In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer a number of listener questions on topics including moving from one-time to subscription revenue, when your core product has variable costs, and how to disrupt the current payment method for a market. Mike also gives some updates and recent challenges with BlueTick.
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Mike [00:00:00]: In this episode of “Startups for the Rest of Us,” Rob and I are going to be talking about moving from one-time to subscription revenue when your core product has variable costs, and [more, some?] listener questions. This is “Startups for the Rest of Us,” episode 292.
Mike [00:00:20]: Welcome to “Startups for the Rest of Us,” the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launch and growing software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob [00:00:28]: And I’m Rob.
Mike [00:00:29]: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, Rob?
Rob [00:00:33]: Well, MicroConf Europe is less than two months away, so if you’re interested in joining Mike and I in Barcelona with 100, 120 of your favorite bootstrapped friends, go to microconfeurope.com. We have a “buy a ticket” link in the upper right. We’d love to see you there. We have speakers that include Mike and myself and Steli Efti and Peter Coppinger from teamwork.com, and we’re currently working to recruit more speakers to the conference. We’re pretty stoked about it.
Mike [00:01:00]: Yeah, I’m definitely looking forward to it, although the time is going by really, really fast. I looked up the other day, and somebody had sent me an email: “Hey, by the way, see you in a couple of months,” and I’m just like, [groans] “Oh.” [Laugh]
Rob [00:01:09]: Yeah, it came up on us quick, so we have to get our other speakers in line pretty fast.
Mike [00:01:15]: Yeah. I think one of the downsides is just the timeline for us to sell tickets for MicroConf was pushed back a bit because of all the tax implications around accepting that for the conference –
Rob [00:01:25]: Yeah.
Mike [00:01:25]: – which, unfortunately, has to be also pushed onto the people who attend. We didn’t change the ticket pricing at all, but the tickets are priced higher now because we have to charge [VAT?] on everything.
Rob [00:01:35]: But then they can get refunds of [VAT?] –
Mike [00:01:38]: That is true.
Rob [00:01:38]: – so, ultimately, it won’t be more expensive. Almost everyone across the board will be able to get refunds, although I’m not an accountant. Don’t consider my advice concrete here, but that’s my understanding based on the consultants. It’s so complicated. We have to work with [VAT?] consultants. It’s crazy. You know you’ve grown up when you are hiring consultants just to deal with taxes.
What have you been doing the last couple weeks?
Mike [00:01:59]: Well, I’ve been working on on-boarding people into Bluetick, and I’m at the point where I’ve on-boarded over half of the prepaid customers so far. That’s good to see, but the downside is I ran into a bit of a minor setback. We ended up hitting a bug that caused a pretty major performance issue on my server. It was about three days or so – three, full days – and it was really hard to replicate in a local test environment, so we basically just bypassed the issue for a little while and said, “This functionality isn’t going to be available for you guys for a couple of days, or a week, or whatever until we get this straightened out.” We’ve had to refactor just a ton of code in order to get to the point where we can replicate those types of things locally. It just sucks to have to go through that, but I’d rather do it with under 20 customers than 200-plus.
Rob [00:02:49]: Yeah, now’s the time to do it. It is so painful early on, because you just want to move fast, because you’re just trying to prove things out and get that early revenue. But if you don’t make some good decisions here and eliminate that technical debt, not make the fast decisions where you have something hanging out there that later on can sting you, it’ll be brutal when you get into the hundreds; because having a major outage at that point sucks.
Mike [00:03:12]: Right. And it wasn’t even just that there would’ve been an outage. There’re things that, because of this bug, it just didn’t work. Or, at least there were parts of it that didn’t work. The rest of the application was still working, but it was causing certain jobs to be reprocessed over and over again, and it just pegs the CPU because of that. So, unfortunately, they just were never going to finish, which sucks. Having to take that step back and essentially put all forward progress on hold for close to two weeks – it really sucks, to be honest.
Rob [00:03:43]: Yeah, I know the feeling. It seems like with any app of any complexity these days, you’re going to run into this a lot in the early days because the code is just trying to ramp up. As you scale and you get more customers, we’ve found that about every – I’m trying to think. It’s probably every four to six months with Drip that we hit the point where we need to stop all feature development for a couple of weeks and just focus on fixing performance of individual – whether it’s queries, or whether it’s pages, adding caching, even upgrading the entire database to a bigger box with more RAM and all that stuff. We’ve cycled back on that to maybe three times a year, because you outgrow stuff. We’re not building these basic crud apps [laugh] like we used to be able to and compete. The stuff’s too competitive now. I think of a project management tool, or even time tracking, or invoicing software or something, you obviously want a lot of UX. There’s a lot that goes into building the product; but on the back-end the performance implications of it are really small compared to something that is sending a lot of email, or doing a lot of analytics, tracking opens, tracking clicks. Both of our apps do that, and any type of – I can’t even imagine what apps, like Mixpanel and Kissmetrics have to do on the back-end because they are the next level. Now I understand why those types of businesses had to raise funding. You just couldn’t get enough boxes and enough people to scale that up without having a big outlay in advance, even with a tool like Amazon EC2 or Rackspace Cloud.
Mike [00:05:12]: Yeah, I remember talking to Heaton at one point a while back about Kissmetrics, and one of the first versions of that that came out. I may have these numbers mixed up, but I think that he said that for 20 customers they had 12 servers, and it was just because of all the processing that they did.
Rob [00:05:29]: Yeah, I remember that. Obviously, they got better at scaling as it went out, but I do remember in some interview someone had said just the basic infrastructure, the fixed cost of their infrastructure – and I don’t remember if it was Kissmetrics or Mixpanel – was more than a quarter million a year. It might even have been half million. It was somewhere in that range just to keep everything running, and that wasn’t even to scale up as they got really big. That’s the kind of thing you have to think about. It’s getting easier and easier these days to build really cool tools, but the performance implications of those and the complexity of them as you scale up – it’s a real thing. I know that some startups have entire teams just devoted to keeping that stuff moving fast, and it’s a team of both Dev ops folks, DBAs and developers who are in modifying code just to keep things performing. You can imagine something real-time, like Uber, and how hard that would be since it’s worldwide and there’re so many incoming datapoints at any given time. The order of magnitude of complexity – that’s got to be incredible.
Mike [00:06:26]: The other side of that is that you have to have tools or systems in place such that you can test it and put it under artificial stress, and that’s something that we just haven’t really paid a whole lot of attention to because we were trying to move fast and trying to get the app out the door as quick as possible. We were able to do that, but the cost of doing so was that we didn’t have good mechanisms in place for us to be able to run absolutely everything locally and to integrate a lot of testing into the system. So, a lot of it’s been done manually, or there’re certain places that are much better-tested than others. It’s the places where we don’t have a lot of tests that really bit us, so right now we’re working on refactoring a lot of that code. Like I said, it’s been a full week. It’ll probably be another week before we get things settled down to the point that we can actually go back and start working on more features.
Rob [00:07:15]: Well, congratulations on getting half your folks on-boarded. I feel like this bump in the road that you’re hitting – that’s just the other shoe dropping. It had to happen eventually. You can’t get through this stuff without having something like that.
Mike [00:07:26]: Right, and these bugs are things that probably would have come up anyway. I would expect that the two we specifically ran into are ones that we would’ve come up with across other customers as well – eventually. Maybe not tomorrow, or the week after, but it would’ve been soon, and I’d rather find out now than later.
Rob [00:07:41]: So, what are we talking about today?
Mike [00:07:43]: Today, what we’re going to do is go through a bunch of listener questions that have come in. If you’re interested in having us answer any of your questions, you can email them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our first question comes in from Dan Gravel, and he says, “Hi, guys. I’ve been listening to the podcast since its launch, so thanks so much for all the tactical, actionable and practical advice you give. I’ve been running my business for almost seven years, and I’ve been full-time on it for six. The first product, called ‘Bliss,’ which you can find at www.blisshq.com, is still a bestseller, but it plateaued a few years ago. It’s a B-to-C, downloadable software product which automates the management of large music libraries. Arguably, the reason for stagnation is a drop in interest in self-stored music collections with the mainstream move to streaming. I’m considering moving all or most of the app into the Cloud and adopting a subscription payment model. I can’t move it 100 percent because a small software agent will always be required to perform the work on the music files. I think moving to the Cloud should lower friction in on-boarding, allow easier life cycle emailing and a higher LTV due to subscription payments that may enable a paid acquisition. How would you go about deciding whether to go ahead with this? Dan.”
What are your thoughts on this, Rob?
Rob [00:08:45]: Well, I think there’s two markets for moving to the Cloud. One is your existing customer base, and they’re easy because you can just ask them – right? You could do a survey, some one-on-one phone calls, and you could say, “Would this be of interest to you if we had a subscription version of this?” You can talk about the price point. You can talk about the benefits and find out if any of those folks are interested. Then the second market is everyone else – right? It’s all the audiophiles. You said you have an existing market. It’s some audio files, and there’s integration’s, and there’s certain customers who aren’t your customer yet, but who could potentially be. Those guys are a little harder to reach, but you could certainly survey your email marketing list. I’m assuming you have some type of list that is folks who’ve signed up to hear about updates, or maybe they follow some content you produce or something; and that would tend to be a much larger swath than folks who are actually paying you. That’s a good place to start.
[00:09:38] The other option is something I heard about from Patrick and Price Intelligently. He mentioned this in his MicroConf talk this year, and it’s a website called aytm.com. It’s AskYourTargetMarket.com, and you basically define all these demographics. I would imagine by this point you have a pretty good idea of where these folks live and if there’s any type of gender bias, if more of them are men versus women; what they do for a living; how they think about stuff. You can basically just define this at aytm.com, and then you pay per survey responded, and you could basically present the product as it is today and ask if they’d be interested in a Cloud version and try to do some market research that way. So, that’s the most data-driven way that I can think of and probably where I’d start to at least start getting some insight into whether or not this is a good move for you.
Mike [00:10:24]: Yeah, I’d have to agree with you that going back to your existing customers and asking them whether or not that’s something that they’d be interested in is probably a better bet, especially if you’ve been full-time and this has been the major source of income for the business for the past six years. The downside, I think, to doing that is that you have probably attracted a certain number of customers, or a certain type of customer because of the fact that it’s one-time, downloadable purchase and they can just buy it once, install it. Then they don’t have to worry about it ever again. There’s a certain profile of person you’ve probably attracted because of that, so I think that the data is probably going to give you at least some mixed messages there, because a lot of the people who fit that particular profile are not going to want to pay for a subscription service – not unless you can come up with solid justifications for what your service is going to allow them to do. Obviously, those are things that you’re going to have to work with those people to figure out what is it that they actually want and what would the Cloud service really do for them.
[00:11:18] One thing that I can think of off the top of my head is to be able to stream their music to any of their devices from anywhere; but then, of course, you’re going to rely on being able to take their own music and then replay it back to them through the Cloud, or through a streaming service of some kind that you would have to offer on the backend. I would imagine that all that’s possible. It’s just a question of whether or not the people actually want that and whether or not the existing services through Pandora, or Amazon, or any of the other ones already overlap enough with what you’re doing to be able to replace it and serve as a solid competitor; because they’re going to be heavily funded and already have access to a large market of people, but those types of people are probably not the same ones that are in your market.
Rob [00:12:00]: The nice part is that there are so many B-to-C services that are paving the way for you. As we know, B-to-C tends to be a tougher market, because you’re going to have lower price points, higher support, just a lot of things that aren’t as ideal with B-to-B market; but Apple, with iCloud and with iTunes Match and the Spotify subscription stuff; people are used to Netflix and Hulu. There’re just so many more subscription services than there were even two or three years ago, and consumers are getting more used to paying for these. I do think there’s at least some precedent for you to ride on the coattails as folks are getting used to more of these subscription pricing structures.
Mike [00:12:40]: So, Dan, hopefully that helps answer your question.
Our next question comes from Zachary Kesson. He says, “Hi, guys. I’m starting up a SaaS product and having a problem. I don’t have any traffic. My best day, I had 31 visitors to my blog, but they stayed an average of seven seconds each. It seems that all the sales advice I hear for SaaS founders assumes that the founder has a mailing list, and I don’t have one; and without some traffic to my webpage, I don’t see myself creating on in a realistic timeframe. At this rate, I should have a 5,000-person mailing list by September 2031, or something like that. I’ve put links in Reddit, tweeted them, put them in LinkedIn, but nothing seems to generate more than two to four clicks. Paid advertising is outside of my budget right now. What would you suggest? Zach.”
Rob [00:13:16]: This is saying, “How do I market a SaaS app with no audience?” The answer is you don’t want to. You want to have had a landing page up since you had the initial idea and to have at least been talking about it for a longer period of time so that you get some interest. Even an email list of 50 people is incredibly powerful at this stage. You don’t need 5,000, because having 50 people will allow you to get feedback and to do some type of customer research and figure out who wants to use it and for what, and talk to them about value propositions. That is much more valuable. I think that the fact, Zach, that you haven’t done that yet really puts you in a tougher position; because now you have to start from a dead-cold stop, and you’re saying paid advertising is outside your budget right now.
[00:14:11] AdWords is obviously very expensive, so you’re not going to do that, but you can get super-cheap clicks on something like You Tube; or, in Facebook you can get 10- and 20-cent clicks if you’re doing targeting. So, I would instantly put the Facebook retargeting pixel on your site even with 500 visitors per month. You said your biggest day was 31 visitors in a day, so if you do the math and it’s 900; and I’m assuming, since that was your biggest day, you don’t get that many every day. Even with 500 uniques a month, you can start some retargeting. I would also put an email capture widget on your blog. You’re not trying to build a massive list to market to, but you’re just trying to get some human beings that you can talk one-on-one with. You could test that versus, like, a Koalaroo survey box, or one of those other types of things. You’re trying to get information why are people leaving after seven seconds, because you have a problem if they’re leaving after seven seconds. Either your current traffic sources are garbage, or you’re not a fit for what people expect when they come to the site.
[00:15:08] You’re not going to get [out of this?] with split testing. This has to be a one-on-one effort, because you’re so early in the game. The fact that you don’t have a mailing list – and, again, even a mailing list of 50 or 100 – it puts you behind the eight ball. You have a product now, and it’s not going to market itself. You’re going to have to hustle. These days, you’re going to have to do everything under the sun that doesn’t scale just to get people using this app. So, putting a link on Reddit or tweeting it when you have 100 or 200 followers – that isn’t going to cut it. There’s too many people doing this these days to really be able to just do it with this kind of cold, random traffic. So, I would try to do a lot of one-one-one stuff to figure out who’s coming, why, what they expect, why they’re leaving quickly. That average number of seven seconds per visit is worthless. You don’t care about that, because a bunch of people are leaving after one second, and then some people are leaving after hundreds of seconds, and you want to focus on the people who are staying for those minutes. So, figure out how to differentiate those, whether you use Mixpanel, or whether you use Kissmetrics, or whatever it is you use – free trial of Crazy Egg, or Inspectlet. These are things that can show you what people are doing on your site, but don’t rely on the tools to do it. You’re going to have to dig in and do a lot of one-one-one stuff.
[00:16:17] The last thing I would say is if you have an idea of who should be buying your software, figure out where are they; because being on Reddit and Twitter is too generic. Using your tool relates to other CRMs, it looks like, so I’m assuming you integrate with something like maybe Salesforce, or Closeout iO, or [Bay?] CRM, or whatever. So, how do you get into those integration repositories? How do you get those guys to co-promote? You promote on your end when you finish integrating, and they co-promote to their audience via a blogpost. That’s integration marketing. Ruben Gomez was the first person I ever saw do it, and then I coined this term “integration marketing” and talked about it at a MicroConf talk a few years ago. It’s to get marketing done via these integrations, and in order to do that you have to hustle. It’s not going do it on its own. You need to communicate with them and convince them. You have to have some type of blog at that point if they’re going to blog about it, because you have to have something to offer them. They’re not going to email their list if you don’t email yours. Since you don’t have that, you don’t have that asset. An asset doesn’t build itself overnight. This is stuff that you need to be thinking about well in advance of when you need it. If you haven’t to date, then today is the day to start building that. It’s going to take you longer than if you’d gone about it in the correct order, or in a more optimal order; but you can’t really look back at this point. I think you’ve just got to get started building these assets as of today.
Mike [00:17:39]: I went over and took a look at his site. It’s yourcrm.link. It looks to me like the product itself is aimed at SaaS businesses who want to connect with CRMs, and that was just my initial idea of what the product does based on what I read there. If that’s the case, what I would probably do is move much more towards an [out?]-[?] model where you’re directly contacting those people that you think are going to be a good fit. So, sit down and make a list of the 25 companies that you think would be a good fit for using your product and then contact them. You just go through the list and talk to every, single one of them just to get a yes or no as to whether or not they’ll talk to you and see if it actually is a good fit. It sounds to me like if you’re not getting targeted traffic to your website, then you’re not posting things in the right places. If you don’t know what that target is going to look like, then it’s going to be very difficult to figure out where you should even post it. Is Twitter a good place to be posting those? I don’t know. It really depends on what the people who are interested in your product have to say and where they actually hang out. I can’t answer that, but I think that you should be able to after you have some of those conversations, and I think that’s the bottom line at this point. Because you haven’t had those conversations, it’s very difficult to figure out where you should be marketing your product to and who is an ideal customer for it.
Rob [00:18:55]: Yeah, that’s actually a really good answer. I think I may have liked your answer better than mine, because yours really is doing the one-on-one work and the outreach. It’s just a matter of getting in these one-on-one conversations and figuring out who can use it and why would they. His price point starts – I hadn’t even noticed that part, because I didn’t scroll down to the bottom. His price point starts at $149 a month and goes up from there. It’s like $149, $499 and up, so there’s definitely enough room to do some medium-touch sales and some high-touch stuff. I think that’s a really good start. The other stuff I talked about is probably as you want to drive more traffic down the line. I think these one-one-conversations are more critical up front.
Mike [00:19:34]: Yeah, and I think your point about not worrying about trying to do any sort of split testing or anything like that is also valid because of the fact that you just aren’t going to have enough traffic to be able to do that. It’s those one-on-one conversations that are going to be the single most valuable thing to you at this point. What I would probably recommend is visualizing what your sales funnel is going to look like just from a conceptual standpoint. You don’t have to be exact, but you could just set it up as a simple three-, or four-, or five-stage sales funnel where you say, “These are the 25 people that I would like to see as customers,” and they’re at stage 1. You haven’t even actually reached out to them. Then stage 2, you’ve reached out them. Stage 3, you’ve had a conversation or scheduled a meeting. Step 4, you’ve had the meeting; and then Step 5 is whether they are actually going to trial the service or sign up for it. At that point, if they pay for it, or they’ve decided that they’re going to evaluate paying for it, then they drop off that particular sales funnel right there; and then they maybe enter into another one.
[00:20:31] Those are the basic steps that you should probably go through. If you’re just doing things quick and dirty because you don’t have any of this traffic or any stats, just set up a Google doc or something like that, or a series of them. Every, single conversation that you have, you put that conversation into the Google doc. If you have a second conversation with somebody, maybe because they’re further down on your sales pipeline, you add that conversation into that Google doc. That way, you end up with a series of four or five different Google docs that are in line with what your sales funnel looks like, and you can always go back and you can refer to all the conversations that you had at stage 1 of your sales funnel, then at stage 2 and stage 3. It lets you look back at those down the road to see if there are any conversations that had a lot of overlap, or a lot of questions that specifically came up at a certain stage of your sales funnel. Then you can take that stuff and translate it back onto your website to help gather trust and answer questions for people that you are not directly talking to. So, that’s essentially the customer development process that I would go through for this.
Rob [00:21:30]: And if you need software to help you do that cold outreach, I would look at Bluetick.iO.
Mike [00:21:36]: [Laugh] Ah, yes, thank you for the plug there. So, Zach, hopefully that helps you out.
Our next question comes in from Corey Moss, and Corey’s been a long-time listener of the show. Corey left a message on our voicemail number, so we’ll play that for you now.
Corey [00:21:47]: Hey, guys. This is Corey Moss. Over the last year, I’ve stepped back from SaaS apps to concentrate on my Kanban board plugin for WordPress. You can check it out and the paid add-ons at kanban nwp.com. In the SaaS world, the holy grail is monthly recurring revenue, but in the WordPress ecosystem, most licenses are annual, and most don’t even auto-renew, if you can believe it. I want to apply SaaS best practices, but I’m nervous about doing things too differently from how people expect it. Mike, have you run into this in dealing with enterprise? Have either of you had experience with this disrupting the status quo when it comes to monetizing patterns? Thanks.
Mike [00:22:25]: Corey, if I understand you correctly, you’re essentially asking how to disrupt the current payment that a market is used to in standard practice today. So, your question to me specifically was did I run into that sort of thing in the enterprise market. Yes, I did. It was very difficult to get them to change their ways and, looking back on it, it was probably foolish of me to even try, and I would not recommend that somebody else try to do that. So, if you’re going after the WordPress space and you’re trying to convince them to pay for a subscription to something that they’re used to paying for once as a downloadable product, and potentially a yearly maintenance fee or something like that after that, I would be very hesitant to say that you should try and modify that model in such a way that they are not comfortable with or they’re not used to.
[00:23:10] I’ve talked to other people who are in the WordPress space, and they said that selling subscriptions in WordPress is a very difficult way to go, because people are just not used to it, so they don’t do it. I think Rob had one of his yearly predictions that this is going to change in the future, but I think that there’s also going to be a huge subsection of the market that is not willing to change, and it’s going to be years before they are convinced that that’s the only way to go because they are forced to do that. Even if you look at today, it’s 2016, and there is still a ton of downloadable software that’s sold out there. What we tend to see is mostly the recurring revenue, but there are huge number of downloadable products that are still available for sale; and people still buy them every, single day because they only have to pay for them once. I think that you’re probably going to run up against that roadblock in the WordPress space for several years to come. If I had to put a number on it, I’d probably say between five and ten. So, I would not bank on trying to do that overnight, and I almost certainly wouldn’t even recommend going in that direction if you can help it. I would probably double down on trying to figure out what people are willing to pay more for and try to increase your lifetime value that way as opposed to trying to change the way that they fundamentally buy their software.
Rob [00:24:19]: I know that there are some knowledgeable WordPress folks who are trying to attack this problem, and they haven’t really been able to break through yet. I don’t know of any WordPress plugins that don’t rely on an external service that are able to pull off a monthly pricing tier, because if you do have an external service – let’s say it’s backup to a Cloud server, and you’re maintaining the Cloud server, or it’s some other thing like – I think Jetpack doesn’t have external stuff that WordPress runs. They’d be able to charge a monthly fee. But in terms of just doing it for the sake of doing it and not having a strong justification? I agree with Mike. I think it’s going to be an uphill battle.
[00:24:53] I think the other thing to think about is, while monthly subscription is the holy grail of SaaS, that’s also its biggest drawback. It takes you years to get through the “long, slow SaaS ramp of death” – right? It’s just years of toiling away to build up any type of monthly, recurring revenue. The nice part about WordPress plugins is you can charge more up front. You do get a one-time fee. Let’s say you’re charging 49 bucks for the annual license, which a lot of people are doing. I think auto-renewing with advance notice – let’s say a five-day, or a three-day, or even a week notice before you auto-renew should be perfectly acceptable. I do know that some folks are moving in that direction. I think the more savvy WordPress business folks are doing that, and I would as well. The nice part is that, since most of the traffic that you generate will come from these recurring sources like a Google, or a WordPress.org plugin repo, you can ramp up your revenue to a couple grand a month really quickly; whereas SaaS is just going to take forever to get there. While SaaS will grow over time, I’m not so sure that’s what you want at this point. I personally would be going for that early revenue. Let’s try to get to between 2 and 5 grand a month as quickly as possible, and then you can start thinking about either adding add-on services that could potentially become subscription; or, using that money to stair-step your way up with either a second plugin, buying out all your time and then thinking about something long-term that is more of a monthly subscription model. Whether that’s in the WordPress space, or you just go straight for SaaS, that’s something to think about.
[00:26:21] But I am not bullish on the fact that, as a relative newcomer to the space, that you’re going to be able to come in and just charge monthly without a major justification; because so many WordPress users, the reason they’re using it is because it’s cheap and because there aren’t subscription fees. A lot of consultants use it because they know that their clients don’t want to pay subscription fees for things. They don’t want to pay for Shopify or Squarespace. So, if you come in and want to charge this 9 bucks a month or whatever it is that you could get for it, it’s going to be a deal breaker for a lot of folks.
So, that’s my advice as of now, the middle of 2016 here. I do believe that over time this will change. I think most things are going to move toward subscription. We see it happening in B-to-C entertainment, which was unfathomable a few years ago to think that millions of people would be paying for Spotify, for essentially music subscriptions; and even 15 years ago, to think that tens of millions of people would be paying for Netflix, for movies by subscription; but it’s happening. Do you think that WordPress will eventually go? I think it’s years out, and I think you’re ahead of the curve.
[00:27:22] So, my prediction Mike called out. As we’re talking through it, I’m realizing there’s just no chance that’s going to happen in this year. I think what my prediction was was that one person would figure it out pretty well; and that, of course, remains to be seen. I guess we’ve got another six months.
Mike [00:27:35]: I’ve seen one company that has done this, which I think they’ve done pretty effectively, Optin Monster. They have a little widget that you can install on your website, and they do charge a subscription fee for it, but they also have – as you pointed out, unless you have some sort of external service that integrates with, like for WordPress backups, or security checking, or things like that, where it needs that external service in order to function, and that external service needs to be up and running at all times, maintained and everything else. Optin Monster can do that because, one, the types of things that they integrate with are types of services that you’re going to pay for. So, it really sits on the front of that funnel and is aimed at those people who are used to paying for those things.
[00:28:16] The other thing is that I think they charge $50 or $100 per year, and it is that subscription fee; but they also keep the widgets up-to-date. So, if there are changes made in MailChimp, or Drip, or Aweber, or whoever, they will update the plugin so that when it comes down to your site, it is all up-to-date and you don’t have to worry about keeping your own plugins up-to-date. So, there are some advantages there, but they also made that switchover after they hit, like, 200, 300,000 customers or something like that. They’re not going from ground zero and trying to build a SaaS pricing model out of it. They already had a pretty substantial user base before they made that change.
So, Corey, hopefully that helps answer your question.
[00:28:54] Our last question for the day comes from Brian Kenry, and he says, “Hi, guys. Love the show, and it’s been a big help in getting my startup off the ground. I’m building a platform that will be monetized by generating leads and selling them to a private agency. I’ve assumed that I will partner with one agency and turn over leads at a cost per lead, but I’m wondering if I should consider a different dynamic. I realize this is a vague question, but is there any benefit to pursuing a subscription model or a marketplace for leads? It seems like a cost per lead is the most logical way to approach this, but I want to make sure I’ve considered all avenues. As always, thanks for your input.”
Rob [00:29:21]: I think I would stick with cost per lead, because that’s the most granular, and it’s the easiest to understand both from your and your customer’s perspective. Your costs are going to be variable, but you’ll be able to lock them down below a certain amount and then know what your margin is.
One thing I would consider is having customers – they could pay on a subscription basis so that they pay in advance. Here’s what I’m thinking. Instead of delivering a bunch of leads to them and having them pay at the end of the month or something, you really want to get that payment at the start of the month, knowing that you’re going to deliver those leads over time during the month. So, you could think about having tiers of, like, “Do you want 100 leads? Then it’s 1,000 bucks,” or whatever. If you want 200 leads, then it’s either $2,000, or you can give them some type of discount. Do $1,800 or something a month. The nice part about that is you don’t have to chase after them for money. They can either sign up for the PayPal subscription, or through Stripe, or whatever; and you’re automatically billing them, and you’re getting paid in advance. If their payment doesn’t go through, then you don’t deliver the leads. You’re not out the money. I think that is beneficial for you from a business perspective, and it’s going to save you time. That still works out to a cost per lead, but they’re basically committing up front to buying a certain amount of leads, and you’re getting that payment up front.
[00:30:34] Those are my thoughts off the top of my head. I can’t think of any way to get more complex without just making things hard to understand, and I know in the lead industry things are typically sold per lead. Do you have any other thoughts on it, Mike?
Mike [00:30:46]: I have a few that go into different places on this. As you said, the one that’s easiest to understand is just selling them directly cost per lead. The problem there is that you don’t know how much time and effort it’s going to take you to do the work to get a lead. As you said, if you do it enough, you’re going to able to figure that out and you’re going to be able to do some averages there and then tell people, “Yeah, I can get you X number of leads for Y dollars.” Then eventually, they’ll be able to make that mathematical calculation in their head or just look at it and say, “Yeah, that totally makes sense for us to do that.”
The other thing that I can think of that might be an option is to have them pay you for a specific service based on a flat fee. Whether it gives them results or not is a risk that you’re pushing on them. I don’t like this idea nearly as much because of that very thing, but you could say, “For $500 a month, we’re going to do X, Y and Z for you. We’ll reach out to X number of people with your emails, or with your script,” from whatever the call is, whether you’re doing cold calling or cold emailing. You can do something like that and put together different packages.
[00:31:51] I do agree that you should probably charge people up front so that you have the capital on hand to go do that, so that you’re not paying for or funding it up front only to have somebody cancel later on, and then essentially eat the costs associated with that. I’d definitely collect the money up front. Those are the things that come to mind for me. The real big there, I think, is who is assuming the risk for doing this. I think that you probably want to assume as little of the risk as possible, but I also think that you probably don’t want to go down the road of saying, “We’re going to do X amount of work for you,” but then basically push all of the risk onto them if it doesn’t deliver; because it could reflect very poorly on you if you go through a month, or two months, or something like that and, for whatever reason, you’re just not getting the results that you used to. I think that you’re better off evening those out for the customer and letting them look at the raw numbers and say, “Yeah, we expect to pay $10 a lead, and that’s what we’ll get.”
Well, Brian, I hope that answers your question.
Rob [00:32:45]: And that wraps up our episode for the day. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 888.801.9690, or email us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt, used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for “startups” and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.
Episode 281 | Tools You’ll Need for Your Bootstrapped Startup
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of us, Rob and Mike talk about tools you’ll need for your bootstrapped startup. They discuss the different options to choose from pertaining to the pre/post revenue stages of your business.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- Conference Notes Podcast with Mike Taber
- Less Accounting
- Google Webmaster Tools
- Google Hangouts
Mike [00:00]: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about tools you’ll need for your bootstrap startup. This is startups for the rest of us episode 281. Welcome to Startups for The Rest of Us, the podcast helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs to be awesome at launching software products, whether you’ve build your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob [00:24]: And I’m Rob.
Mike [00:25]: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What are you doing this week, Rob?
Rob [00:29]: I’m getting excited for MicroConf. It’s just a couple of weeks out in Las Vegas and we have a pretty cool speaker lineup I’m excited about. A lot of new names this year, names that folks may not have heard of but that either you or I have seen speak elsewhere or we have been highly recommended by MicroConf attendees that we trust. There’s folks like Claire Liew from Know Your Company who did a Believe at BoS Lighting Talk. We have Amir Khella from Keynotopia who has spoken in several places and Scott Nixon from Happy Herbivore recommended him and I’m excited about his story the more I talk to him on Skype. A lot of people haven’t heard the story Keynotopia but it’s pretty fascinating. We have Tracy Osborn from WeddingLovely and Patrick Campbell from Price Intelligently and of course Des Traynor from Intercom, which is cool. There’s several others and some names that you’d recognize as well. It’s cool because I feel like it’s a bit of a sleeper year in terms of brand new big name folks. I’m excited about the possibility of the quality of these talks that I think people will come across with.
Mike [01:30]: I think it’s interesting how at some conferences you look at the lineup especially early on and either you are attracted to it or you really notice it. There’s a bunch of standout names that you’ve heard before and they’re high profile names. I totally agree with you. A lot of the names we have on the docket this year are not probably as well know but the speaking quality is still there, the stories are still going to be interesting. It will be great to see how things turn out this year and what comes out of that.
Rob [01:59]: I think of it in terms of Joanna [Wylde?], when she first spoke at MicroConf, she was an up and comer at the time in this space. Brandon Dan was at the time. He first spoke; it was like four or five years ago maybe. It was a while ago. We’ve had several folks like Josh Pigford was still running PopSurvey. Samuel [Hullick?] before he was doing – there’s a lot of folks who are now more prominent in our space, who have graced the stage before they were big names and that’s how I feel about several of the speakers here. I have a feeling that they will be becoming well know partially from taking the stage at MicroConf. You get some name recognition there. There’re headed on that trajectory and I think we’re just helping them along. How about you? What’s going on?
Mike [02:42]: A couple of days I signed out what I hope is going to be my final to the people who have prepaid for Bluetick before I start on-boarding them in the next couple of weeks. Right now we’re testing and trying to work out some of the different kinks and the application and make sure that the basic usage scenarios and the basic workflow that people will go through to use the product are in line with not only expectations but everything’s working and we’re properly handling everything. A few minor issues here and there and we’re dog-fooding it internally but it’s looking good so far.
Rob [03:13]: You’re deadline that you’ve set for that is April 1. Is that correct?
Mike [03:17]: Yeah. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of things that play into that unfortunate part of it but at April 1st obviously is April Fool’s Day and it wasn’t intentional. It just happened to be Friday of – I think I counted out a certain number of weeks that was either 12 or something like that. I said, “Okay, I want to have it done by this time,” and that it just happened to be the day. It’s also two days before MicroConf.
Rob [03:38]: I know. You picked that day before we scheduled MicroConf, I think?
Mike [03:41]: Yeah. I did. That’s not exactly true. We knew what the dates were going to be for MicroConf but it was leading up to it. It was like I just did the calculation and I thought to myself, well, it would either be the 12 weeks or I could try to rush things so I’d have to do it in less time, which I didn’t think was all that feasible. I knew that I’d have to start cutting things and making concessions or whatever. If I pushed it, I would have to push it by probably at least two weeks. It’s just because the way that MicroConf fell. It’s like, “Well, I’ll try and get it done before hand.”
Rob [04:13]: But you’re on track right now?
Mike [04:14]: Yeah, so far. There’s still two and a half weeks to go. By the time this episode comes out, it will be a week and a half.
Rob [04:19]: That’s cool. For folks who don’t know what Bluetick is, what’s the one or two sentence explanation of what it does?
Mike [04:27]: It’s essentially a sales automation tool that allows you to follow up with people in an automated fashion. The system follows up for you so that you don’t have to, as opposed to other tools like Boomerang or followup.cc. You can have them ping you and remind you that you need to follow up with somebody but this will do it on your behalf so that you don’t have to. Obviously there’s very distinct places where you would use it in your sales workflow but the idea is to help move somebody from one stage of your sales funnel to the next.
Rob [04:59]: Very nice. As for me, I’m on the Drip front. February was a good month. In fact, in [?] it was the best month we’ve had of growth and that followed up the launch of workflows in January. All the trials or some of the trials converted then and that seems to have kicked us up to a next stage of growth which is good. We also, coincidentally, didn’t have anything to do with that growth but we hired two people in the past couple of weeks. I’ve been trying to hire a Senior Rails Developer since November, December and it just happened that we happen to find him right towards the end of February. We also figured out we needed another person in customer success, hopefully, it’s the last hiring that we’ll be doing for a while because it is time-consuming and not necessarily – the goal of drip is not to have a lot of people. We’re not going for headcount, like funded startups are but it is nice to have finally because those were open loops. They were continually in my trailer board to find a person to help with this and find the next developer and stuff. Now that that it is closed out, it feels good to have that behind us and we can all move faster, able to handle the workload, get more features built and more people on-boarded. Things are going good.
Mike [06:03]: Earlier, we were talking briefly about MicroConf. James Carbary from Sweet Fish Media had me on the conference notes podcast that you can check out. We’ll link that up into the show notes. He was interviewing me about MicroConf and what the takeaways were from MicroConf 2015. We talked a little bit about that and if you’re interested, we’ll link that up in the show notes.
Rob [06:22]: Sounds good. What are we talking about today?
Mike [06:24]: Today what we’re going to be talking about is some of the different tools that you’ll need for running a bootstrap startup. We want to talk a little bit about what’s reasonable, what’s not and essentially how to allocate your money in your startup. The major focus here is mostly on tools, not necessarily things like the cost of doing business and getting insurance or office space or other physical things that you need to run your business or maybe computers of whatever. What we’re really trying to do is focus on the things that you’ll need to use on a monthly basis. That cuts out a lot of those different things I’ve just talked about but we’re also actively cutting out things like software tools because depending on your tech stack, that’s going to, pretty dramatically, between different startups. We decided to avoid that as a matter of choice.
Rob [07:11]: Software development tools. The actual stuff you need to build software like maybe source control on your editor and if you need Microsoft licenses to IDEs and stuff like that. But we will be talking a lot about software that you need subscription to SaaS apps and stuff like that.
Mike [07:25]: Exactly. We also divided these into two different phases, I’ll call them. The first one is a pre-revenue and the second one is post-revenue. In the pre-revenue, we’re going to be talking about some of the different tools that you’ll want to look at or some general guidelines that you can follow in deciding which tools you use for your business and then there’s also the post-revenue stage, where we talk a lot about the different categories or classifications of tools that you might be interested in using for your startup and what some of the different options are.
Rob [07:54]: Cool, let’s dive in.
Mike [07:55]: In the pre-revenue stage, the emphasis here is making sure that your business has enough money to get through to the point where you have a source of revenue for the business on ongoing basis. If you spend, let’s say $100,000, to try and get your startup off the ground but you only bring in $5,000, then clearly that business is not probably going to fly. The idea here is to spend as little money as possible yet still get your products out the door so that you can make more money, so that you can feed that back into the business. But if you’re spending far faster than you’re able to acquire money, chances are really good that that business is just never going to go anywhere. At that point you’re probably better off finding a different business to use, a different product to offer, a different service to offer. In this case, in general what we’re looking at is the idea that if you’re spending more than $50 a month for any individual tool or any individual service, then you might want to take a hard look at that and figure out is that really necessary for your business pre-revenue.
Rob [08:55]: A good example of this is a tool like a Mixpanel or a CaseMetrix that start around 150 bucks and obviously there’re free plans and stuff but if you were start paying for them. I haven’t installed either one of those when I bring out a pre-revenue product. Once you get 1,000 or 2,000 in revenue, it becomes easier to justify spending that kind of money. There’re great insights you can get out of that software. But if you install that for months and months and you don’t have enough revenue to pay for it, that one always feels like an iffy proposition. All these comes back to how much money do you have to start the business because let’s say you raise an inch round. This probably doesn’t apply to you as we said in the title. We called this ‘Tools You Need for Your Bootstrap Startup’. These guidelines may apply less to that. If you’re self-funded and you do have 20, 30 grand in the bank that you’re using to get this thing going, that could also be an exception to this.
You may want to use faster. If you recall when we were building and launching Drip, I had other apps that were able to bankroll it. We wanted to move faster. We did spend more money than maybe these guidelines suggest. If you truly are working a day job and launching something on the side in your nights and weekends, a good guideline is about a $50 topper for any individual tool or service that you’re going to use. Getting started on day one of your writing code, the only couple of things that I can think of that are absolutely critical, aside from your development tools, are some web hosting and payment processing. A lot of other stuff you can get by with [?] essentially with the free stuff like the Google Analytics and the Webmaster Tools and the basic things, especially as a one person shop, which will probably be at this time. There’re a lot of tools that have a free plan for a single solo founder or a single user. You’re going to want to take advantage of those in this early stage.
Mike [10:46]: Another example or a very specific example of one of those things is being able to collect e-mail addresses and signing-up for $200 e-mail marketing platform when you don’t have any revenue and you’re really not getting enough traffic to drive to that to be able to collect those e-mail addresses. You can get by with a free MailChimp Account, for example. That will, at least, get you started. You don’t need to spend a ton of money on these tools especially when the free plans will suffice while you’re trying to figure out whether that business is going to work at all. The second guideline for a pre-revenue company is to not spend more than $200 a month across all of the different tools that you’re using. The idea behind this is that if you are really launching something on the side and let’s say you’re a fulltime employee at some place else, you’re just doing this on the side, it can be difficult to go through all of those tools and pay attention to all of them or give them the attention and care that they need in order to make them work for your business.
Chances are you’ve got a lot of other things going on, you’ve got all the development going on, you’re still trying to figure out what that market looks like. If you really have that many tools that you’re looking at, chances are good that you’re probably not focusing on the right things. You really need to be talking to the customers and spending a lot more time in those areas and building what it is that they want as opposed to trying to use all these different tools to optimize something when, quite frankly, you don’t have the traffic or the level of interest or attention from people that you really need in order to get to make that optimization work.
Rob [12:16]: I think that’s a good point, that tools can and will be a distraction if you want to chase down the next shiny object. It’s like stop breathing product on and parker news and looking at all the shiny new marketing SaaS or development SaaS that’s coming out. Focus on you building what you have instead and just use the basics like we’ve already said. Hosting, payment processing, maybe a landing page provider. That’s probably about it. I’m thinking back to Drip. We had revenue from other products that were being able to back it. But we had hosting; I had WP Engine Account for the blog and the knowledge base, payment processing and maybe one or two other things but it was very minimal. We’re talking on a recurring basis. What we’re not talking about here, let’s dive into the exceptions. It’s still with pre-revenue. We have three exceptions. One of them is paid ads. That’s not what we’re talking about at all here. We’re talking about tools on a recurring basis.
Paid advertising to gather information or you get in front of people is an exception to this because I believe that spending money to learn things is so valuable at this pre-revenue stage. Ideally, you’ll be able to run a reasonable test for about $100 to $200 per test. Long term, as it gets bigger, some tests may require several thousand dollars before you try to scale it up. That’s not what you’re trying to do at this point. You’re trying to find cheap clicks, split test value propositions and learn more and build a small list and that kind of stuff. For a few hundred bucks, you should be able to do that. This will let you figure out what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong so you can leverage that information as you’re building the product.
Mike [13:51]: The second exception here is also the legal or accounting fees to get set up as a business. Quite frankly, you can get by without setting up a full blown corporation or doing any of that stuff before you even have a product that’s out the door. You can do a lot of things and depending on who you’re working with, whether your CPA, you may be able to write off a lot of those development costs once you have gone down the path of getting an official corporation or officially filing a DBA or something along those lines. A lot of things, you can just backdate those. Again, you have to talk to your CPA about how that would work for your business. But the reality is a lot of those costs are minimal anyway, especially in the long term of your business. Over the course of your business, you’re probably going to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and not being able to write off $1,000 or 2,000 from the very beginning is probably not going to break the bank for you.
Rob [14:45]: We’re not lawyers or CPAs obviously but I will tell you that every business that I’ve started and every product that I launched, I have pushed off the legal and the accounting stuff as long as I possibly could. In terms of accounting, I may have done the book-keeping using tools like Xero that we’ll talk about later or Less Accounting. But the legal stuff of actually getting that as corp set up or whatever it is, the LOC, it all depends on your risk tolerance. Boy, I’ve always tried to push that off as long as possible because if you don’t have revenue and you’re spending money and time setting all that stuff up, you’re detracting from your ability to grow. The third exception, in this preliminary stage, is contract labor. If you’re hiring work, you’re hiring folks, let’s say on UpWork or even just contractors through your network, it is harder to do this one on the cheap. You can find cheaper people but you’re going have to spend more time managing them and correcting their work in general.
Realistically though, there has to be a limit on these contractor cost. If you’re seeking 20 grand in the product development for something that doesn’t have any customers or pre-launch lists, you’re probably going down the wrong path. But if you have interest, you have that launch list and you’re in communication with people, that gives you the confidence to spend more and more money. When people come and ask, we’ll often get the question of like how much does it cost to build a mobile app or how much should I pay to build my SaaS MVP or that kind of stuff. The loose range that I typically throw out is 5 to 10K and obviously it depends on what you’re building and how much software development and management experience because that dictates the level and the seniority of the developer you’re going to be able to hire, which is going to impact the cost of it and all that.
But if you have a lot of marketing skills and you have a list and you know what you’re doing then of course, dropping a lot more money than 20K might make sense. But if this is your first time and you’re doing on nights and weekends, you really need to keep a tight constraint on these things and especially in the early days. I was in the single digit thousands. That was my comfort level of how much I would drop before I would get someone in and at least paying me something for the product.
Mike [16:50]: I guess what those things said about the pre-revenue stage. Let’s move on to post-revenue. One of the differentiations here that I feel like we really need to make is the fact that when you’re talking about a pre-revenue business, there’s a very finite time window during which that pre-revenue period is sitting. It’s easy to look at a lot of different examples of those types of businesses because it’s all in this very tightly defined range. When you’re talking about post-revenue, that could mean anything from one dollar a month to a million dollars a month. Most of the time when we’re talking about our listeners or the audience that we’re referring to is generally businesses that operate up into the five, six or seven figures a year. With that kind of stuff in mind, it’s also very difficult to generalize and say, “Well, you should only be paying $25 or $30 a month on this particular thing because depending on whether you’re closer to $1,000 a month or $100,000 a month, you may be paying significantly more based on the requirements for your business. Most of the guidelines in prices that we’re going to throw out are entry level but you could also extrapolate those a little bit because some of them are based on per-user pricing and you may have one user or you may have 15 or 20. Those prices can fluctuate a little bit but will at least give some guidelines around starting points.
Rob [18:09]: Let’s kick it off with probably the most important tool for a startup that’s obviously going to be doing stuff online, it’s your hosting. This cost is going to depend a lot on your app, your infrastructure requirements but I like to ballpark between 50 and 200 bucks a month. This is post-revenue so this is when you’re not on shared web hosting anymore. At this point, you’ve beefed up and you have some type of virtual machine, whether it’s on Rackspace, on Amazon EC2 or you’re on a Heroku instance, that’s when I feel your post-revenue, you feel more comfortable outsourcing some of the management of this and paying a little more to get a couple of servers, at least, to have high availability and good performance. I think that a decent ballpark, when you’re ramping up is between 50 and 20 bucks a month.
Mike [18:57]: I think that $50 to $200 a month could also be per server as well. If you have 10 servers, you might be paying $2,000 or $3000 for the servers that you have. It comes down to what your app is. Something else that falls under this bucket is whether or not you’re running your sales website at the same place as your app is. Those are two probably different things. You might run your sales website on WordPress and have it hosted at WP Engine. One site of a WP Engine is going to run you $30 a month but you can also upgrade your plan to the next level, which is $100 a month. These are round about numbers but they do give you an idea of what the starting points look like and what’s reasonable.
Rob [19:40]: In pre-revenue you can be – a lot of stuff have launches on shared hosting for 20, 30 bucks a month. As you get towards launch or maybe after you get 5 or 10 people paying you for it, then you move to this better hosting basically where you have your own servers. If you’re a hardcore developer and you have a little bit more money in the bank, you probably going to start with this level of the 50 to 200 bucks. It’s a bummer when you’re sitting there coding for four, five months and you want to have a landing page up and you’re paying 50 or 100 bucks a month just to do that. That’s never made much sense to me.
Mike [20:12]: The next category is payroll. If you have gotten to the point where you are post-revenue and let’s just assume you’ve even gotten past the post-revenue part, you start to go fulltime; one of the things that you need to look at is payroll. I’ve looked at payroll providers over the years and tried out a couple of different ones. The one that I settled on recently was Gusto. They used to be called Zen Payroll but they changed their name about five or six months ago. I have no idea what the rationale behind that change was but they did change it. Something like this should probably run you around $40 to $50 a month. Some of the larger, I would say more entrenched players, that if you’re not eligible for Gusto based on where you live, you might have to go with someone like [?] or Paychex. Those are U.S. based companies. I don’t know what the options are in other countries but either one of those is probably going to run you anywhere from $50 to $75 a month. What I have noticed about those types of companies is that they have a tendency to quote you a price and then they will tack on additional fees for doing things like, “Oh, we’re going to over-night your paperwork so that it’s there on pay day.” It’s like, “Well, everything’s direct deposit. I don’t need you to over-night it,” but they’ll do it anyway and it’s an extra $10 or $20 per pay period and that’s how they do that. It can get pricy, which is why is why I gravitated much more towards Gusto because it’s just a flat rate. Everything’s taken care of on line. They also take care of 1099s for you so you don’t have to worry about that as well, especially if you’re going through contractors that are outside of a platform like UpWork.
Rob [21:47]: Don’t do your payroll yourself. That’s insane. I’ve known some small businesses that do that and there’s no reason to do that anymore. I used Paychex for several years. Eventually, their payroll started having a lot of errors. They did a really good job early on and it was great. I think I was paying about 100 bucks a month and it was totally worth it and then more and more errors as we scaled up and it was all via phone. It was like you could have some reports online but it was junky. You couldn’t update anything online so I would have to be on the phone all the time and it doesn’t work into my workflow. The fact that Gusto, formerly Zen Payroll, is fully online and is as good as they are. They’re cheap. It’s like 24 bucks a month and then 5 bucks per employee and it’s unlimited payrolls or something. If you’re one of two people, it’s in the 20s or 30s. This is a no brainer.
Mike [22:30]: They recently updated their pricing too. They went up a little bit.
Rob [22:34]: Oh, did they?
Mike [22:34]: Yeah.
Rob [22:34]: Did they grandfather us?
Mike [22:35]: I don’t know. I’m grandfather, I think.
Rob [22:39]: The next category is video hosting. Obviously you’re going to have some demo videos. You’re going to have some marketing videos. You’re just going to have a need for videos as you scale up even a little bit. YouTube is free but you have so little control and the player is not very nice. It’s not very attractive I should say. At the end of your video, they pop up 20 related videos that are from other people. It takes you out of what you’re doing. It’s not very professional. To me, again it’s post-revenue. As soon as you have some revenue, you’re going to want to go with someone like Wistia, which is about 240 bucks a year or Vimeo, which is 200 bucks a year or SproutVideo, which is in that range. They might have a $10 or $15 a month plan because you’re going to get so much more control. You’re going to get better metrics. A lot of them have e-mail capture built in, where you can gait a marketing video at a certain point or a valuable video that you want people to watch.
You can feature-gait it to where in essence they have to enter an e-mail to get past that. That can go directly into a provider like a Drip or MailChimp or something. This is when I hadn’t really thought of earlier on because it slipped under the radar. But as soon as we had video that needed to appear on our website, which is SSL, we could only use a few providers. Since I didn’t want to use YouTube, it became expensive pretty quick. I remember we started off with a $20 plan and then by the time we had a few videos it was up to 50. I pay either 100 or it might be a little more than that like 120 a month to Wistia because of the volume of bandwidth and the features. We needed some specific features that are feature-gaited up to that point. It’s not outrageous for sure but when you can start at 20 bucks a month, it’s a pretty good way to go.
Mike [24:18]: I will point out that I think both Wistia and Vimeo have free plans that you can get on if you want to get started with those services on day one. If you are pre-revenue, you can use those services obviously if there is feature-gaiting. If you get to a point where you’re scaling and you’re using a lot of bandwidth or there’s other features that you want to be able to use, you may have to start paying for it. But again, the pricing isn’t completely outrageous either. The next category is e-mail marketing tools. By e-mail marketing, really what I mean is capturing e-mail addresses from people and being able to send out bulk e-mails. A lot of different tools fall under this bucket; MailChimp, AWeber, Constant Contact, those types of tools. The idea here is that you want something that is going to allow you to send out mass e-mails to your mailing list.
Rob [25:06]: This is actually one of the others that if you’re pre-revenue, this was the other thing that we had. I talked about hosting and payment providers. E-mail marketing would be the other one. In the very early days, if you’d collect e-mails and send a broadcast once in a while, MailChimp is not a bad tool for that. It’s only once you segment the list and try to do anything of any complexity that you might run into problems and need to outgrow it. That’s when you move into these e-mail marketing automation tools, which are going to run you 50 bucks a month and up. That’s like a Drip, [?] and Infusionsoft and when you’re post-revenue, this is a necessity. It’s rare that you’re going to grow and scale on a basic e-mail marketing tool that doesn’t have the automation stuff baked into it.
Mike [25:47]: The next category is cash management software services. In virtually every case if you’re looking for any sort of book-keeping software, I would go Xero. They have an online subscription. You go out there and it’s very easy to use. It generally follows accepted best practices for accounting. If you know anything about accounting, you can do anything that you would probably need to do inside of Xero. There’s also other options out there. QuickBooks Online is probably the big player in this particular space. They do have QuickBooks Desktop Edition. There’s also other tools out there like Less Accounting and Outright. There’s other ancillary tools that I would probably put underneath this category such as Baremetrics or FirstOfficer.io, that allow you to analyze the incoming payments. I might also throw PayPal underneath this and I would also put something like FreshBooks or Expensify for doing invoices and receipt tracking. Generally speaking, most of those tools should not cost you very much, $20, 30, 40 a month at the most for each individual one. Being able to know how much money is coming in and how much is going out is going to save you a ton of time at the end of the year especially if you’re post-revenue and you have to start tracking how much did I spend? How much did I make? How much can I write off? All the reports and stuff that you need out of that. If you don’t have it tracked, it can be very difficult. If you have a very simple business, you can do it in Excel. But once you start getting complicated with anything, you get lots of transactions. It’s hard to track all that stuff outside of excel.
Rob [27:16]: We live in the golden age of starting a business. The fact that you can get all the power of the tools you just mentioned and you don’t need to install a server because it’s all SaaS and you can pay, like you said, 10, 20, 30 bucks a month for these, is just amazing. 10 to 15 years ago it was so much of a hustle, you install desktop software and then you had to back the files and the desktop software wasn’t very good. When you change computers, you had to try to remember to get the files. It was so much of a hustle. This is a much better approach. The next category, we have it as two items but I’ll lump it into one. The first is Website Traffic Analytics and the next one after that is Advanced Analytics. For just basic analytics, Google Analytics is great, Google Webmaster Tools, Clicky, which is at getclicky.com is 10 bucks a month. Those show you your unique visitors and aggregate data.
These are a no brainer for getting started and you should have them if, for nothing else, to have the historical data, you should have these installed. The advance side is going to be a tool more like a Mixpanel or CaseMetrix and that can often give you a per visitor insight. You can identify people and know what individuals did. You can analyze funnels with more advanced precision and all that stuff. They have free plans but they get expensive quick. It goes from free to 150 a month. For business generating even a few thousand bucks, it’s probably worth it because the insights you can pull out of that on how to optimize your funnel are a big deal. It’s scaling up if you’re doing 20, 30, 40 grand a month. You should be using one of these tools
Mike [28:42]: The next category is dashboarding software, which if you are running a business and you have a lot of different tools, sometimes you have to go to multiple tools in order to find a lot of different KPIs or Key Performance Indicators that you’re looking for. Sometimes it’s more helpful to have a dashboard of some kind. There’s different options out there like DigMyData or Cyph. There seemed to be more and more of these types of tool popping up all the time. What I find is that I like the idea of having a dashboard and being able to look at that data at a glance. But what I find is that if I see some piece of data that I want to drill into, I then have to go over to the tool anyway. Having a dashboard itself probably doesn’t do a lot for me except for give me the ability to publicize some of that data to other people on the team. If you’re just using it for yourself, if you’re a one person company, my guess is dashboards are probably not going to help you very much. They look nice and they sound great in theory but as a business owner, you’re probably going to be digging into that data anyway.
Rob [29:39]: Landing pages is another category here. That will cost you, let’s say, between 20 and 50 bucks a month. There’s KickoffLabs, LeadPages, Unbounce, Instapage. There’s a lot of players in this space. ClickFunnels is another one. It’s funny because I never used landing pages when I was hacking away solo on everything because I would just copy to HTML and I’d modify it and I’d do all that. But now that we’re working on a team and we’re moving fats and there’s a bunch of people doing stuff and we have a marketer who, just fulltime, is running experiments, it helps to have something where you can just crank out a landing page in 10 minutes and not have to worry about deploying and having it in source control and is it on the main website or is it WordPress and do I have a plug in. it is simpler to have one of these providers. You’re mileage may vary and each company may do it differently but I have definitely been sold on the value of using one of these landing page providers, if for nothing else, for some of the templates are nice. The speed of implementation, the speed of iteration has accelerated by using one of these platforms.
Mike [30:38]: The next two categories, I’m lumping these together but they’re both sales tools. Essentially you have your basic entry level CRMs. These will run you $10 to $20. Sometimes that’s per user, sometimes it’s just a flat rate. This is for a basic CRM or a basic sales tool of some kind. In this category I would put things like Pipedrive, Highrise or Zoho and many of the basic sales or CRM tools like that. The next level up, once you start to get a lot of information in there and you start to do more advance things or you want to do any sort of automation, it’s almost very similar to e-mail marketing, where you’ve got basic e-mail marketing and you’ve got the advanced stuff. In the advanced category for sales tools, you’re probably looking at $50 and up per user. I would say that Bluetick falls into this category. You’ll also find tools like Salesforce or Closed.io. The basics of most of these tools is that it helps to automate or improve your sales process and because of the increased efficiencies that those types of tools provide you, they do cost quite a bit more.
Rob [31:39]: Our next category is demo software meaning software that helps you give demos to your potential customers. Some free options are things like Skype, Google Hangouts, join.me, all of which we tried at Drip and they all had one hang up or another. They’re other unprofessional or a lot of people aren’t on Skype or you have to get approval from their username in order to contact them. It just feels like you’re running a junky service. We have since moved on from those. GoToMeeting and WebExpo have free plans. I haven’t used either of them but I know they’re popular. We’ve settled on Zoom which is 15 bucks a month per user. It’s working out quite well. There’s a lot of tools available for this. You just want to find something that is A, professional and B gives you a lot of control and allows you to demo whatever you need and frankly you may also want the user, depending on whether if you’re also using this sometimes for on-boarding or some high end support, you may want the user to be able to share in their screen and that’s a nice benefit of a tool like Zoom and GoToMeeting. These should be in there. They’re anywhere from free up to about 15 to 20 bucks per user, depending in the features you want. You can find something that’s like $50 per user per month. You should be able to get by with 15 to 20 range.
Mike [32:51]: Now that we’ve talked a lot of those different categories, we want to talk about two different exceptions that we came up with for this. The first one is that in general spending money to learn something is worth the investment. You’re looking at a specific channel and you’re spending money there to try and figure out whether you can use that channel to acquire customers or you’re trying to learn things about your audience. It’s very difficult to give guidelines about what specifically you should be spending on these things because if you are making $1,000 a month, clearly you don’t want to be spending $1,000 a month on your advertising or $10,000 a month on your advertising to learn something. But if you’re bringing in $100,000 a month, spending $10,000 to try and figure out whether or not a particular channel is going work for you to acquire customer, that could be justified. It’s difficult to provide specifics in this particular area because of that but we do want to point it out as something of an exception to this. It’s hard to give guidance about exact numbers for that.
Rob [33:48]: It’s also hard to give guidance. Your pre-revenue is a pretty finite space and there’s not a lot of room there. You can be specific about it. Post-revenue is anywhere from a dollar a month up to hundreds of millions a month. It’s hard to give all of these ballparks. Generally, we’re talking about businesses that are doing up to in the seven figures a year. Once you’re in the eight figures, a lot of stuff changes. With that in mind, the other exception to all of this is headcount. Salary for one employee is going to eclipse everything in this list combined. But we just wanted to talk about tools today and the software tools that you would need to get started up.
Mike [34:27]: We’re running a little short on time here but we do want to live you guys with two tips in general about looking at the different services that you’re using in your business. The first one is that you should buy tools that do the job that you need done not tools that you have seen other successful people or businesses using. A lot of time just using that particular tool that somebody else is using isn’t going to make you as successful as they are. It’s more about how you use the tool and what jobs you’re accomplishing with them as opposed to the tools that you’re using.
Rob [34:54]: The other tip I’ll throw out is to buy what you need now not what you’re going to need in the future because otherwise you’re going to be paying for something that you can probably upgrade to at the point when you need it. There’re some minor exceptions. If you think about a Mixpanel or CaseMetrix, the more historical data you have the better. Unless you do have a lot of budget that dropping 100, 150 bucks a month from the very start is a dubious proposition if you’re trying to bootstrap a startup. In general, the best advice is to buy what you need now and not something that you think you’re going to need in the next six months. That wraps us up for today. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 8-8-8-8-0-1-9-6-9-0 or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from ‘We’re Out of Control’ by MoOt, used under creative comments. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
Episode 260 | What is the One Metric That Matters?
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about the one metric that matters. The idea of focusing on one metric at a time, the metric that is helping move your business forward.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike [0:00:00]: In this episode of “Startups For the Rest of Us,”
Rob and I are going to be talking about the one metric that matters. This is “Startups For the Rest of Us” Episode 260.
[Theme Music plays]
Mike [0:00:16]: Welcome to “Startups For the Rest of Us,” the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products. Whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob [0:00:23]: And I’m Rob.
Mike [0:00:24]: And 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 [0:00:28]: MicroConf 2016 in Las Vegas, the dates are set. We signed a contract, although we haven’t received the counter-signed as of today, but as far as we know, everything’s in place. Las Vegas, April 3rd through 5th. So if you’re interested in hanging out with about 200 of your closest founder friends, a lot of bootstrapped founders heading over there out in early April. Go to MicroConf.com, enter your email address. The tickets every year sell out way before they make it to the open market. So if you are interested in coming, you want to get on the list.
Mike [0:01:01]: You know, it’s always a little disconcerting talking to people about the dates before we have that counter-signed contract.
Rob [0:01:06]: I know, I know. I’m such a more conservative in terms of stuff, and I like to have everything signed and known, but boy, we’ve been talking to the hotel for months and the odds are pretty good it’s going to go through.
Mike [0:01:17]: Yeah, I think I even remembered that there’s a clause, kind of early on that they kind of throw in there that just says that if they kind of offer us right of first refusal. So if somebody else comes in and says, Oh, we want that date, they have to come to us first and offer it to us, or at least try and get something signed. But because we don’t have a counter-signed contract, I guess it’s, I don’t know, I guess it seems less official.
Rob [0:01:39]: Sure. Well it is, it’s not legally binding at this point. So feasibly there could be a screw up at some point, where they get our signed contract and go to hand it to whatever the VP in charge of signing contracts, and someone else hands him one for the same dates, and they’ve just totally screwed up. It’s within the realm of possibility. But knock on wood, this is what our eighth or ninth conference? And we haven’t ran into any major issues like that. How about you, what’s going on?
Mike [0:02:02]: Well, I’ve been doing a little bit more customer validation on the new idea I’ve been working on, and that’s been going well. I’ve had a couple more conversations this past week. And right now, something else I’m working on is I’m testing whether or not it makes sense for us to move Founder Café off of the Communifire platform and onto Discourse. So I don’t know how that’s eventually going play out, but so far it seems to be going reasonably well. I don’t know all the details of it. It’s kind of the unfortunate part. I know about half of it, because I don’t know the Discourse side of it, or Rails or Postgres. But I’ve got all the Communifire stuff that I’ve been working on. I’ve been working with a contractor to help with the other side of things. And we’ll see how things work out. I’m not real sure it.
Rob [0:02:45]: All right, cool. You mentioned that you’ve been doing a small amount of validation for your new idea. How come so little? I would imagine that you’d be fired up, cranking away on it.
Mike [0:02:55]: So what I did, when I was going through my validation steps, was every conversation I was having with people, I would basically just take a ton of notes during the conversation. And I’m starting to get, probably more towards the end of my list of people that I’m talking to, and I’m starting to hear the same types of things over and over again. So I’m going back through and I’m probably having less conversations now than I have in the past couple of weeks, but it’s more because I’m sifting through all that data I have to try and find overlap between different people and figure out exactly where to go. And I’m at the point right now, where I’m probably going to start – I am at the point where I’m starting to kind of draw up designs for what it’s going to look like and then take those designs back to them as kind of a double check.
Rob [0:03:37]: Is that your next step?
Mike [0:03:38]: Yeah, that’s what I’m working on right now is, as I said, just sifting through the things that they’ve told me, figuring out where those overlaps are and seeing what the lowest common denominator is that I can put in front of them that they’ll say, that they’ll still continue to say, “yes, I’ll pay for that.” And then kind of get the commitments from everybody to move forward.
Rob [0:03:55]: What’s your ETA on doing that?
Mike [0:03:56]: I’d probably say, I started working on the designs this past week, and it’s taken longer than I expected it would to go through some of those designs. So I want to say one week, but I’m guessing it’s probably going to be closer to two or three.
Mike [0:04:58]: Cool. So this week, what we’re going to be talking about is the one metric that matters. And this is inspired by a couple of articles that I’ve come across online, one of which is from the Kissmetrics blog, and the other one is from leanstack.com, and then a third is from the leananalyticsbook.com. And all three of these articles refer back to the one true metric that matters. And essentially the idea here is that you should only focus at one metric at a time. And that metric is the one that is supposed to be moving the needle in your business. And we’ll link up all three of these articles in the show notes. But again, going back to this point, the idea is that you can track other metrics, but there’s one that’s going to be the most critical to you, which is going to depend a lot on the goals that you’re trying to reach at that time. So for example, the one key metric that I’m tracking right now is the number of prospect conversations per week. And because I’m kind of moving into the design phase, that’s probably going to change. But that’s the one metric that I was tracking over the past three weeks.
Rob [0:05:55]: And for me, I haven’t given it any thought in advance of recording this episode, and I guess we’ll see as we go through this if mine fits this criteria because I know we have some kind of does and don’ts of how to do it, but I would say it’s MRR for me. And so you might look at that as MRR growth, how much did it grow this month and is it going to grow more next month than last month. But really the one I look at is just MRR since it is a recurring metric itself, that’s what I have tended to focus on. And I think if I were to commit, of course, there’s everything then falls below that, right, of I could look at the trial count for the past 30 days. I could tell you if we’re going to grow and by how much at this point at the trial. The paid conversion and what we’re going to turn out and the upgrades and all that stuff. But the real focus that all feeds into, MRR.
Mike [0:06:39]: So the first thing we’re going to talk about is why? Why is it that we’re only looking at one particular metric? And the first thing to keep in mind is that these metrics encourage focus. If you only have one metric that really matters, then you can essentially ignore everything else that’s going on, whether – and in your case, for example, you’re tracking MRR and that’s the one metric that matters the most, then you can essentially ignore all these other things like the conversion rate and the number of visitors to your website. A lot of those things can just go right out the window because they don’t necessarily matter. And sometimes these metrics will play into one another and influence each other, so that’s something else to keep in mind when you’re looking at these metrics. And it’s especially important when you’re looking at something like MRR because all those things do essentially influence MRR, but not directly.
Rob [0:07:26]: Yeah, I would agree with that. I mean, I think being able to focus on one thing and not be distracted by trying to chase after a lot of things all at once is going to be a good thing. One point, early on, when Noah Kagan was building AppSumo, I had talked to him and we were talking about kind of what you’re focused on, it was like focusing on one thing. And at the time, I think I was doing, it was early in HitTail, and I was talking about, yeah, it’s just MRR I was focused on. And he said, I’m focused on growing my list. He said, it’s the number of subscribers total and the number of subscribers we’re adding each week or each day. And I remember thinking, oh, how interesting that he wasn’t focused on – there was not, he wasn’t focused on revenue, wasn’t focused on profit, wasn’t focused on deals per month, there’s a bunch of other things that you could look at, but at that point he knew that to get where he wanted to go, he had to build that list. And that’s kind of why I look at MRR as SaaS founder, is that to get where I want to go, I need to get that to increase. Now there’s a bunch of ways to do it, but it does give you focus. The other thing is it tells me what not to look at. As an example, I don’t, at this point, when we’re in heavy growth mode, I don’t look at profitability. Now, we are a profitable company, but I’m not measuring my success based on how much cash we can make in a month on a net basis. I am looking at that growth number as long as we are not doing stupid things like paying more than our customers’ lifetime value in order to acquire them or something like that. If you keep that in mind, I think that focusing on that one thing and then looking at all things that lead to it is a good way to go.
Mike [0:08:49]: And that’s the second on the list of why you should be looking at just one metric, because it helps narrow the field of things that you need to pay attention to. And even if you can’t pick just one, if it really boils down to like two or three, then at least it’s eliminated a lot of the other things that could potentially be distracting. If you’re looking at too many of these different metrics, essentially what happens is it just becomes noise, because it’s hard to get everybody to look at the same thing at that particular moment. If you have everyone looking at the same thing, then what it does is it helps create accountability for everyone. Everyone’s all focused on the same goal, and it becomes very easy to relate the different things that people are working on to the projects or the tasks that other people are working on.
Rob [0:09:30]: This also creates accountability for your team because folks can kind of focus on a single metric and then all be working towards a higher level metric. When I say that, to come back to the MRR example, that as a founder of a SaaS company, that’s what I’m looking to grow. But perhaps the person sitting next to me is working in marketing, her goal may not be to grow MRR directly. Her goal may be to drive more trials. I know that is going to feed towards the company goal of increasing MRR. But then she doesn’t have to look at her job and say, boy, how did I myself increase MRR this month? She can just say, I know I drove this many trials and directly measured that based on her efforts, so I think that having a single company goal as well as individual goals for each person or kind of individual metrics based on what they’re working on that they can directly influence, that all lead up to that company-wide goal, is I think a good way to do it. Or it’s at least something that we found success with at Drip.
Mike [0:10:24]: It also encourages people to kind of experiment within the guidelines of that because you can always look at something that is not necessarily related to that KPI and say, well, I’m going to do this A-B test over here. And that could be very well be optimize a specific part of your sales funnel, but it’s not necessarily related to your goal. And it’s not to say that doesn’t help the business in some way, shape and form, but if it’s not what you’re focused on, then essentially what you’re doing is you’re spending time improving something that isn’t directly related to the company’s current goals. So the next part of this process is figuring out which metric matters. And essentially, there’s four tenets of how to pick the metric that does matter. There are four pieces of this. There are things that you know, which are essentially facts. There are things that you don’t know, which are questions that you have, which you know the questions to ask. Then there’s things that you don’t know that you know. And those are essentially things that are driven by your intuition. You have a gut feel about something. And then the last one is probably the most mysterious of all these is those are the things that you don’t know, that you don’t know. And a lot of times if you start exploring these areas, this is where you’re going to find those unfair advantages. You’re going to uncover things that other people in the market haven’t really figured out yet, and those could substantially drive your business forward.
Rob [0:11:39]: I’m not sure I understand these four in terms of how they relate to picking that metric.
Mike [0:11:45]: So the idea with these four tenets is that essentially what you’re trying to do, is you’re trying to distill all of the things that you do know and that you don’t know into a mechanism for identifying the analytics and the metrics that you should be looking at. So for example, if you are able to directly measure what is going on in your website, the number of visitors that are coming, then you can interpret those as facts. So if you have Google Analytics installed you can, with giving some credit to Google for actually being accurate on all of this, you can look at that and say well, yes, I know that I’m getting ‘x’ number of visitors per month or per week to my website. So those are the facts that you know. And then there are things that you don’t know that you could answer by reporting, by saying, okay, well, we know that we’re getting this number of visitors to our website, how many people are coming over and viewing our pricing page, or visiting our pricing page and then going in and signing up for a trial? And for something like that, you might use Kissmetrics or Mixpanel or something along those lines. But those are questions that you have that you could ask that you just, you know the question, you just don’t know the answer because you haven’t gone and looked at the data yet. And then there’s things that you don’t know, that you know, which are things that you just have a gut feel about. So for example, you might say, well, I think that we’re getting a lot of our trials coming in through word-of-mouth. If your products are growing and your customers are telling other customers about it, then you might have an intuition about that. But you don’t necessarily know that, and it can be very difficult to figure out exactly how that’s happening without doing a lot of analysis of those people that are coming in and having direct conversations with those people one-on-one, for every single person who signs up for your service. And then the fourth category are the things that you don’t know, that you don’t know. And those are things that, honestly it’s going to change a lot based on your type of business, but you might find out that maybe you believe there is a viral component or that people were sharing a lot of information about, oh, you should sign up for this service and your customers were talking to other customers about it. But you may just find out that, oh, it was posted on some forum someplace, and you didn’t even know that that was a great way for people to find out about your service.
Rob [0:13:53]: Okay, cool, that helps clear it up. Finding the metric that matters also depends on what kind of business you’re in. If you’re running a SaaS app, maybe it’s MRR, maybe it’s MRR growth. Maybe if you’re at an earlier stage, it’s just trying to get some customers in the door, customer count. If you’re like in a collaborative or a community software company, maybe something like StackExchange or Reddit, then maybe it’s the number of votes, the number of comments, the number of new content pieces that are created for you by the community. If you’re a media company, maybe it’s the number of page views that you’re getting. If you sell games, maybe it’s the number of in-app purchases. Or if you sell apps and maybe don’t have direct access to your customers, you’re obviously going to have less data than if you’re dealing directly with folks, so maybe you sell a mobile app through the iOS app store, then you might have to look at a higher level thing, like the number of downloads of your free version and then the number of purchases or number of dollars coming from your paid version. And finally, if you have just a transactional business with like one-time sales, so maybe you have desktop ftp client, or you have invoicing software that someone can download and install and it’s not a subscription, obviously your metric is going to be different than a SaaS app, because you don’t have monthly recurring revenue. At that point, maybe it just is total revenue per month of total downloads of your free version, if those tend to highly correlate with getting more downloads and more sales of your paid version.
Mike [0:15:20]: The other thing that factors heavily into this is what stage of your business are you at. So are you really in the early, early stages where you’re just talking to people and you’re just trying to get attention for a landing page that you’ve put up. Are you actively having conversations with people and doing a needs discovery? Are you at the validation stage, where you are creating an MVP for the product? Or have you even gotten past that point and you’ve launched the product and now you’re looking at doing feature optimizations and implementing customer requests, or even further than that where you’ve got a stable app and you’ve hit product market and you’re really just trying to optimize the entire business, based on which of those stages you’re at, your metric that you’re looking at is going to change kind of dramatically from one stage to the next.
Rob [0:16:03]: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you’re pre-launch, then I’d say a big metric is how many email addresses can you get on that pre-launch list. If you have a few customers, beta customers in there early and you’re doing customer development, maybe it’s the engagement, maybe it’s like the amount of times they log in or the amount of features that they’re using. Or even like the number of features that they suggest that kind of fit within your vision. I mean, it could be as simple as that, when you’re trying to get to that next step, it actually comes easier and more clear once you’ve broken past, I’ll say product market fit, but once you know that you’ve built something that people want, it becomes easier because then you tend to just have a pretty straightforward metric that you’re trying to grow. It’s going to be probably revenue or trial downloads or there’s something there, but before that at each stage it’s going to be changing pretty frequently as you move between the stages.
Mike [0:16:53]: Right, I remember kind of a specific example from when Facebook was kind of building up in the early stages. One of their metrics was that they wanted somebody to sign up and add, I think the number was like 10 or 20 friends, within seven days. And those people were going to have a dramatically experience and be more “successful” with their product than the people who did not. So that was one of their key metrics that they used very early on. So it was very feature driven at that point. They said if somebody uses this particular feature which is just adding friends, then they will be more successful with the product, and we want to be able to identify those people and figure out how to get more of those people. So the next thing to think about is who is this metric for, you know, who is the intended audience for this metric? If it’s MRR, then it might be to management, but there are different metrics that you can track that could go to internal groups. It might go to the marketing team or the developer team. You might have metrics that you’re developing for investors or for the press, or as part of a marketing campaign. There’s lots of different reasons why you might have these metrics, but you want to be able to make sure that you are identifying these metrics for a very specific reason. And you want to know who those metrics are going to, because that’s going to make a difference. And the specifics of which metrics you’re tracking.
Mike [0:18:10]: So let’s start talking about what makes a good metric. And the first part of this is make sure that your metric is a rate or ratio, because those are going to be better than an absolute or a cumulative value of any kind. So, I’ll give you an example, from earlier in this particular podcast I talked about the fact that I was measuring the number of conversations per week. Now, if I were just measuring the total number of conversations I had, then that wouldn’t necessarily be a good metric. But the fact that I’m measuring them on a per week basis, I’m able to relate one week to the next and figure out whether or not I’m maintaining progress or declining or exceeding the expected rate.
Rob [0:18:51]: And I think it’s interesting to think about with the SaaS app, we never even talk about what’s the total aggregate revenue that the app has ever generated, right? That would be a very bad metric, that’d be an absolute number and it would grow every month, right, because as long as you have revenue coming in, you would just add it to it. And that number could be hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars, but that doesn’t give you a really good picture of what the business is doing because there’s no rate or ratio to it. So I think, if you think about MRR as it’s basically the recurring revenue that you have at the end of that one month, so that gives you kind of a rate there, and then I think growth, like MRR growth is a ratio as well, right, because it is the amount of new revenue, new MRR you’ve added compared to your total. And so, I know that a lot of start-ups look at their month over month percentage growth, and that’s a big thing that [YEC?] looks at and a lot of these accelerators look at. I personally don’t track, I’ve gone back and calculated it for particular purposes when the audience, whether I’m giving a talk or whether I know someone is actually looking for that number, it’s easy enough to calculate going back, that is not a key driver that I look at when managing the business, but that’s not a bad thing. I think if you are a startup like Paul Graham says, growth is everything, and so for them, even if you’re doing revenue growth, they probably lose sight of the absolute revenue because that’s less important than the growth and the rate of growth that they’re experiencing as they’re working on it. Because growth has a lot to do with whether or not you have traction. And traction has a lot to do with whether or not you’re going to be able to raise that next funding round. So if you’re in the V.C. space, the venture funded space, about every 18 months you tend to have to raise a round. And even if your MRR is going up, if your growth numbers don’t hit the ranges that they need, it’ll be pretty hard for you to raise a round. So you can see how for those guys, given their audience, they’re tracking more growth, whereas someone who’s maybe boot-strapping a business, and probably has other goals, might look at something a little more solid like monthly recurring revenue or some people might even look at monthly net profit.
Mike [0:20:56]: But I think the key point that you’re making there is that those are monthly numbers, that it’s monthly recurring revenue or monthly profit. And it’s important to have that monthly piece of it, because if you don’t have a time period of any kind, then really it’s just a number, it’s a vanity metric at that point, which is essentially meaningless to the business. You can’t compare it to other time periods because it’s just a number. If you are able to compare it to other time periods, that’s when it becomes meaningful, that’s the important piece, and that’s what makes it a good metric.
Rob [0:21:25]: Yeah, it also makes predictions a lot more easy to come up with and probably more accurate. If you’ve been tracking this number over time for these small time periods, so let’s say weekly growth or monthly revenue, you get a sense of where this thing’s going. You can notice pretty early on if you’re looking at the rate of change, you’ll notice on a graph or even intuitively in the numbers, if you’ve been following this, you can kind of feel the pulse of it. And you’ll notice as things are changing, you’ll be able to predict out a month or two. I don’t tend to do predictions for predictions sake, but there are a few conversations I’ve been in where people have asked me, now where do you think you’ll be in three months or six months or whatever, and I have a decent idea. And so far the predictions that I made during the summer were hitting those, barring some unforeseen circumstances, you can get pretty good, if you’re doing this ratio per time period, you can project out and be reasonable as long as a major roadblock that’s unexpected doesn’t crop up.
Mike [0:22:18]: Another thing that makes a good metric is that it’s easy to understand. So for example, monthly recurring revenue, is very cut and dry. You can easily understand that. Same thing when it goes to like profit or conversion rates. But I think that once you start getting into some of the super advanced metrics that are much more difficult to understand, so if you’re aggregating a bunch of data, and then trying to use that to compare against other aggregated data over different time periods, as soon as it becomes a lot more difficult to understand, it becomes much more difficult to also figure out what it is that you need to do in order to start making changes to that number or how to influence it. So you want to try and choose a metric that’s simple and easy for everybody in the organization to understand so that they know what their capabilities are around influencing that number.
Rob [0:23:06]: And another piece that makes a good metric is if the metric helps you make predictions more accurate. I already touched on this a little bit, but I kind of went about it the other way, saying that if you have a good metric, it makes it more accurate. But you’ll want to choose a metric that actually helps you make better predictions. I think that’s a key piece. If you find that yours is not, then it’s probably not a very good metric.
Mike [0:23:30]: And the last thing that makes a good metric is that, the metric has to change your behavior. And one of the things that I’ve seen a lot over the years is that when people are doing A-B testing, for example, they’ll do A-B testing just to do A-B testing. And it doesn’t change what they do. They’ll pick it up, they’ll do it for a little while, and then they’ll stop. And whether they see results or not, the fact is they don’t carry that forward. So it doesn’t change their behavior. So the fact of the matter is, like why are you even bothering. If those numbers that you’re getting out of that aren’t going to change or influence what you do, then why are you even tracking that. It’s essentially immaterial at that point.
Rob [0:24:05]: If you’re interested in learning more about finding your one key metric, we have three links for that we’ll put in the show notes that Mike used to help put together this episode. And if you haven’t read it, you’ll probably want to check out “Lean Analytics.” It’s a book from O’Reilly Press. It’s written by Ben Yoskovitz and Alistair Croll. And it is worth looking at, if you are looking for the single metric that matters. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or email us at email@example.com. Our them 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.