In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Mike and Rob talk about why some products fail and others succeed. Based on a listener question they lists reasons for both sides while also revealing some old failed product ideas of their own.
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Mike [00:00]: In this episode of ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ Rob and I are going to be talking about why some products fail and others succeed. This is ‘Startups for the Rest of Us’ episode 334.
Welcome to ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it.
Rob [00:26]: And I’m Rob.
Mike [00:27]: 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 [00:30]: Kind of the same old stuff. Just hiring a few more folks. We had two new developers start last week, and I think we have two or three open job recs right now. Doing a little bit of MicroConf prep with yourself and Zander. Kind of finalizing the schedule and some sessions. And, you know, fighting the good fight.
Mike [00:49]: It’s amazing how much the little things for MicroConf eat into your time. I mean, there’s all these little things that you think will take five minutes or something like that and they end up eating through twenty or thirty.
Rob [00:58]: Right. Yeah. There’s been a little bit of evening work and some thought and schedule crafting that’s gone on. But, overall, can’t complain given that we’re basically putting on two conferences back to back. I don’t feel like it’s anywhere near even the same amount of work that we used to put in five years ago on the conference.
Mike [01:16]: Right. It seems like it’s not twice as much work to hold the two conferences back to back either. At least not yet. I mean, we haven’t been onsite for it so that could certainly change things.
Rob [01:23]: Yeah, that’s true. And what’s nice about that is, like we’ve talked about in the past, we opened enough tickets that we just about sold out of both conferences but not quite. And I think that’s exactly where we want to be. I think we’ve sold four or five tickets in the past week across the two conferences, and that’s the ideal pace I feel like. Is that last minute folks who want to come who hear about it late I would really like for them to still be able to buy tickets and we’ve never had that really at any MicroConf in the past. So, it’s been kind of nice to see that.
How about you? What’s going on?
Mike [01:55]: Well, kind of related to MicroConf. I’ve been working on my working on my MicroConf talk a little bit. And outside of that, I’ve obviously been putting time into Bluetick and right now I’m working out some UI and workflow issues related to allowing people to self-onboard just because there’s certain parts of the setup process in onboarding that are a little bit more complicated. So, we’re reworking the UI a little bit to make it easier for them to do that and just kind of give them a wizard to walk them through it and anticipate where they’re going to run into issues. Because we’ve seen enough demos in onboarding sessions where this is obviously a problem and getting it the point where people can do that without our help and assistance is definitely going to be worthwhile.
And then kind of related to that is I’m working on recording some video walkthroughs of different parts of the application to show people how to use it so that I don’t have to walk people through those demos myself. Just based on stuff that I’ve learned that people have asked about and said, “What does this do?” Or, “How does that work?” And looking at places to key those videos in so that it’s obvious that if you need help here’s a little button just click on that and it will walk you through this particular piece.
Rob [02:55]: Yeah, that’s a really good way to go. I think that’s kind of become the blocking and tackling template. For this I know it worked really well for us in the early days of Drip. And it still does. I think the videos I recorded two years ago are still live. Or someone may have re-recorded them because we changed our top nav and we were like they get out of date.
And that’s the one bummer with videos is you have to re-record the whole thing as soon as you change one part of the app. You can’t just edit text or replace a screenshot. But recording a sixty- or ninety-second video that’s really tight can go a really long way for brand new people just getting oriented with a specific feature. And in Drip we actually embedded it right at the point they needed to consume it. They were also in the KB but there were only three or four constructs in the beginning. It was broadcasting campaigns and I don’t remember what else. But right as you got into a broadcast it’s like, “What’s a broadcast?” And then there was a sixty-second video of me talking about it. How to use it, how to set one up. Boom. Done. And we got some good feedback about that early on.
Mike [03:48]: That’s basically the approach that I’m using. It’s like right at the places where they need that information, that’s where the videos are and you’ll just be able to click on a little button that has the video embedded into it and it’ll just pop up over the page or something along those lines. We’re still kind of working that out. But, as you said, the one concern that I have is that there’s still parts of the app where the UI is changing and I know that those pieces are going to get out of date and it’s like, “Do I really need to worry too much about that?” Right now, I’m just going to say heck with it and record them and if they get out of day, they get out of date. And if we need to go back and re-record some of them then we will. Or I will.
Rob [04:23]: Yeah, that’s the way to go. One piece of advice there is I would consider only having the videos easily accessible during the blank slate phase. That’s where there’s zero data on that page and that’s when someone’s just trying to get started. They can watch the video or they can dive right in. Once they have one or two of these things set up, the odds of them needing to watch that video drop dramatically. At that point, you could potentially have a little link out to a KB or something.
I don’t know that you need to go so far as to – for the rest of the time that someone uses the app, you always have some link available for them to drop it in. Because you only need that the first one or two times tops that you’re going to set this up.
Mike [05:04]: That’s an interesting approach. I can certainly embed it on certain pages directly where if the page loads and there’s no data behind it, then show that video. And then otherwise up in the top corner or something like that, have a little help icon that they could click on.
That’s something I have to think about whether or not having that extra button there that’s kind of hidden or out of the way where people can just click on that and say, “Get help for this page,” for example. I wonder how much value that adds.
We found that the blank slate approach has worked really well. We got a lot of positive feedback about it. And then it kind of goes away once you’re past the blank slate which tends to be when you don’t need it anymore. So, that’s one way to do it that we’ve found to be quite good.
Mike [05:52]: Cool. I’ll definitely take a look at that.
Rob [05:54]: So, what are we talking about today?
Mike [05:55]: Well, today’s episode is based on a listener question from Matesh. And there was a conversation that kind of went back and forth so I’ll sort of paraphrase things here. But essentially he was asking about why some early ideas failed, specifically related to us. But I thought that it might useful to listeners for us to address that in a broader sense and talk about why different products fail and why different products succeed. And different ways that you can mitigate that and identify whether or not you’re on the right track or the wrong track.
Rob [06:23]: Sounds good. Let’s dive in.
Mike [06:25]: When you’re looking at the success and failure of different products, I think that there’s two very broad categories that things fall into. And the first one is whether you launched it or not. Clearly, if you never launched something then it’s not going to succeed. And that’s kind of a whole bucket of failures. There’s plenty of hard drives out there that are probably just littered with projects that people have started and then never finished. I think it’s pretty clear that there’s tons of reasons why those things failed. Most of it’s just people didn’t spend the time on it and follow through with it. But I think that we just kind of ignore those and move on to ones where people have launched it but, for whatever reason, it didn’t succeed.
Rob [07:00]: Okay. But before we do that, I have to tell you about at least one of my projects – it was probably circa 2005, 2006 – and I never launched it. But I still think this idea is as bad as it was the day I conceived it.
I always wanted to be able to follow artists and bands and directors and writers. Like I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing. And I wanted to go to one place to paste them all in or select them from a list and then, whenever they release something new, I would hear about it. You would think this would be fairly easy but I found myself keeping this big text document of all these band names and then these writer names and authors. And then I would periodically go through it and past them into Amazon and look and then I’d past them in here and there. And then I was just like I don’t think there’s really a good service for it. I think Bandsintown may do that now but I’m not sure it tells you about CD’s.
But anyways, I went through and I built the dot net and I hooked it up to the Amazon API and I did all this stuff. And then I realize this is an awful idea. This is something that some big venture funded company would do and try to create a big buzz around and raise a bunch of funding and then they’d go out of business and someone would come and pick up the scraps. Although I wish this existed and in a really palatable format.
Mike [08:10]: I think what you’re looking for is indieshuffle.com.
Rob [08:13]: Yeah? Does it do it for all the things I mentioned?
Mike [08:16]: I don’t know. You’d have to probably look at it and figure out whether or not. There’s probably little things that you were looking for that either are there or are not.
Rob [08:24]: Got it. So, this is cool for music?
Mike [08:27]: Yep.
Rob [08:27]: But it doesn’t have any of the other stuff. I follow authors who write fiction and nonfiction. And I follow, like I said, writers and directors so I would need film. Mine was going to be all that because you could, of course, use Amazon to look for those as new products came out. A new book or a new DVD at the time because there wasn’t streaming.
I’d imagine there’s either a service out there doing this now or there’s three different services. One for each genre.
Mike [08:52]: Yeah. Indieshuffle, I believe, is primarily aimed at music only. But there’s probably ones out there that are similar for those other spaces.
Rob [09:00]: Totally.
Mike [09:01]: Interestingly enough, I have an idea that I started back in 2005. I wrote out all the designs for it and it literally became a multibillion dollar business. It was named Lighthouse but the idea was essentially file sharing made easy so that you could just drag stuff into a folder and it would automatically share it on other machines. Sound familiar?
Rob [09:19]: Dropbox.
Mike [09:20]: Yep.
Rob [09:21]: Yeah. Now to be fair there were like 30 Dropbox competitors even when Dropbox came out. So, you could very well have been the 31st. Because obviously, the idea was one thing but Dropbox getting out ahead, raising the $10 million and execution is what took it ahead.
Mike [09:36]: Oh, totally.
Rob [09:36]: But it is fun to know. I almost acquired a business that did exactly – this was a Dropbox competitor – and the guy wanted a crazy multiple. But it was basically that. It had all the apps and all the stuff. It was kind of like a virtual thumb drive is what we were thinking of at the time.
Good thing you never launched that one because without raising a bunch of funding I’m not sure that you could have ever gotten that off the ground to the extent that they did. Because it’s the freemium model that allowed them to really get the traction, right?
Mike [10:00]: Right. It was 2005 when I wrote the design document for it and it was like an almost forty-page design document for it. But I never followed through and actually wrote it. I still wanted to tweak things out and figure out whether it was going to work or not. And at the time I was transitioning over into doing consulting because I’d left my full-time employment at the time. So, I was doing a lot of consulting and traveling and I just didn’t have the time to work on it.
Then fast forward like two or three years to 2008 is kind of when I went back to it. I started working on it and I think I probably wrote like a code for a week or two, and then I stumbled across Dropbox. And I’m like, nope, that’s it.
Rob [10:37]: Let’s say you had tried to build it in 2005. Do you remember how expensive servers were and storage and all that crap? It would have taken you literally millions of dollars to build it to any type of scale that would have paid. It was not a bootstrappable business even if you were ahead of Dropbox. Just purely for the cost of everything.
Mike [10:58]: The market that I was specifically looking to serve was magazines where they need to collect digital materials and files from graphic artists and they need to get those to their office. The problem was that most of those people had to use FTP servers and a graphic artist just does not know how to use FTP. They had problems with it. So, I was trying to make it easy for them to share their files. And there’s a general use case scenario that Dropbox came out and addressed at the consumer market. It’s interesting how that whole thing ended up playing out.
Rob [11:31]: Totally. What do you mean they don’t know how to use FTP? I think your wife takes offense at that.
Mike [11:35]: No. The thing is, she was actually the one who enlightened me to the problem because she was working with all these people who needed to send files to her. And they couldn’t figure it out. She was working at the magazine and they were trying to send her files and they just couldn’t get them or they didn’t’ get them in time. There was a lot of issues with FTP. You send the file and there’s no notifications behind it either. So, obviously, Dropbox has the notifications and stuff built into it.
There were all these ancillary things that went into that in transferring the files and making sure that people knew about them and there were deadlines and stuff like that. But, I don’t know. It’s interesting to look back on that stuff.
Rob [12:11]: For the listener wondering what we’re talking about, Mike’s wife used to be a graphic designer for a magazine. It was obviously a problem within her purview there.
Cool. So, let’s dive in. I totally sidetracked this whole episode so we could talk about these old, crappy ideas. Well actually, your idea was a good idea. Just one that would have taken a different approach.
Mike [12:30]: It kind of leads back to some of the reasons why something doesn’t get off the ground. It does relate to the episode, both of those things do. But I guess to kind of step back and go back on track, there’s a difference between launching and not launching. Once you’re past that, things also break down into a couple of different categories. And the first one is, did you get any paying customers or not? Because there’s a big difference between a product that gets zero customers and gets at least one. And there’s a lot of reasons why something might get no customers. Obviously, the most prevalent one is probably you didn’t do any marketing or you weren’t able to talk to people.
There’s also the quality problem issue. Your product has to be good enough for people to want to pay for it. Has to have the features that they need. Had to be solving a problem for them. And if it’s not doing any of those things then you’re not going to get any customers.
Rob [13:15]: Yep. Isn’t this startup founding 101 these days? Product building. The first step is figuring out what the problem is to be solved. So, there should be some conversations. And this only became popular really around 2007, 2008. Before that we just went off and everybody just built stuff and hoped people would use it. And then Steve Blank really bringing his customer development approach to the forefront. And that was the first time I heard about asking your customers in advance. And it was like, “Whoa, you can do that? What does that even look like?” And then there were several books written for our work group because one of them where Tim Ferriss did the ad words in advance of offering the product for sale. But there were six or seven books that had talked about that before that came out. And that was when it was like this really makes a lot of sense to try to do as much validation as possible up front to ensure that you are in fact solving a problem.
Mike [14:08]: That’s the first bucket of potential failures. The next one is: if you’ve achieved paying customers but the product is still losing money. Essentially you’ve got negative margins. And there’s a bunch of different reasons for products that fall into this category. They could range from your infrastructure or your hosting costs being too high. Your cost of acquisition is too high compared to your lifetime value. That means that your cost to acquire a customer is more than they are worth. It may cost you $50 to acquire a customer but if they’re only going to give you $25 over the course of the lifetime of that customer, it’s really not worth being in that business. You can’t sell at a loss and make it up on volume.
There are other situations where if it’s a product high service, for example, you might be selling something for $100 and then you’re farming out the work, but it costs $150 in labor to deliver whatever that is to the customer. And, again, you’re in the situation where’s you’re trying to deliver something, and you’re just simply not charging enough. And even in those situations, you can’t necessarily just raise prices and expect the problem to be solved. There’s certain types of problems or situations where the customer is simply not going to be willing to pay more money for something. They have this in their head that they can afford “X” and if you go to “X+5” or “+10” they look at that and say it’s not worth it to pay to have that problem solved at that price point.
Rob [15:27]: This is where I would guess if you had actually launched that Dropbox competitor, this is what you would have found if you tried to bootstrap it. You would have had to charge enough that you wouldn’t have been able to get – well, if you’d gone after magazines that’d be fine. That’s a whole other issue. But let’s just say you had gone after the consumer market like Dropbox did, you would have probably wanted to charge $5 a month or whatever. $40 or $50 a year and you wouldn’t have had the organic growth and the big exponential growth curve that Dropbox did have because they were doing that freemium model up front.
So, one thing to think about here is if you do raise a big bucket of money and you decide that you want to grow this thing super-fast and get the volume, it’s a lot more of a riskier bet because you’re not getting your money up front. But that’s how these companies get to the $100 million and eventually the billion dollar valuations.
With that said, I’m doubting – if you’re listening to this – that that’s where you want to go. So, you really do need to pay attention to unit economics. I heard someone at one point say that they wanted to start a competitor to Kissmetrics and Mixpanel. And I told them, “Do you realize they spend” – I forget what the amount was. It was like a quarter of a million dollars. It was more than a quarter of a million bucks a year and this was in the early days. This was before they scaled up. It was a quarter million a year just kind of table stakes just for all the hardware. Or even the EC2 credits. Or whatever it was they were doing because it’s just such a resource intensive business. So, diving into these analytics platforms or something with a lot of queues where you’re sending email – as I know all too well from having worked on Drip all these years – there can be real infrastructure costs. There’s a difference between a crud app like Basecamp or invoicing software or something and switching over to something that really gets a lot of requests per second, 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 request per second. There’s a true marginal cost per customer that you add.
It’s not something you’re going to be able to predict exactly. But it is something to keep in mind and do a sanity check of like, “Is there anything here that’s really going to scale up exponentially in terms of server load or in terms of support costs as I grow this app?”
Mike [17:25]: And sometimes those aren’t very easy or straight forward to calculate. I remember some offhand comment about it was either Kissmetrics or Mixpanel where one of the early versions of the app, they had 25 servers running in order to support nine customers. Which is more than one server per customer. And if you look at the price points that they’re charging you really can’t afford to have two to three servers per customer at the price points that they currently had. It’s just simply not possible. So, if you’re trying to develop a competitor to it, your hosting costs alone are going to kill you. There’s no way that you’re going to be able to make that work.
That said, they did get funding, and they’re able to scale it based on the fact that they’re able to drive those prices down. It’s a starting point. But, again, not everybody’s going to be able to be in a position where they can get that money and invest it to be able to drive those costs down as far as they need to go in order to make the business work long term.
Rob [18:16]: So, you’ve talked about the first step was never launching. The second one was zero customers versus one or more customers. This third one is getting paying customers but realize that it’s losing money. I think we have two others that we want to cover in terms of the ways that products can fail. What’s the next one?
Mike [18:32]: The next one is you have what I would call a mediocre success. It has paying customers but it’s got a marginal profit. And by marginal, I mean it’s almost not worth your time to do. The product is at least break even and it is making money but maybe it’s only making a couple thousand dollars a month. Maybe it’s $2,000 or $3,000 but, again, even if it’s making $3,000, if you’re spending thirty hours on it, is that worth your time? I think that’s an individual question you have to answer but if it’s paying you $10 an hour for your time then it’s probably not. If it’s paying you $50 or $100 or $200 an hour for your time then I would consider that probably more than a mediocre success. But there’s also overhead associated with running more than one product at a time and having each of them be a mid-range success that is simply not meeting your needs full-time. And the context which in it’s going to be harmful.
But, going back to the products that are a mediocre success, there’s problem solution fit. If it’s not a problem that people really need solved or it’s a nonexistent problem, chances are good that you can get some people to pay for it. But you’re not going to get large scale numbers of people. You’re going to get those people who it’s a really painful problem for and they’re willing to pay for it. But that could just be because they don’t know what some of the alternatives are out there or they haven’t done their research. And you can very quickly fall into a situation where people are using your product for something it simply wasn’t designed to do.
Rob [19:54]: Another thing that could be wrong when you have some paying customers but essentially a marginal profit and you’re not growing is you don’t have product market fit. So, you’ve built a product but you’re offering it to the wrong market or audience or there is not market or audience for this. And a related piece of that is market positioning where it might be related to your pricing or how you’ve portrayed it against competition but you really need to dig into why is your product better and for whom. And it might not be differentiated enough against the competitors and new products really need that.
People need to be able when they hit your website to think, “What bucket does this fit it? Is this invoicing software or proposal software or email marketing software?” And if you have just a description that is what the product does, everybody’s trying to figure out what bucket you fit into. As we’ve talked about in the past, creating a new bucket or creating a new product category is very expensive. HubSpot kind of did that and I think they might have said it took them $5 million before they were able to – he said they had to raise millions and millions of dollars before they were able to really define that product category. And I think that it’s a common mistake people make and one that I made with Drip in the early days was not wanting to position this against other competitors. Or just put it into a specific space like this is email marketing software but here’s why it’s better. Or this is marketing automation but here’s why it’s better.
I kind of wanted to be this new unique thing and all the headlines were just so vague and nondescript that people were having a tough time understanding. So as soon as we went with the, “This is marketing automation but it doesn’t suck,” That was the headline for so long. That really put us in a good position because people then realized, “Okay. So, you’re not going to own this entire market but you are going to own this portion of people who hate the other providers that are there.” So, that was a big product positioning fit for us. And I’ve seen other products be able to do that as well.
Mike [21:44]: The other thing that what you just talked about does is that it allows people to mentally identify who your competitors are because if they can’t do that then it’s going to be difficult for them to compare and contrast what you offer versus what some of the other ones offer. And sometimes you want to be able to specifically define who your competitors are and you can use market positioning to do that. But you can also take a particular market and either go upscale with it or down scale with it.
With Drip, for example, it was essentially pitched as Mail Chimp but more advanced. It was not quite advanced to the level of Infusionsoft or Marketo or things like that. It was more for a small business scenario then for a large enterprise or for somebody who’s just working out of their home office. And, obviously, that has changed over time but that was the position that you started in and that served Drip, obviously, very well.
Some other reasons you might be having some mediocre success is that you have poor design, which if your UI is not very good, it can affect some of your adoption rates. If somebody hits your website and they look at the screenshots of the product and it doesn’t look very good, then they are probably less inclined to purchase it. Even if you’ve gotten a base of customers who used it and the reason they used it is because they were experiencing the pain so much that they just had to have a solution. And they didn’t really care what it looked like. But, as you start to expand your customer base, people are going to care. They’re going to start taking those things into account. If you have misspellings in your UI, for example, that’s going to reflect on them. They’re going to say, “If you can’t get even just these basic things right on the surface, if it’s a complicated product in any way, shape or form, what sorts of problems are going to be underneath the covers?” So, you have to keep those types of considerations in mind.
Poor design decisions can lead to essentially a high churn rate which high churn is simply a symptom of something else. It could be support, it could be onboarding, it could be poor design, it could be quality, it could be downtime issues. There’s lots of different things associated with that. But at its core, high churn rates are associated with some other problem. And it could just not be even a technical problem. It could be that you are marketing to the wrong people and those are not the type of people that are going to stick around. It could be a symptom of a market targeting problem.
Rob [23:54]: Right. Back to poor design. You can point to apps that are successful that have poor design, and I will tell you, yeah, they were early. They were the only choice at the time. Or they really did a lot of heavy outbound sales, and the people who they talked to didn’t know any better. So, a lot of the email marketing or marking automation or big sales like sales force CRM stuff, yeah, the UI’s aren’t great. But you’re not them. You didn’t start ten years ago. You’re starting today. And today UI is a huge deal unless you’re in a very tight niche where you’re kind of the only player. So, this is something that you definitely need to pay attention to.
And in regards to churn, you’re right. It is a symptom of something. It’s often a symptom of crummy support or no product market fit or there’s a bunch of reasons that can happen. But all of this stuff is going to keep your grown flat. And that’s exactly a good way to have paying customers but essentially marginal profit assuming you are working on this a lot.
If you think about the micro-businesses I used to run – like DotNetInvoice or beach towels or apprentice line jobs – those had paying customers but they were highly profitable in the sense that the money that came in, I spent almost no time maintaining things. It was really all work done up front, and the money that came in was mostly profit. Maybe it was only a couple grand a month like you said but I wasn’t spending thirty hours a month on it. So, if you cobble a few of those together, you can actually kind of nice little lifestyle making $10,000 a month with a handful of these small apps not investing the time.
But that’s not really what we’re talking about here. We are talking about you having the intent of growing a SaaS app and working on it most of your free time and getting it to ten, twenty or thirty thousand because we’re guessing that, probably if you’re listening to this, that’s the goal that you have.
Mike [25:31]: The last one we’re going to talk about in this particular category is the high cost of acquisition but also a corresponding high lifetime value. Let’s say that your cost of acquisition is $1,500 and your lifetime value is $2,000 but you’re getting $100 a month from each person. Well, it’s going to take you fifteen months to get back the money that you’ve paid to acquire that customer which means that you have to spend a lot of money up front to get a return that is going to put you $500 in the black but it’s not going to start until another fifteen months after you acquire them. And that’s a very difficult position to be in. That’s why some companies go out and they raise funding to be able to start putting money into that funnel to help them figure out how to move that up, how to lower their costs of acquisition. And they’ve proven that it’s a profitable business model. They really just need to make the numbers work.
And if you’re in a position like this, it’s very difficult to do that because it’s going to stunt your growth. It’s going to make it a long slow slog in order to make that into a profitable product which defines this as a mediocre success.
Rob [26:32]: There are a lot of hurdles that you have to get through if you look at this list that we’ve just talked through. Just getting something launched is a pretty big deal. I know that we used to always talk about on the podcast how that’s not the finish line like most people think. That’s maybe the 40% marker and these days, the further things get and the more competitive they get, I think that may be even earlier. It’s so much easier to get to launch today than it was five years ago just given the tools that we have and all the resources and things like Heroku the platforms as a service. I used to have to spend a lot more time doing that stuff even the marketing tools as well. And then just getting zero versus one customer is a big hurdle. And then getting to the point where you’re marginally profitable. I think we’ve seen a lot of folks get there these days. It’s a hard place to be in because it feels like by that time you’ve worked so hard on the app and you’ve spent so much time building and launching and promoting and then you get to the point where it’s making $1,000 a month top line and it’s $500 a month in hosting costs and you’re still spending twenty hours a week developing on it. It can be tough. It can be a long slow ramp of death, if you will.
I think there are a bunch of other potential reasons that an app can fail but once you make it past this point where you have customers and marginal growth, if you can make it past that, those are the apps that we hear about. Those are the apps that we talk about. Those are the folks that do the attendee talks or the main stage talks at MicroConf. Or that you hear interviewed on podcasts. That’s kind of that final hurdle. I shouldn’t say final because, obviously, there’s so much more beyond that. But it is a point where you just feel like you’ve done something that so few people have done. It’s a big bridge to cross to get past that product market fit or get to that point where growth really does start coming easy. And it’s almost magical when that happens and you see that growth curve go up. And you think to yourself, “Oh my goodness. How did we get here?” Suddenly you go from scrambling from customer to customer to the point where 7K MRR growth per month. You look at that and you say, “Yeah, that was an okay month.” Or you can be disappointed with that. It sounds insane when you say that out loud but you do get to the point where that is the norm or less.
I just want to encourage you. If you’re listening to this, it does sound like a long road, but there is hope. There is a point where you get there and it just feels like everything’s hitting on all cylinders. You’re always going to have stress; you’re always going to have the next feature you need to get out or the competitor that’s ripping you off. But there does hit a point where you’re going to feel proud of yourself. You’re going to feel like you’re kicking ass and that’s where you want to get to. That’s the goal.
Mike [29:01]: That sounds like a pretty perfect place to stop for today’s episode.
Rob [29:04]: Thanks again to Matesh for writing in. And if you have a question and you’d be interested in hearing us discuss it on the show and maybe even turn it into an entire episode, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from ‘We’re Outta Control’ by MoOt. It’s used under creative comments. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for “startups” and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode.
Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about how to get your first 10 SaaS customers. They reference a ParseHub blog post about the beginning stages of their startup. Rob and Mike walk you through the steps of this article and how you might be able to replicate their success.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob [00:00]: In this episode of ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ Mike and I talk about how to get your first 10 SaaS customers. This is ‘Startups for the Rest of Us’, episode 295.
Welcome to ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product or are just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike [00:29]: And I’m Mike.
Rob [00:30]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. So, what’s the word this week, Sir?
Mike [00:34]: Do you want to hear a joke about tacos?
Rob [00:36]: Always.
Mike [00:37]: Are you sure?
Rob [00:37]: Uh-huh.
Mike [00:37]: It’s kind of corny.
Rob [00:39]: Well, you know. It comes with territory, right?
Mike [00:41]: Get it, corny? Tacos?
Rob [00:45]: I was waiting for something funny.
Mike [00:47]: I know. I don’t know what you were expecting from me.
Rob [00:49]: Ah, man. Yeah that was pretty bad. I wouldn’t even tell that one at MicroConf. That’s how bad that joke is. Yeah, we were talking offline before this podcast and it’s like we don’t have so much going – we have a lot going on, but none of it this week is that interesting to do in this update upfront. It’s like there’s behind the scene stuff. You said you’d talked to a potential customer about early access stuff. I’ve been plugging away having meetings, charging ahead. But I really couldn’t think of anything in the last week that was that interesting to tell the listeners about. Some weeks it’s like that.
Mike [01:21]: Yeah. It’s not that there’s not stuff going on. It’s just that it’s not really interesting to hear about at this point.
Rob [01:26]: Yeah, well so maybe today we just dive right in to the topic of the day. We’re talking about how to get your first 10 SaaS customers. And, specifically, we’re going to be referencing this blog post on the ParseHub blog called ‘How We Got Our First 10 Paying SaaS customers.’ And ParseHub is a SaaS app. They’re a visual web scraping tool. So, they have tag lines like ‘Extract Data from Any Site,’ or ‘Turn Any Dynamic Website into an API.’ And so, obviously, you sign up for them. You can go and it does screen scraping, in essence. And then you can pull data out. I’m assuming you hit some ParseHub endpoint and then you can pull data through there.
But they published a post – this is over a year old at this point. They had launched in September of 2014 and they published a post in 2015 about how they went through and – basically from a standing stop. As far as I know, they didn’t reference having a list, or they didn’t reference having an audience, or any of that stuff. And so that’s where I found it interesting – is that these folks have done it recently, relatively. They walk through – what is it, 5 or 6 steps that they took to do this. And we won’t cover in detail everything that they talk about. We’ll obviously link it up in the show notes. But we did want to kind of walk through some steps of how you might be able to kind of replicate what they’ve done to also get your first 10 SaaS customers.
And so the first thing they talk about is don’t rush. And the post mentions there’s a lot of pressure to launch early and grow from day one. But premature growth can be detrimental to a small team that’s not equipped to handle a large number of sign-ups. And, back to my voice here, not only can it be detrimental if you can’t handle the support and can’t handle the onboarding, but it can be detrimental if you have a product that nobody wants yet, and you launch and people try it, and then they don’t give you a second chance later on. Whether your product is just plain bad, if it’s not built well. Or if you haven’t built something people want yet it’s going to be really hard to get the benefit of the doubt and get another try out of folks six to twelve months down the line once you actually have built your killer tool.
And so ParseHub – in the posts – talk about how they didn’t launch publicly right away, that they focused on finding a pay-in point. They solved one problem for one type of customer very well. And this is where having this early access – I called it the “slow launch”. I mean, DRIP launched over the course of six months, in essence. We got customer number zero and then customer number one and we figured out “How do we built it until they get value?” And then customer number two. And we built up one at a time. And ParseHub, in essence, did a similar thing where they really took they’re time to focus on finding a real pay-in point and solving it for one target customer type.
Mike [03:53]: And I think in most cases that’s probably the way to go if you don’t have traction yet, and you’re not really sure if what you’re launching is really what people need. I mean, so there’s a difference between what your vision for the product is and what you’re able to deliver on day one. And there’s a lot of people who are going to be willing to put up with the early access bugs and the lack of features and functionality that you just aren’t going to be able to have on day one. And then there’s going be this large category of other people who are not willing to wait, and they don’t want to because they’ve got a problem right this second that they need solved and they need to have either you solve it or somebody else. And if you can’t solve it right then and there for them, they’re not going to be willing to wait.
So, I think that this point kind of drives home the idea that there’s this certain classification of customers, or prospects, that you have to have early on that are going to be willing to work through whatever those issues are over whatever that timeframe happens to be for you to get to a point where you can deliver not just everything that they need, but go above and beyond it, to the point that you’re able to attract and retain these other types of customers.
Rob [04:52]: Another reason that they’ve said don’t rush is that they’ve spent a ton of time up front solving this problem well. They said there are dozens of competitors that can extract data from simple, well-structured sites. But nobody could tackle the edge cases. ParseHub essentially spent a year – they said they grabbed a random sample of 30 scraping jobs from oDesk and they told themselves they wouldn’t launch publicly until they could handle at least 20 of them, and it took almost a year of development before they hit it. By that time, they’d built something really unique, really special. But what is they’re value proposition then? We can scrape sites that no other tool can. Like we are, quite literally, the best. We know that no one else can do that. So, they had a value prop that they’d developed through working with real customers over a longer period of time then most start-ups would be comfortable with. And – I haven’t done research into ParseHub – but I’m guessing by the fact that they took that much time that they were bootstrapping. Because if they had a big chunk of funding they probably would have been pushed to hire faster and get bigger faster. But instead they were really trying to build – in this case a better product – and seeking that product market fit in essence of building something people wanted. And it took them a long time. And it will very likely take that long when you’re doing it as well.
So, the second tip they offer is to perform extensive user testing with potential customers. They said they did more than 50 hours of user tests. And they said almost every change to their product was hinted at by what users did during an interview. They had friends, co-workers and friends of friends use the product while they watched. They found potential customers on marketplaces like Elance and oDesk and PeoplePerHour. They interviewed early adopters. They tested usability. They did all that stuff and they asked questions. Here’s a few sample questions they asked: “What web scraping techniques and tools did you try? What did you like or dislike about them? What kind of websites do you want to get data from? What do you need the data for? Is that data essential for your business?” And so, they said they focused on solving the customer’s problems. And they spent a ton of time doing it. So again, this is part of the don’t rush. It’s like, do it well. Don’t try to short-circuit this part of the process. We’re all in a hurry, and we’re all impatient and we want to get there, but realize that investing the time now will yield dividends if you really nail it in this early stage.
Mike [06:55]: And I think the point of what they’re trying to get at here is, specifically, that if you know what the customer wants before you try and build it then you can design towards the customer expectations, not what you think that they want, and then try to match it up later. At which point you’re going to have to go back and adjust for whatever that gap is between what you thought they wanted and what they actually were looking for. And that’s going to hold true regardless of whether or not you’re using the tool. And I think that if you are using like whatever the type of tool is that you’re building, if you’re in that target market, then you’re probably more prone to maybe make some assumptions about what the customer really wants. And that can be very difficult to adjust for the gap between where you ended up versus what they were really looking for, what they really needed.
Rob [07:39]: And the third tip they lend is to build something people will pay for. So, very much like building something people want. And I think the way they phrase it is they say, “Provide value that customers are willing to pay for.” In their post they say, “Finding a problem is great, but is it a problem that your customers are willing to part with their hard earned cash to solve?” They said before they had a product they would go on oDesk every day and apply for web scraping jobs. They asked people to commit to $150 a month for a tool they could use themselves. And once they got a few commitments, then they were sure there was a need to actually build software. And they point out that customers will pay you if you help them make money. We’ve said this many times on the podcast. Help them make money, help them save money, help them save time. And they found a product that, in essence, does all three.
Mike [08:24]: I think it’s very easy to kind of skip this particular piece of it and think that you’ve got this problem that needs to be solved, and it needs to be solved so people are going to be willing to pay for it. And it’s really a matter of whether or not they’re going to be willing to pay you for it. And the other side of it is whether you’re going to be able to find additional people who are also willing to pay for that. Back in late fall, when I started the process on Blue Tick, there was actually another idea that I was looking at and I really thought that that was the one that I was going to be able find traction with and get customers for, and it turned out that it wasn’t. It was an interesting problem. I think that there was a lot of money to be made there, but I don’t know if I would have been able to actually make that work, because I couldn’t find enough people that were – essentially a critical mass – that would have been able to develop into a customer channel. So I think that you have to have those conversations with people and find enough of them early on. And if you can’t go through the process and find even just 10 or 20 people who are willing to pay you for it, then what’s going to make you think that you’re going to get 100 or 500 or 1,000? So, if you try to think to yourself, “Oh, well, that’s a lot a work. I don’t want to do that.” Well, you’re not going to really be able to build a business if you don’t do that to begin with. So, you have to take a little bit of a step back and at least just take a baby step in that direction. Try and find the core group of users that you’re going to target. And if you can’t find them, you’re probably not going to be able to scale that into a viable business.
Rob [09:44]: They’re fourth tip is to leverage marketplaces and communities. And, with ParseHub, these guys focused on Elance and oDesk, but they specifically have a couple questions you should ask yourself. Number one: Where does my customer spend his or her time online? Two: Where does he or she look to find a solution for the problem I am trying to solve? And they give a couple of good examples. They say, “If you’re running a business that can help jewelry designers sell more product, reach out to them on Etsy?” If you want to solve a pain point in the real estate market, you can try kijijirealtor.com and other industry-specific communities. If you’re developing a solution for teachers, you can find them on Udemy or Skillshare.com. The idea here is that if you can find a community or a marketplace you’re not looking to scale it up to a bazillion users at this point. What you’re trying to do is get early feedback. And it gives you a little bit of exposure to people who are experiencing a pain point pretty dramatically, and if you’re solving that you are going to get some interest from folks. And that’s the point, you’re looking five, 10, 15 people at this point. Which the reason the title of this episode is ‘How to get your first 10 SaaS customers,’ so you’re doing stuff that doesn’t scale very well at all. But that’s the point. You’re just trying to hone in on their needs at this point so that you can solve them, and then you look to scale it later, and you look to replicate that out and expand it.
Mike [10:57]: One of the things that I really like, that they kind of eluded to in this particular articl,e which was they went out places like Elance and oDesk and looked specifically for job postings to solve this particular problem. They used those to help build their software, because it was evident from those job postings that people wanted that particular problem solved and they were willing to pay the money right this second for it. So, I think it’s worth going out there and taking a look at those different types of sites to find out if there are active job postings to solve the problem that it is that you’re trying to solve. That might also be a good place to just leverage to find ideas as well. I mean, if there’s enough people that are paying for a particular job over and over and over again, or particular problem they need solved, then you could, in theory, build software that is going to solve that problem for them. And – maybe you’re not going to be able to sell it to them because they need the solution right this second – but down the road if they need that problem solved again, or if there are other people who also come across that particular problem you can get them into a sales funnel and solve it later for them.
Rob [11:58]: Yeah, I agree. It’s a hack I don’t know that I’ve heard about it before, but it totally makes sense. These aren’t going to be easy things to solve. Imagine going onto oDesk and getting the list of all the people who want something extracted and then looking at those sites. I bet a bunch of them are really nasty, because I bet they had already tried all the solutions available on the market. And so you’re going to have to do some hard work here. You’re going to have to solve a hard problem. But that’s the nice part, is that you’re going to be able to charge for that if you are in fact able to solve it. I get the feeling so many of us as engineers, or of the engineering mind-set, or even just the entrepreneurial mind-set, once you have a problem you really want to tear into it. But it’s just finding that problem that people are willing to pay for. Even if it’s hard and you’re willing to spend six months of nights and weekends, or as these guys spent a year of customer development time. Finding the problem and vetting it is perhaps as challenging or more so than solving it itself.
The fifth tip from ParseHub is to engage on Q and A sites like Kora and Stack Overflow. And they talk about how they answer questions on Kora and Stack Overflow about web scraping and that this had a measureable impact on their revenues, especially in the early days. They also talk about launching on Hacker News Reddit and [Product Time?], which I think these days most people would probably try to do and they talk a little bit about. But I like the Kora approach which they reference – there’s a Kora how-to guide by Kissmetrics. And they talk about how there’s 40 underrated niche sites where you can post about your start-up and you can engage about that. This is – I’ll say it’s a somewhat common approach – it’s not completely novel or new. But if you can get on Kora or Stack Overflow and you do provide value and you can answer questions, because by this time you’re such an expert in your topic that probably off the top of your head you have more knowledge than 99+% of the people on the site. And so you actually can, off the top of your head, answer stuff with really in-depth numbers or thoughts or metrics because it’s just something you’re living and breathing. I have seen this with my products. Whether it’s DRIP today, or HitTail previously. I have seen getting customers from these types of things, because what’s interesting is that these aren’t just forums off in the corners of the internet. These are big sites with a lot of traffic, and the people who search for these questions are desperately seeking an answer. And so if you can provide a good answer to it – it doesn’t even need to be that the answer is “Oh, use my product.” The answer can often just be here’s some insight, here’s some metrics, by the way I learned this as the founder of this product. And it lends you that credibility. I like this approach.
Mike [14:20]: The other thing that nice about that is, as you said, these sites have lots and lots of traffic. And it’s not just the immediate traffic from the people who are asking the questions. It’s more the long-term traffic over the course of a year, or two years, or five years, because those answers that you left several months or years ago will continue to be searched and indexed, and people are going to look for those. Because the same questions on forums tend to come up over again. So, even on Kora you’ll find that the same types of questions keep getting asked and they keep getting answered. And even on Stack Overflow, to some extent, there’s a lot of times where there will be one canonical answer. And that’s really what the community there strives to try and do. But a lot of times there’s variations of a particular answer, and you can go in and you can answer them. And as Rob said, you just drop some notes, “Hey, I learned this as the founder of X.” And people will go through those and they’ll take a look at it and if they still need the problem solved, or if they still have questions, they’ll click through and they will end up at your site, and hopefully that will lend itself towards another marketing channel. But I do know people who’ve been using Kora to some degree of success to try and help push their sales funnel further.
Rob [15:26]: Yeah, and you might that that Kora doesn’t scale – and it’s not going to scale infinitely – but you see entire brands built just on answering Kora questions. Like with Jason Lemkin and [SaaStr?]. He says that’s how he built, pretty much, the core of the SaaStr brand. And he’s answered thousand’s, I’m assuming – I’m sure you’re going to look and see how many he’s answered – but thousands of Kora questions. And he’s become kind of the defacto guy to be talking about B2B SaaS, and how to grow that because of that. So, while you may not have the time to do that, if you’re able to answer questions up front and then later on you can use the approach that Steli does at close.io where he says they’ll often put out a blog post. And then he basically records a video and then they turn it into both a video, audio and a blog post. And then the kind of editor – the guy who’s helping him do the content production – reads the post and gets the ideas out of it and goes onto Kora and figures out are there questions that pieces of this post answer? And then will answer it, whether it’s posting it all on Kora, or linking back. I’m not exactly sure how they do it. But There can be value that is a somewhat scalable thing, because it’s not using Steli’s time anymore, and you’re not using someone else to continue offering a lot of value to the audience and answering questions that they want answers to. And, in effect, getting some of that value back by the handful of people who are going to click back and potentially check out your product.
The sixth and final tip from ParseHub about how to get your first 10 SaaS customers is to use Twitter. And, specifically, they say that Twitter works magic, and so do your first few loyal fans. They talk about how they had a few users give them positive shout-outs on Twitter. And that after their initial launch, someone noticed them and reached out to write about them. And, to quote, the author says he wrote an honest comparison between ParseHub and Komodo Labs and he included the pros and cons of the first version of ParseHub. I agree. I have this love-hate – mostly hate – relationship with Twitter and Facebook for that matter. You need to use your head when you’re doing this. You can’t be on Twitter all the time, in my opinion. You need to be running your business. But, he’s right that monitoring Twitter and engaging with folks, especially in the early days, will earn you fans. It can earn you press. I’d say it’s more important in this early stage, as you’re starting, to get momentum. And he indicates that the opinion of your first few users matters more than gold. Reach out to them. Ask for their feedback. Engage them in your story, because then they become advocates of yours. And if they like you and they like what you’re doing, they’re the ones who are going to help spread the word. And so, engaging with them on Twitter is one way of doing that. Email is another. The nice part about Twitter, of course, is that it’s public and if folks are asking you questions or high-fiving you essentially, virtually through Twitter that’s a nice way to engage and kind of I guess broaden your reach so to speak.
Mike [18:05]: That’s also a double-edged sword because if they’re experience was a negative one then, of course, it’s out there publicly for the entire world to see throughout all of human history at this point.
Rob [18:13]: But most people, like if you really are working with them and they have a negative experience, they tend to do it via email.
Mike [18:18]: Right.
Rob [18:19]: Especially in the early days when you’re really hands on. I would hope that you could handle that one on one and –
Mike [18:23]: Sure.
Rob [18:23]: – help them move along. But you’re right. It is a danger.
Mike [18:25]: Right. I mean, I won’t say I take issue with this so much as it really like – I don’t think that Twitter is a silver bullet for every single business. I think it’s great that it worked for them and it’s great that they were able to land an honest review between them and somebody else. But that’s certainly not going to happen to everybody. In some ways it was a lucky coincidence, but in other ways if you are really working hand-in-hand with a lot of customers over the course of a year to build your product, then that’s going to happen naturally on its own, regardless of whether it’s Twitter or some other place.
Rob [18:55]: Yeah. I would agree with that. That’s a good point to raise. There is absolutely some serendipity in this. I think there are ways to tip that serendipity in your favor by providing amazing support and hand-holding experience up front. I think, if possible, working with influencers – whether you’re handpicking them or whether you’re just lucking into them – that’s always a big one. Because then you want to know that email list or a big Twitter following, they tend to want to create content to send to that list and, if you really knock their socks off, it often gives people an excuse to talk about you. It’s not a sure fire thing, for sure. And you’re going to spend a lot of time that’s never going to yield anything. But at least ParseHub, in their early days, said that they used it to great effect, or at least to get them to that 10 customer mark. And I think if you did all of their other things and didn’t use Twitter, I think you’d be just fine. I think Twitter is more or an icing on the cake if you’re already there and you know your audience is there as well and that that is going to be a viable channel, then I think it’s something to think about. But I wouldn’t prioritize it as high as any of the other points we’ve spoken about.
Mike [19:53]: Right. But I think that’s more because it’s so dependent upon those other things. I think that your comment about icing on the cake – I think that that’s very true just because of the fact that if you do all of the other things then Twitter will work well, or Facebook, or showing off your stuff publicly is going to work well because you’ve already worked with customers a lot. You’ve seen exactly what they’re looking for and what they’re willing to pay for, and you’ve done all of those other things. And it eventually leads you down the road of being more public about your stuff, and being more public about your interactions and the success that your customers are having, which then leads to these other things and these other success marks like the unbiased reviews and things like that that you can then highlight. So it becomes something of a snowball effect at that point, whereas if you were to start out with Twitter, for example, it just wouldn’t work because there’s nothing to base it on. You don’t even know if you have a viable product yet, or you’re solving a real problem that people have. So I feel like this is not just the last on the list because it just happened to fall there, but because it naturally falls there. It has to, because all of the other things have to be in place in order for that to really work well for you.
Rob [20:57]: So, again, we’ll link up the full blog post in the show notes. And, hopefully you’ve enjoyed this look today into how to get your first 10 paying SaaS customers.
Mike [21:05]: I think that about wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690. Or you can email it to us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt used under Creative Comments. Subscribe to us in iTunes by search for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about of the biggest roadblocks to your success. After 5 years of additional knowledge and experience they revisit the topic and share some new insights.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob [00:00]: In this episode of Startups For the Rest of Us, Mike and I revisit a topic we covered back in episode 3 in April of 2010. We’re going to talk about the biggest roadblocks to your success. This is Startups For the Rest of Us episode 237.
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 Rob.
Mike [00:31]: And I’m Mike.
Rob [00:31]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, Mike?
Mike [00:36]: Well, Tom Fakes wrote to us about his new service called fhrnews.com, which is for helping American Express Platinum members make better use of their hotel benefits for the respective free night and the special offers that are often available. And, it’s interesting because Tom was at MicroConf Vegas, and it was him and me and Rich Buggy and I think Ken Wallace as well, but there were several of us sitting there talking to him, wee hours of the morning. It was probably 3:00 in the morning when we were sitting there talking about it and trying to help him figure out which direction to go with the products and figure out a monetization strategy. So, it’s good to see that he’s making traction with it. I’ve seen what he’s been talking about on Twitter and just gotten a couple of emails here and there that have said, “Oh, this is how many new subscribers I’ve gotten and it’s actually going somewhere.” So it’s great to see that those late night conversations were actually bearing some fruit.
Rob [01:22]: Yeah. Nice. I like the kind of long form approach although, Tom, I would tone down the yellow highlighter. That has actually become, you know how when people mock old web design, html design, they always say it’s the marquee tag, right, that made everything flash? Well, the same thing said for internet marketing is the yellow highlighter and that’s almost become like a parody of itself. So, I would dial that down and either use italics or bold just so that people give you more credibility, but other than that, looks good.
Mike [01:52]: I’ll have to disagree with you a little bit just because I think his target market might actually like that.
Rob [01:56]: Fair enough. It’s a good point. It’s always a good point to keep in mind who you’re targeting. If you’re targeting more advanced marketers or technical people, then the yellow highlighting is going to be irritating, but most other people who are having American Express Platinum Card, or whatever this is for, could very well may not know that whole meme.
Mike [02:14]: Yeah, I think it’s more for executives, like that’s what the service is aimed at is people who have an American Express Platinum Card using it for the corporate use. And it seems to me like that would actually fly pretty well with them. But I think Rob’s got a good point, something to test.
Rob [02:28]: For sure. So MicroConf Europe is coming together. We almost have dates. We actually signed a contract today, but we have not received the countersign version, so we don’t want to announce dates yet. But it’s looking like it’s going to be in Barcelona, and we’ll have dates hopefully by next week.
Mike [02:44]: You’re a total MicroConf tease.
Rob [02:46]: I know. I do that on purpose. If you might be interested in joining us in Barcelona in the fall, go to microconfeurope.com and enter your email address in the top right, and we’ll be sure to be in touch. Tickets will go on sale in a couple weeks, and there’s a good chance they could sell out, so you definitely want to get on the email list if you think you might want to come.
Mike [03:06]: Anything else going on?
Rob [03:07]: I’m in kind of the good news bad news mode. Drip is ramping up. The marketing is going well and accelerating because I finally hired someone for customer success and to help me with growth, and she’s already cranked out a bunch of KB articles and a blog post and is heading up the launch of our little educational area we’re calling Drip University. So it cleared out a huge backlog from my Trello list, and I feel like that flywheel is starting to spin just a little bit faster with another person helping. That’s the good news. The bad news is I’ve been discouraged about HitTail because I’m not able to spend enough time to grow it because Drip is moving quickly and it really should be my main focus. And so, HitTail’s is kind of sitting there, and I feel like it has potential to grow, but it’s just not working out. So, I’m trying to sort through that and figure out if there’s a way because I had hired someone a couple months ago to help out and within the first trial period, 30-day trial period, he said that he found out he didn’t have enough time to do it, so he backed out. And I haven’t revisited that, but that’s where it stands. So that’s kind of been my week, thinking about those two things.
Mike [04:08]: Cool. So today we’re talking about the biggest roadblocks to your success, right?
Rob [04:11]: That’s right. And way back in episode 3, which went live in April of 2010, we talked about four roadblocks. And so what I did was I put together this outline without looking at the old outline. I wanted to revisit this topic and see what kind of new insights we had, what different thoughts we had on it, and, frankly, most people don’t go back and listen to something five years old. So even if we say some of the same things, it should be a good reminder. What’s interesting is I made this new list and then I looked back and there is a decent amount of overlap, which shows that these are still consistent things like there’s consistent mistakes still being made in the community. The list we had back from 2010, the four roadblocks were choosing a product with no market, having a lack of goals, being inconsistent – meaning having a lack of focus and overcommitting, and believing that you have to do everything yourself. Today we’re going to be covering six roadblocks and to kick us off, we have lack of a clear goal.
And this is the one I always think about when I think about kind of self-sabotage and about people who are not making progress. It’s that not having a clear goal and knowing what you want to do makes it pretty hard for you to decide where you’re headed and what you need to do to get there. And it also decreases motivation if you’re not super motivated to achieve this goal. An example is, I hated consulting and salaried work back in 2005-‘06, as I was moving away from it. And my number one goal, above all else, was to quit that, and I focused on that. And all I needed was 8,000 bucks a month in order to quit that job. And the focus and the motivation of having that single-minded goal really drove me to it. And I think that I got there way faster than if I hadn’t set up that very concrete goal and worked towards it so hard.
Mike [05:58]: Yeah. I can’t agree with this more. I did consulting for a very long time, much longer than you did, and I think part of my problem was that I actually enjoyed consulting for a really long time. It was fun to just kind of drop into an environment that I didn’t know anything about and go in, solve problem, work with different people, and just get things done. Just kind of like you, after a while, I started to get burned out on it, and I got to a point where I started to really despise doing the consulting work. And I don’t know whether it was just about the work itself or the way it was being done or the technologies involved and things like that, but I got to the point where I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
Rob [06:31]: Yeah, and I think it gets old. Once you’ve done something 20, 30, 40 times, it kind of stops being fun.
Mike [06:37]: You’re solving the same problem over and over and over again just because everybody has that problem. It gets boring, and you just don’t want to do it anymore. Honestly, you get to a certain point where you know what the answers are before people even ask the questions, and you want to just give them the answers but you almost have to wait and let them tell you what they’re problem are because if you give them the answer first, they don’t want to hear it because then you don’t understand. It’s like, “No, I’ve seen this problem in 30 other environments. Trust me. You have this problem, and you don’t know it yet. You just can’t verbalize it.” And you have to be very careful about biting your tongue because otherwise if you speak too soon, they don’t want to hear whatever it is that you have to say.
Rob [07:11]: Right. Because you’re a few steps ahead of them, because you’ve seen this scenario over and over and over and you know how it’s going to play out.
Mike [07:16]: Right. But then it gets boring because then you have to listen to the same things over and over.
Rob [07:20]: It’s like Groundhog Day, right, Bill Murray in Groundhog Day where you’re so tired of it. If you’re listening to this episode and you have no product and you have no idea that your number one goal, I think, should be to validate a product idea and start working on it. And then, once you have that, your focus should be on getting that product out the door – that should be your number one goal. Then it should change to getting revenue for that product. And then it should change to a dollar amount like, “I want to get to 2,000 a month in revenue,” to pick an arbitrary example. And then once you have that, you should try to multiply that if you’re going to do the stair-step approach, just to try to get two or three more out, hit your revenue goal, and quit your job should become your goal. And then from there, it goes on and on and on. But that’s kind of the succession of steps that I would attack and the goals that I would have in mind if I were doing this all over again.
Mike [08:06]: And I think that that’s an interesting point that you made there about the fact that your goal changes over time because you’re going to have these different milestones. You may have this grand goal of, “I don’t want to work for somebody else anymore,” but at the same time, there’s these little, tiny milestones along the way that are going to become your mini goals, so that you have to, essentially work towards those first.
Rob [08:25]: That’s right. And every year, I go on a retreat, I talk about it on the podcast, and I find the next maybe three to five goals that I’m going to accomplish in the next year. And then, you and I do an episode, typically in December, where we talk about our goals, what we accomplished in the past year, whether or not we hit goals we set a year prior. And then, we talk about the next year’s goals. And I think if you’re wondering about how to set goals and that kind of stuff, you can go back and listen to any of those episodes to hear the kinds of things that we’re committing to hear. I’ve always been a believer in goals. I’m a goal-oriented person in general, but I think that if you don’t have something that you’re working towards, it really is a roadblock to your success. Second roadblock is something that I see all the time. It’s building a product before finding customers. I think there are some ideas that you’re able to validate in advance. An idea like HitTail or Drip or going around asking people whether they need a service and then building it, I think it is valuable. I think there are products that you can build quickly that you don’t need to pre-validate.
And I think examples of that could be something like Baremetrics where Josh was able to get a version out in a week, and it was just faster to get that out. Dan Norris with WP Curve, that’s more productized consulting if you think about it. You don’t need to validate that. The validation is that you just put up a landing page and start charging people. We have Craig Hewitt over at Podcast Motor, that’s another one where I wouldn’t have gone and asked people. Maybe I would have had a few conversations but getting that landing page up and just trying to start using your network to sell it, is the big step. But the days of going in your basement and coming up with an idea, and then sitting there writing code for six months – those should be gone. I know people continue to make those mistakes, and actually, we’ll see a lot of folks we have to get emails, we see them at MicroConf, they come into FounderCafe, and they say, “Yeah. I made this big mistake, this developer mistake of just coming up with an idea and building it.” And so, if you’re still doing that, you really, really should stop. The odds of it succeeding are like it’s like a crapshoot at that point.
Mike [10:26]: Yeah. I might even take it just a step further and say it’s not just about finding customers but it’s about finding a repeatable way to get those customers. So, if you have a product that you’re thinking of building and maybe it’s a clone of another product that is already successful, just because they’re successful with it doesn’t mean that you can be as well. And, even if you’re going to try to go at a different market segment for example, if you’re going to take a product that targets medium-sized businesses, and you’re going to say, “Well, I’m going to take this to bootstrappers.” Well, do bootstrappers need it? Are they going to pay you for it? Those are types of things that really factor into it that are going to indicate whether or not you’re going to be successful with it. So, don’t necessarily ignore the whole marketing aspect behind the customers as well.
Rob [11:07]: The third roadblock I’ve written down is lack of focus. Once you have this goal that we talked about two roadblocks ago, work backwards and develop a plan to get to that goal. Try to do a timeline. Do whatever it is that you can to make that structured, and then work through the steps. You really want it to be a step-by-step process to getting there, because that’s going to keep you from wandering. I would also take it a step further and really focus the media that you consume. So instead of continuing to listen to a bazillion podcasts, I actually whittle my podcasts down when I’m at a certain point in my sequence, and I will skip over a lot of irrelevant material. So back when Derek and I were first validating building Drip, I stopped listening to stuff that was talking about how to scale and how to grow and all that because it wasn’t relevant to me right at that time. And I was only listening to a lot of info and consuming info about validation. Once we launched, then I started looking more into the growth stuff. And now that we are where we are, I’m looking at topics that are relevant to me. So, I try to focus that media, including both the audio books, the blog posts, and the podcasts that I listen to.
Mike [12:11]: I think you also have to take a look at those in terms of the focus and figure out if you’re being distracted. And if you’re being distracted in any way, shape, or form, figure out why. Is it that you’re not motivated? Is it that you don’t know necessarily what you’re doing? Are you afraid of doing something that you’ve never done before? There’s a lot of reasons why you might not be making progress, and lack of focus is, I’ll say it’s kind of a bucket that people throw a lot of different things in, but there’s not necessarily just one cause for that lack of focus or lack of motivation. So, be cautious about the reasons why you might have a lack of focus in terms of approaching whatever the product is that you’re going after.
Rob [12:48]: I think another cause of lack of focus is that you’re just chasing too many approaches at once, you’re chasing the next shiny approach. You hear about info products, “Oh, I’m going to do those.” You hear about WordPress plugins. You hear about Sass. You hear about productized consulting. Or you hear about marketing on Facebook or on Twitter or on this or on that. You can’t chase all these things at once, and you have to pick one. You have to build a plan. You have to figure out what the goal is, and you have to try to work towards it and not wander all over the place. And so, kind of keeping in mind that the next shiny approach is probably not the best thing for you to do right now, and that sticking to your plan is, that’s going to help you get over this roadblock. Fourth roadblock we’re going to talk about is the unwillingness to move out of your comfort zone. So it’s things like not wanting to learn marketing, not wanting to outsource some development, not being willing to maybe buy an app if one presents itself, not being willing to hire a VA and outsource some basic tasks. It is possible to build and launch and be successful without doing these things. It just becomes way, way harder if you’re going to try to do everything yourself.
Mike [13:50]: Yeah and some of these things just tie into fear of doing the unknown. You have to be willing to try things out, especially when it comes to marketing because there’s always going to be things that you’re wondering about. If you’re not familiar with content marketing, you’re just like, “Is this going to affect my business? Is it going to move the needle for me?” And it could be something that takes your business to the next level, but it could be something that flops. And you won’t necessarily know that until you at least give it a shot. So, those are the risks that you’re going to have to be willing to take even if they’re outside your comfort zone because a lot of people are just afraid of doing things, because they’re afraid they might fail at them. And, you shouldn’t necessarily be afraid of failing at things. You should be afraid of looking back on them in 10 or 15 years and saying, “I wish I’d tried that instead of going down the wrong path.” Because, typically, when you go down the wrong path, you’re going to learn at least something from it. But if you never go down any of those paths at all, you’re probably not going to get anywhere to begin with.
Rob [14:39]: And the next roadblock that I see people hitting is having an unhealthy consumption to production ratio. And this just comes down to consuming too much stuff, the online media, hanging out on Twitter, Facebook, reading blog posts, listening to podcasts instead of working. So whether you use the term entreporn, whether you decide you’re going to go on a media diet, you kind of need to stop reading and start acting at a certain point. And I think this comes back to with lack of focus, this could be part of that. And it also comes back to once you have that goal in place that you’re working towards and you have some kind of timeline, that always helps me stay focused and basically, go on a temporary media diet where I’ll still consume some stuff, but I will back way off when I’m heads down trying to actually hit a short-term goal.
Mike [15:26]: Little historical anecdote here, but do you remember? I think it might have even been before we started this podcast that you and I had had a couple of discussions about this exact topic. And our thoughts at the time were, “We want people to listen to the podcast, but at the same time, we recognize that this is a problem, so we would rather them spend less time listening to our podcasts and more time doing things.” And that was one of the deciding factors that caused us to do heavy editing on the podcasts and offer transcripts and lots of different ways for people to consume the podcast as quickly as possible so they could get in and get out.
Rob [15:59]: I vaguely remember that. I’m glad you brought it up. That totally sounds like something we would say. I mean that’s kind of the digital behind this podcast, right? It’s that we try to maximize your time because we know that you should be building and launching.
Mike [16:10]: Right. And that was the catch-22 we were in is just we want people to learn something, but at the same time, we don’t want them to listen to us too much.
Rob [16:17]: Right. The sixth roadblock I have is ignoring the need for community and accountability. And this was one that was completely not on my radar five years ago when we did this the first time. But since then, having joined two mastermind groups, running the seven MicroConfs that we’ve run, the connections we’ve made through that, going to DCBKK, attending some local meetups, all of these things have had dramatic, dramatic impact on my progress and the people who I see embracing these communities and looking for accountability in them and looking for others who are doing the same so that we can all move in the same direction and help each other get where we’re going.
Mike [16:56]: Yeah. When we did that podcast episode originally, that was back in 2010, and the first MicroConf wasn’t until 2011, and at the time, the Micropreneur Academy was around, but it wasn’t nearly as, I’ll say, well-formed or as well-populated as it is today. And it was all a lot newer, a lot fresher. So, people weren’t interacting as much, and people didn’t really know what to expect. Now, like the bootstrapping community has kind of taken off and has developed legs of its own, and there are lots of different places to go for help and to talk to people and just learn from other people. There’s books and everything. And so you can go to a local meetup, or you can read books or blogs. There’s lots more resources than there were even five years ago. And it’s nice to see that there’s all these different communities around that are available to people regardless of the technology that you’re using, regardless of the marketing strategies you’re using. And, you can learn something from just about every single one of them. And it’s really nice to be able to leverage all the different data points of other people because you can’t possibly learn everything by yourself. It’s great to be able to leverage the experiences of other people and, quite frankly, the failures that other people have encountered and be able to use those to your advantage so that when you go out and try something, you’ve learned from other people’s mistakes, and you can do them better.
Rob [18:10]: And if you’re looking to join a mastermind group, check out Ken Wallace’s service. He’s a FounderCafe member. He started a service called Mastermind Jam, and he’s trying to link people up. It’s at mastermindjam.com. The last roadblock I have has come about because of several talks at MicroConfs, both from you, from my wife Sherry, and this one is working yourself into the ground. It’s basically working so hard that you burnout, that you cause health issues or you encounter them and you continue to try to work through them. It may feel right to work all day and then come home and work until 2:00 in the morning, and I’ll admit I did that back in the day and I do think there’s a time and a place for it, but you can’t do that forever. And you have to do this in sprints, and then back off and give yourself time to recover, both mentally and physically. Entrepreneurship is long ball. You have to play it as a long ball game, and you need to be aware of where you stand emotionally and physically because it can take a toll on you if you push this too hard for too long.
Mike [19:12]: This is something else that was totally not on my radar five years ago. And I’ve had some health issues here and there and talked about them at MicroConf. And it’s interesting how long it can take you to get over certain things. I’ve had some conversations with people at MicroConf who have had either similar issues to mind or have had related issues, and some of them are just hard to get over. You can’t just flip a switch and say, “Oh, this problem is solved.” One thing I realized was that, over the past 10 days or so, I feel like I’ve actually made more progress in the past 10 days than I’ve made in quite a long time primarily because I’ve been able to sit down and focus all day for the entire day. I’ve realized that I’ve got a streak of 10 days going now at this point, and I haven’t had a streak of 10 days where I’ve been able to do that in a very, very long time. And I think a part of it is related to moving my office out of the dungeon of the basement, to be perfectly honest. And having sunlight is actually quite nice.
Rob [20:04]: Well and I think this changing of the seasons is a big one. When I lived down the east coast, I had a really rough time during the winter. It was dark and cold for five and a half months, and when spring came, I remember my productivity shooting up, my mood shooting up, really just becoming more motivated. And that is one perk of being here in Fresno, California where it is sunny, whatever, 10 months of the year or something, and to such a detriment that we actually have a drought. But it makes it easier to stay motivated because you get that vitamin D every day.
Mike [20:33]: Right. I think there’s a seasonal affective disorder that goes along with that, and some people have it and some people don’t. And there’s these special lights that you can buy. They have a little special wavelength of blue light that they shoot out. I’ve got one of those. It never really felt like it helped all that much, but I did use it. But I really felt like moving out of the basement and up into an area where I get natural sunlight every single day now, it was tremendously helpful. And like I said, it could be coincidence. It could be the fact that I was burned out for a long time and now I’m kind of over a lot of that stuff. But, it’s amazing how productive you can be in two weeks when you aren’t distracted constantly and just getting pulled in different directions and able to sit down and just work for four or six, eight hours at a time.
Rob [21:14]: The thing to keep in mind is that, these are very common roadblocks. These are kind of the patterns that we see dealing with thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs as well as I’ve seen these patterns in myself, and I’m constantly figuring out how to stay focused, how to pursue these goals, how to go out of my comfort zone. It’s always going to be an ongoing struggle. You don’t just conquer this and then suddenly you’re successful and you’re not going to hit these roadblocks. But, what happens is, in my experience, the first time you encounter them, you don’t know how to get around them. But once you’ve overcome them, it gets easier and easier each time you face them after that.
Mike [21:48]: And part of that’s just a recognition problem that that is a problem to begin with. You might not necessarily realize that the reason you’re not doing something is because you’re unfamiliar with it and you’re unwilling and uncomfortable going in that direction, or that consuming too much media, so you don’t realize that you’re consuming much more than you’re producing. And just being able to realize that some of those things are a problem is, in itself, part of the solution. But you have to recognize that it’s a problem before you can do anything to solve it.
Rob [22:17]: That’s a huge part of it is I think recognition is got to be more than half of the issue, and then the other half is actually solving it. But, that first time, you don’t tend to recognize that it’s a problem and then once you’ve achieved some modicum of success and you’ve overcome it, you’re able to see it so much faster the next time and identify it, because it’s similar, when we interviewed Ruben from BidSketch, what five, six episodes ago, he talked about being able to now look ahead and see where his next plateau is going to be, and then he can start trying to get around it early. I feel like this is a similar scenario.
Mike [22:50]: I totally agree. And I think on that note, we’re going to wrap up. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or you can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We‘re Out of Control by MoOt, it’s 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.