience, to back that up, it’s more of the got feel, so much of entrepreneurship is making enough as you go along. It’s just figuring out what’s the priority and making the best judgment call based on the information you have. What do you think, Mike? You have other thoughts?
Mike: I’ve looked at the academic discounts in the past. You just do a quick search for academic discounts for software and you’ll find that they can be upwards of 85% which is extremely high especially for something like a SaaS, I mean. Is the money that you’re getting even enough to offset the cost of you actually doing business for that person? I don’t know the answer to that. I think you need to figure out what that is.
Rob: Yeah. I know that Microsoft and Adobe and those guys discount because they’ve been pirated so much. Too often students who don’t have the money and they do these huge discounts. When you’re a SaaS app, especially when you’re Bootstrap like this and cash is important, there’s no chance I would offer a discount that large.
Mike: Yeah. I mean I think that part of the reason that those types of companies offer discounts that are high is one, it’s downloadable software so they don’t have to worry about their own cost, and two, they’re really just trying to make sure that there’s some form of legitimacy for the software that you’re using and giving that high of a discount helps them to get market penetration so that Microsoft has 90% market penetration on the best app for Office and Windows.
I agree, I wouldn’t go that high, but it’s not to say that you couldn’t have a discount for students versus a discount for academic researchers/the university itself. Because if somebody’s using it for a class, then they’re probably not going to be able to pay nearly as much as the person who’s doing it for the university and offering it on behalf of the class itself. I might think about that, but I do agree with Rob that you probably want to go through and run at least some tests to find out like what is it that people are using it for.
Something else to consider is that if somebody is purchasing it on behalf of the classroom because they’re teaching it, what’s the value of having those people in the class know about your product and then they leave and graduate and go out and do things in the workforce and having them know, “Hey, I can come over to opencagedata.com and buy this stuff off-the-shelf and we use it in our classroom so it has a lot of legitimacy.” There’s probably some value in that, I don’t know what that level is because I mean if you go through like an engineering degree, chances are good you’ll probably use Autocad some place along the way. When you get out into the industry like you first thought is, “Oh, I need to create some 3D models of something. Where’s the copy of Autocad?” There’s a student discount that you can get but once you get out in that at the real world, your company has to pay for it.
Having those people go to their bosses and say, “Hey, I use this data over here from opencagedata.com. We should buy a license for that.” There’s value there. I don’t know what that is but I definitely think there’s some value there. I would look into it, I don’t know how much time and effort I would spend on it because the return on that is probably gonna be wild. It’s gonna be a couple of years.
Rob: Yeah. Those are good points. I like your idea of not making an academic discount but making it a student discount. It’s an interesting thing because students really don’t have the money whereas if a university is buying it for a class, they do have some budget, and he’s right, his prices are reasonable like a university should be able to afford it.
Mike: Even with like a student. A student could probably get away with a free trial or even like the extra small plan that they have there for like a class or project or something like that but the university, if it’s for a class, and they’re buying it on behalf of the students for a class, I’ll offer them a 30% discount if you’re a student and you just want to use it for yourself, maybe it’s a 60% discount. I don’t know, but if you separate them, I think that there’s a way of targeting those people in that way that says, “Oh, we give individual students 60% and for universities we give them 30%.” It shows that you’re doing both. It shows you’re helping out on both sides.
Rob: It’s a question of whether or not the volume of incoming request warrant spending the time to figure all this out. If the answer is no, we have reasonable prices and we aren’t able to support any of these because you don’t have the bandwidth. It’s less about money and it’s more about Bootstrap startup with not a lot of time and just having yet another program to maintain and then we have to get a fax of your idea or an email with a screenshot and then check that off that it’s approved and then they just want more process that you have to wait if that’s gonna be worth it for in order to make another few discounted sales.
Mike: Thanks for the question, Ed. I think that about wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-96-90 or you can email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about the Bluetick marketing plan. Mike breaks down his plan in three categories, one-time, ongoing, and long-term. The two go back and forth on the most effective strategies for each category.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Price Intelligently
- Product Hunt
- CSS Gallery List
- Whitetail Software
Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are gonna be doing a teardown of the Bluetick Marketing plan. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 384.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: I’m Rob.
Mike: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. How are you doing this week, Rob?
Rob: I’m doing alright. I was just looking through our 584 worldwide iTunes reviews. We’re approaching 600 people, 16 more and we’ll be crossing that 600 mark, which is quite a milestone. Some recent reviews, there’s one here form just last week, from […] and he says, “Great podcast, been listening for years.” One from Mr. Man Man from the UK, he says, “Full of great practical advice. Discovered the show recently and now a regular listener. Extremely valuable advice for anyone who wants to build tech products.” Limons from the US says, “Every episode is invaluable. Somehow Mike and Rob ensure that every episode has at least one and usually a ton of valuable info. I love the presentation style and how much they pack in. I don’t think anyone just started tech business without listening to this podcast.” Thank you very much for those.
You can log into iTunes, or Stitcher, or Downcast, or Overcast, and leave a five-star review without even typing in all those crazy technical words and phrases and sentences. Just hit the five star button and it will go a long way towards helping us stay motivated to record the podcast. Also, helps us grow our audience which convinces us to keep doing every week, to ship every Tuesday, as they say.
How about you? What have you been up to aside from-so you lost power. People know I did a solo episode last week. How was that with no power and no water?
Mike: Oh, that sucks. It was about a day or so that we lost power. We lost it, I think, at around 10:00 o’clock or 11:00 o’clock at night and then we didn’t get power back until probably 6:00 or 7:00 the next day.
Rob: It’s tough.
Mike: Yeah, it sucks. The real hard part is that with no running water either because we have a well and the water comes up through the well with the electricity that powers the pump. We actually have some giant jugs of water that we keep downstairs just in case we do lose power or something happens with our water because we’ve had issues with our pump as well. You lose your pump and you can’t have any running water which is surprising, you use it a lot but you never ever think about of what would happen if I didn’t have water today or what would happen if I don’t have electricity today. It’s just inconvenient to say the least.
Rob: Right. I’m glad you’re back. You went to Germany recently.
Mike: Yup. Went to FemtoConf which was pretty awesome. I had a great time. There were probably about 40-50 people there. There were some issues with a few people getting into FemtoConf just because they were flying in from the Eastern US. Of course the snow storm came through and hit the New England area so some people were delayed, some people just didn’t get there at all. Travel for a few people was kind of a mess. Fortunately, I flew out on Thursday and got there and kind of recovered, no real major issues with jet lag. But I really like the feel of it.
It was a lot like MicroConf when it was much, much smaller. Just much smaller groups, intimate conversations very much like MicroConf. The feel of it and the vibe was very reminiscent of that, I’d say in the very, very early days of MicroConf 2011-2012 when you didn’t necessarily know everybody or you’re just kind of getting introduced to what other people’s businesses were. There were a couple of talks on the first day. Then the next day Sherry gave a small workshop. Then we split off into a couple other ones where Alex Yumashev from JitBit did one on kind of like engineering growth hacking that you could do. Then Mojca Mars gave one on Facebook Ads which I went to that one. She went through and basically set everybody up with their Facebook Ads account, walked them through exactly how to get things started, and kind of helped them figure out what it was that they needed to do moving forward.
Rob: That sounds super cool. There was just one or two talks a day?
Mike: On Saturday there was four talks and then on Sunday there was Sherry’s workshop in the morning, and then there were two other workshops after that. Thomas Smale from FE International was supposed to be there, so there was supposed to be two workshops, and followed by another two workshops. It kind of run simultaneously in different rooms but because Thomas couldn’t make it, Sherry ended up doing one for everybody, and then the other two were split. First speaker on Saturday was Claire Suellentrop who’s also going to be speaking at MicroConf in a couple of months.
Actually, what’s that? Six weeks away right now? Claire spoke first and then it was followed by Aleth, she spoke about GDPR, and then I spoke about email follow-ups, and then Patrick Campbell, he was one of the people who was delayed, he spoke about modifying your pricing and how to figure out what an ideal pricing model should be for your business, and then using it as one of the biggest growth leverage in your business. I think I got a lot out of that talk because I’m kind of right in the middle of evaluating pricing and figuring out what to do with it, and how to pitch it to people.
But he also pointed out the fact that SaaS has gotten substantially more competitive over the past several years. He had graphs and charts to show the number of competitors, the people that started five years ago had versus people who started two years ago versus people who started last year. It was just fascinating the amount of data that he had on that based on all the stuff that they do for Price Intelligently.
Rob: Yep. His talks are always super valuable and have a lot of data. It sounds like a lot of fun, man. Sherry was there, obviously. Told me about it and said she enjoyed it as well and said there was a ton of overlap with the MicroConf crowd. I think she said most people go to one of the MicroConfs which is fun. It’s fun to get together in almost a more mastermind-y arrangement. I know it’s not that small but I bet you kind of know everybody and know what they’re up to and you can literally talk to everyone at the conference.
Mke: Yeah. If you don’t know them before you get there then it’s easy to at least have those conversations and get to know them by the end of it.
Rob: For sure. Cool. What are we talking about today?
Mike: Well, I had asked a few people what they wanted to hear on the podcast. One of the biggest things that came out of it was what is going to be the initial marketing plan for Bluetick now that the new website is up and running. I wanted to talk about that and kind of just go back and forth, and giving I guess a high level indication of what I’m going to be doing. And then you and I can talk about either specifics of it or vet some ideas around or even just tear some of these ideas apart, and say, “Look, don’t do this,” because more than happy to hear some of the advice that you have to share.
Rob: For sure. I know I had shared with you at one point the Drip marketing game plan and the HitTail one actually. The HitTail is a little bit out of date but did you look through that, at all, to populate this list you have?
Mike: Some of those things are pulled from there. I haven’t gone back to either those in a while. I probably should do that at this point. Most of what I’ve been doing lately has been really focused on either MicroConf or getting the new website up and running and now that that’s in place and things are settling down a little bit with MicroConf, I can go back and take a look at those. But some of these things are pulled from that.
Rob: Yeah, that makes sense. One thing I would consider before we dive in, you have it broken down into two categories, kind of, “I’m gonna do these things now,” and then my longer term things. Maybe you do them over as you get time or as you get budget. Something I would think about is to even have one before now or to split the now into two buckets is to have one-time things and on-going things. One of your bullets here is product listing sites, like product on beta list, and I would even go so far as to say all the CSS Galleries.
There’s 50 different things; there’s getapp.com, there’s Capterra, there’s AppStorm, there’s this whole list that you can put together. Those are truly gonna be one-time things. I think it might help your mental model of like, “Okay, gonna do those once. Gonna get the heat of traffic.” Even podcast store is kind of a one-time thing. You’re not gonna do that for a year whereas webinars, joint webinars, and that kind of stuff I think is more on-going. Does it help for you to think about it like that?
Mike: Yes. In Teamwork I have a project that’s specifically called Bluetick Marketing that just has lists and lists of things there. I’m looking at it now there’s probably 20 different lists in here and there’s about 162 different to-do items in there. One of them is specifically one-time marketing tasks. Things like going into the Chrome Web Store and looking to see if there’s anything that can be leveraged there, submit into the Google Apps Marketplace. The products listing sites, inside of that various accounts are different places, and documented certain processes, etc. Mostly just one-time things that I need to do it once or is it’s a task that needs to be done but the output of that could then be leveraged over and over again.
Rob: Okay, that makes sense. What I’ve done is update the list a little bit and I just kind of threw some things that’s called one-time and then we have on-going, and then a later list. Will that work for you?
Rob: Let’s see. Let’s dive in.
Mike: You wanna go straight into the now sort of things?
Rob: Yeah. Let’s talk about the one-time things because I think that these are things that I have all of my marketing plans. But specifically, I’m gonna keep talking about HitTail and Drip because that’s when I formalized this and put it into a doc. I really thought through where are the places that I can get a bump now that I’ve launched. It’s like the website’s live, every time I try to get written up on Venturebeat, and Techcrunch, and ReadWrite web, and GigaOM when it existed, all these things. It never worked but at least I tried it. I was trying to get some type of buzz.
Then there are the ones that are easier or guaranteed. It’s like startupli.st and BetaList, and makeuseof.com, all the things we just talked about, like Producton and that kind of stuff. You’re almost guaranteed to get a listing even though it might take a while to do. I think if you ever venture back, maybe those little-oh, and CSS Galleries is the other one. If your site is good enough and is a custom-design, I realize yours is probably more templatized, but always got a lot of traffic with HitTail and Drip from the CSS Galleries.
Did it convert amazingly well? No. But did it to convert to some trials for almost zero effort because in essence I would have a VA or I think I may have even hired a service at one point because there are like a hundred different CSS Galleries. I think there was someone who productized it and I paid $99 and submitted some info and they submitted it to all of them. To me, that’s a great zero time $99 investment because if you get one or two trials, depending on your price point, that pays it off.
That’s how I always entered it. I think if you ever venture back then need to make a bazillion dollars then maybe these kind of little initial approaches could be a waste of focus or a waste of time but I think given that every trial counts for you, I think those things are important to do. Chrome Web Store is the other one you said in the Google Apps Marketplace. I had zero look with the Chrome Web Store. What’s the difference between the Chrome Web Store and the Google Apps Marketplace?
Mike: I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I’d have to go and take a look at that. I think the Chrome Web Store was specifically for Chrome plugins. At one point, I had on my list of things to put into Bluetick like a small Chrome extension. Obviously, it never materialized. It’s not that it’s not a road map, it’s just I didn’t get there. I don’t know if that’s even viable or something that I could do because they may just say, “No, you have to have an actual Chrome extension to be able to put that in here.”
Rob: Yeah, that’s what it is. While you were talking, I went to the Google Apps Marketplace. It’s now called the G Suite Marketplace. If you integrate essentially into the G Suite, it also looks like you can just integrate with Gmail as well. Since you do that and neither Drip nor HitTail did, I never submitted to the Google Apps Marketplace. That would an interesting distributing channel.
On the Chrome Web Store I did get a minimum Drip and HitTail in and it had zero traction. But I’m not saying it’s not worth the time but it didn’t do anything. It’s pretty crowded in there now. It’s kind of like the iOS app store I think about, in the early days it was a lot easier to get found. I know that PipeDrive said that a lot of their early growth came from the Chrome Web Store but that was a different time. It was five years ago or whatever. It’s one of those things where you have to create some images and you have to create some XML and you have to submit it and it will take you probably half a day to do. You gotta wait if you wanna do that or not. It depends on what else you have going on.
I would probably lean towards doing it just because it is one more distribution channel and you could get lucky but I think it’s not as high priority as pitching podcasts as an example, because that’s gonna have a really high success rate for you.
Mike: Right. The other thing that comes to mind is going through the process of putting out on all those products listing sites. It contributes to long tail SEO as well.
Rob: Yeah, that’s right.
Mike: It contributes to your page authority and Google will see all those lengths coming in and just building those backlinks is kind of important.
Rob: Yup, I would agree with that.
Mike: You said CSS Galleries, fill me in on this because this is something that hadn’t even crossed my mind.
Rob: The only reason that they even came on my radar is when I acquired HitTail–no, it wasn’t HitTail. It was a different site. It was a productized service I had. It was called CMS Themer, CMS Themer at the time.
Mike: I remember that.
Rob: Yeah. It had a really nice design and it would get quite a bit traffic from CSS Galleries. The interesting thing is CMS Themer was really targeting designers and so that traffic converted very well. I’ve just always made it part of the marketing plan. Obviously, it doesn’t convert nearly as well when it’s an app like HitTail or Drip, but again, this posted a link into our docket. It’s cssgallerylist.com. For $60, they submit to hundreds of galleries. For $60 and almost no time it’s worth it for the backlinks, it’s worth it even if the traffic doesn’t convert, it’s just another channel to get out there. Again, the last time I did this was five years ago, there maybe a better resource than this cssgallerylist.com but I do know that I used these guys and it saved me a lot of time.
Mike: Yeah, for sure.
Rob: This is not something that’s gonna grow your business overnight or be some huge game-changing thing but it’s just all these little parts of the snowball that you’re kind of turn the pack on and then seeing which ones get you any kind of traction.
Mike: Right. I think the important thing to keep in mind when going through this stuff is that every little bit helps and you don’t always know that any one link is going to contribute anything but if it gets one person over and the ROI on that is gonna be almost no way to calculate that but you may get three people over and one person converts. It’s not a 33% conversion rate for that obviously but that can help.
Rob: That’s right. Have you considered how you could do an ‘ask me anything’ on Reddit or you could do a Show HN where you say, “Hey, here’s this business. It doing…” whatever the revenue is, or I don’t know if you can be vague about that or not, but I don’t know how you wanna handle it. Then basically say, “I’ve grown it to this. Give me your feedback,” or whatever. Have you thought about that? I don’t know if that’s worthwhile or if that’s just a big waste of time.
Mike: I have. I’m in a couple of Facebook groups. That was suggested to me a couple of months ago via somebody that said, “Hey, you should do an ‘ask me anything’ on Reddit.” I put it on my list but it wasn’t something that kind of rose, I’ll say, close to the top of things that I thought were, not necessarily game changers, but in terms of weighted priority, I didn’t feel it was something that would help out a lot.
Rob: It’s tough. If you’re marketing directly towards developers, then it would make more sense.
Mike: Right. If it was something like ‘ask me anything’ on growthhackers.com for example, that’d be a totally different story. That’s something that I probably should add to the list to be honest.
Rob: Oh, I think you should, yep.
Mike: Anything else in terms of one-time activities that come to mind that’s not on this list?
Rob: I was just trying to think about that. On startups.com, answers that are on Startups used to be kind of a place but I don’t even think that exist anymore. The bummer about Quora is that it’s really not a one-time thing. What I would do with a one-time thing is set-up, subscribe to some topics, there’s probably a cold email, or even just email. You want email sales, you want the email sales channels not the email marketing channel because email marketing tends to be bulk email and that’s not what you’re doing.
I would subscribe to categories or topics that fit your thing so that you’re notified when questions are asked because you wanna be an early answer. You don’t wanna go on a bunch of old Quora threads and add your answer because those threads already have a bunch of up votes and you’re not likely to be the answer that shows for everybody because that’s really what you want. I did that in the early days of Drip. It’s a bit time-consuming but what I found was the questions that come through tend to be so far into your wheelhouse, that they’re really easy to answer.
Even if I type a couple of paragraphs, it just flowed out. I didn’t have to research because it was things like, “What are approximate open right rights? What’s a good open right for a list?” It’s like, “Well, I actually know what the range is. Here, I’ll talk it through.” It’s gonna be stuff that these questions for me would be tough to answer because I’m not knee-deep in this warm email engagement the way you are. Anyways, I would consider as the one-time part of that just subscribing and seeing how it shapes out.
Mike: Yeah,that’s interesting being able to rattle off some of those numbers right off the top of your head. Because it’s part of my talk that I did for FemtoConf. I looked specifically into that and looked across 70,000 emails that had been sent out through Bluetick and looked to see what the open rates were and what the response rates were across those, and then I cross-sectioned them and got the average, the best case, worst case, across everybody’s accounts. It was interesting what the numbers came out to be and then asking the audience I said, “Hey, here is a number, what do you think is this in terms of the open rate?” It was about, I’d say a third of the audience got it right which means that two-thirds did not which indicates that these numbers are, I’ll say, a little bit obscure or opaque and not everybody knows that they are.
Rob: Yeah, that makes sense.
Mike: I think a couple of other things that come onto this list is, I don’t know if they’re one-time or you would classify them as one-time, but like a podcast tour, for example. I feel like it’s something that you can do it once when you start and then if you’re going to try and do it again you have to have something compelling to follow-up with, I’ll say.
Rob: I do think of a podcast tour as a one-time thing but it’s not as one-time as say CSS Gallery submission, but it’s gonna move the needle more than them. CSS Gallery and the BetaList and all that stuff. I just posted a link to whitetailsoftware.com and Robert Graham had that pre launch email list building directories. We can include that in the show notes but I think you have 50 or 100 that he had his VA submit to, so that’ll help as well. But all that to say, podcast tour is gonna take several months because you’re gonna email and get scheduled, and by the time it comes out, it’ll be months down the line.
I think the big thing, the advice that I would give when doing a podcast tour is it would be easy for you to just go on a bunch of entrepreneur podcasts and say, “Look, I launched a product. I’m building this SaaS product.” You’ll convert some of those, it’ll be a low conversion rate. The audience who’s gonna convert the best for you is gonna be folks doing sales. It’s gonna be folks both doing cold outreach and then doing the warm nurturing that Bluetick allows you to do, this stuff that comes right out of your inbox and looks very personable. It’s not bulk email like MailChimp or Drip but it’s the one-on-one connecting whether it’s cold or warm. Who’s doing that, right? This is BDRs and salespeople. I know some of those are also founders but I don’t think that’s gonna be your market.
I think initially, you can get SaaS founders, and you can get our audience, and the MicroConf audience, and not crew. It’s good to talk about it here. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go on Mixergy and talk about it but compared to the size of that audience, the conversion rate is gonna be pretty small. The podcast that I would target that I think are gonna be your low-hanging fruit, is to go on podcast that are talking about sales, and talking about tech sales, selling SaaS apps is probably the B2B sales approach.
You can come on not to tell the story of your product but you can pitch it as, “Look, I’m an expert in this because I’m in it day-to-day and I’m seeing dozens or hundreds of customers who use our product and I’m seeing the patterns. I’m seeing the successes and how they’re doing it well. I see the failures and the mistakes people are making.” Does that make sense? I would definitely go after that space rather than focus on the founder and entrepreneur space.
Mike: Yeah, it totally makes sense. That was actually my hesitation, I’ll say, of doing that because I didn’t think that approaching those, the startups community would be something that will really resonate. Like you said, I’ll get some sales out of it but it’s not gonna be a high-converting channel for me.
Rob: Yeah, in all honesty, I will probably do both but I would start with the sales folks, the sales podcast. We both know at least a dozen people who have podcasts that I’m sure you could come on and talk about some aspect of your business. Try to vary it because we have this small community and so if you go on all the podcast of our friends and talk about the same thing on every podcast, everybody hears it, there’s only so many people in it. I will try to suggest different topics, different aspects. If you could talk about the launch on one, you could talk about the stress on another, you could talk about marketing approaches on another.
I do think that is still worthwhile because it’s easy for you to do because you’re used to doing podcasts and it’s 30-45 minutes of your time once it’s booked. It’s not actually that much of a time investment to be in the earbuds of likely several thousands or tens of thousands of people, but as I said, I do think I would start with trying to assess out what are kind of some B2B sales podcast that I can get on?
Mike: The interesting thing about that is there’s two different ways that I could approach that particular problem of going out to the people who are running those podcast. One of them is send directly into Bluetick and let Bluetick follow up with those people. The other one is that there’s a company I’ve stumbled across that will take kind of what your requirements are for appearing on podcast and will go out through the different network of podcasts that they have contact with, and essentially pitch you to them. I’ve mixed feelings on doing that, to be perfectly honest, but at the same time, there’s a time component that it’s gonna suck up some of my time to do it myself but in many ways, it comes across better if I do it myself.
Rob: Yeah. That’s hard. There is a balance because we get a lot of pitches on this show and on Zen Founder. If it’s not the person pitching themselves, I tend to delete them, that’s just a thing. I do glance through them but I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone on the show who wasn’t pitching themselves. When I had an executive assistant who is doing stuff back in the Drip days, when I was still running the business, she could email people as me, look straight out of my inbox, and so you could develop the pitch and have someone else send it as you. But it just depends on what you wanna do. I don’t know but I don’t have a good answer for that.
Mike: But again, at that point, I could just put it through directly into Bluetick and have Bluetick send out the email.
Rob: That’s true. Ta-da. That’s cool.
Mike: It’s interesting because occasionally, when I’ll email people whether they contacted me to ask me something about Bluetick, occasionally they’ll have heard the podcast and they’ll ask in their email as to whether or not it was sent from me personally or whether Bluetick sent it. I’m just, “If you can’t tell, doesn’t that speak to what the product does?”
Rob: Right. Does it matter? Yeah, that’s funny.
Mike: Does it matter?
Rob: We’ve talked at length here about the one-time upfront things. You have nice list of the things that you plan to do on an on-going basis, why don’t we look at a few of those?
Mike: Sure. The things that pop-up high on my priority list-actually, you know what, now that I’m looking through this, one of the other things that is on the on-going list should probably be moved over into one-time is the public Zapier integration.
Rob: Oh, yeah.
Mike: I’ve got a private integration right now but I’ve not taken it public and that’s something that I’ve been asked about a couple of times by Zapier. I just haven’t done it yet to be perfectly honest. There’s a lot of edge cases that either are not handled well or I know that there’s other changes that need to be made and I’d rather make those changes before I open it up than have to fix a bunch of other stuff. Because there’s some things that I do some manual data manipulation just to make sure that things are working right for certain customers. I need to put a more permanent solution in place for those.
That’s something that after going through the process, I believe they put it out through their mailing list. I forget what their mailing list is but it’s something like 1 million people or something like that, something ridiculously large. The conversion rate is not gonna be high but it’s more about driving awareness than it is about converting people at that point.
Rob: Yeah, you’re just trying to get the word out so people have heard of you at this point. One other one-time thing that I would do, it’s not a marketing approach, but I would set up Google alerts for relevant terms that you wanna monitor like company names of competitors, try to hear about like articles I think are relevant or conversations that are relevant, you have to use your judgment there but I do think getting something setup so that your kind of participating or at least aware of what’s going on in your space is helpful.
Mike: Yeah. I have a couple of them set up right now but it’s mainly for Bluetick. What I find is I’m getting a lot of emails about dog conversations that are happening.
Rob: Yeah, I could see that.
Mike: I guess if we’re gonna jump right into the ongoing stuff or the short term things that I was looking at, the first on my list is webinars.
Rob: Yep. Are you planning, because right below that you have JV webinars.
Mike: Right. I wouldn’t say I lumped them together but I think the general process is going to be similar for them whereas with the webinars, there’s joint webinars and there’s just the regular webinars. The regular ones are ones that I was probably gonna promote to my own email list and then maybe do one on a regular basis or promote it on a Tuesday every other week or something like that. And then with the joint webinars those would be much more scheduled where I’m leveraging other people’s audiences and contacting influencers and see if they’re interested in having me come and talk specifically to their audience about how Bluetick can solve a particular problem for them. I see it almost like the podcast tour but with a little bit more, I’ll say, pinpoint accuracy or a little bit more focused specifically on those people because I don’t wanna go pitch somebody and say, “Hey, can I just do a joint webinar with you?” But not actually have something that’s gonna be valuable to offer to their audience.
Rob: Right. I would the joint webinars before I try to do internal webinars because it is such a nice way to reach out beyond your own audience. Just through doing webinars to your own list, you’re gonna one and then you’re not gonna fill anymore, you know what I mean, until you get more people either using your product or on your email list. We tried early on with Drip to just run Facebook ads, get people to opt into a webinar, and we’re gonna try to run one every week, and we just couldn’t get people to show up at a price that was worth it for us.
Again, not saying it’s not possible but it’s an entire funnel that you have to develop. It’s gonna take you quite a bit of time and money to do whereas the JV webinars is a low-hanging fruit for you, because JV webinars is about who you know. You do have a good network of people who I think you could contact and have access to their audience right away, basically for free, without running all the ads and developing a funnel. It’s just conversations. I’d definitely prioritize the joint webinars above do your own.
Mike: How would you structure any sort of special offers for those people going to a joint webinar? There’s a lot of discussion and I’ve thought about this myself. I was like, do I wanna offer a discount or I wanna give additional services or special templates like, “Hey, you can only get this here because you’re coming to this particular person’s webinar.” My concern is really putting a lot of extra effort into something that-at the end of the webinar, it may turn out to be nothing. I may not get very many sign-ups out of it or I may get a lot but I don’t know. It’s hard to predict how much time and effort to make things custom for that person’s audience. You know what I mean?
Rob: Yeah, I do. I would lean heavily towards some type of bonus and it’s time-limited. You say, “Hey, free to sign up in the next two or three days, then you get this extra thing.” whether it’s a discount or the thing that you billed. Discounts are the lazy way to do it. It’s like the zero time way but it chews through your money. If you have no time, absolutely no time, then yeah, give people a discount, but discounts are not exciting. They’re not as exciting as like, “Get this complete email series,” even if it’s only three or four emails, my guess is, you can crank that out just using copy+paste from what you’re using already or from what you’re recommending to people and just edit it for their specific niche.
If you talk to a bunch of freelancers then it’s like, “Here’s the way they follow-up and do it for freelancers.” A lot of it is gonna be the same as any other sequence you have but you’re just gonna tweak a few things. I’m guessing, in about half an hour you could probably crank something like that out. You don’t even need to do that in advance of the webinar because if you don’t get sign-ups then you just don’t build it. But if you get sign-ups using that coupon code then you just manually reach out to people because it’s not like you’re gonna get 500 sign-ups. You’re gonna get 10, or 20, or 30. It’s gonna be a small amount. You can just hit people up and distribute that to them. I’m thinking of something like that. It’s high value for someone signing-up but it’s pretty low effort for you to create.
Mike: Yeah, that makes sense. I think right now when you go and sign up, I was probably gonna pull this off as things progress, but when you go and sign up right now, there’s kind of an offer there that basically says I’ll create an email sequence for you based on whatever scenario you describe and that will be your first sequence. It’s kind of concierge onboarding but I’ll say it’s probably not very well described in the website right now but it is something that I just offer to people as they come to sign up.
Rob: Yeah. If you get 30 sign-ups at a time that’s gonna get tough. I think you’re gonna have to stop doing that because it’s too time-intensive. You have to back off as you start getting more sign-ups.
Rob: What else? You have direct follow-ups with the following; invite to demos, you have current mailing list, prior prospects which I think is good, and personal LinkedIn contacts.
Mike: Yep. I have a couple of different spreadsheets based on when I was doing early validation. Some people said, “Hey, now is not a good time. Maybe later on when you’re further along.” And then there’s people who have come in and I’ve done a demo with them and things just didn’t work out for whatever reason, or they sign-up but they never followed through or they used it for a little bit, and then they said, “Yeah, this isn’t working out for me.” I’ve got this pool of people that I can go to that fit into that criteria, that I can put them into a Bluetick sequence, for example, and invite them to come back and check it out or go to a demo or something like.
But in addition to that, I also have the mailing list that is in the Drip account which I have been putting on the website where there’s an email course that you can go through. It’s like a 5-day course which I’m in the process of copy+pasting all the content all of that to make it a slightly longer course. But those people that I can go to directly, I can take them out of Drip and then plug them into Bluetick, and individually follow up with each of them. I could do that based on lead score for example and just sort them by lead score and then add them in in that order and say, “These are the people that I’m gonna approach first versus these are all the people who are probably, I’ll say, less interested, but still on the list.”
Rob: Yeah. I think that’s a good idea to kind of approach. I was definitely gonna say anybody who’s cancelled in the past, if the product’s a lot better than when they’ve tried it, you definitely wanna contact them. Prospect who haven’t converted, people who’ve been paywalled because they don’t wanna give their credit card, now is the time when you’re doing this to just circle back and clean all that out.
The personal LinkedIn contacts, you gotta use your judgement there, you don’t wanna come off as… I’ve never done that but if you know someone who really should value out of it and you do a very soft pitch like, “Hey, just to let you know I just launched this. I thought it might be helpful.” Not anything that’s forceful like, “Jump on a call. Jump on a call.” Then, I think, it’s halfway reasonable.
Mike: Yeah. I wasn’t planning on doing that. What I was gonna do was go through my LinkedIn contacts and just look. Obviously, I’m gonna hand pick which ones i’m gonna contact and which ones I’m not. I’ve got people who I know are software developers or they’re engineering managers, or something like. They’re really not a good fit for it but that doesn’t mean that I can’t go to them and say, “Hey, I just wanted to check in with you and see how are things going, and let you know I just recently launched this. If you know of anyone who could use this, I’d love an introduction just to kind of help me out.” I’m leveraging my personal relationships at that point.
Rob: I could see doing that. I just added a couple things to the list. Actually, you have retargeting on there, mostly Facebook. I think it says Facebook primarily, I think that’s a really good idea to get set up whether you use perfect audience, you have the display networks like Google and stuff already, you just tick Facebook and it gets probably a material but I think you should get that set up pretty quick. That’d be probably towards the top of my list. Do you already have the pixel installed?
Rob: Okay, good.
Mike: yeah, I’ve had that in pixel installed for a while. But then, the reality there is, I’ve put it under ongoing because there’s a one-time piece of setting it up and there is the follow on activities where you go in and you analyze how much traffic you’ve brought in, do you have a critical mass yet, what kind of advertisements you’re doing. It’s kind of two different components to that but I do find that even with my two-step process for the sign-up, you put in your email address and password, and it takes you over to a credit card page, and there’s people who don’t fill that out.
Obviously, those people, I wanna follow up with anyway but I also wanna make sure that people who come to the iste and then go over there but never even fill out that first page, I still wanna be able to retarget those people to bring them back. Because obviously, they were interested enough to go look at the signup page but they didn’t actually sign up.
Rob: I think in the interest of time here because we’re running pretty long today. I think you should consider-paid acquisition I have written here, it’s a tough one. It all depends on if you have budget and if you have time to sit there and test a bunch of stuff, so something to consider, maybe it goes on your later list but it’s definitely if you can get it to work, it’s really, really good. Cold email outreach, you have the tool to do it, nice to use your own tool. You can go to something like LeadFuze and get a list of people, and start doing the outreach yourself, or you can hire someone to the outreach for you.
We had mixed results when we did Drip but it definitely drove enough trials that have made it worth spending. We were spending money on it at that time and it definitely had positive ROI for us. Integration Marketing which is you just think of all the top 10 integrations that you would wanna have and think about trying to get either in their director. If it’s Stripe or Basecamp, they’re probably not gonna co-promote with you because they’re so big but they have these integration directories. Or if they’re a little bit smaller, if they’re a startup, they’ll probably have a list and are willing to email out and promote you. That requires dev time, of course, so it has to be worth your while.
But that was something we did 30 something integrations with Drip and it makes a lot of sense with a tool like Drip because it it a hub of data and so we integrated with a bunch of shopping carts and all types of marketing tools. That both helped our customers but it also really helped to start to get traction and kind of be everywhere in their early days. I think those are the other three I would throw out that you may wanna do sooner rather than later.
Mike: Yeah. I’ve already been asked by people about integrating directly into Bluetick using the API and I’ve kind of pushed off mainly because I know that there are parts of the API that are still changing, so I haven’t really structured it in a way that says, “Hey, this is available for you to use and it’s pretty solid versus these other pieces where you shouldn’t touch it.” I had a conversation with somebody at FemtoConf where they said they actually have three different versions of their API published. One of them was for them internally, and then there’s another one that’s a public API, and then they have special endpoint specifically for Zapier. It’s interesting they split theirs out and I think it makes a lot of sense as well. It’s just a matter of rearranging some things a little bit to allow people to do that and say, “Hey, this area is solid. This area is off-limits or don’t touch them.”
Rob: Yep, that makes sense. Anything else that you wanna pull out of here? Either in ongoing? It looks like you have a couple more and then you have some stuff for later?
Mike: Yup. The one idea that have come to mind that somebody had mentioned to me at FemtoConf was the idea of having Bluetick offered as sort of a managed service for x thousand dollars a month. Then they’ll send all of their contacts over into Bluetick and then, it’s my responsibility to make sure that things are running smoothly for them so that they don’t have to go in and manage anything which, if you set up a lot of the automation and stuff, you don’t have to worry about that, but there’s also ongoing tweaking, A/B testing, or making sure that, “Are these numbers any reasonable ballpark of what they should be?” If you’re getting a low open rate, for example, how would you necessarily know unless you’re looking at all the other data. I have access to that but other people don’t. Those are the things that I can provide a lot of additional value for customers but they don’t necessarily have access to it on their own if they just signed up.
Rob: Yeah. That makes sense. There’s a risk with managed services because they can just suck up a bunch of your time and also the revenue is not worth nearly what a SaaS revenue is in terms of a multiple-whether you’re gonna raise funding or whether you’re gonna sell or whatever. If you have a bunch of consulting revenue, it’s worth like 1X, 1X the revenue versus actual recurring revenue, it’s a different story. I shouldn’t say recurring. It’s higher margin revenue where if it’s software it has 70% or 80% margin. If it’s consulting it has what, 10%, 20%, 30% margin. It’s something that I would consider in the early days but it just matters what cash position you’re in. I think you would do it for the cash and not really for the long term prospect of the company because I don’t think you wanna grow a big kind of productized service long term.
Mike: No, I agree. The way I was gonna structure it was like, “Hey, here’s a managed service that if you wanna subscribe to you can,” and it’s either a three-month or a six-month contract, and then that’s it. If I decide to continue offering it then they can continue paying me for it but if I decide that we’re not gonna do this anymore, then things are kind of pushed back. It wouldn’t be something that you can just go to the website and buy off the shelf but it’d be limited three to six months contract or something like that. You’re right, it would absolutely be for improving cash flow for example, but it would also put a solid number on, “Hey, what is this particular customer going to be worth to me in the next three months or in the next six months.” Does that make sense?
Rob: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. Certainly trying it with one customer is not gonna hurt much. That’s the thing, is to see how much-if it’s valuable to them, if it’s workable for you, and obviously if you do it for 10 or 20 people, you’re getting yourself in pretty deep but you don’t have to do that. You can just dip your toe and then figure it out.
Mike: Yeah. I was gonna do it for probably one to five. The other nice thing that I thought that would deliver to me is the ability to work hand-in-hand with those customers and see what exactly what it was that they’re trying to do as opposed to, “Hey, here sign up to Bluetick,” and then after that, I don’t really have a ton of visibility into their business or exactly what challenges they’re trying to solve. I know generally what they’re trying to do but I don’t get that insight or I don’t have calls with them to really see on a weekly basis like, “Hey, what are you really trying to get out with this?” I think that those insights would actually help me build a better product longer term.
Rob: One of the thing I see on your later list that I like, that I don’t think we’ve covered, is you have this library of email templates, lead gen, and you use this as a lead gen to acquire email addresses? I think that’s intriguing both for the SEO and you can always run ads to it, you could retarget to it and you’re basically giving something away. I think that’s gonna take a ton of time for you to set-up. It’s a little more complicated than it sound but I’m glad you have it on your later list so at least, in a few months, once you get some of these other ones done, you can move into that, and start thinking about how to shape that up.
Mike: Right. The other nice, I’ll say, by-product of doing that is that, I could create those inside of Bluetick as a library where you can when you create your account, you can just select from a bunch of them, kind of a similar to the way that Drip has those pre-made blueprints for different situations, this would be exactly that. Like, “What situations have I run into with different customers that they’re trying to get a response or get the customer to take an action? What sorts of things work? What sorts of things don’t? What sorts of approaches do you wanna try?” You can almost categorize them. It’s like, “This is extremely aggressive versus to do the exact same thing to get somebody to a call. This one is much more laid back and hands off, and it depends on the situation whether it’s cold email versus a warm email with somebody who’ve had three or four conversations with us.” Which one you would use?
Rob: Cool. Well this was a good run. Thanks for bringing this on the show. I had fun talking about it. I’m guessing we’ve provided quite a bit of value for the folks who are thinking about this kind of stuff.
If you have question for us, call our voicemail at 1-888-801-9690 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. 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 SaaS marketing from square one. Topics include where to start marketing, what types of channels to use, and what your timeline will look like.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Product Hunt
Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about SaaS marketing from square one. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 381. 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: I had never realized that we say Startups For The Rest Of Us three times in the introduction.
Mike: Yeah. I stumble over it a little bit sometimes. I think you did it well.
Rob: It’s a long title. Yeah, I know. We should think about changing that.
But aside from that, things are actually going really well this week. As you know, I mentioned on the show before, Sherry and I have put together a book called the Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Shit Together. Sherry was very much the first authored and the driving force behind this and I can contributed topics, stories, anecdotes, I did some of the writing, but for the most part it was Sherry writing. But super stoked to have it out, men.
It launched on Wednesday of last week and so far, sales have been good. We’re going with an all Amazon approach, which is interesting. It’s something I haven’t don’t before. It’s a trip because you don’t get your customer email addresses but the one click buy makes it so much easier for people to buy versus coming to your website and entering credit card and phone into a Stripe form or whatever.
So far two thumbs up. I think Sherry’s learning a ton. I’ve obviously been offering advice and helping draft emails and put the wrong link in the launch email, that was me in my own software. I said it though Drip and I told Sherry, “If it’s a bug in Drip, or it’s my copy paste error, I’m still screwed! I can’t even blame it on anybody. It’s my fault.” It wasn’t a bug in Drip. I just made a copy paste error and left the ‘h’ off the http for the book link. I had to resend the correction which I pretty much never done, ever in my launch career. I always triple check stuff and I was in too much of a hurry.
Mike: That’s funny. I was actually going to accuse you of writing only one line in the entire book and it was the little anecdote where it says Rob’s thoughts and then there is, “Uhm, no.” and then “and Rob.”
Rob: Yeah. Exactly. I wrote that. I also wrote a bunch of the stories in there. It was a fun project. You know what’s fun about it for me, was being able to contribute, I did more than just consult on it but the redrafts and the edit and help shape things. It was not the full burden. I was not the founder on this one, I was more like the board member, adviser or something. That’s kind of cool.
It’s also fun to see someone launch a product like this at this scale for the first time. Because you feel vulnerable, you’re excited but you’re not sure what to do, and you’re just stumbling along. I can just see all the stuff shaping up as she’s going through the process.
Mike: Yeah. I’m sure it’s nerve wracking for her too. When you first put something out there, especially with a book. I think with software there’s that layer of obstruction like, oh yeah, you created this but you’re in the background and the software is the thing that people are seeing. I think with the book, you’re putting your expertise out there as well and that can be a little nerve wracking, especially because you’re not sure how it’s going to be received, did you hit on the right pain points that people have, are they really the things that people are feeling. Not that you’re not confident, it’s just that there’s a difference between a small subset of people that you’ve actively worked with versus a much larger set, especially when you don’t know who those people are.
Rob: Totally. It’s always just vulnerable. I think vulnerable is the right word, when you throw something out and thousands of people in essence are going to wind up buying this book here and hopefully most of them read it. You just have to be prepared for thoughts and comments and that’ll be both positive as well as critiques. It’s just a lot to put yourself out there, whether it is with software or a book.
Mike: Yeah. I’m very glad that I got both the paperback version and the Kindle version because I had to fight my wife off for the book because she saw it and she took it.
Rob: Oh, that’s funny. Cool. Glad to hear it.
Mike: Yup. Anyway, we went through that over the weekends. It’s a good read, I liked it.
Rob: I was going to ask what you thought of it.
Mike: It touches on a lot of topics that have not been well talked about but they’re starting to and I think that Sherry’s probably a very big contributing factor to that just based on her talks at MicroConf and how well they’ve been received, but I think it’s a topic of discussion that people are a little bit more comfortable discussing now than they were 5 years or 10 years ago. It’s nice to have it now but I almost wish it was out there 10 years ago.
Rob: Yeah, I know. Absolutely, I wish I had this book when I started. If you don’t know what this book is about, it’s about how to run your business without letting it run you. It’s how not to spin out of control and be super stressed out and how to know yourself more, how not to burn your relationships, how to stay human, how to stay connected to people. She calls it like Founder Mental Health but I always think of that as like, I don’t know, if I’m not depressed, or I don’t have an anxiety, I don’t need it. But it’s not that. It’s just how to fight through and really stay sane and maintain solid relationship to not piss off your wife, and your kids, and neglect your family, and gain a bunch of weight, and go crazy. I was so freaking stressed running Drip and selling Drip, I wish that I had a resource like this.
If that sounds like you, or you think you might be encountering that anytime soon, you can search on Amazon, there’s a Kindle and a paperback version, Entrepreneur’s Guide To Keeping your Shit Together, and we’ll link it up in the show notes for sure. Sherry recorded an audio version and has submitted it to Audible but it is not approved yet. I’ll probably talk about that once it’s approved as well.
Mike: Very cool. I’m in the middle of working on my FemtoConf Talk and it’ll probably be something of a preview of my MicroConf Talk to be honest. It’s nice to be getting that much of a jumpstart on it. I don’t think that usually I start on my talks until probably a month or so before the conference. It’s like two and a half, three months out at this point. It’ll be nice to get that done in advance and then give a preview of it and see what resonates and what doesn’t and be able to go through it a few times in addition before a live audience as opposed to just getting up there and giving it in front of a live audience for the first time at MicroConf.
Rob: Yeah. I could see that. It’s really nice to be able to give a talk twice. I always give a talk better, almost always given better the second time.
Mike: And the other thing is paper spiders. If you enjoy pranks of any kind, go into the bathroom, and on the other side of the toilet paper roll, draw a giant black spider and then put it back so they can’t see it.
Rob: Really. Even though it’s just drawn?
Mike: Because you can’t see it until you flip the roll over.
Rob: Nice. Where did you hear about this?
Mike: I saw it online but I practiced that yesterday and my son was not pleased.
Rob: Yeah. That’s funny. Cool. What are we talking about today?
Mike: Today we’re going to be talking about SaaS marketing from square one. This actually comes to us as a sort of a listener question. I put out on Twitter a couple of weeks ago asking if there were any topics specifically that people wanted to hear about. One of them is from Phillip who’s asked, “How to start a product from scratch? After my MVP is ready, because growth hacks are everywhere but nobody talks about starting marketing from a blank page. No social media, no newsletter recipients, no SEO, nothing, zero traffic.” I thought we would go through this and talk though some ideas around where you would even start with that.
At the very base level, you’ve got an MVP, we talked about this extensively. If you haven’t done marketing before, you get to this point where you got a product to put out there, then you’ve done things wrong but I also feel like we just get a number of questions that are around this where people have already made that mistake and it’s too late to change it, so now what do I do?
We’re going to talk thorough where you start, different types of channels you can use, and strategies to put the product out there and try to make it into a success even if you haven’t started doing any of the marketing beforehand.
Rob: Sounds good. I know this is a common question. It’s something that overtime, if you listen back to previous episodes, and if you look in both of our books, Start Small, Stay Small, The Single Founder Handbook, or even blog posts. This is just such a common topic that we’ve covered but it’s worth revisiting every so often and trying to see if there is either new information or just to revisit for all of our edification and a reminder for all of us.
Mike: The first question to ask is where do you even start? I think that in a situation like this, you need to work a little bit backwards. The first thing to look at is knowing what’s your timeline and your runway look like. By this, I mean really what date is it that you need to be making x dollars and MRR, whether it’s $5000 a month or $10,000 a month. How much money is it that you’re spending on a monthly basis, how much do you need to leave your job, how much money do you need to recover in order to pay back a particular loan or something like that. What are the hard deadlines that you have set that you need to be conscious of? Then based on those things, what are their current pricing plans that you have, how many customers would you need in order to be able to meet whatever that MRR goal is?
Establishing this timeline really does two things for you. The first one is that it provides you with a required trajectory. How many customers do you need to add on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis in order to get there? And the second thing this does is it helps you to eliminate certain types of marketing channels, because if you have a really short timeline, some longer term marketing channels are simply not going to work for you so you can completely throw the out the window and focus on other things that are shorter. And they may not be repeatable or suitable but they will help get you to where you need to be.
Rob: I like the idea of this one. I think that as you get more experience, let’s say it’s your second or third app, or second or third success, I think you can get really good at determining these timelines, build timelines, actually building the product and then ramping up marketing and taking a half ass guess at it.
I remember that doc I put together for HitTail, it was like the marketing game plan. It wound up being somewhat accurate but I wasn’t as experienced as I was when we launched Drip in 2013. That doc, I put together this whole analysis of how many uniques I thought I could drive to the site each month, how many would convert to trial, how many would convert to paid, what the growth would look like. I mapped it out and it wound up being shockingly accurate. The only thing that killed us was we didn’t have a product market fit yet and so I underestimated churn.
When you don’t have product market fit, your churn can be 20%, 25%, so you lose a lot more people. If churn had been closer to what I thought, the growth would have been very, very much in line with what I was guessing at.
The one issue I have with this, with the thing that I think could be hard, if this is literally your first time, you don’t know any of the rules of thumb. You don’t know, hey if I asked for credit card up front, I’m going to get between 0.5% and 2% of visitors convert to trial depending on how appealing my site is, what the price point is, and all that. You don’t know if you’re asking for credit card upfront, you should convert between 40% and 60% of trials to paid users and then your churn should be pretty thing in the first two months and then drop.
It’s just all that stuff you can either learn from experience or you can listen to podcasts like this, when we had Ruben Gomez on the show, probably, 50-100 episodes ago, he and I threw out a bunch of rules of thumb exactly around this and it’s towards the end of that episode. If you want to go back and listen to it, I also put it in my MicroConf Talk last year or the year before. I just had one slide, the rules of thumb things I use to do it.
I like the idea of asking where do you need to get to because this is something investors would ask you if you took them. If you’re not taking investment, it is nice to think about where you’re going and not just go out and wander. I feel like if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know how to get there?
Mike: That introduces the idea of having a fudge factor. The timeline that you can put together based on your pricing plans and how many customers you need and the timeline, that’s a best case scenario. You’re going to have to go over that. Let’s say that you need 200 customers in order to get to 10,000 a month, how many do you realistically need to shoot for? Is it 200? Probably not, because you’re going to have people who sign up and then decide that they are not going to become customers or they go through a trial and then they say, “This isn’t for me.” Or they just never even set up the software, or set up their account and do anything with it. There’s lots of people who fall into that category.
You have to overshoot by some margin but at the same time you need a starting point of some kind. This simple calculation of your timeline runway and number of customers is going to at least help put you in the right ballpark. That’s really what you’re looking for. How do I get in the right ballpark? How do I get started on the right path versus I’m not going to do anything because I don’t even know where to start.
The next step is once you got that information in mind, the next thing to do is to break out your plan of attack into the different types of marketing channels that you’re going to go after. These aren’t specifically marketing channels you probably find in a book that it would say that okay, these are all encompassing.
These are two that I thought would apply specifically to this type of situation. The first pair of marketing channel is sustainable versus unsustainable. It’s really just a broad categorization of the different types of marketing approaches you might try. And then the second one is inbound versus outbound efforts. There’s lots of different ways to categorize or classify different marketing efforts but let’s just focus on these two pair.
Sustainable versus unsustainable, the way I really put these into perspective or talk about these is that with sustainable, it requires some sort of systematic repetition over time. It’s usually harder to get going but they tend to have a longer life to them.
Some examples of this will be things like SEO, content marketing, blogging, email newsletters, video channels on YouTube, paid acquisition, etc. And then with unsustainable marketing channels, these tend to be one time or burstable activities. If it’s one time, typically you can do it once and then that’s it. An example of something like that would be listing your website on product time. You could do that once but the chances of you being able to do that more than once for the same application are probably pretty slim. You can come out with new features or subsets of things you could add on there but they tend to be things that you’re not going to do for a while.
And then there’s burstable activities like doing a podcast story. You’re probably not going to go on the same podcast over and over again but you could go to multiple podcasts and do it like a podcast story. You could answer a bunch of questions on Quora, you could do joint seminars with other people, you could do integration marketing. Again, that’s an example of something that you would be able to do one time but you’re not going to integrate with Calendly more than once for example.
Those are the types of sustainable versus unsustainable activities that I would look at and I will classify your marketing activities as one of the two. That leads us down the road in the inbound versus outbound.
Rob: Yeah. Some of the sustainable channels you mentioned, most of them require ongoing work but they’re like a flywheel, they’re this big heavy wheel that just getting going is going to take you months and months. It’s going to start yielding rewards maybe three, six, nine months down the line. But the longer you push it, the faster it’s going to go.
SEO is that where boy, you’re going to see nothing for maybe six months. Obviously, there’s ways to hack around that and stuff, I’m just setting some expectations. It’s like don’t expect a bunch of results right away. But if you start seeing results, then you just build on those and build on those and then they last for a long time.
As you said, the unsustainable are those one time activities that I do actually think so you have questions on Quora in the unsuitable. I’ve seen some folks take an approach where those get upvoted and they wind up being popular and they get a lot of SEO traffic overtime. It depends on how you do it. I think there are still some question I’ve answered on Quora that continued to get votes two, three years later. When you look at it, they’ve had thousands and thousands of views.
I think you need a mix of both but as I said, I think it was last episode, an answer to Craig Hewitt’s question. The one time things or the things I would do early on because they get you the big boost, they’re one time and they’re quick. Doing that joint webinar, if that gets you 10, 20 paying customers, you might not see 20 paying customers from SEO for six months or more. Right now, what you need is revenue. You need customers, you need people paying you. Once you have the people paying you, then you can use that money then to par lay up and reinvest it back into more joint webinars or you can invest in SEO content marketing, etc.
Mike: When I mentioned answering questions on Quora, it wasn’t so much that your traffic was sustainable, it was like you can’t answer the same questions on Quora more than once or it’s a burstable thing where you might answer 10 or 15 or 20 different questions and then you wouldn’t continue looking for more questions because there aren’t more questions to answer. You basically have to wait a while. That’s really what I meant by classifying it as unsustainable. Not that ongoing benefit from it is not sustained, but the activity that you do around it is just that one time or you do it a couple of times and that’s it. Does that makes sense?
Rob: Oh yeah, totally.
Mike: Again, I think as Rob pointed out, some of these things will cross over from one side to the other. It’s not very much black and white. Some things will cross over from one type to the next. That leads us over into inbound versus outbound. The way I separate or classify things as inbound or outbound is inbound is functions on the basis of attracting people versus outbound activities and marketing channels, they function on the basis of actively and proactively going out and contacting people.
Inbound would be things like the SEO content marketing where you’re publishing things and you’re trying to attract people to your platform or you blog or email newsletter, things like that, versus outbound which is you’re actively doing cold calling, sending out cold emails, doing outbound email prospecting on LinkedIn or doing paid advertisements. Paid ads is kind of a mixed bag as well because that flips a couple of different categories of these channels. That’s the main differences between inbound versus outbound.
When you’re early on and if your timeline is short, you want to focus mostly on the outbound efforts. The reason for that is because you need a lot more control over the activity. You want to be able to tie the activity that you’re doing to the number of people coming in because waiting for customers to come to you is not going to be enough. You could wait for months or years, you may not still get the number of customers that you need versus doing those outbound activities where you can essentially drive the conversation and you can go actively get in front of those people as opposed to waiting for them to come to you.
Rob: I agree. I think that outbound has become more and more prominent in SaaS. I think it’s become more prominent as the enterprise players or enterprise software has come in. If you think back 10 years, they were very, very few enterprise SaaS or even mid-market SaaS companies that were targeting mid-market and enterprise companies. In those fields, there’s a lot outbound. There’s a lot of outbound cold calling, is what it’s traditionally been.
I think when SaaS was mostly focused on the Fortune 5 Million as 37signals says, it’s so much more about creating content. It’s the Joel Spolsky approach, it’s the Basecamp approach, and those were the models that I think we saw and those are the models that certainly resonated with me coming over as a developer. I didn’t want to do the cold calls, and the cold emails, and the outbound stuff.
I see a lot of value in both, to be honest. Probably not cold calls myself these days but I think even if you’re bootstrapped, I think getting over the mental stigma of not doing outbound, I think is something that you’re going to want to at least wrestle with internally and not just focus on the SEO, and the split testing, and the content marketing. Those are the things that I was blogging about 2007, 2008, and they do still work but they’re not nearly as easy because there’s so much more competition.
If you want to get somewhere faster than I do think you’re going to a mix of inbound and outbound. Again, going back to HitTail, I did no outbound except for JV emails that I would do with folks, but with Drip, we absolutely did outbound cold emails and we did a lot of paid advertising both for HItTail and Drip.
Mike: Once you’ve established a revenue base or gotten to your initial goals, you can switch over a little bit. Or if your timeline is long enough because you’ve got a lot of runway to work with or you love your full time job and you don’t want to quit but you like doing something on the side, then it’s easier to wait for those longer term strategies to pan out. Basically, it gives you more options when you’ve got a longer runway or you’ve got a longer timeline.
At that point, things like concept marketing make a lot more sense because you can decouple the customer acquisition rate from the activities that you’re doing. You can do link building, you can create content, create videos for YouTube, all those different things because you have the time to spare. But if you are in a position where you want to find out quickly whether or not this is going to go anywhere, you need to push on those things and you need to do those outbound efforts in order to verify quickly versus waiting because you could wait for a very long time to find out, and you almost never know for sure. But obviously, if somebody posts a link on Reddit or something like that and you get 10,000 customers, yeah, that’s a pretty good stamp of approval. But the chances of that happening are so minute that it’s not realistic to even think about depending on those things.
I think with the things that we’ve talked about so far, the next question that comes to mind is, okay, all of this sounds great but where do I actually start? We’ve talked around the issue and I think to address it head on, the first place that I would start is looking at your personal network and seeing if there’s anyone in that personal network who can help you.
The prime example that I think I would point people to in most cases is go to your LinkedIn profile and see who you’re connected to, who you’ve worked with in the past, or go to your Twitter profile and see who you follow or who follows you and find those people, contact them, and say, “This is what I’m doing, this is what I’m working on. Is there a use for this either in your business or do you know somebody it could be useful for?”
There’s ways to go about it without seeming overly salesy. You can definitely just say, “Hey, I’m working on this. Can you take a look at it and give me some advice.” Or, “I’d like a little bit of help. What do you think that I should do?” Those are great places to start the conversations because it’s asking somebody for help versus, “Hey, can I sell this to you?”
That’s a much better starting point for conversation especially if you don’t have a good working relationship with that person or you haven’t met them in person before because then it opens the door for them to put themselves in a position of “expert” where they’re giving you advice. People love to give advice on whatever your new product is.
No matter what you built, people will always want to give you advice on it. It doesn’t mean that it’s good or bad or that it’s going to be exactly what you should be doing, but it’s at least a starting point for conversation. From there, you can branch out, find out who they know, see if there’s channels that they can promote it through, or if they’re just interested.
Some types of products are going to resonate very, very well with certain people and they may say, “Hey, I can’t personally use this but I have an audience that I cater to and they would love to take a look at this. Can we take a look at it and do a deep dive, or get on a call and talk about a little bit more, or maybe go through a demo?” That gives them a little bit more materials to work with than you just sending them a cold email saying, “Hey, I would like you to take a look at this and I think it might help your business.” Those conversations and discussions are going to get you a lot farther if you have some sort context with the person, try to help them to understand what it is that you’re doing.
Rob: That’s a good point. I think that if I was starting out today, some of the approaches that I would focus on early on, I would definitely be looking at paid acquisition. I’d be looking depending on your product, it’s going to be Facebook, or Instagram, or LinkedIn, or Twitter probably. AdWords is probably not going to work because it’s just too expensive these days. It depends on how much you want to get in to run the ads.
I know some people just are averse to it and I had someone doing some marketing for me at one point. I was mentoring and teaching him and he said, “Is there anything I can do aside from running ads?” He just really didn’t want to learn that. It’s an interesting opinion and perspective.
Some people want to do it more the viral approach or with content. You have to figure out what you’re going to enjoy. If you have budget to hire somebody, that’s great because folks who know how to run ads are going to be way, way, way better at it than you. But if you have to suck it up and you don’t have any money to hire someone, then obviously, that’s going to be an option.
The thing that I like about paid acquisition, man, is even in the early days, if it’s not profitable at least you’re getting people in there to try it out and you get some kind of feedback.
Another thing I would consider right off the bat of course is an email newsletter. Email has just been a critical part for everything I have ever done including MicroConf, and my blog, and selling books, and selling software, getting people to use SaaS. It’s just such an asset to have.
I don’t know these days that I would start a blog if I were going to try to market a new SaaS app. If I was going to do content marketing, I would probably take a different approach to it. I would at least debate whether the resources that I would need and the on-going publication, the on–going article cost would not be better spent doing more bigger content efforts. We did this with Drip, we started getting success, we had an ebook, and then I did an audio version of that ebook. It was about email marketing automation I think I was getting started with.
I think maybe we did a video course and we submit those to Producton, and we put it on Gumroad, and we sold a bunch of copies but we gave it away for the first few days and it got a bunch of traction through those. They were more one time bursts but they did help longer term with SEO because we had so many backlinks from these things. It’s an interesting thing to think about instead of publishing content constantly.
Is it an option to do less frequent content but just try to make a bigger splash? This is part of the thing that you see, let’s say Neil Patel or some of the other big blogger, content marketers moving in that direction writing. Even if they aren’t doing ebooks or package products that they’re giving away, they are doing this longer form stuff. It’s less content or fewer posts but they’re a lot longer form.
Of course then that leads you to SEO. If you know how to do SEO and you’re good at it, by all means do it. If you’re trying to learn it from scratch today, it’s going to take a while, I’m not saying don’t do it but it is much harder than it used to be and it’s going to be a big road up there, but if you can get SEO content marketing, email newsletter, and paid acquisition, if you get two of those working, you’re going to have a pretty nice growth engine.
In the early days of Drip, I just have alerts on Quora and when stuff would come up in the email marketing category or startup category, I try to jump in and answer those. I’m a big fan of podcasts tours. I have done them for years and if you can pull one off, I think there’s a lot of value there, for not a lot of time investment.
And then of course, join webinars if you do have the network. It all depends on what your unique asset it. If you’re really good at SEO, then go after that, if you’re good at paid acquisition then go after that, and if you have a good network then you can work that to get people to email you.
If you have none of these, one day, back in the day, all of us had none of those. You have to pick one, you have to start from scratch, you have to hustle.
That’s the thing is it’s never going to be as hard as this first app. When you’re starting it with no revenue, no customer base, no network, no audience, that’s when it’s going to be the hardest. That’s when you have to push the hardest. It’s only going to get easier from then on.
Mike: Something else I mentioned that goes along with what you said was that in those early days, when you’re trying to get the product out the door and get it in the hands of people, there’s almost no substitute for getting directly in front of somebody and talking to them about your products and what it is that you’re trying to achieve and how it solves the problem that you went after.
There’s a lot of credibility and trust that goes into signing up for a SaaS app these days. You can overcome a lot of objections just by having a conversation with somebody. Whether it’s a phone call, or a webinar, or one on one demo through a Zoom account or Skype or something like that, you can overcome a lot of trust issues just by having that one on one conversation with somebody and answering their questions. Your website doesn’t need to look fantastic, you don’t have to have a great onboarding experience.
You can hand walk somebody through your onboarding and talk them through every single question they have and the information you’re going to get from them about what concerns they have or just the questions that they ask are going to be very valuable to you and being able to come up with answers that will not only answer them but also answer everyone after them who’s going to have the same types of questions. If they ask, “How do I use this piece over here?” You know that that’s probably going to come up for other customers. Or if they say, “What does this button on the bottom right here do?” If it’s got a weird icon, they may say something to you. If they do, you can use that to make the product better and hopefully reduce the number of questions which ultimately reduces the friction which helps people move through the sales pipeline a little bit better.
Yes, it’s tedious. It takes a long time to get through that but the insights that you’re going to get from that are massive. It just helps you move things along. It is slow, it’s a slow process but it does work over the long term. You just have to walk through every single step of it.
Rob: That wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt 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, Mike and Noah Kagan of AppSumo, talk about the evolution of Bluetick. Mike discusses how the idea came about, development, and issues faced along the way. Noah provides some post launch marketing advice and tactics.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of Startups For the Rest of Us, I’m going to be talking to Noah Kagan about Bluetick marketing tactics. This is Startups For the Rest of Us, episode 353. 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, you got to say, “And I’m Noah.”
Noah: What’s up, man? I’m Noah.
Mike: We’re here to share experiences to help people who made the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week, Noah?
Noah: This week, I’m doing marketing. That’s kind of what I’ve been thinking about with our sumo.com business, just who’s the customer, where are they, what kind of plan can we put in place to help reach out to them.
Noah: Yeah. Our whole company’s purpose is we help the small dudes or the little guys become sumos. We have two businesses, one’s AppSumo which is a GroupOn for geeks, and sumo.com which is the tools for people to be able to promote themselves, mostly around growing their mailing list and growing their customer base.
Mike: Awesome. Today, we were going to dive into Bluetick. I just launched it a couple of days ago, I think this episode will go out actually a week or two later. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about it just because you’ve got a knack for all things marketing, to be perfectly honest. You’ve done a lot of different work with some very high profile companies like Mint and Facebook, especially in the early days of those companies.
I wanted to talk to you a little bit about if you were running Bluetick based on where it is today, what would you do and how would you approach things moving forward? Take that not only for my own selfish purposes to use that moving forward, but also to illustrate to the listener what sorts of things are possible and what sorts of things they should be looking at when they’re trying to get their product out the door right after they launch.
Noah: Totally. I don’t know how much you shared with your audience on the podcast, maybe you want to give a little bit of a background for possibly new listeners or to anyone who haven’t heard about Bluetick yet?
Mike: Sure. Bluetick is a warm and cold email follow up tool. The basic idea is that if there are certain points in your sales funnel that you know where you typically have to reach out to somebody more than once to get them to do something, whether that’s to reply or to fill out a form, or to submit information, something along those lines, then you put them into this email sequence. It will email them. If they don’t perform that action, it will email them again. It will keep emailing them again until it either runs out of emails to send or the person does that. You can have them pulled out of the email sequence, put into a different one.
It integrates with Zapier. People use it for integrating into a variety of tools like Asana and various CRMs to help them move people through so that they don’t have to do it manually. Otherwise, you have to copy from spreadsheets and things like that. It’s a pain in the neck to track of how many emails you’ve sent to each person and how far down in the email sequence they are.
Noah: How did it come to where it is today? Were you on the toilet and you’re like, “Hey, I really am tired of doing follow-ups. I need to go build software because I’m a smart developer.” How long did it take? I’m curious more of where the problem and the creation came from.
Mike: You were actually one of the first speakers at MicroConf back in 2011.
Noah: I thought you were going to say I was one of the first speakers to never be invited back, which that is true. I’m still waiting for my invite.
Mike: The hot sauce incident, I think that’s what did it. There was hot sauce 12 ft up in the wall.
Noah: [00:03:49] incident, it will not be talked about.
Mike: There was a no hot sauce rule after that. Disregarding that, when Rob and I were running MicroConf, he typically handles a lot of the speaker side of things and I handle the sponsor side of things. What I found was that when I was emailing sponsors to see if they were interested in sponsoring MicroConf, what would happen is I would send somebody an email and they wouldn’t respond. I would have to send them another one and possibly two or three more.
At some point along the way, they would reply. Usually, these were sometimes warm contacts, sometimes they were cold contacts. In most cases, because my email fell much lower on their priority list, they didn’t necessarily see it as necessary to respond right away. Of course, there’s good intentions there. “Oh, yeah, I’ll get to this. I don’t have time right now because everything else gets in the way.”
I would find myself emailing them two, three times, four times, over the course of a week or two, or three weeks, something like that. I found myself saying the exact same things to them over and over. I had the idea that there could be a piece of software out there that would do this for me.
I know exactly what the second, third, and fourth emails are going to be. The first ones are usually customized, Bluetick allows you to do exactly that. But those followup emails are all heavily driven from a template. They’re pretty much automatic. It’s really just to kind of get a response from somebody and help move the conversation forward.
Noah: So you had the idea, you’ve had these problems with these guys. I’m just curious, these are the things I’m thinking about. How did you go from that to saying, “Alright, I’m gonna build a software around that.”
Mike: I started doing a little bit of validation around it. My thought was oh, I could sell this to other conference planners and event planners. What I did was I looked into it, tried to figure out what a pricing model would look like, and realize that unless you ran a lot of conferences on a very regular basis, then you probably wouldn’t use the software.
Just because the pricing model didn’t really work out in terms of finances for me. If I charged a couple hundred dollars, it’s a little bit of a tougher sell than if I were to charge $50 a month for it. But if I’m only charging $50 a month, how many times are they actually going to pay me? It maybe two or three because they’re doing sponsorships for a couple of months leading up to the conference, and then they don’t need it for the rest of the year.
I tried doing the validation for a while and then I said this just isn’t going to go anywhere. And then fast forward a few years, I kind of came back to it and said well, there’s actually a lot of other situations that this applies to. Following up a consulting services company where they’ve got a proposal out to somebody, or they’re just trying to get the conversation started, or they’re just trying to find the right person to talk to. Those are all situations where this type of tool applies. But initially, I was looking at the wrong type of buyer for it. The right solution, wrong target person.
Noah: Who were you hitting up originally?
Mike: When I was first trying to figure out who to go after, I was looking at event planners and conference coordinators because I knew what that looked like. Right now, what I’m looking more at is services companies, anyone who has a price point that’s probably above $2,000 but less than $10,000. It’s well worth your time and effort to follow up with those people, but a lot of people don’t just because they either feel bad or they don’t want to go through that emotional hassle of sending that second, third, or fourth email.
I’ve got lots of data that shows me if you send that first email, yes you may get a 30%, 40% response rate, but if you send four or five, your response rate can increase dramatically to 70% or 80%.
Noah: That is really interesting. I found the same thing. I’ve used a similar tool. What was shocking for me is 50% of my replies to people came on the second email. It was like oh wow. It’s one of these things where most people I’m sure, Mike, you get a bunch of emails and a lot of people get a bunch of emails. You delete them. If it’s really important, people will follow up. If it’s something that’s important, the data actually really shows that.
Did you go and just build this right away or did you sell a bunch of them and get customers before you made it? How did that go?
Mike: What I did was I created this little explainer video. It was about a minute and a half long. I sent it to a handful of people in my network who I thought would have this particular problem and ask them, “Hey, is this a problem that you have? If so, are you willing to talk to me about it? I think I have a solution that would solve it.”
I got probably about a dozen conversations out of that fairly quickly, out of about 20 to 30 people that I send it to. I had those conversations. That was the initial discussion. I would ask them, “Is this something that you would pay for?” Most of them said yes. Once I got to the point where I had 12 people who said yes I would pay for this, then I sat down and I created balsamic mockups of what the application was going to look like, how it was going to work.
And then I went back to those people a month later and said, “This is what it will be, what do you think?” Then walked them through everything, gave them a “demo” of the product using those mockups. And then I asked them for a credit card, for a pre-payment. People gave me anywhere between a one month to three months pre-payment, I let them choose how much they were going to pay which helps me figure out what the price point was going to be. If that would make sense for me—if it was going to be $5 a month, I didn’t want to deal with it. But if it was $50 or $100, that’s reasonable.
After going through that, I ended up with about 15 or so people that gave me pre-payments, anywhere between one and three months, and anywhere between $40 and $100. I ended up with close to $2,000 worth of pre-payments.
Noah: Dude, go you. That is awesome. I think most people do it backwards. Build, build, build, hopefully someone comes. You’re like let’s see if people buy. I think one thing that’s a good thing for your audience to think about and it’s a good reminder for myself is that you had people already that you could reach out to. Either you had a mailing list or you had some audience or you had some type of network. I think most people do that way too late.
One of my favorite silly examples is people want to eat vegetables so they go like they have a garden. They dig a hole, plant a seed, and then they try to eat the seed the next day. I’m like obviously you have to water it, wait, and nurture it. I think you did a really interesting job where you’ve been doing this over a year so it made it easier for you to go validate this type of business idea. For people out there, go start a mailing list, go start a website, go start joining Facebook groups, go to conferences like MicroConf or whatever that is. It’s just a really good thing.
One thing I’m curious is who are the people that pre-pay? I think that’s amazing. What were they really excited about?
Mike: Most of them were services companies who wanted to get somebody into their sales pipeline or wanted to get somebody to a meeting so that they can have a call and talk to them. The issue that they had was that they would send somebody an email and say, “Hey, can we hop on a call?” The person wouldn’t respond, or they’d send them the link to their Calendly, youcanbook.me, or whatever that they were using. They’d suggest a couple of times and the person wouldn’t do it. Then, they would have to go back and follow up with them.
I built Bluetick in such a way that you can send them that link and it will send and inject data into the query string for that. So that when they click on it, they schedule a time, it closes the loop so that you don’t have to go back and pull the person out of the email sequence, it’s all done automatically for you. It tracks that on the backend so you can check what is your conversion rates and things like that on those emails that you sent, which one was the most effective, and it really just helps automate that whole process so that you don’t have to do anything beyond that first email. You just set it and by the time that person gets to that end of the sequence, the email has done its job.
Noah: You sold $2,000 worth to people, most of them wanted it for sales. What did you do next?
Mike: After that, I sat down and hired a couple of developers to help me build it. Spent about four months or so doing that. Then, probably two or three months after that trying to work through very early issues with customers, trying to figure out is this going to work for you, how does it work in your business, and just trying to get them to use it.
I ended up taking my entire development team that I hired, fired them all because everything behind it was really just not very good. I spent about six months re-architecting a bunch of things. At that point, probably around November this past year, that’s when I added my first customer who started paying on a monthly basis. Since then, I’ve been adding customers over the course of the past six, seven months or so. Right now, it’s sitting at around 20 to 25 active customers, and around $1,100 to $1,200 MRR.
Noah: Hold on, dude. That was crazy. What happened? You’re working with these guys or girls, and then you fired them after?
Mike: Basically. It was a team of three people, and they didn’t know each other. It’s just three independent contractors. I tried to position to them like hey, one of you needs to take the lead and step up and do this particular role and manage stuff. None of them really wanted to do it because it was all off of Upwork, they’ve never worked together before. In terms of management, I was trying to hand that off to them so that I could focus on customer stuff. It fell apart.
I blame myself for it because I didn’t necessarily give them as much guidance in terms of the design and engineering upfront as I probably needed to. My expectations were probably too high for them.
Noah: How would you do that differently? It’s funny, in the past six months as I’ve been doing more personal stuff, I was building some recruiting software. I used actually the Pakistani in the outsourced team that helped me build AppSumo seven years ago. Man, it was a freaking struggle. “Alright, cool, we’ll do those features.” Then they come back with the features and I’m like this is not even close to what I exactly told you guys to do and I showed you what to do.
I’m curious, how would you better communicate, hire a better team, how would you do that next time you build something?
Mike: I think that the design itself really needs to have more details or more screencasts or walk throughs with me explaining things. One of the things that I did was I would give them a document that says, “Hey, this is what it’s supposed to do.” It’s really dry and boring to look at those things. Even if you have things on the screen, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to everybody on the team doing things in the same way.
If you have three different people who are tasked with building three different areas of the application, you still need somebody to coordinate between them to help understand, “This is the style we’re going to use, this is how we’re going to do paging and sorting,” things like that. There’s a lot of backend stuff that was just an absolute mess. It was implemented completely differently from one page to the next.
From the end user standpoint, the app barely works. It was because of all those issues. There wasn’t enough focus, I’d say, on letting them know about areas where they really need to be concerned about, which were things like you can’t just assume that you’re going to get ten records here, you might get hundreds or thousands of records, or even hundreds of thousands.
The replaces in the app where it just wasn’t scalable in any way, shape, or form and it would fall apart once you started using it. That’s what a lot of the reengineering effort was focused on.
Noah: That’s actually interesting. How much did that cost you to begin with, and then how long did it take once you took it back over to just finish it?
Mike: I’d have to go back and look but I don’t think it was more than probably $15,000 or so to have them work on it, between the three and six months that they worked on it. Most of them were working on it part-time. I don’t think it was more than $15,000.
Noah: Then how much was the new version?
Mike: The reengineered version, I did all that work myself. It took like six months to do it.
Noah: If you could go back, it sounds like ten months plus some of the validation. A year, give or take. What do you think would’ve been an alternative to get it out sooner? If you had to start this all over tomorrow, what would you do?
Mike: I’d probably stub out certain parts of the code base myself so that it’s clear how to do certain things or clear how to manage certain types of problems. There’s typical things you would do in an app like security controls, team accounts, and things like that. You really need to have those types of designs engineered upfront. If you don’t, then you’d have to figure out what to do with them later.
But there’s also that trade-off that you have to think about. Are you going to over engineer upfront to make sure that you get it right, or are you just going to slap something together and put it out there and see if it works and if it resonates with people and then re-do it afterwards so that you don’t figure out later on if you’re making a mistake? I think it depends a lot on how much money you have to spend on it and how much time, versus how quickly do you want to get to market and make the mistakes.
Are you okay with prototyping certain parts of your app, for example? Are you okay with prototyping the whole thing and throwing it away once you’ve validated that the idea’s going to fly? It depends on where in that spectrum you fall.
Noah: Where do you think most people make mistakes around that?
Mike: I’d say that people spend probably too much time building the app as opposed to putting it in front of people.
I had something that was barely functional in front of people in about four months. I realized early on where the problems were, why they weren’t using it, and what sorts of issues they were running into that made them not want to use it. That was helpful in that I got there quick, but at the same time those types of problems took a long time to solve partially because I wasn’t familiar with some of the technologies. Using a stack that I was probably more familiar with would’ve been a little bit better, but I can’t really do anything about it at this point.
Noah: One thing that I’m considering, and then we can get into the marketing plan about how to scale this out, cause I actually use a competitor tool, we could talk about that as well. If you couldn’t have built any software, you’re an engineer so you’re obviously very smart. Engineers are smarter than everyone else. If you couldn’t build a software, how would you have done the software and how would you have just done the service without the software?
I think what people miss a lot of the time, they’re like oh, software as a service, it’s just a SaaS recurring revenue. They don’t know that SaaS means you’re doing a software that’s replacing a service. I think that’s really critical that people just jump to the software. I’m like do the service a few times. In most businesses, you can actually implement ghetto versions of it to see if it’s something valuable for people before you go out and build software.
Mike: Yeah, I think for this, to figure out whether or not that was an idea that would fly, like in terms of the validation piece of it, to see if the process itself works. If you didn’t know that the process worked, then you could probably just create your own email account or ask somebody, “Hey, can you create a mailbox on your domain? I will send the emails for you.” When people get replies, then I will shoot it over to you unless you take over the conversation. You could do that, that would probably be the easiest way.
Noah: Dude, that’s a great idea.
Mike: If you don’t know how to code, if you don’t know how to do anything like that, you basically have to say how can I insert myself in here to do what a computer would do?
Noah: Dude, I love it. I’m just going to repeat it cause it’s so good. You’re like, “Hey, just give me access to your inbox or give me a separate account. I’ll even write the emails,” and you do it for them and then they’re like oh shit, this is working. Then, you could actually go build software.
Mike: Yup. I think that would work if you didn’t know anything about it or if you weren’t technical. I think in my case, I had done some of that early validation because I was doing this exact same process for MicroConf sponsors and I basically just took that process and implemented it as a piece of software. I think it depends on the type of problem you’re going to solve, whether or not that specific solution will work. But I don’t see any reason why if you’re going to build software that solves problem X, you can’t just do it manually until you can program a computer to do it.
Noah: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You finally got it built six months later because you took over, you did it yourself. I’m curious for the people who aren’t technical, a lot of MicroConfs and your listeners are, but for the non-technical, how would they find someone to build it? Let’s say they validated it. Where would you go?
Mike: I started out with Upwork. I think that they combined with freelancer.com or something like that, I forget what the other one was. There’s also weworkremotely.com. The issue you find though is that the better developers, you have to pay more money. If you’re operating as a bootstrapped business or running it on the side, then you have this constant challenge or balance that you’re trying to strike between paying somebody to develop something versus either doing stuff yourself or paying somebody who is a lower cost so that you’re not burning through your runway as quickly. Cool?
Noah: Any of those different types of services, does Fiverr have any development?
Mike: Ah, I don’t know. I’ve never looked on there. Maybe they do, but my guess is that it’s probably very certain problems.
Noah: That’s fair. You finally build it and you give it to these people. What do they say? They’ve been waiting for it.
Mike: Depends on where you are in the timeline. After the four to five month mark, I count from January or 2016, because that’s when I broke ground on code. And then in April or May is around when MicroConf was, and right after that I came back and I started putting it in front of people. It really just wasn’t ready.
I had a hard time getting people to use it, I created accounts for them and they just really wouldn’t use it. I spent several months trying to figure out why it was that people weren’t using it, what was it not doing for them. There were just a ton of issues here and there, basically throughout the entire app. A lot of it just needs to be re-architected. It took me six months to get it to the point where I was getting people to start using it and realized now this is at a point where I could actually sell it to people.
I actually took somebody from outside of that core group of people and said, “If you want access to this software, you’re going to get charged on day one.” I was still trying to on-board those people, but I had given carte blanche access to use the software or not until they were getting value out of it, that’s when I would start charging them. There wasn’t any real impetus for them to start using it because it was obviously putting something on their task list, because then they have to start using it.
But then if they start getting value out of it, then I’m going to start charging them. I didn’t really draw the line in the sand for them until probably four or five months ago.
Noah: Interesting. Now you finally got it out, you finally got most of the bugs fixed, let’s jump to the marketing thing. Let’s get to the meaty stuff where a lot of people say, “Hey, how do I get more people to find my product and buy my product and grow my business?” I think the missing part sometimes is do you have something people actually want? Do you ever wonder about that, or think about if this is something people actually wanted?
Mike: For this product, no. I think that’s actually an interesting question, the way you phrase it because I don’t think that most people, when they’re building something, even question whether or not people want it. I don’t think that they do. I don’t think I’ve ever questioned anything that I’ve ever built and said do people actually want this? You don’t know that or even really consider it until after you put it out there, and then people don’t buy it. You’re like, “Oh, do people really want this?” You’re not going to build something that you don’t think people want.
Noah: Yeah, we think that. I don’t think anyone tries to be like, “I can’t wait to build stuff that no one’s ever going to use.” You know what I mean? I generally don’t think that’s the case.
Mike: Exactly. That could just be self-delusion too. It’s not to say that that’s not a possibility, it just means that no, I never really seriously thought that, and I still don’t. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a fair question, objectively, do people care?
Noah: What was your plan to get it out there? This is where we can start going through the marketing plan stuff that we went over in your document.
Mike: There’s different stages that I would say the app needs to get to. There’s the early adopters or beta users, whatever you want to call them. That group of people needed to get on-boarded and start being successful with it. Then there’s this level where I feel like it needed to start getting a critical mass of 20 or 30 people before I can go public with it and start pushing it out to larger numbers of people. That’s where it is today.
Most of the people who are on there now have either been using it for several months or were part of the very early access group, or just heard about it through word of mouth. I’ve actually gotten a lot of referrals from people who have been using the software and then recommended it to somebody else and said, “Oh, you’re having problems with X? I was too. I switched over to Bluetick and those particular problems went away. I found a lot of success in asking specific people for referrals and getting into other people’s networks and leveraging those networks to add more people into Bluetick.
Noah: Referrals, and then did you pick a goal, did you pick a customer? How did you organize that at a high level?
Mike: With the referrals, a lot of them were people that I didn’t know. It wasn’t as if I necessarily had a particular goal in mind, it was just who do you know that has this particular type of problem, and then is Bluetick a good fit for solving that problem for them? Most of it boil down to doing a demo for them, talking to them about their problems, if there were ways to reengineer the software a little bit to fit that particular use case.
I found a couple of use cases that people have hit on, one is podcasters who want to get sponsors for their podcast. It’s funny that that has come up because several years ago, when I was first doing the early validation, I was looking at event coordinators and conferences. They just didn’t happen often enough, but podcasters record every week or every other week. There’s a much higher frequency, and they could actually use the software to do exactly what it was originally going to be for for event coordinators.
Noah: A few other things. It seems like one challenge you’re figuring out is who is the ideal target customer?
Mike: Yup, that’s absolutely true.
Noah: For me, I use Outreach, there’s Mixmax, there’s Boomerang, there’s FollowUp.cc, there’s a good amount of different people doing this. Even with sumo.com and AppSumo, there’s always competitors. I’ve never seen a business where there is not competitors, even people like Tesla. There’s a bunch of other car companies, and guess what, there’s public transportation, there’s biking and Uber. Sometimes, their biggest competitors don’t even realize.
I guess the thing for you and people out there is just not to get discouraged. That’s also advice for myself. There’s always some competitor.
I think that what I’m curious for you is who do you think your customer will end up being? Is it for SMBs that are small sales teams, is it the podcast marketing tool? I do think with the outreach and some of these guys, I think we’re paying $500 a month per person or something pretty crazy and you can’t just sign up for it, you have to have a demo and all this other stuff.
Mike: I have talked to people who have been using Outreach or switched away from Outreach. One of their biggest complaint was the fact that it costs so much per license. I talked to somebody a few weeks ago and they said that there were quoted $150 or $160 a month per person. Bluetick is only $50 a month per person and it does largely the same type of things. I’ve heard from people who have used various competitors that they had problems with them.
What I did early on when I was doing the validation was I focused in on those problems and said how can I avoid Bluetick having any of those problems? I worked really hard on the engineering side of things to make sure that those things don’t happen. For example, being able to add somebody into more than one email sequence at a time and recognize when they’re in one versus the other and pull them out of the correct one for example.
Another one is being able to make sure that the emails are not being missed. If a reply comes in, how do you guarantee that the software does not miss a reply? I do that by synchronizing the entire mailbox, which I don’t know of anyone else who does that. It’s basically brute forcing to make absolutely sure that does not happen. And there’s a few other little things here and there, but those are kind of the main pieces that I focused on because the people I talk to were generally unhappy with other options.
In many ways, I won’t say the target market is this but I feel like a good chunk of my early customers are probably going to come from people who are fed up with other products and are looking for a solution because of specific things that they run into.
Noah: We can go about how I like to think about marketing plans and some of the things I’d recommend for you to do.
How do you know which customer you’re going to finally be like let me hone in on this customer and this pricing?
Mike: That’s a good question. I don’t know what that looks like right now, that’s something I’m still trying to work out. I’ve shied away from honing in specifically on one particular use case or one particular type of customer so far because I don’t feel like I have enough customers who fit a given profile yet to be able to say I’m going to go in this direction.
My concern is really that the tool gets pegged for getting sponsors for podcasters, for example. I don’t want the tool to be pigeon-holed into something like that too early. I don’t know what the best customer looks like. Maybe that’s not even a valid concern, maybe I shouldn’t be worried about that.
Noah: I think you should, and I think that’s where you’re going to win. Winning means just making the business a lot easier. What I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past few weeks is called PPD. Who’s my person, what’s the price for them, and what’s my differentiator? Your PPD, I guess PDP or whatever way you want to organize it, for yourself is this is something that when I was doing marketing at Mint was probably one of the reasons that we did well. It obviously was not just me, there’s a bunch of people that made Mint.
What we did is we targeted people who read personal finance books. It was free. Your price is zero which is good, and then differentiator was it was free, and the people was very exact. It was like if you’re reading a personal finance blog, I want you. If you’re not reading personal finance blogs, I don’t care. The more that you can do that, and even commit to it for three months.
I think what I’ve noticed with marketing is that people don’t want to be very narrow because they’re going to lose out on customers. An example of that was yesterday I was talking to my friend who helps me with design work. He said, “Hey, the most lucrative customers are my web app and mobile app designs, but I get all these other businesses and I want money but I’m not making a bunch, so what do I do? It’s hard to say no to that.” I said great, more you’re saying no, the more it means you’re focused and you have the right customer. But find someone else that you can pass them off to and say hey, this is a great person for all these things you want, I’m this. In reality, he can get better at that skill and he could start charging more.
If you had two today, Mike, I’m curious, if you could only serve one person and you said for the next month, let’s just keep it really short, I’m only going to focus on this person. Who do you think that would be?
Mike: I would probably say the owner of a services company that has less than ten people in it. By ten people, I would say ten people total but probably two or three that are charged with doing the outreach efforts and marketing and sales for that business to help them build the business and build the relationships they need with their customers.
Noah: Let’s go with that, now we’ve got something. We’re doing service people who need more customers. Web design agencies, what’s an example of that?
Mike: Software development, web design. You could go so far as print design. Anyone where there’s a service based component where you typically have to talk to the customer in some way, shape, or form before you can really start working on them. Because of that, you end up with the type of business where you have multiple people involved in the creative process because you’ve got a sales rep or marketing person on the front end and they’re really doing business development, and then they hand off the business or the work to be done to somebody else, and then that person does it but they’re the ones getting compensated or the money is being generated for that consultant company based on their work. It’s not really that sales person upfront.
The price points for them tend to be higher. It may be a couple thousand dollars, maybe $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 a week, but it’s worth it for them to follow up with their customers. That’s really the key point that I found, the price point that they’re selling at has to be high enough for them to justify doing those outreach efforts. We talked about this earlier, the second, third, fourth emails, those are the ones that you also see a fairly high response rate.
If you can get to the point where you have a business if a lead is worth $4,000, $5,000, you only send them one or two emails, it’s probably not enough. You need to get to a point where you get an answer, you don’t want to send an email into a blackhole and just assume that they’re not interested. You have to follow up until you get an answer one way or the other, even if it’s no, you don’t care, you just want to know if that lead is dead.
Noah: You have that, and then what’s next? What’s next for you with that? I think sometimes when people ask for advice, this is why I tend to never give advice, is because we all have our own plans. You already have some kind of plan that you already want to do. I think when people are giving advice, just try to understand what people’s plans already are and see if you can assist that, that’s why I asked that before I tell you to go do all this stuff.
Mike: Yeah, I think the biggest question in my mind is how do I get in front of those people? It doesn’t even necessarily need to be at scale either. It’s how do I get in front of those people so that I can capture enough of their attention and enough of their interest to get the conversation going when they don’t know who I am, when they don’t know what Bluetick is or what it can do for them. Maybe they’re familiar with cold or warm emailing software and CRMs and sales funnels and things like that, but they aren’t necessarily looking specifically for these types of tools.
Noah: I am curious. How come you’re not targeting… MicroConf has how many people on their mailing list and you have so many on your mailing list. How many people are on that mailing list?
Mike: I’d say between them probably 8,000, 10,000, something like that.
Noah: Just out of curiosity, how come you didn’t focus on serving those people? Or tailoring this more to them?
Mike: I won’t say that I haven’t. Bluetick is my business, and then there’s also the Micropreneur Academy which under that umbrella you have the podcast and MicroConf and Founder Cafe. We don’t really mix email lists. I would say I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable going out and trying to do a sales blast or anything like that to them, just because that’s not what they were there for, it’s not what they signed up for.
It’s different if I talk to somebody at MicroConf where they come up to me and ask me questions about Bluetick because they’ve heard about it and they’re interested in it. I have no problems doing that, especially when they’re coming to me. “Oh yes, I know this person, I feel like I can trust them. They’re going to do the right thing for me.” That’s not an issue, it’s that going outbound to that audience, to those particular mailing lists is too head-putted.
Noah: That’s just one feedback, and then we can go through marketing plans. We’ll do a marketing plan in 15 minutes or less, it’s like dominoes. I think most people with marketing, and this is something that I think why sometimes my marketing is done well is that I do go to the people I already know first. I try to serve them first.
What I mean by that is I don’t know, and maybe you do and I’m totally off-base. I don’t know how many people you have that are already running software development firms, and maybe it’s a lot. The easier thing you already have for sure is you have a bunch of people who already like you, who probably have businesses or know someone who has a business that I would try to tap my close network first before I even try to think of my secondary or fourth networks I have no clue of.
Mike: No, that’s a good point. I just have to think of creative ways to do that.
Noah: I don’t even think you have to be creative, dude. Not to be mean about it, but those people already like you. I don’t know if they hate me or like me but for sure they like you. You don’t even have to sell them. Be like, “Hey guys, there’s something I’m launching, you guys are launching things, I’d love to get anybody’s feedback on it or if you guys want to use it, feel free.” You can hook them up if you want, that’s totally on your discretion.
It’s just like when I started AppSumo, I started a business for startups because I love startup software. I like promoting stuff. I had a network of that. I went out to my network on LinkedIn, I went out to all my friends and said, “Hey, can you tweet this?” It just made it really easy cause I tried to help and serve the people I already had access to versus ones I had no clue of.
Mike: That’s a good point.
Noah: Just something to consider. It’s been really interesting talking about this, here’s just a few thoughts about it.
What’s your goal for the year with Bluetick?
Mike: My goal with it, by the end of the year, I kind of classify the end of November as the end of the year because December I don’t think a whole lot is going to get sold. By the end of November, I’d like to hit $10,000 in MRR.
Noah: Okay, that is key. I just want to highlight it for people out there. If you don’t have a goal with a timeline, I just don’t think you can be successful. Someone said this quote, it’s like a boat without a router. You’re just going randomly. Maybe you’ll end up in America, maybe you’ll end up in South America, who knows?
I love that you have a goal. And then to that goal with that timeline, what’s your plan now to hit the $10,000?
Mike: I have a bunch of notes and stuff that I still feel like I need to organize a little bit better, kind of like you said just going without a router. I have a lot of tactics and specific things that I could do kind of written out, probably have a couple of hundred things. I haven’t really organized them to what your PPD, the person price differentiator. I haven’t narrowed down to say these are the people that I’m actually going to go for and these are the tactics that I’m gonna slot in to actually do that.
I have some ideas that have kind of worked in the past few months. One of them is doing influencer outreach and going on podcasts and things like that. I’ve also taught about doing joint webinars, I’ve talked to a few different people who have fairly large audiences themselves and said that they’d be willing to talk about Bluetick and have me on the podcast to talk about cold and warm email strategies, things like that.
Those are the things that I would probably lean more towards right now just because I’m more comfortable with them. I think that there’s also plenty of other things that I either haven’t done before or I’m not comfortable with, or just don’t even know about or haven’t thought about that I could do to increase traffic and add sales and customers.
Noah: Do you mind if I give some suggestions of what I do?
Mike: Absolutely, that’s what you’re here for.
Noah: Do whatever you want, but here’s how I would organize your marketing a little bit tighter. Number one, I think you should just pick a specific customer and then make your website very tailored to them. When I go to bluetick.io, it’s not very clear who it’s for. It’s like, “Hey, everyone should send cold and warm email followup software.” There’s feature driven, demographic driven, and then psychographic driven types of headlines. It’s not speaking to anyone.
For me, if I come to Bluetick, it should be we help service companies make two times more money. Oh, how the hell do you do that? And then that hooks me into what you do.
This is getting there. We send follow up emails so you don’t have to, but what does a followup email actually mean? If you’re talking to your specific audience, let’s say you target podcasters just to get guests, it’s like we help two times you book your guests, or don’t waste so much time booking guests. “Oh yeah, I’m a podcaster, I waste a bunch of time. That’s really painful.”
I think your marketing, the way that I would do it, is think about who your customers are. This is what I do. Either use live chat or just talk to them and ask them how they describe your business. Use a recorder, record it interviewing for the podcast, interview a customer, and take their language. I don’t know how they talk to their friends, but the way they talk to their friends is the way you need to talk to them, or their colleagues. That would be number one.
Number two, with your overall marketing plan, the way I like to do it is I love your goal, $10,000. You need to break that down monthly. What does that mean for August, for September, October, November, December? From each month, you should have how much MRR do I need to be to get my $10,000 by the end of the year? Then within each month, I break out if I need to go from $1,000 to $3,000, I need $2,000 MRR. What are ways I can get that? What I like to do is list out ten different ways, then I make estimations about how much MRR I can get from each activity.
For example with sumo.com, we were trying to double the amount of customers we have in the next six months. I have a list of six different things, it’s content marketing, affiliate marketing, paid marketing, free tools, SEO kind of stuff. I estimate based on some historicals and just guesses, how much I think each one is going to happen. I sort it, and then I pick just three. I don’t think we can do that many things great. I execute on just those three for the month. At the end of the month, I’d say, what did it actually produce versus what I expected?
The beauty of that then is I can cut the one that doesn’t work, keep one or maybe two that do work, and then add in another experiment, the 80-20 rule. What that does is it forces some discipline on accountability. “Wow, this is what it should do if I actually executed correctly,” and help you hit your goal. Does that make sense?
Mike: That makes perfect sense. That’s dead-on accurate. That’s fantastic, to be honest.
Noah: It’s a basic spreadsheet, I don’t use crazy software, it’s totally free, Google Spreadsheets, or illegally download Excel or maybe open source it. Even for you, you could even do one on one. A lot of times I do that in the beginning, just referral.
With sumo.com, when we started it, I just literally went out to people that I knew. If you don’t know a bunch of people, go join MicroConf, go get involved in things if you don’t know people before you need them and before you want to work with them. If you do have people, how can you go one by one and do that? We literally went through every single person on my LinkedIn account.
You know I’ve been doing internet stuff for 15 years, it took me a long time. But at the end of it, it was like oh wow, we have a good amount of people using this now and paying us. It’s one of your tactics, I wouldn’t want to discount even direct selling one by one and say I think I could probably generate $500 from that and then you do it at the end of the month. You’d be like, “I did $300, it was pretty damn good versus other things. I’ll do more of that next month and then less of something else.”
Mike: That point, I could export all my contacts on LinkedIn and just look through them, see who I think would be a good fit, or should just be filtered out entirely and then throw them into Bluetick and just do that personal outreach. I can do that. There’s nothing preventing me, I don’t think.
Noah: I think that’s even more genius. Use your own product, use your own dog food. I think that’s epic, man.
Mike: I actually use that during the course of demos. Previously, up until this week, I had just a little field on the website where you could ask for an invitation code and then they go to the next page, fill out a survey. Anyone who filled out a survey, I’d look at what they said and then plug them into Bluetick and then use Bluetick to get them to a demo. During the demo, I would show them, “Hey, this is how Bluetick got you to this demo.” It works really, really well. We got an 80% response for it.
Noah: Dude, that’s genius, I love that. This is a new method that I’ve been using with my marketing and I’m starting to apply it in other parts of the business, and it’s called Proactive Dashboards. The idea there, Mike, and for people listening is that you create a dashboard for yourself and your team of things you can do on a weekly basis that is fully controllable by you.
What do I mean by that? Mike, can you control if someone responds to your email or not?
Mike: Not directly, no.
Noah: You can’t force somebody to respond to your email. You can be like, “No, do it, I’ll kill you.” I’m going to be like meh, whatever.
Mike: There’s 300 of them.
Noah: Yeah, and then we’ll just filter emails or whatever. Point being is you can’t control them but can you control how many emails you send?
Mike: Yeah, absolutely.
Noah: Completely. I create Proactive Dashboards for my podcast, The Noah Kagan Present one that we were talking about earlier, and then for sumo.com we have a proactive dashboard. For each of these teams, it’s things that we can control that help us hit our goal.
Let’s say your goal is this MRR goal, you have a person doing sales for you or for yourself. It’s like can I send ten emails a week? That’s controllable by you. Each week, we do a green or red, whether we hit our goal. Then, you can have other things. How much ad spend? Did you spend $50 in ads? One of the guys in our team, it’s like hey, did you run two marketing experiments this week? I don’t really care which things they actually do, I just care that they do it or not do it. I want them to take initiative and all that other good stuff.
The point of the proactive dashboard is that it’s kind of this living controllable dashboard that will help you hit your goals. You can adjust it as needed, meaning you’ll probably be doing stuff like we were doing a bunch of Pinterest for a while. It was just doing nothing. After a month, it was said kill Pinterest, what’s working better? Quora. Okay, let’s increase our Quora. We did and we saw Quora go up. This week, we’re experimenting with LinkedIn. I’m seeing a lot more LinkedIn traffic and engagements so we’re experimenting with one post on LinkedIn a week.
Basically, I encourage everyone to think about what are controllable things I can be accountable for or make my team accountable for on a weekly basis that will help me hit my goals?
Mike: That’s awesome. I guess in terms of psychology, what does that do for you? Obviously, you do have control over these things. Is that why this works? Is it a psychological hack that doesn’t put you in a position where you just freeze because you’re not sure what to do?
Noah: Dude, I’ve gone to a bunch of therapy. I know everything.
I think why I like this and why the teams like it is a few different reasons. One, you want to play games you can win. If you’re doing things and your end vanity metrics aren’t working, it’s very demoralizing. But this is something where I can control it completely. I learned this from my friend [davidgrasshopper.com 00:44:07].
One, it’s controllable so you feel like you can actually win. Two, a lot of us like to see that we have streaks. The green and red every week and you start seeing you have green, you’re like okay cool, I’m doing well, I’m getting my stickers.
Three, I do think the fact that you make—I don’t know if this is as much with the psychology of it but the fact that you adjust it. For example, these marketing tests. If we were doing marketing tests and it would never help our goal, we would just cancel it. I think it just makes you a little bit more short term, like alright, am I doing the activities that I can control that are helping me move to where I want to be? So far, it’s been really great. I’m starting to implement it and I’m looking forward to it.
With the Sumo team, the webinar guy, it’s like hey you have to make one YouTube video a week. He’ll start doing it and then it’s like holy crap, that’s actually really driving traffic and customers, now you got two. And then maybe it’s like you have to do a collaboration every other week. Did you do that or not? That’s less control but did you email five people to collaborate with? That’s controllable. I think more ultimately, I have power to choose in this. I think with certain other times, you feel you’re at their mercy of hoping things work out. I don’t really believe in hope, I believe in making sure things work.
Mike: I think I have a blog post or a conference talk some place called hope is not a strategy. I completely ripped that off from Scott Adams.
Noah: I think with marketing, that’s why I always tell people to spreadsheet it. I call it quant-based marketing and I’ve written a bunch about it on OkDork. The ideas, if you need to hit $10,000, map out all the ways you think you would get to $10,000, execute on it, see which ones are right and which ones are wrong, and then keep iterating on it versus I want to be $10,000, I’ll just do a bunch of random shit and hopefully it gets there.
I don’t think if you’re trying to travel somewhere you would just say alright let’s just get on a plane and hope it lands where I want to go.
Mike: Yeah, I can’t imagine that works out for most people.
Noah: It doesn’t. A lot of the time, you’re going to try things, some of it is gonna work, some of it is not going to work. The point is that for sure in business, things aren’t going to work, that’s a guarantee. Knowing that things aren’t going to work, it’s great, but you have to say now that I know that, what things are working so that I can do more of them?
Mike: I think your point earlier about playing games that you know that you can win, I think that’s probably the killer insight that really needs to be a high level takeaway from all this.
Noah: I think that’s great, man. It sounds like overall for your marketing, one, you already got customers and revenue which is further ahead than most other people which is amazing. I would just put a little bit more organization around the PPD. Who’s the person, what’s the price, what’s your differentiator. There are options out there, so who’s your exact person?
And then in your marketing plan, I think it’s just hey, here’s my plan laid out for the year, here’s my things for this month, let me go execute on them. Let me have my weekly dashboard. And then, start iterating from that. You’ll be like holy crap, I hit $10,000 sooner than I thought.
Mike: Awesome, that’s fantastic advice. I know that you’ve got a gig going here soon. Where could people find you if they want to follow up with you?
Noah: If you’re interested in my personal stuff, Noah Kagan Presents podcast or okdork.com, I talk about business stuff that I’m learning from our business which is sumo.com, which is tools to grow your email list. We also have the AppSumo.com which is GroupOn for geeks. Any of that you can find me, I’m pretty darn accessible. If you can’t find me online, I don’t know, something is wrong.
Mike: You’re not looking hard enough I would say.
Noah: I didn’t get enough attention in high school so I’m desperate for it now. I hope to get invited back to MicroConf one day if I can earn that right. There will be no Sriracha, or I might just bring one bottle.
Mike: You take it easy. Thanks for coming on the show, I really appreciate it. If you as a listener have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at 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.