Startups are hard. There’s a reason why so 9 out of 10 startups fail. Making something from nothing is damn near impossible. It’s especially true today because people have so many more options than they used to. Remember the days when one basketball shoe ruled them all (Chuck Taylors)? Now it seems like every player has their own shoe. More choices means a smaller margin of error. Which means, bringing a product to market is an extremely difficult task.
I have worked in digital marketing for nearly a decade now. A majority of the time was spent on the agency side. I would be tasked with specific objectives for a client and that was my focus. For example, I might be hired to build up social media engagement to increase referral traffic to the client’s website. I wasn’t in charge of what happened with that traffic once it got there (an internal team member might be). I became skilled in getting people to the top of the funnel, but that’s where my skills dropped off.
Last year, I finally made the leap into startups*. I joined a SaaS startup with a rough MVP (minimum viable product) and not much else. In this past year, the product and company has grown. I’ve learned a great deal about startup marketing during this time. I’m in charge of everything, from getting traffic to the top of the funnel, to getting people to sign up, to getting them to convert into a paid user. Here are the top seven lessons I’ve learned during my first year bringing a SaaS product to market.
*I had started my own agency and had startups as clients at that point. So I had entrepreneurial experience and worked directly with early-stage startups. However, this experience, as valuable as it was, was still not the same as working with a team building something from the ground up.
1. Your Product Is Your Best Marketing
You can’t polish a turd in startup marketing. A shitty product is a shitty product and customers aren’t going to stand for it. Unlike what the fictional movie Syrup wants you to think, you can’t fool early-adopters with shiny labels and fancy marketing campaigns into liking your product. If it sucks, they move on. Ask Color.
Your product doesn’t have to be perfect from the start, but it has be intriguing and functional enough to get people interested. If it’s solving a problem they have, they’ll pepper you with suggestions to make the product better. That’s when you know you’re on to something. If it’s radio silence, you’re DOA.
People love to be the ones that share new or quality products with their friends. It reflects well on them. So if your product is great, people will spread the word. Word of mouth is a marketers best friend, but it starts with a great product. Get your product right before you start any big marketing/advertising/growth push.
2. Your Message Must Be Clear
Startups are awful at messaging in the early days. Part of the problem is that if you’re building something new, it’s hard to describe it. But that’s the very reason why messaging is so vital. You don’t have the time or the opportunity to pitch every potential customer with a 60 second description of your product. In most cases, you get six words. That’s it. Can you describe your product in six words?
In my experience, eliminating keywords is the easiest way to clarify your message. If you read the landing pages of many startups, it’s going to read something like this:
“Startup X is an intelligent, cross-platform, voice-messaging app that is transforming how businesses communicate, interact, and make critical decisions on a day-to-day basis.”
What in the Sam Hill does that mean? I’ll be honest with you, our first website iterations had a tagline similar to what I just wrote above. It made sense to us, but it didn’t make sense to anyone else. When we simplified this language, we saw our conversion rate to free trials more than double.
To further highlight this point, let’s look at Steve Jobs when he announced the original iPod. Apple wasn’t the first company to offer an MP3 player. But while everyone else was throwing around technical buzz terms like “1GB of Storage” Jobs offered a much more straightforward message. An iPod could hold 1,000 songs in your pocket. This was a message people could wrap their heads around and really understand and appreciate. (FWIW, I bought the first generation iPod mini based on this advertising).
3. Branding = Expectations
I wrote about this four years ago and then again last year. The lesson still still rings true today. Branding isn’t about your colors, logo, or anything one superficial part of your company. It’s about the expectations you set and how you live up to those expectations.
We positioned ourselves a simple, alternative to X. It worked. We received a lot of inbound interest from people who were fed up with X and wanted an easier solution. The only problem was, we weren’t that easier. Yes, our design was simpler, but we had a lot of little mistakes that made us seem just as complicated as our competitor (more on this later). We didn’t convert a lot of users because of the misaligned expectations vs. reality.
Most recently, we overlooked one seemingly small detail on our website and product. On our website we were promoting a specific feature, a Kanban view. It was a very important feature that attracted potential customers. But when they signed up and first saw our product, they were greeted with our default view, which wasn’t Kanban. We failed to meet the expectations we set with our website and it caused many new users to bounce after one session. By switching our default product view to Kanban, we converted as many paid users that first week as we did the entire previous month.
Branding is all about expectations and it’s very important that you meet these expectations.
4. Small Pain Points Add Up
User experience has become increasingly important in this recent wave of startups. With increased competition, a user’s experience is so important. If they can’t figure out your product relatively quickly, they’ll abandon it. Poof! Your hard work to get someone to download/sign up for your product is gone, just like that.
We didn’t know it at the time, but we were dying a death from a thousand cuts. A 30,000 ft look at our product, its features, and flow would indicate that we had all the right building blocks in place. There would be no reason for people not to use us over our competitors, because we matched basic features and offered our own differences. Again, conversions from trial sign ups to paid customers was low. As we zoomed in, we started to see all our faults that was causing people to abandon us before their trial was over.
Like I said, our product checked off all the feature boxes we advertised, but our user experience was less than stellar. It was really small things that added up into a frustrating experience. For example, we have a drag and drop option in our Kanban view. Technically, we offered drag and drop, but the problem was you could only drag from one specific area. Most users thought you could drag from anywhere, so when they tried and couldn’t, it was a terrible experience. In the grand scheme of things, these individual flaws won’t kill your product. But add enough of them up and you have an awful user experience that leaves a poor taste in the user’s mouth.
5. User Experience Is All-Encompassing
It’s very easy to get tunnel vision and think of user experience in terms of your website and product. But the reality is, every single touch point your company has with the user is part of the user experience. And like I just outlined above with the death by a thousand cuts example, your company/product is being assessed by the user at every turn.
While we were busy working on getting our product up to snuff, we overlooked other parts of the user experience that ultimately held us up. We originally didn’t have a proper onboarding process. We completely overlooked it. Our first one wasn’t much better. But as we took the time to think through what the onboarding process should look like, we were able to create a process that maximized our value quickly to the new user.
Another overlooked UX touch point was emails. In the beginning, we had a lot of welcome/verification emails that bounced. If they didn’t bounce, they took for-ev-er to hit the inbox. Many people bailed or sent angry support tickets wondering where their verification email was. Again, poor user experience that cost us.
Perhaps it was my naiveté as a first-time startup marketer that made me overlook all this. But I suspect that there are many other people who don’t realize that all these seemingly small things add up. Don’t overlook anything!
6. Listen To Your Users
Earlier I mentioned that if early adopters like your product, they’ll give you a lot of suggestions on features they want to see. But you have to take this advice with a grain of salt. As the product owner (creator), you have to maintain vision. You must have an idea of what you want to build. If you build to everything your users ask for, then you’re going to end up with a disjointed product that won’t make sense. You have to learn how to weigh what your users want and what you’re building. This isn’t easy, nor is it an exact science (trust me, I asked a lot of people).
That being said, you still have to listen to your users (confusing right?) A lot of our features are based on the feedback we received from our customers. But in the spirit of maintaining a vision, we ignored one of the most asked about feature…a Kanban view. We didn’t want to compete with other Kanban tools, so we didn’t build it. Finally, after months, we relented and built it. That was welcomed with a spike in new trial sign ups, including many of whom had tried the product and abandoned it due to the lack of Kanban.
7. Strong Support Wins Customers
People like to talk to other people when they have a problem. They like to know that they’re talking to a real person and that they’re being heard. That’s why when we switched from a generic support tool (Zendesk) and offered an in-app support option (Intercom) we converted more customers.
By using Intercom, we could put a face to support, so our messages were much more personal. And with Intercom’s mobile app, we were able to quickly respond to users around the clock (which is helpful when 1/3 of your customers are overseas). In numerous customer interviews, our support was cited as a reason why people chose us over our competitors.
Bringing a SaaS product to market and then to scale is a long process. We are still in the early stages of the journey. But we’re at the point where we feel we have product/market fit and we’re ready to grow. I’m sure there are many more lessons out waiting for me in the future, but until I stumble across them, take these seven lessons to heart.