7 Lessons I’ve Learned Bringing a SaaS Product to Market


via Lechon Kirb

via Lechon Kirb

 

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

uber-private-driver

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

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 9.10.34 PM

 

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

via Jeff Sheldon

via Jeff Sheldon

 

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.

 

TalkAnything Interview with Bryan Wilkerson


bryan-wilkersonWhoa, it’s been a while! The TalkAnything.FM podcast is back in business. I’ve had this interview in my back pocket for weeks. I finally found the time to edit and get it up (sorry for the delay Bryan!).

Bryan Wilkerson is currently a production coordinator by day and indie film producer by night. He has great advice for young professionals looking to break into the entertainment business. Bryan also has wonderful tips for people looking to advance their career and hustle to get side projects.

During my conversation with Bryan, I learn a great deal about the entertainment industry. There’s a lot more than actors, directors, and producers. We just scratch the tip of the iceberg with this conversation, but it sets us up nicely for future conversations with future entertainment guests.

Find Your Value – It’s There


Everyone has value. Unfortunately, it’s not apparent to most people what their value is. I bring this up because I’m in another transitional phase. It’s part of the startup life.  Whenever this happens, I second-guess myself and slide into a mini-crisis. But fortunately for me, I have a support network that doesn’t let me slide very far.

I had a chat with a friend the other night and he reminded me the value I bring to companies. It’s hard to realize your value when you’re down or when you dismiss your value (more on that). But sometimes you have to step back and re-assess from 10,000 feet (or better yet, have a friend give you an outside analysis). Taking stock in what your value is will help you re-establish your confidence and find the right fit for your skill set.

Far too often we overlook the good and focus on the bad. It happens to everyone. It’s easy to focus on what you don’t have and not on what you do have. I do this all the time. But when you’re feeling down and think you don’t have value, remind yourself what you do have. Everyone has something to offer.

You have value. I’d venture a guess that deep down you know what your value is. But when your skills don’t fit well with a company’s needs, it’s hard not to feel like you don’t have value. Rejection is hard, even for those that have been rejected a million times.

Do you quit dating after one bad date? Does a bad date mean that you’re broken and you have nothing to offer someone in a relationship? No, it just means it wasn’t a fit. Eventually you’ll find your fit and your value will come pouring out.

Keeping a positive attitude can be tough when you’ve been kicked. But the sun is going to come up tomorrow no matter what. Can’t change that. Might as well get up and show the world your value.

 

Shia LaBeouf’s Motivational Rant


Alright, by now, you’ve probably seen Shia LaBeouf’s motivational rant speech. It’s quickly become a meme and it’s easy to dismiss the video. Shia LaBeouf’s behavior has been erratic and it’s hard for some people to take him seriously. Totally understandable. The fact that the video is of him in front of a green screen is also a little bit weird (I guess it’s an art project?). But take out all of the unusual Shia LaBeouf baggage (like that rat tail) and listen to the message. Just listen.

YouTube Preview Image

I did. Over and over again. Maybe it’s because I’m in a weird point in my life, where I’ve had mild success, but not the success I dream of? Or it could be I’m just a huge Shia LaBeouf fan (sarcasm alert)? Whatever your feelings are for this guy, he seems to have taken his own advice thus far. Read this excerpt from his Vanity Fair profile a few years ago:

LaBeouf’s mother said fine, he could be an actor, but she wasn’t going to “pimp” him. “If she was my manager and my parent, we’d have a weird relationship—half business, half family—and business always takes over every conversation. So she wouldn’t help me with it,” he says. “She wouldn’t even make calls. I was furious, because this was the only thing I wanted to do.”

LaBeouf decided to call agents himself. To get them to take him seriously, he pretended to be a middle-aged talent manager, from England. “I had this fake résumé and all this garbage material,” he recalls. “It was such a ridiculous phone call, and they knew it was a kid. I hadn’t gone through puberty. But they were interested in me because they’d never received a phone call like that.”

A cousin drove him to the offices of the Beverly Hecht Agency, where LaBeouf claims he won over agent Teresa Dahlquist with an X-rated comedy routine. Actually, Dahlquist says, he read a scene from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. “Let me tell you about Shia,” says Dahlquist, who signed him that day and still represents him. “I absolutely adore him, [but he] never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

LaBeouf was ten when he did this. Were you going after what you wanted to at age ten? I sure as hell wasn’t.

Before his 30th birthday, LaBeouf has been the leading man in a billion dollar franchise (Transformers) and lead reboots of old favorites (Indiana Jones, Wall Street). In between he’s been in some underrated movies (Fury, Eagle Eye, Disturbia). My point being, if someone is someone is going to give you really blunt advice about chasing your dreams, Shia LaBeouf isn’t the worst person to listen to.

My goal here isn’t to convert you into a Shia LaBeouf fan. My goal is for you to listen to his words, his message, and take that to heart. When people ask why they haven’t accomplished their dreams yet, many times it’s because they haven’t started.

 

The American Businessman and Mexican Fisherman


A couple of years ago, I shared this story my Dad sent to me. I was about a year into my first business and I had become a hermit. I cut off ties with many friends, thinking I had to spend every waking moment in front of a computer, somehow building my company or improving my skills. It was a really lonely time and it took me months/years to repair the relationships I had abandoned. My Dad’s story was a good wake up call for me. A reminder of what’s really important.

This story I’m sharing with you today is an answer from Quora. It’s a story about an American businessman and a local Mexican fisherman. I like this story because it makes me think about what I’m actually working for. I’ve been thinking about what I want for a while. It’s not an easy question to answer and this story makes you think. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

An American businessman was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied, that it only took a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish. The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, señor.”

The American scoffed. “I am a Wharton MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “Fifteen or twenty years.”

“But what then, señor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions, señor? Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

Everyone Should Read, Write, and Think Alone


“I take a lot of time just to read and think about things by myself.” – Mark Zuckerberg

Maybe because I’m a natural introvert, but I like to sit alone and reflect. I like to step back from everything, slow it down, and think. That’s why I love writing in this blog. It’s a moment in my week that allows/forces me to think clearly.

My life has a million things going on at any moment. I work in tech, which means things are constantly changing. What worked yesterday doesn’t mean it will work today. I’m in a constant state of motion. Sometimes I feel like I’m reacting more than I’m thoughtfully moving forward. I feel like information comes in one ear and out the other.

That’s why when I read this quote by Mark Zuckerberg, it really resonated with me. When asked about his weekly work hours, he stated that he was only in the office for 50-60 hours a week. But he’s constantly thinking about Facebook. More importantly, he states that he takes a lot of time to read and think about things by himself.

I think more people need to do this. Regardless of what your occupation is, you should take time to read, reflect, and write. I love writing because it clarifies your thoughts. You don’t necessarily have to make your thoughts public. I also write in a journal from time to time, where I keep more personal thoughts. But it’s the same exercise as this weekly blog and similar to the annual exercise I do when I reflect on what I want. No matter the medium, I find it very cathartic to just sit back, read, think, and write.

If you’re having trouble getting started, let me pose a question to you. I’m currently reading Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. In it, he states that he often asks interviewees this simple question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” What’s your answer to this question?

In a future blog post I will answer this question. But if you’re stuck on what to think and write about, start with this question.

 

 

 

 

TalkAnything Interview with Rachael King


rachael-king

In this episode of TalkAnything, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rachael King. I met Rachael on Twitter years ago. We finally met about a year ago, as she was making the move to Los Angeles.

Her move to Los Angeles coincided with a new position at DogVacay, as its new Head of Communications. Rachael’s journey to DogVacay is a great one. It’s one that any young professionals in any industry can learn from. Rachael started at a job that has nothing to do with her current career. But she turned her hobbies into her career, and hustled to meet the right people. It’s a great lesson on career growth and how to use technology to network.

FYI: I used new microphones for this interview. The way it recorded, my voice is in your left ear and Rachael’s is in your right. My voice isn’t as loud as Rachael’s voice, but that’s ok. You want to hear what she has to say more than me 😉

Lastly, here’s Mr. Buttersworth’s Instagram account.

Does Work/Life Balance Exist?


party

Is it possible to have it all? Is there such thing as a “work/life balance?” I have chosen to believe that you can have everything and live with balance. I wrote about it earlier this year, it’s clearly something I think about and struggle with mightily.

I’m 31 but I feel old. Which is ridiculous because I’m not. But I see my friends going out all the time, seemingly having so much fun, and I can’t help but wonder…am I wasting my youth?

I had a lot of fun in my early-mid twenties. Up until the age of about 25/26 I went out a lot, drank a lot, cared about little. I knew I had dreams and ambitions, but when you’re getting really drunk on a Wednesday and waking up hungover to get to work on Thursday, how dedicated are you?

I started my first company a few weeks shy of my 27th birthday. Since then, I’ve felt like I’m constantly getting punched in the face. I’m happier about that I’m actually working on my dreams, but I question whether or not I’m happier. I look at Facebook and Instagram and I see my friends having really fun times. They’re traveling, drinking, sun bathing, and whatever else seems like ridiculous amounts of fun. While here I am on my computer, looking on with envy, feeling a bit frustrated, and confused.

frustrated

But if I look at the flip side, are my friends accomplishing their professional goals? Are they on their way to accomplishing their professional goals? My suspect not. So I’m torn. Is there a way for me to enjoy my youth and focus on my career? Do I even want to be out drinking anymore, like my friends are?

I’m clearly in the midst of a mini life-crisis. I’m dealing with my internal conflict, weighing the juxtaposition between raging the raging twenty-something lifestyle and calmer, mature adult life.  Can I ever balance this?

I don’t have the answer. I struggle with this, just as everyone else. I probably just think about it more than most. The only thing I am going to do is this…continue to have faith. Have faith that my hard work will pay off. Have faith that the life I envision will come true and that these years of struggle will be worth it.

What Do You Want?


what do you want

What do you want? It’s a question that I always ask my friends. “If there were no obstacles, what do you want in life? What’s your wildest dream?” I ask this to help them eliminate doubt and to focus on what they truly want. Then I help them work backwards to figure out a plan to get there.

I believe that self-reflection is an underrated exercise, but one that’s extremely vital to an individual’s self-improvement. The most successful people are constantly reinventing themselves, always aware of who they are and their surroundings. Shortly after I started my first company, I started an annual exercise of asking myself a series of questions about my personal and professional life.

It’s been about five years since I first started this exercise. I have an Evernote document where I write down what I want, both professionally and personally, then I map out my strategy to get there. For the most part, my goals have remained constant. There are minor tweaks based on experience but it has kept me on the path I most desire.

I bring this exercise up for two reasons. One, I’ve been making some decisions based on what I “should” do, not what I wanted to do. These are two different reasons for making a decision and when I choose what I should do, I’m never as happy. Second, a close friend asked me point blank, “What would you change in your life to make it better?”

Being presented this question forced me to say, out loud, what I want in my life. It was weird saying it out loud. But I was very quick to point out two things I’d do to make my current life more enjoyable. Now I’m focusing my energy on how I can improve myself in these two aspects of life. Which makes me feel happier, more focused, and more confident with my decisions.

If you’re interested in this exercise, below is the template of questions I ask myself. The questions are simple, my answers are long and thought out. While it might not pertain to you, the part that I’ve actually found the most interesting is the last section where I ask myself, “Entrepreneurs I Admire.” The job functions of these entrepreneurs has been refined over time. I can clearly see where my journey is taking me and I’m quite happy with the direction.

What Do I Want in Life?

Professional

Personal

How Do I Get There?

Professional

Personal

What Do I NOT Want To Be?

Professional

Personal

What Do I Like to Do?

 

Who Do I Want to Be Around?

 

Entrepreneurs I Admire

Why Do I Admire Him/Her?

What Do I Want to Emulate?