The Most Frequently-Given Advice to Early-Stage SaaS Founders
A few weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to give a webinar to the audience of a very well-known subscription metrics SaaS company.
Hundreds of founders signed up for my webinar, and it seemed like that many actually attended.
At the end of the presentation, I offered a completely-free 1-hour marketing strategy call where I chat with the founder(s) about their go-to-market and marketing strategy, answer their burning questions, poke holes in what they’re currently doing, and prioritize their activities moving forward.
I was blown away by the 20 booked sessions that immediately filled up my calendar.
This, however, is where I f*cked up.
I definitely forgot to block out my calendar for working session times, and what resulted was two solid weeks of nearly back-to-back meetings.
On top of that, I still had client work to do, and it wasn’t exactly easy-peasy dust-your-hands-off kind of work.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder in my life than in those two weeks, but what resulted was an incredible flurry of connections, marketing wisdom, and overall encouragement to my fellow founder friends.
For context, the majority of the SaaS companies were:
- Less than $20K MRR
Very few were B2C, funded, or more than $20K MRR (I think I talked to two funded companies, two B2C companies, and four $20K+ MRR companies). Some were a couple years into the business, others were 5+ years in the business. Definitely varied in terms of longevity.
These were perhaps the biggest takeaways, themes, and downright myths I either heard, said, or debunked.
Too many segments and not enough focus
It was the toughest love I had to give, but most founders were too scattered across too many different segments, and I would have been remiss if I didn’t say something about it.
Let me take a step back first, though.
Whenever I ask founders who their best-fit customers are, most will immediately jump into describing the market as whole.
“We’re going after small business owners.”
“We’re going after agencies.”
“We’re attracting anyone who needs to import data directly from Product 1 into Product 2.”
Defining a market is the easiest step. It’s where everyone starts. If you build a product to a solve a pain, you (typically) have a general understanding of the space and what’s out there. But once you scratch the surface on the market, it gets overwhelming really fast and you start feeling like you need to be everything to everyone.
This is where most founders get in trouble. They don’t get specific enough when defining the segments and audiences they need to tackle.
I typically suggest thinking about “market” as if it were an amusement park. Pretend you’re in Disney World or Universal Studios. You buy your ticket, go to Disney World, and thus “entered” the market.
Disney World has many different parks, however. And each one of those parks has its own ecosystem and microcosm of people, attractions, activities, stores, food, and so much more.
Every single one of those parks and microcosms is a “segment”, and when you drill-down into the people who attend those parts of the park, you’re going to find certain “personas”.
You’ll find the “double-income no-kids” couples at Epcot tasting the different imported wines and beer.
You’ll find the princess-aficionados in their princess dresses and their weary, stroller-pushing parents in the Magic Kingdom.
You’ll find the nostalgic millennials and Gen X’ers at Hollywood Studios in the Star Wars portion of the park or in line for the Tower of Terror ride.
You get the idea.
Bringing it back to the founders, I found most of them were trying to be in too many parks at once. And not focusing on just one park for one audience.
Most of the companies I talked to didn’t have any one specific segment they were focused on. They knew their market, but not necessarily the segments and personas they needed to attract. And if they did, they were still spread too thin across those segments.
Could you imagine trying to make friends with all of the dozens of personas across all of the major parks at Disney World at once? Could you imagine that being successful or energizing?
Or, instead, could you imagine focusing on one section of one park and making as much of an impact there as possible?
If you’re bootstrapped, you typically don’t have the luxury of free time or dozens of resources. It’s likely just you, or you and maybe two other people. You’re not going to make a dent in the market as a whole if you’re spreading yourself too thin.
Especially when compared to the well-funded, highly competitive alternatives.
And if you are very well-funded and have the resources, you’re typically up against time — proving the need for more funds in the future and giving confidence to your VCs. In well-funded VC world, it’s about making as much impact as possible as fast as possible.
This is why I’ll always recommend focus and specificity over broad-strokes.
Pick just one segment — and get extra specific. Violently, and aggressively specific.
“We’re going after small business owners” quickly becomes “We’re going after independent yoga studios and teachers in California and New York” when you’re focused on a segment.
Then, reverse-engineer the channels and watering holes you need to be in for that specific segment.
Boom! Infinitely more clarity and focus than before.
Just remember this: every single segment is going to have its own channels, influencers, watering holes, and places you’ll need to be. So focus on one in the beginning. You can always expand with the right resources later.
Content without a hint of pain or intent
“What content should we be creating?”
“We’ve brought on a content writer, but we’re not seeing any results.”
“We’re considering hiring a writer to produce some content, but we’re not sure where to start.”
“I’m the only one in my company. I know I should be blogging, but I don’t have the time.”
Ah — content marketing. So easy to do, and so easy to totally suck at.
Every founder I talked to was experiencing some form of frustration about their content marketing strategy. Either they felt they weren’t producing enough, or they weren’t confident it was working at all for them.
For everyone who felt their content was a struggle-bus, I had the same feedback:
- The content isn’t solving anyone’s pain (and it needs to)
- It’s not focused enough on the bottom of the funnel (BOFU)
- I can’t make a direct connection between their users, their product, and the pain they’re solving in the content (which means if I can’t, their prospects definitely can’t)
Part of this is due to time constraints and (shocker) not having enough focus on a segment.
So the founder (and/or the team) ends up creating really high-level content that does great for driving top-of-the-funnel, high-level traffic, and literally zero “OMG you’re exactly what I’m looking for and you’re clearly going to fix my problem” traffic.
When content is more on the BOFU side, it’s going to blend the pain your product solves with the persona who needs to be reading it. It will speak specifically to them, their problems, and hopefully fix something for them. Benji and Devesh of Grow and Convert talk about this quite a bit with their articles on “pain-point SEO” and intent-driven content.
For example, let’s say we’re a really sleek, lightweight test case management solution. We want to attract QA testers and/or their bosses (either QA managers or tech leads) in software companies in the United States.
We’re not going to waste our time with creating content that tackles topics like “what is QA testing”. Way too high-level, and the person reading that article probably isn’t a fit.
Instead, we’re more likely to create content that directly ties to our product and speaks to the pain the persona likely has. “How to create exploratory test plans in 5 minutes” or “Exploratory test plan templates” or “Manual testing best practices for non-QA testers” or “Competitor A vs Competitor B”.
In those examples, we can show off the product and show people what they can do inside the actual platform while still teaching them about what they wanted to know.
It’s important to really think about where in the awareness cycle your content falls, because if it’s too high-level, you’re going to have to work harder to move people along the awareness cycle before it really clicks to them what your product does.
“The first line of defense is your website”
I think I said this pretty much every single call I had, but it’s worth re-stating again.
The first line of defense is your website. Your prospects and customers have literally nothing else to go on except your brand name and the pages on your site. If they’re really savvy, they’re looking for reviews about you on other sites.
The website is really all you have, and if it’s not working extremely hard for you, then you’re leaving money on the table.
We’re in a crowded space when it comes to technology, and even if you have a really super niche product, you still need to:
- describe your exact features,
- how they help your super niche people, and
- what the process of working with your product looks like
Your prospects need to be able to see themselves in your website, and more importantly, they need to know “Why should I choose you over the others?”
And if they can’t figure it out, they’re going to close the tab, swipe left, and hard pass.
I recommended building these same types of pages over and over again (complete with product images — not graphics):
- A tried and true, deep-dive “How It Works” page. Not just a “Features” page, but the process to solving a pain or achieving the most important outcome with your product
- Vertical / Persona-based pages (think “For Accountants and CPAs” or “For SaaS Marketers” or “For CRE Brokerages”)
- Competitive pages — “Pepsi Alternatives” or “Pepsi vs Coca-Cola” or “Lexicata vs ClientRock“
- Case studies of the exact segment they’re trying to attract (check out the folks at Case Study Buddy for pointers on writing case studies)
Why? Because apart from a few hours of your time and hopefully the help of an amazing conversion copywriter, those pages will pay for themselves ten-fold. Your website conversion rates will increase, and the quality of your trials will dramatically improve.
I wasn’t at all surprised by how lean the websites were (they often are — especially if it’s just you in the driver’s seat).
The bigger surprise was the reaction I got after telling the founders their sites were too lean.
Most were blown away. “Really? There’s not enough here?”
Others felt confirmed. “I knew it. I knew there wasn’t enough here.”
The array of reactions alone was pretty fascinating.
Get 👏 subscription 👏 metrics 👏
Stop trying to cobble everything together in a Google Sheet. If you’re trying to get to your first $10K MRR and you’re still hacking and cobbling together the performance of your SaaS business, you’re actively shooting yourself in the foot and robbing yourself blind at the same time.
As you grow, which you will, it will become virtually impossible for you to run any reports and figure out what parts of the business need work. On top of that, you’ll have literally no idea which customers, cohorts, and segments are most profitable.
You simply cannot improve what you cannot measure.
I’m begging you to tackle your subscription metrics and business measurement challenges now while it’s a smaller volume and manageable. Trust me — you’re not going to want to fast-forward to the future and tackle it then because it’s now a barrier between you and more growth.
Which if you let it, it will become exactly that. No marketer or growth person will be able to help you without good data.
Just like you can have technical debt, you can have “analytics debt”, too.
B2B and B2C are virtually the same when you’re less than $10K – $25K MRR
The most common question and concern I heard was: “We’re B2C. Is this [ presentation you gave to us ] going to help if we’re focused on consumers?”
Short answer: yes. Absolutely yes. In fact, I’d argue the approach and journey in the early days are extremely similar if not pretty much the same.
This is an unpopular and probably wrong opinion, but marketing, in my experience, isn’t remarkably different in either B2B or B2C when you’re less than $10K MRR. And perhaps even up to $50K MRR depending on the situation.
You’re still going to have to go through the customer development process, and worry about activation and getting prospects to the “aha” moment. You’re still going to have to do the work of figuring out the right channels and marketing activities to acquire and keep people.
The tactics and channels might be different, but the struggles are still the same.
Not enough people in the funnel, not high enough activation rates, too much churn, etc.
Biggest difference I’ve seen is the rate of growth — it’s arguably faster than B2B in most respects, but thinking about go-to-market for both SaaS scenarios is still pretty dang similar.
The second has more to do with data. I find B2C SaaS companies end up having to invest in data platforms like Segment and Hull a lot earlier than their B2B counterparts.
The third difference actually has more to do with brand and branding — being B2C likely means you’re going to invest in design and UX a lot earlier, too. It helps everyone when brand is point, but when you’re B2C, it’s often a huge game-changer.
Overall though, marketing doesn’t morph into some new, unknown Pokemon that’s unrecognizable when you’re B2C or B2B in the early days. It’s still just marketing.
(But that could also just be me.) 😉
Not a single SaaS had awful KPIs or “holy dang close your business” stats
I mean it. Activation rates were healthy. Churn was within reason and overall improving.
Some had amazing retention. Some had higher churn, but they were year 1 in the business and totally understandable.
Overall, I was impressed.
Not a single company had me concerned about them.
The only thing that I advised quite a bit on was (shocker) acquisition. Net new signups were mostly stagnant for many, and adding new customers seemed to be stagnant as well.
Part of this was due to either not focusing enough on one particular segment to move the needle, or never doing anything marketing-related at all.
Either way, was still very impressed by everyone I talked to.
More than anything, they just didn’t know where to start with marketing (which is exactly how I can help).
Every founder felt they were behind or underperforming
I wanted to make sure to include this because it’s so indicative of the tech culture we’re in and the mindset most founders have.
Every single founder I talked to either apologized for not knowing enough about marketing, their current status in their journey, or joked that most other founders I knew were probably way further ahead than them.
Every founder beat themselves up about their current status in the market. Both funded and bootstrapped, B2C and B2B, and all genders.
Now, to be fair, it’s kinda my job to poke holes in things. I’m there to find the gaps, missing pieces, and distractions. The disclaimers I heard were likely there to mentally and emotionally prepare the founder(s) for whatever critiques I had for them.
Psychologically, however, when it’s just you in the biz, it often feels one and the same.
It was still both shocking and notable how much these founders internalized the progress of their product. The product’s success (or lack thereof) became the identity of the founder, and for many, their self-worth lived in the perceived success of the product.
And not gonna lie — it kinda pissed me off.
On the one hand, I respect feeling the pressure of being “behind” the curve. It gets you off your ass and doing something about it.
And on the other hand, I know it’s this exact mentality that can be equally toxic and results in some pretty wild limiting beliefs about yourself.
I love the startup and SaaS world. I love the pressure of making things grow. But I will never again equate my self-worth to the success of any business. Believe me — I’ve been there, done that, and thankfully came out on the better end of that road.
When I started DemandMaven, I promised myself I wouldn’t equate its success to my own self-worth. And no — you shouldn’t equate your self-worth to the success of your business either.
Remember to maintain a certain level of separation: mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. You’ll be happier for it in the long-run.
Be kind(er) to yourself, founder. Seriously.
You’re never behind as long as you’re taking steps forward.
– Asia ✨