In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob talks with Jane Portman of Userlist. They discuss the struggles of growing slowly, gaining traction in the crowded space, and some of the lessons learned from her first SaaS app.
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Rob: In this week’s episode of Startups For The Rest of Us, I talk with Jane Portman of Userlist, about their fight to gain traction in a crowded space. This is Startups For The Rest of Us episode 471.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing startups, whether you’ve built your fifth start up or you’re thinking about your first. I’m Rob and today with Jane Portman, we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the mistakes we’ve made.
Welcome to this week’s episode. I’m your host, Rob Walling. Each week on the show. We cover topics relating to building and growing ambitious startups that we grow, because we want to improve our lives. We want to improve the lives of those around us, but we’re not willing to sacrifice ourselves, our lives, our relationships, our health to grow these companies. We believe in relentless execution with a long-term mindset. We think in terms of years, not months. As such, we don’t burn ourselves out by working crazy hours, sacrificing our health, or relationships.
Over the past 470 episodes, we’ve espoused things like freedom, purpose, and relationships. Freedom is the freedom to work on what you want, when you want, without a boss breathing down your neck. The freedom to go on your kids baseball game on a Thursday afternoon without asking anyone’s permission. Purpose, the ability to work on something that fascinates you and drives you everyday to make it better. The purpose of building something that tens and thousands of people are getting value out of and it makes you feel great. Relationships, deep and meaningful relationships with your family, your significant other, your kids, your friends.That’s what Startups for the Rest of Us is all about. That’s the lens through which we view startups.
Today, I’ve invited Jane Portman on the show. Have known Jane for several years. She spoke at MicroConf Europe back in 2014. We’re going to talk about the app userlist.com that she co-founded with her co-founder Benedikt Deicke. They started working on Userlist about two years ago. They did a bunch of customer interviews. Then, almost a year later, they sold pre-orders. That was about one year ago. Really, it was a little bit less than a year ago when they started onboarding people and turned on billing towards the end of 2018.
Userlist, which used to be userlist.io, but they just recently got the .com, so now it’s userlist.com is customer life cycle email, perfect for your SaaS business. It’s event-based email, behavior tracking, lifecycle automation, segmentation, they have broadcast, and that kind of stuff. You can imagine competitors of Userlist might be something like an Intercom, customer.io and maybe even a tool like, Vero. To be honest, I’m so much less clear on the whole email marketing space. Know that I’m not in it day-to-day. But, at one point Vero was in this stuff as well.
Both Benedikt and Jane have been to many MicroConfs. I’ve had dinner with them multiple times. They are just fixtures of the community and good people who are working hard, essentially Bootstrap SaaS app. It’s always fun to have conversations with folks who are doing it. Benedikt is a developer and Jane is a really solid UX/UI designer. They make a good team, as you can tell by the design and from what I’ve heard the reviews of Userlist.
In today’s episode, we talk about the struggles of growing slowly and trying to find traction in a crowded space, because there is a lot of competition. We even walk through some lessons learned, that Jane learned from her first SaaS app that she founded. That one came as a surprise to me. I remembered the app, but I just hadn’t realized what had happened to it. In the middle of the interview she said, “Hey, I have a bunch of interesting takeaways from that,” and we run through those towards the end. Hope you enjoy this conversation with Jane Portman.
Jane Portaman, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Jane: Thank you Rob. I’m super, super thrilled to share a story here.
Rob: It’s good to have you on. You and I have known each other for many years actually. You spoke at MicroConf Europe back in 2014. I believe? We’ve met at many a MicroConf.
Jane: Absolutely. Thanks for putting that amazing community together.
Rob: For sure. Congratulations on userlist.com. Still on the back of my mind, I think of you as userlist.io because you just have them for two years. I think just recently, you dropped a couple thousand bucks on the .com.
Jane: Quite a few, yeah. We’re absolutely excited about this. We had doubts until the very last moment. But when we did buy it, and when we got out to the community with the news, then it was an instant hit. We’re like, “Yes. This is so great.”
Rob: That’s what I was going to ask. As a bootstrapper, I think Benedikt said you spent $2000 or $3000 on the domain name. He mentioned it on his podcast. Obviously, that’s an investment. You said you have doubts right up until the end. Where you’re just questioning whether or not it would be worth it, whether or not you should do it?
Jane: We actually spent, $4000. It’s definitely a lot for a bootstrapper budget. We have been on the negotiation curve for a year-and-a-half. Basically, ever since our business started. It felt the right moment that it was available enough for us. We understood that Userlist really has good traction now. It was also a good enough point for them not to understand that we’re super, super successful because otherwise, we would probably go back up.
We started at negotiating at $20,000 and then met at $4000. We’ve been having doubts, but we have never looked back ever since. That’s been such an emotional uplift for the whole company.
Rob: Yeah, that’s good. That’s nice to have those hard decisions. That once you make them, you know you’re either going to feel terrible and be dragging them along and second guess them, or you’re going to feel amazing, move on, and know that it was the right call. It’s so hard to know until you send that wire or until you do the 301 redirect and how your domain is all up. I’m super stoked to hear that it was the right call for you guys.
Jane: Thank you.
Rob: You’ve been working on Userlist with your co-founder Benedikt and your co-founder Claire for two years now. As you and I talked a bit offline, it’s been a long journey to get to the point where you are today. You started doing customer interviews about two years ago. Then another year later, you did some presales. Then it was just about a year ago that you started onboarding people.
I know that there’s a lot of talk in the MicroConf community about Userlist. I believe they were even cemented from the stage of MicroConf Europe for folks who are using Userlist. I’ve heard from you and Benedikt that it’s been slow growth. It has been perhaps a little discouraging that it’s taking this long. Can you talk me through how that felt?
Jane: Absolutely. There are a lot of facets to that. First hand is, our naivety in the beginning. Our initial plan was to get to market and $5000 MRR in six months. Primary reason for that was that we did the software product together with Benedikt before. We got it out in a few weeks because it was smaller. This time, we figured, we’ll have a more complex product, but let’s go full throttle in this. It took way longer than that.
We’ve done a lot of administrative stuff in the first year. We didn’t even do much product development because of that, because email […] so sensitive. We wanted to get properly set up with a lot of things like incorporation, all kinds of legal documents, agreements, everything like that, we had in place before even onboarding the first customer.
That feels great because we don’t have to deal with that now. But whilst we were done building the actual MVP, the second part of the hurdle happened. It’s an intentional model that we decided to be a critical business tool for people as opposed to a Vitamin type of product. That implies lower churn and much better retention, but that also implies problematic onboarding. It’s much harder to help people onboard into critical business tool, as supposed to some productivity stuff.
Therefore our users, our customers, they do strongly depend not only on the state of our product, and the complexity. But also, because our product is super easy inside. The integration might seem intimidating, but it’s not really, and inside is super simple. What mostly depends on is this stage in their business. We have plenty of early-stage founders who are planning their launch in a few months and it’s never the perfect day to tackle customer messaging. That’s what we have to deal with. I think we still yet to solve that inflection point moment and how to stimulate that in our customer’s mind. We’ve been trying our best to inspire them with learning materials, with podcast channels, and everything else. It’s still very much learning in progress.
Rob: Yeah. You mentioned that it’s hard to get people to switch, or to come onboard because it’s such an aspirin. You’ve talked about the Vitamin aspirin. That caught me a little bit there. That’s what I found, too. When I’ve had apps that we’re Vitamins, it was easier to get people to try them out, but the churn was higher. Frankly, it can cut both ways.
It’s nice when people will just try it on a whim. It sucks when they cancel, but it is nice to be able to get casual users. Building the aspirin type product is exactly what you’re talking about, where it is a lot harder to get folks to sign up, commit, and move over. And there’s switching cost, even if there isn’t true switching cost. There’s switching cost in their head and there’s set up cost. There’s all of that almost mental baggage that I think people have resistance to moving over. How have you been attacking that?
Jane: Like I’ve said, we’ve been trying to inspire folks. We do our best to follow-up with the potential leads in the most polite but persistent way. We don’t have our secret sauce yet. It really helps that our brand has grown over the last years, especially. We have gotten some nice publicity. I think that a nice public image also makes us more attractive of a purchase, and that contributes to that excitement, that founders generally need to get started with this. It’s just a matter of technically helping them onboard when they need technical assistant, but that’s not a huge burden at all.
Rob: It’s an issue that probably any email tool, that’s worth its weight is facing. Is that, most people who are going to use their tool are already using something else in place of it. They are either using a tool like Mailchimp, or Drip, or customer.io, or they have built it themselves in-house. They already have Rails code with a Liquid template that they pull at the database and then they send these life cycle emails. I introed it at the top of the show, but just to remind folks, it’s customer life cycle email designed for SaaS businesses. It’s behavior-based, event-based life cycle automation, segmentation and that kind of stuff.
The switching cost for that is, there’s a challenge there because it’s hard. If I was running a SaaS app, I don’t want all my marketing emails in Mailchimp and my lifecycle emails in Userlist. I want them all together so that when someone unsubscribes, it unsubscribes across everything. So that I have the data, the tags, and all the stuff across everything. The decision to switch over to Userlist is not as simple, easy, “I make the decision today, I move tomorrow” decision. It’s the one that really covers a lot of aspects of my business, all the way from marketing, into the sales process, into the onboarding, the customer retention process. It really does touch a lot of key points in a business.
Jane: You’re just hitting a nail on its head. We have very, very heated discussions in house. They’re not heated, because we initially agreed to give this only post sign-up, customer communications. There is a bunch of trade-offs and perks related to that. The perks are that it allows us to make the products super simple inside. Literally, very very intuitive, as opposed to more complex enterprise tools that do both. On the other hand, there have been an increasing support requests and I know there are opinions out there (yours included), that we should probably allow for classic email marketing automation inside this list as well. So, it’s in debate and we’ll see if this direction is worth pursuing down the road. It’s not an easy decision for sure.
Rob: No. I went through the same thing. I wouldn’t say that I think you guys should do marketing. I just know that when we started Drip, it was overwhelming. By the time we’re just doing the customer interactions, people kept asking us for the marketing. It was for the reason I said they wanted it all to be in one place. That is a decision for you guys to make yourselves.
If you look at Intercom and Customer.io, they’re not designed for marketing emails. It’s really customer communication. It’s obvious that you can build a business without doing those things. I don’t know if Vero was still that way, but getvero.com was also just used to be customer messaging. I think there’s a path to do it and do it successfully. It’s just a matter of how you attack it and which customers you go after.
Jane: And making these tools speak to each other. It’s not just a matter of technical set up. There is no convention in the whole SaaS industry to date. Please correct me if I’m wrong. What is the best practice if somebody becomes your customer? Do you keep sending them newsletters or not? What kind of communication they receive? Is there a single unsubscribe button or not? Every founder makes those decisions for themselves. It’s a technical set up and it’s plenty of logical decisions they have to take.
Rob: Yeah, that’s right. You find yourself all in the mix. Every founder, as you said, makes the decision differently, but they all think that their decision is right. That’s where it gets complicated. That’s interesting.
Over the last couple of years, you’ve been grinding it out, getting Userlist on, getting it built, getting presales, getting folks to use it. You do have paying customers at this point and MRR. I’m curious. In your mind, has there been a lot of uncertainty? Or is there uncertainty now in terms of, “Are we going to be able to pull this off? Is this going to work? We’re two years in and I wish we were growing faster. I wish we were bigger.” Does it ever feel like, “I am just not sure that this is going to work at the scale that we wanted to”?
Jane: It sure sometimes feels like a marketing drudge for any founder. From day one, we have never had any doubt that this is a product that’s needed for people. We’ve done some inventive products before, but we were absolutely positive that there is a need. It was just a matter of making it happen, step by step, slowly, very slowly, very very slowly towards the right direction.
We’ve actually been getting more optimistic with time. The last few months have been super cool. We know there’s a lot of work ahead, but it’s been so nice to see how the traction picks up and there is word of mouth in the community, et cetera. We have actually made decisions, we have been part-time on this, myself and Benedikt. We have made the decision to take the scary plunge and actually go full-time on that in the beginning of 2020, starting January.
Rob: Wow. That’s just a couple of months out. Good for you guys.
Jane: Yeah. There is a lot of work, like prep up we have to do in terms of client work. Having client work, it pulls your attention away, but on the same side, it lets you do that organic slow thing in the more secure manner. You don’t have to worry about bread and butter on the table, because that desperate type of marketing is no good for any brand.
Rob: Yeah. It’s hard to be stressed about money and watch runway shrinking away. Yet, it’s also hard to have split focus. I’ve done both of them and neither is that fun. That’s the conundrum of being a founder. It’s making hard decisions with incomplete information where none of the decisions is 100% clear. I feel your pain on that. Congrats on deciding to go full-time. I do think that will probably be game changing for you guys in terms of the focus.
Jane: Thank you so much. We’re absolutely looking forward to this.
Rob: I bet. I asked you before the interview, if we were cool to talk about your third co-founder, Claire Suellentrop. Folks may have seen her on the MicroConf stage a couple of years ago. You, Claire, and Benedikt actually started Userlist together a couple of years ago. I know that she’s a lot less involved than she was early on. Do you want to talk us through maybe, what the situation is and how that went down?
Jane: Yeah, absolutely. We started this together, the three of us. It was me who pulled the folks together. In my previous SaaS, I was a solo founder, so I had to pay Benedikt cash to build stuff. There was no way I could do this with such a complex project, so I invited Benedikt on board. I was super lucky that he said, “Yes.” There was one more piece of the puzzle missing, the marketing person. Claire was number one on my rolodex of nice people and also amazing marketers, so I reached out to her. At that point of time, she was particularly looking for something of her own to start after quitting Calendly. There was ofcourse time between that. She was previously director of marketing at Calendly. See how large of talent we’re talking about?
I was absolutely thrilled when she said, “Yes.” We had a lot of discussions in the beginning. I’m super happy that we formalized our relationship in the most transparent way. Splitting the shares in the correct manner, doing the vesting schedule, then doing the proper contract. Even though in the beginning, that contract was sort of informal, but we still signed. Then we incorporate it.
Everything was really really well-organized. It’s not just about being legally protected, but also about having clear system in your mind. What’s going to happen when something changes? The assumption of that was everyone was going to be friends forever. It’s definitely very naive and childish, because things change for everyone. That is exactly what happened after a year that we’ve been working together.
The traction has been slow. We just started onboarding our fist pre-order customer. There was no sign of MRR whatsoever. Claire had to decide what’s going to be the number one priority. She had to take things off her plate to make it happen. She had two large projects at that time. It was Userlist and Forget The Funnel, which you’ve probably heard online, which is a huge training website and platform for marketers. She made a conscious choice towards working with marketers because these are her peers, target audience, and that was just overall more fulfilling.
Therefore, we’ve rearranged our agreement. We slowed down her vesting in half and she became our advisor instead of doing work hands one. In that type of mode, we spend another year until just recently when all of the above happened, that we decided to go full in. It didn’t feel quite fair that we’d go full in, start working our backs off, and Claire would just be advising. We decided maybe we could put together a more fair agreement and we reconsidered it again.
Right now, we have not documented it yet. She will formally stop vesting at the end of the year. She will just retain the number of shares she has while myself and Benedikt will go full spin. It sounds pretty stressful, but we really didn’t get into any human arguments about it. It was more like a constructive discussion about figuring out ways how it can work for all of us and the work that’s fairly rewarding. Going into business with adequate people really, really pays off. After all, she is a good fit.
Rob: That’s what I’m going to say. From what I’ve heard from you and Benedikt just in passing, in talking about stuff, it sounds like it’s been a surprisingly easy process for something that could’ve been really hard. It often turns into a big emotional fight with co-founders if there’s someone that has a perfectly good reason to come, walk away, and do something else that they decided to go do. It can hurt people’s feelings and it can have all types of ramifications. It really sounds like you all were just reasonable people trying to figure out what was best. Is that a good summary of it?
Jane: Yeah, very much so. Interesting fact: we never got to use it, but in our original agreement we also had a field for a mediator. That was a person we all knew and trusted who would mediate our arguments should we arrive at a deadlock somewhere. We never resorted to that measure, but it was another cautionary thing that we took. It sounds like marriage. You need to find adequate people to really resonate with each other and you need to document everything. That’s how it works.
Rob: That’s good. I’m glad. I like Claire and I know that you guys are friends. It’s nice to be able to go away with everyone feeling good about the resolution.
Jane: We’re so very much a team. She remains as the co-founder. For sure we’re going to have a monthly marketing sessions together. She’s still participating largely in the strategic side of the business. It feels great. She’s a wonderful human being.
Rob: Jane, you’ve worked on many SaaS apps. You’ve built a couple yourself, as you said. You hired Benedikt prior as a contractor, and now working as a co-founder. You have a bit of an experience under your belly here. What has been the most surprising thing to you in building Userlist?
Jane: Building Userlist? I was thinking you’re going to ask about the takeaways from the first app because I had plenty.
Rob: Oh. Let’s go back on that after you answer this. I’d love to hear it.
Jane: Probably the slowness of it was the biggest surprise.
Rob: Yeah. You thought it would gain traction quicker?
Jane: Yes. The product idea is quite unbeatable. It’s really, really a useful tool. You will think that just getting the word out in the community would get fellow founders signing up like that but no.
Rob: Yeah. Is that an issue with switching cost? Or do you think it’s the differentiation thing of not having the same features? If I were to compare you to your competitors, I don’t know who has the most features or whatever, so I’m curious what your take is on that.
Jane: We’re all wise enough to know—our team and you—that features that are not exactly the key thing in purchasing decisions. I think feature parity is not an issue. A lack of some features is clearly a benefit in our case. It makes the product much more transparent and straightforward to use.
I don’t want to be comparing it to Apple but because it’s run-of-the-mill, we try to make some opinionated product decisions insight so that it’s simpler, easier to use, and more efficient. In that regard, that’s definitely not a problem.
As for the switching cost, yes. I think that’s a primary reason as we talked about. I’m hoping there’s a secret sauce inside. Overall, that and explaining what it does all together really makes a puzzle. I’m glad that I have been putting it together gradually but it’s clearly not there yet.
Rob: To wrap us up today, you hinted takeaways from your prior SaaS. For folks who don’t know, it’s called Tiny Reminder. It was a form builder with notifications. Does that correctly sum it up?
Jane: That’s right. It was a Vitamin. Very much Vitamin type of product.
Rob: Cool. What were your handful of takeaways from building and I presume, shutting that down?
Jane: Quite a few. I sold it Nusii, so it still exists and functions. They’re planning to grow it as a satellite, a promotional tool for Nusii. I had a bunch of takeaways. I’m so glad I had this lab SaaS, lab rat sort of project that I’ve made all possible mistakes. I didn’t market it to a clear audience. It was really so useful that anyone could use it and after that, just focus on a niche instead.
It was super Vitamin. That’s why we set out to do an Aspirin product this time. Also, I did a freemium and that was quite a battle. Freemium is not a great way for bootstrap founders to start their business. Not just because of the lack of revenue but also the lack of MRR as a validation. You never know whether those people are just like tire kickers or real users—do they really need it?
And a couple of more discoveries. I had a lot of experience with info products before. I’ve been observing how sales work, that sales are hard to get, how downloads work, how emails, sign-ups, and numbers work. Not everything is cool. I was not prepared for that in SaaS businesses. It’s so much harder.
Just selling a book and an impulse purchase is way easier than selling a tool. That’s clearly not something you can just buy. You need to use it and get value out of it.
Rob: I had that conversation with so many info marketers who are making $50,000 a month or $100,000 a month. They’ll say, “How am I going to get into SaaS?” I’m like, “I know you can write a copy. I know you can get people to impulse buy a book.” If they don’t read the book, they don’t cancel on you because they’ve already paid you. It’s like in a completely different world. You’re right, it’s not twice as hard. It’s like 10 times as hard to make it work with SaaS.
Jane: We had a spectacular product launch for Tiny Reminder. The number of free trials, I think, was the cold traction to the website. We’ve got like 10 or something. I don’t exactly remember the number but it was super miserable. For a typical marketing freebie, it would have been, like you’ve said, 10 times bad.
Another lesson was that I had no audience of my own related to design. I’m sure there are plenty of founders in that audience. I’ve learned to understand that personal audiences don’t translate into SaaS sales, period. We’ve had a few users coming from my site but this is clearly not a primary channel. It’s not something you can leverage very well. You really need to count on product market fit first and some scalable, reliable, marketing channels instead of trying to milk your list, which I’ve never done in a bad way, but I tried with the first product and it just clearly didn’t work.
Rob: Yeah. That’s a lesson I’ve learned a long time ago as well. You can sell a little bit to your list but really, they’re interested in hearing from you, hearing about your process, and they’ll buy books from you all day because that’s hearing about you and your process. Books, video courses, and conference tickets are things that you can sell their personal audience, but SaaS apps, you can get that first. You will get a first handful of customers and then that’s it. Now, the real work begins.
That’s why I’ve heard folks say, “Hey. You should build an audience before you build a product.” That’s the way to do it. I’ve heard that said about infoproducts and I’ve heard it said about SaaS. I think it’s the wrong advice with SaaS. It’s never bad to have an audience but I do not think it’s worth the years and all the effort of building an audience.
Building an audience is very, very hard in order to launch a SaaS app. I think I have many more examples of people who have not built an audience and launched a successful SaaS app than I had people who have done it. Versus, if we’re going to talk about the knowledge product side where you’re going to write books, courses, and that kind of stuff, I would say people need to know, like, and trust you. Therefore, if they need that relationship with you, therefore, I would recommend and err on the side of actually building an audience before doing that.
Jane: You need to find scalable ways of reaching out to new people anyways. Even if you have a nice waiting list like we had something close to between 500 and 1000 people, I have an impression that they never really fully converted, even though we’re doing our best and talking to them very, very often, very diligently, with exciting updates. It’s still not a scalable way to grow our customer base for sure.
Rob: Yeah. That’s right. When we launched Drip, I had a launch list—not my robwalling.com list—but an actual Drip interest list. It was about 3400 people. The first 500 on the list were from me talking about in the podcast. I think I emailed my email list and just talk about it in another podcast. Then, there were segments that were from other shows. There were some from Facebook ads to a landing page. I watch how they converted. It was definitely my personal brand that converted almost the worst.
There were some cold traffic that converts worse than that, but people were more interested in the story. That’s okay, but you have to know that going in that an audience is not a golden ticket to launching a successful SaaS app.
Jane: Moreover, it can be deceptive. We’ve heard those stories like Brennan building RightMessage. They almost have that hangover from Brennan’s authority in the automation space when they were building a different kind of product. I’ve just had Derrick on my show and we’ve talked about Level and how we validated it. That was basically off his authority based on Drip and everything that got him into a little bit deceptive situation, too.
Rob: Yup. As you said, it can be deceiving.
Jane, thank you so much for coming on the show today to talk about Userlist and your experience with it. If folks want to keep up with you on Twitter, you are @uibreakfast. You have the UI Breakfast Podcast that you have mentioned a couple of times. Any other things folks should check out?
Jane: Of course, userlist.com. We just migrated yesterday. That’s a great resource. You can find all kinds of materials if you’re interested in life cycle email. We grabbed the Twitter handle, too. We are now at @userlist. That’s just pure luck. We didn’t even buy it.
Rob: That’s great. Cool. Thanks again, Jane.
Jane: Thank you so much, Rob.
Rob: Thanks again to Jane for coming on the show. If you have a question you’d like to hear answered on the show, leave me a voicemail at (888) 801-9690. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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