Why most SaaS companies are blind to some of the best talent on the market
By Geoff Roberts 9 min read
I believe that most SaaS companies are missing out of a major opportunity when hiring—the opportunity to hire more part-time help, where the employee acts as a fully integrated (albeit part-time) member of the team on an ongoing basis. I think that this is likely true in most industries, but it’s particularly true in SaaS where there’s a rapidly growing population of extremely talented people—call them bootstrapping co-founders, indie hackers, makers, etc—that are working on their own side projects.
This group tends to be talented, extremely driven, and more often that not is looking for ongoing work with a company that can provide more stability and income than their side project does. Ignore them at your own peril.
I think this will be one of the next major hiring trends that you see in the world of SaaS start-ups. Just as hiring remote employees has opened the door for smart companies to dramatically open up the talent pool they can pull from, I think hiring managers will soon come around to the notion that not every employee needs to be hired in a full-time capacity. In fact, there are huge benefits to hiring folks that aren’t full-time that I think most employers never stop to fully consider.
Let me be very clear—this is not an argument for consulting or the so-called gig economy and I’m not arguing against the need for full-time employees—if you’re hiring a COO, for example, you’re probably going to need that person full-time. This is an argument for being more open to hiring part-time employees that work with your company on an ongoing basis. For the sake of this discussion let’s consider that employees who work with your company 2-3 days per week.
My own part-time path
I want to start by clarifying my situation up front—for the past two years I’ve been splitting my time between working on my own start-up, Outseta, and working with another SaaS company in an ongoing, part-time capacity. We’re bootstrapping Outseta and are deliberately taking a long-term, organic approach to growth—it will likely be another year or two before Outseta can support a full-time salary for myself and the rest of our team. Until that day comes I’ll continue to work with another business; it’s something that I need to do to cover my living expenses, but it’s also been hugely beneficial to me.
I’m not writing this post with my own self interest in mind—I’m writing it because I just returned from MicroConf, an event attended by hundreds of other entrepreneurs who are working on their own start-up projects, most of them in a part-time capacity. Most of the people that I met at the event were super talented, exceptionally driven, and would jump at the opportunity to work with a great company in a part-time, ongoing capacity.
This group would benefit from greater stability and consistent income—a situation far preferable to consistently looking for project-based consulting work. And employers benefit from bring top-tier talent onto their teams, while building a long-term working relationship that allows the employee to maximize their impact. I know this not only from my own experience but from talking to countless other folks last week who expressed this sentiment, and best of all there’s a lot of these people out there. If you’re not open to hiring them, I think you’re missing out. Let’s dig into the reasons why.
A small team of “A” players outperforms a larger group of “B” players
Most of us agree that we can accomplish more with small, superlative teams than we would with larger, less remarkable groups. I’d follow that up by saying that someone that’s a top-level talent will most often make a bigger impact on your company in 2-3 days per week than a less talented colleague would in a full-time role.
Think of the best CTO-level software developers that you know—do you think your product would progress faster if they were building it 2-3 days per week, or if you hired an average developer in a full-time capacity? Consider how much time is typically wasted or unproductive for any employee working in a full-time role—time spent checking social media, chatting at the proverbial water cooler, etc. I’d err on the side of working with the better developer every time, and I think this holds true across most job functions.
I’ve seen this play out firsthand in the context of my own start-up, where the first employee that we added outside of our founding team was James Lavine, who leads design for Outseta. James is an experienced designer who is helping us in a very part-time capacity—20 hours per month—but on an ongoing basis. He’s been able to build our brand and product design from the ground up, chipping away at our most important design work with the benefit of ongoing context and immersion into what’s happening with our business. Because of his experience and expertise James delivers good work that requires minimal revisions the first time around, and I know the output we get from James in just a few hours per week beats what we’d get if we hired a junior designer into a full-time role.
Tap into a greater diversity of experience and expand your network
Perhaps the most unsung benefit of this approach is that by working with people who are also working on other projects, you get the benefit of their other experiences and their networks.
For example, maybe your company sells its products primarily online using a low-touch customer acquisition model. If someone on your sales or marketing team is also working with another company that has a much slower moving, high-touch sales cycle, then that experience may come to directly benefit your company if you eventually move up-market to sell bigger deals. Or maybe it’s as simple as you’re getting ready to experiment with Facebook Ads and the marketer that’s helping you in a part-time capacity has already been running Facebook Ads for another business. Those experiences are very real benefits to your company.
Additionally, by working on more than one project on an ongoing basis part-time employees are part of multiple teams. They get to know more people, make more connections, and work with different agencies and partners. They’ll have opinions, resources, and people that can help your company that employees who are more insulated by being a full-time employee at your company can’t bring to the table.
Think of your own past jobs and the relationships you’ve built at each—you likely lean on the network that you’ve built whenever you need it in your current job, right? When people have a greater diversity of experiences, their networks (and subsequently your company’s) grow faster.
You get access to better talent for your money
Your money also goes further when hiring part-time employees—an MIT study found that benefits and other related costs often cost employers an additional 25%-40% of a full-time employee’s salary. So if you’re paying someone $100,000 per year, your actual costs are likely $125,000-$140,000 annually. Most companies that hire part-time help bring on part-time hires as 1099 contractors, saving these expenses.
Consider the alternative of hiring a Junior Software Developer at a salary of $80,000 per year. Add 40% for benefits and other costs, and that person is costing your company $112,000 per year. What if instead you can hire that CTO that you’ve always admired, who has a track record of success with several previous ventures. The person would typically command a $200,000 annual salary, but you can work with them 2-3 days per week for $100,000 per year.
Who do you want on your roster, the experienced CTO with a track record of success (and the $12,000 in savings you just bagged to invest elsewhere) or the junior dev?
People working on their own projects tend to be ambitious people well-suited to start-ups
We should also be attracted to employees looking for part-time, ongoing roles specifically because many of them are working on projects or start-up ideas of their own. If your company is a start-up itself, it will likely flourish when it’s filled with other entrepreneurial people who are less risk averse and are comfortable working without much structure and heavy doses of ambiguity.
When I look to hire for almost any role in a start-up (and particularly marketing roles) the number one thing I look to assess is the ambition and fire in the belly of the candidate. People who are working on their own start-up ideas tend to have more than ample doses of both.
We’ve misunderstood what people want from the gig economy
Finally, I think this hiring strategy represents a very real opportunity for hiring managers because I think we’ve fundamentally misunderstood what people want—and what’s led to the creation of—the so-called gig economy.
People generally don’t want to be freelancers for the sake of being a freelancer. Maybe they’re hoping to build their experience, maybe they’re working on their own start-up and need some additional income, or maybe they place great value on their ability to work remotely and have a flexible schedule. Whatever their reason may be, talk to anyone who does freelance work and the last thing they typically want is a series of short-term contracts that require them to be consistently spending time looking for new work. There’s a huge opportunity cost there—time spent searching for work rather than making money.
The final problem with the gig-model is while consultants or people working on short-term contracts can provide a new opinion or perspective, they typically don’t have the time to work with the company long enough to get to know the market and the nuances of the business, to build relationships, or to optimize performance on an ongoing basis based on past learnings.
Building long-term relationships with part-time employees allows you to realize these benefits, and it’s actually what the employee is looking for, too. They reap the benefits of greater stability and can afford to spend more time helping your company at a more competitive rate because they don’t have to factor in time looking for new work when setting their fees. Typically they can also make a bigger impact on your business when they have the context and ability to implement long-term strategies that can only come with a longer-term working relationship.
Not everyone needs to run out and hire experienced, part-time help—there will always be roles that require full-time hires, just as there are roles and industries much better suited to co-located rather than remote teams.
But start-ups themselves are based on the notion of doing more with less, and I think better talent can accomplish more in fewer hours. With the market for top-level talent as competitive as it is in the world of B2B SaaS, I’m surprised that more companies don’t see the allure of this approach as an alternative to seriously consider.
The market of top tier-talent that’s looking for part-time, ongoing work is very real if you’d open your mind (and company) to it.
Wes Bush is a SaaS marketer who has quickly developed a reputation as “the free trial vs. freemium guy.” He helps SaaS leaders launch and optimize free trial and freemium models via his consultancy, Traffic is Currency, and is also the founder of the Product-Led Summit.
I caught up with Wes to talk about his free trial vs. freemium framework, our own customer acquisition process, and the start-up scene in Waterloo, Canada.
Geoff Roberts: All right, so first thing's first—before just a moment ago we’d never met, but I have come to know you in online circles as the free trial vs. freemium guy. Tell me about your early career path and how you decided to zoom in and focus on this one particular problem.
Wes Bush: I feel like I really stumbled into this space and I've been doing marketing and demand generation for the last seven years now. I’ve tried virtually everything when it comes to generating demand and leads for a business. But it wasn't until I launched a freemium product and we went from 0 to 100,000 users in six months, where I was just absolutely amazed by the fact that that was possible. We were delivering so much value and I really came to see freemium and free trial models as a supercharged lead magnet for a business. You can make that lead magnet also turn into customers for your business. So once I realized that I just saw that this is the future.
People want to try before they buy and even if you look at a business like Costco, you want to get a sample of something to test it out and see if you really like it. Or you're thinking of buying an expensive cologne or a perfume, you want to try it before you actually buy it because you might hate it and never want to wear it again. So it's a really great way to build trust as well as find out if the solution is right for you or not.
Geoff Roberts: Good analogies. What was the business that you mentioned that went from 0 to 100,000 users in six months and what were you doing previous to offering a freemium model at that company?
Wes Bush: That was at Vidyard and we did have a free trial at the time but it wasn't the most successful. A lot of free trials for B2B SaaS products, when you sign up there really isn't too much value right away unless you connect your data or maybe you upload something and in Vidyard this was the case. You wouldn't be able to see value quickly because you didn't have any videos and unless you signed up for the free trial with the expectation that you’d upload a video right away, you weren’t going to see value. So we built a freemium product to help people create videos very quickly—it would take three seconds to record a video and then the video would be logged in your free trial. So it was actually a freemium product that complimented your free trial.
Geoff Roberts: Got it, makes sense. When you talk to early stage SaaS companies today, what are the one or two most common mistakes you see them making when it comes to deciding on a free trial versus freemium model?
Wes Bush: The biggest mistake I see people make is talking to other founders. I know that sounds really weird, but just taking someone else's opinion on what you should do is really a bad framework for deciding what you should do. A lot of other founders are basing what they're recommending on their personal experience and the fact is you have a different business, a different market, and a different audience. There are so many things that you need to look into in order to make an educated decision for yourself.
Geoff Roberts: One of the things that I think a lot of companies struggle with that do decide to go with a free trial— and something I'm wrestling now with one of our businesses—is do you collect credit card information upfront or at the end of the trial? When does it make sense to ask for payment information upfront?
Wes Bush: As a general rule of thumb I always recommend against asking for the credit card upfront. There's been quite a few studies done about the overall conversion rate, and if you're looking at bottom line revenue it's typically much higher if you don't ask for the credit card right away. You're just going to have more people coming into your free trial, and although the percentage of them who become paying customers is going to be a lot lower, the overall volume is going to be much higher.
However, there are some cases where it makes a lot of sense to collect credit card information upfront. There's companies that deal with a lot of spam and that's a perfect use case—if you get a ton of spammers signing up for your product that's a really good stop gate. Also with products that have a lot of seasonality to them. So let's think of a SEO product, if you’re a one man band or product, then you might just want to do an SEO audit on your site maybe once a year. So you'll just sign up for a free trial and then you'll never come back because you don't want to pay the recurring costs. A lot of these products will see that people are coming back and just using a different email to sign up for the same product. So they’ll just say okay, you’ve got to pay to play because you’ll just keep signing up for this free trial indefinitely unless we add some friction here.
Geoff Roberts: Good point. So for people that decide to go the freemium route, the problem quickly becomes okay, how do I create a sense of urgency in the sales process? We're giving people access to the product for a longer period of time but we still have customer acquisitions goals and need to get buyers to act sooner rather than later. What do you recommend for freemium companies in terms of how they can go about creating that urgency?
Wes Bush: There's a couple ways I've seen companies do it. You don't have to have just a 100% freemium product, you can create a hybrid solution. I've seen companies do this very successfully where they'll lead with the free trial that gives you access to a lot of the key features for 7 or 14 days but then at the end if you don't upgrade, you actually get put on a free forever plan.
For example, Clearbit’s free version goes into your Gmail and enriches your contacts. I thought that was a really smart way of offering a free plan, because it’s essentially free advertising. They sit inside your Gmail and how often do you check your email? If you're a working professional you're in there multiple times each day seeing Clearbit again and again. You should also think about how you can make your freemium product amplify your paid product. So Clearbit sits inside your email and what they're doing is using a lot of your data to enrich their own data. So by giving away a free product Clearbit makes their own paid product more valuable.
But to get back to your question about how do you get people to the upgrade from your freemium product... A big part of it comes down to pricing and if you lead with your product, one of the interesting things is that your customer acquisition model is really tied super closely with your revenue model. If you don't give away a bunch of features, your customer acquisition model suffers because now you have a less powerful offer. On the other hand, if you give away too much and your freemium product has everything people have no reason to upgrade and now your revenue model is shot. You need to fix that and hold back some features, so the best way to look at it from a upgrade perspective is to base your pricing on value metrics.
Patrick Campbell from ProfitWell says there's two types of value metrics, starting with functional value metrics. If I'm Wistia, this is the number of videos you can host on the platform, so you can use that as a value metric. If someone gets three videos uploaded, okay now you're going to have to upgrade and once those three videos are uploaded you should be able to really understand the value of the product anyways. On the other hand, you could use an outcome based approach to value metrics. So it could be how people actually viewed your videos, or how many people came to your website—you're really just trying to pick metrics so that when the product is used you grow with the customer. That's a great way to increase your expansion revenue as well as upgrade rates.
The free trial vs. freemium framework
Geoff Roberts: Awesome. Let’s transition to the free trial versus freemium framework that you shared with me. What is it, why did you develop it, and how do you use it in your day to day work?
Wes Bush: Yeah, so the framework that I built to decide the free trial versus freemium question focuses on four main areas of your business. The first part is your market strategy, so it really focuses on understanding how you want to position your business in the market. For example, say you want to disrupt an existing market dominated by a tool like Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop is really complicated and you can take a full year of learning the program and still have a lot of ways to improve your Photoshop abilities because there’s just a ton you can do with it. But the fact is a lot of people don't actually use anywhere near the full capacity of Photoshop and that's why a company like Canva, which makes it really simple to do graphics, was able to claim huge part of this market.
Second, there's the ocean conditions—is it a really competitive space you're in? If it's a competitive market like say email marketing and everyone has a free trail or freemium offering, it's almost the expectation in the buying process that offer a trial or freemium product. If you're creating a new category, that's a really great place to be but oftentimes a free trial or freemium model isn’t the best fit because you have to educate people so much. It's like Salesforce with the cloud—initially a lot of people didn’t get it. Their sales team had a ton of objections and when you're creating a new category, you actually want to hear those. If you try to automate your entire funnel right away, you're going to miss out on so much valuable feedback.
Next there's the audience are you trying to focus on—do you need a bottoms up or top down approach? What I mean by top down is are you trying to target the executive team, or from a bottoms up perspective are you targeting managers or day to day workers? If you're targeting a top down approach and using a free trial or freemium model, it's going to be pretty hard for those executives depending on how complex your tool is to really get up to value because they're probably not using the tool day to day. A bottoms up approach pairs really well with a free trial or freemium model. That's why you see companies like Slack grow from the bottom. Someone on a development team will say, hey let's start using Slack. They'll send it to a bunch of their coworkers and it spreads internally to other teams. Then when it comes time to upgrade it's really a no-brainer because they already have maybe 30, 40 people on a team who know and love the product and have gotten value out of it.
Then the last part of the framework is time to value. Now if you have a really long time to value, it's going to be really difficult for a free trial or freemium model and I’d actually recommend against it. You want to make sure that your time to value is quick as possible. Freemium models need to be even quicker I'd argue, because you’re using this no hand-holding approach for the most part and you need people to realize value as soon as possible without human intervention. So that's my framework at a high level—I'd love to take your thoughts on it. How did you find it walking through it?
Geoff Roberts: Yeah, so it made logical sense to me—I sort of understood in most cases what was behind each of the questions. I decided on a freemium model for Outseta for a couple of reasons and your framework gave us a score of 10-2 in favor of freemium, so it validated my thinking in that sense.
A couple of factors that went into that, starting with the market we are selling to. We’re targeting very early stage SaaS start-ups, who are often finding us the day that they open their doors. These companies tend to have very different timelines in terms of when they're going to start using the CRM, versus when they're going to set up the billing system, versus when they want to send their first email campaign. So we wanted to provide enough time for companies to sort of grow into the product and adopt each of its core features as their need for it arose, rather than saying hey you've got 7 or 14 days to kick the tires on all these different aspects of the product.
The second factor is just the product is really big. It's basically three or four well known software categories delivered in one platform and when we think about the onboarding process, everyone's going to start in different place. It's not like everyone wants to send an email campaign first, some people want to start logging deals in the CRM first, some people want to set up billing first. So I felt like we needed to expose people to each of our core features during the onboarding process.
One of our struggles as a result is with people starting at different points, how do we show them value quickly? What action should we present them with first when we don’t know exactly what it is they want to do first? If you look at the initial onboarding screen when you first log in to our product, we say hey you can import your contacts, you can set up your customer support email inbox, you can send an email campaign, author a knowledge based article, each of these being key actions that the product helps with. What’s your take on this approach versus being more specific about what we want users to do?
Wes Bush: I always like to think of onboarding in terms of dominoes—what’s the smallest action you can get people to do that sets them up for success in the future? If you think of Hubspot, it's similar to Outseta in the sense that there's the marketing side and the CRM. Hubspot’s sales product is really great to lead with because it's a Chrome extension that you can setup in less than five minutes. By leading with that product, what happens is your CRM fills up with all your contacts so you now have people to market to. So it's just like a step ladder or you're pushing one domino at a time and it just gets kind of easier as you go.
With your product what I would recommend is seeing out of all the features you have, what is the first thing you need someone to do in order to take them to that next step? Maybe you lead with sales, then you follow up with marketing, and then it's subscriptions or something like that.
Geoff Roberts: I think the obvious one is import contacts. You need contacts in the CRM to send an email campaign for example; it’s also what our pricing model is based on. The only case I would say where that probably isn't the right initial action is a company that doesn't have any contacts yet, which is common in our user base, but the domino analogy makes sense.
Wes Bush: Okay, awesome.
Geoff Roberts: So when I went through your framework, one of our answers that came back as “free trial” was based on the size of the total addressable market. If you have a smaller total adjustable market, you’re suggesting a free trial rather than freemium. Why is that?
Wes Bush: One of the problems here is that freemium has a very low conversion rate—typically you'll see anywhere from 1-3% of people who sign up for your freemium product actually turn into a paying customer. So in this case it's a good indicator of saying is your market big enough to support this? If you have a really small market and that low conversion rate of 1-3% percent, you might end up with 100 or 1000 customers and then be capped.
Geoff Roberts: That makes sense. So going back to our own pricing model, one of the pieces of feedback that we've heard about our own pricing is there is a segment of buyers... let's call them solopreneurs, or indie hackers, or makers, who are pretty much unwilling to pay for any product until they get to a point where they're bringing in revenue. They’ll use a Trello board to track their sales process, Hubspot CRM, the free version of MailChimp, and will live with whatever pain exists until they're bringing in money and then will build a real tech stack.
We offer a freemium plan where we give you 250 contacts but access to every feature—the idea here is knowing these businesses have different implementation timelines we give them all the time they need to get everything set up, configure their account, and figure out if they like all the features. Then once they start using the product in earnest, they will very quickly go over that 250 contact limit and upgrade to a paid plan. The feedback we’ve heard is many of these folks intend to go over 250 contacts well before they’re bringing in revenue, so they don't want to incur a $99 per month charge before they really need to.
One experiment we’re considering is giving the entire platform a way for free, but then taking a larger percentage of payments processed through our payment processing system. This would align our pricing model with the most important outcomes based value metric—revenue— and we’d take a cut that's a little bit larger than the 2.9% Stripe charges for example. Curious what your take is here and how we can better appeal to that segment that's very price conscious upfront?
Wes Bush: I definitely recommend leading with whatever that product feature is that's going to help someone get that revenue. So in most cases that's going to be the sales tools and you just want to help them get to the point where they’re willing to pay because your product has helped them generate revenue. I definitely do agree with some of the sentiment around the 250 contacts. In this case I’d definitely think about what are those first tools that you could give people? Maybe you give one of them away for free, it's a sales tool, and then you help them build those contacts so they don’t even have to import any contacts—they’re already there. So then you get that stepping stone where the next upgrade is the marketing product and it’s just a natural extension of the journey.
Geoff Roberts: Yeah that makes sense. I think the other challenge for us is just putting pricing out there that, given the scope of the product, maintains some semblance of simplicity. Contacts seems like a fairly well understood measure of the value people are deriving from the product. What we've heard and seen with our customers is once you move onto our paid pricing plans, the product's a bargain and much cheaper than the competition. The part we’re still wrestling with is that entry level customer and how we can get them in and show them value relatively quickly while still not taking forever for them to upgrade.
Wes Bush: Okay got it.
The start-up scene in Ontario and Wes the bad Canadian
Geoff Roberts: So let’s switch gears a bit—I saw you're in Waterloo, Ontario. What can you tell me about the start-up scene in Waterloo?
Wes Bush: The startup scene in Waterloo is actually really exciting. Out of all the cities in Canada it's has the highest density of start-ups and I think that's really fueled by the fact that there's some really incredible engineering universities around us so there's lots of really great talent that you can hire as a start-up. There’s beginning to be a lot more of these successful companies that are growing and then their employees move on to other companies, build them up, and so what's really exciting about it is just seeing the snowball effect and how it's growing bigger and bigger.
Geoff Roberts: Are you born and raised in Ontario or...
Wes Bush: Yeah, so I was born and raised in Ontario. Have you been?
Geoff Roberts: I haven't, I'm from the Boston area. I've been around Canada quite a bit, but I haven't been to Ontario or Waterloo.
Wes Bush: Make sure you go during the summer.
Geoff Roberts: Yeah, no kidding. What's the most Canadian thing that you love? Are you a hockey fan? What do you love about Canada in general?
Wes Bush: So I feel like I'm not a good Canadian. I don’t like the winter, I'm not big into the sports like hockey. This is not very Canadian at all but I like mountain biking, and forests, and hanging out in the nature, and lakes. There's so many lakes in Ontario. I love that part.
Geoff Roberts: Very cool. If you weren't the free trial versus freemium guy, what else could you see yourself doing? What other direction could you have gone with your career?
Wes Bush: I think I'd still be doing something very similar. I like behavioral psychology, because just figuring out what makes people do certain things and deconstructing it is so fascinating, whether it's deconstructing habits or just why people bought a product online. But yeah I'd still probably be doing something in a similar field.
Geoff Roberts: Outside of work, tell me something else about yourself that your online audience doesn't necessarily know that's going to bring Wes to life.
Wes Bush: So couple things about me, I travel quite a bit. I actually built my business to be location independent, so I'm actually in Thailand right now. I really try to avoid the winter as best as I can and so there's a lot of things I do to just try and explore new places, and try new food at a bunch of these other places which is exciting. I'm also trying to learn how to ride a motorbike. That's fun.
Geoff Roberts: How's the food in Thailand been so far?
Wes Bush: It's really good. I'm not sure if you like Thai food or not-
Geoff Roberts: Love it. How long have you been in Thailand at this point?
Wes Bush: I've been here for a couple months and I usually typically I travel between here or the Los Angeles area so hopefully we can meet up one day in person. And then Toronto, so I kind of make my rounds every year.
Geoff Roberts: Awesome, well that’s all the questions I have for you so I'll let you go. Go get some Thai food! It’s been fun.
Wes Bush: Likewise, thanks so much for having me.
By Geoff Roberts 4 min read
Hi-dee-ho! Two months of 2019 are already behind us—here’s an update on what we’ve been cooking up at Outseta so far this year.
New Feature! Lead Capture Form Builder
We’ve long offered forms to help you build your email list as well as product registration and authentication forms that allow users to sign-up or login to your SaaS product. But we recently released a new lead capture form builder to all Outseta customers. Our form builder allows you to generate form code that can easily be dropped into your website pages, or we provide hosted web pages where your form lives as well.
Forms can be customized to capture whatever information you see fit, with form submission data automatically syncing with Outseta CRM records. You can also easily specifiy a post-submission display message or redirect users to a new URL, allowing for easy conversion tracking in Google Analytics or similar tools.
You can learn more about Outseta forms here.
Outseta SaaS Consulting
Throughout the final quarter of 2018 we saw a significant uptick in user engagement with our product. More companies have been signing up for Outseta each month and we’re seeing broader feature usage and more complete implementations of the product than we’ve seen before. We expected that we’d see these signs as the product continued to mature; it’s a pretty good indication that we can prudently start to make more significant investments in growth.
With this is mind, we’re exploring a number of ways to raise some growth capital for the business. A couple of options we’re considering include:
We’ve also taken on some consulting work in the past to provide seed funding for the business. This is something that we’re excited to formalize—we’re committing to helping one company bring a new SaaS product to market each year. If you know a entrepreneur looking for a technical co-founder, a team in need of more development firepower, or any start-up that needs help building their MVP we have a very attractive consulting package to offer.
Here’s the scoop: https://www.outseta.com/saas-consulting.
We’ll be accepting applications throughout the month of March and will plan on selecting a 2019 project shortly thereafter. See that form at the bottom of the page? That’s one of our new lead capture forms in action.
New Feature! Product Engagement Tracking
While we’ve seen a significant uptick in user engagement with our own product, it was initially a pretty manually process for us to get a sense of which features were being used and how often. Our login forms have always provided some stats on login activity on Outseta’s primary dashboard, but we found ourselves needing to build dashboards in Amazon Quicksight to get better insights into feature adoption and usage.
There are a number of other product engagement tracking tools on the market like Heap Analytics, Mixpanel, and Kissmetrics, but they’re all fairly expensive and overkill for a start-up company. Pretty much every company that’s using Outseta would benefit from better understanding user engagement with their own products, so we built the engagement reports that are the most valuable to early stage start-ups into the platform where they’re nicely tied into the CRM. Outseta customers can now set up and track their own custom events, and can track product engagement based on billing stage, cohort, or month.
For our own use we created custom events that correlate with Outseta’s primary features to help us track events like imported contacts, email campaigns sent, support tickets received, companies that have activated e-payments, and knowledge base articles authored.
Documentation on setting up engagement tracking for your own product is available here.
New Outseta Explainer Video
We recently filmed a new Outseta explainer video that we’re leveraging on our home page. We’re not sharing because this is scintillating creative work—far from it—but as a bootstrapped company we had this video created for $32… Yes, $32. If you’re a start-up in need of an explainer video on the (very) cheap, feel free to reach out and we’ll point you in the right direction.
That’s a wrap!
So who do you know that needs help building a SaaS product?
-Dimitris, Dave, James, & Geoff
For the past two years we’ve been hard at work building Outseta, an undertaking that was a direct response to our own experience launching and scaling a successful SaaS start-up.
As an early stage company, we found that a lot of stuff we had to build had nothing to do with our core product; authentication for existing users, lost password workflows, subscription management logic—that kind of thing. Then we did what everyone else in SaaS does—we evaluated, bought, integrated, and maintained a whole bunch of other SaaS products. A CRM. A billing system. Email marketing software and a help desk. Should we build our own subscription management logic again?
At the end of the day we decided to build Outseta because:
We saw an opportunity to help SaaS founders get products to market much faster.
The status quo was ridiculously inefficient—we saw an opportunity to give SaaS start-ups the tools they need to scale to about $5M in ARR for a fraction of the price.
If you’ve been following our progress something exciting happened since our last company update—we launched an entirely new SaaS product of our own. Here’s how we got that product to market about 50% faster while also gaining significant efficiencies that will help us scale well into the future.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first—yes, we launched this product partially to highlight how easy it is to launch a SaaS company with Outseta.
Second, while that was the case, this is a legitimate product that we only built because we realized a true need for it ourselves—this was not a creative exercise.
Finally, there are all kinds of “Launch your product today” or “Launch 10 products next week!” contests flying around the internet of varying pedigrees. The product that we launched is not a one page website, and it’s not a hack to validate your idea overnight. It’s a full-fledged, well designed, and fully functional SaaS application. You can call it a micro-SaaS project if you like or you can check it out for yourself by signing up for a trial at CompareRentalBookings.com.
The idea behind the product
My Co-founder Dimitris has built software products for the real estate rental market before, Co-founding Buildium in 2004. While he’s still actively involved in the company as a board member, more recently he’s been working on Outseta as well as an Airbnb rental business in his hometown of Athens, Greece.
Unsure of the nightly rate he should be charging for each of his rentals, Dimitris began using Airbnb’s own smart pricing tools. He found that the tool consistently told him to drop his prices down to his base price—the lowest nightly rate he’d allow his property to rent at. He had a hunch he was leaving money on the table.
Next, he tried a number of the other Airbnb pricing tools on the market. Again, he found his nightly rates were dropping prematurely. These tools were also expensive and they didn’t tell him anything about how often competitive properties were being booked and at what nightly rate. He wanted to know exactly how his property was performing against the properties he was most often competing with for bookings. He could get at this information but it was a manual process that he found himself performing over and over again—a perfect problem to solve with software.
That’s the problem we set out to solve with CompareRentalBookings.com—a tool for hands-on Airbnb hosts and management companies who, armed with the best data possible, can make better pricing decisions to maximize their Airbnb hosting earnings.
The very first version of the product pulled data from Airbnb’s API into a Google Sheet. Dimitris was finally able to see how much competitive properties were actually making, so he could benchmark his own performance and price his properties more appropriately.
Realizing that this data was proving valuable to him, he pulled together a prototype of what the product might look like in Moqups and shared it with Dave and I in late October.
“This is a product we could build pretty quickly, and it’s been really valuable to me,” Dimitris said. “What do you think?”
We were all a bit gun shy about taking time and energy away from our product backlog at Outseta, but we realized that by using Outseta we could dramatically cut down on the time required to deliver the product.
We looped in our design lead, James, and decided the product would consist of a SaaS application that allows hosts to choose the competitive properties that they want to track as well as email notifications highlighting new bookings. We decided hosts could track 5 comparison properties for each of their own for $5 per month—if hosts get even one additional reservation by using the tool, the product likely pays for itself 20 times over.
James delivered some final designs for the email and SaaS product using Invision. Here are the design files.
With the designs in hand, Dimitris and Dave began development in mid October. Dimitris had already requested access to Airbnb’s API, which we use to pull in the pricing and occupancy data the product relies on. In terms of technical architecture, the product is built using .NET and the base angular framework.
The product would likely have taken 3-4 weeks to build if we’d focused on it full-time—instead we built it over about 6 weeks in a very part-time capacity. Here’s how that time was split up.
1-2 days to setup the development environment
1 week to create the algorithm that downloads the data and creates summary data
1 week to build the APIs
2 weeks for front-end development
2 weeks to build the email notifications
Standing up the business and implementing Outseta
During product development, Dimitris and Dave were able to spend all of their time and energy on building “core” product functionality because they knew we’d be launching the product with Outseta.
As a relatively non-technical person, I was able to instrument much of the functionality they would have otherwise had to build. First, I bought the domain comparerentalbookings.com and created a Squarespace website using the “Bedford” theme. I paid $20 for the domain and the website is $18 per month.
Next, I decided that we’d offer a 14-day free trial prompting users for payment after the trial expires—I set this up as well a pricing plan to charge $5 per month per property tracked. I was able to do both of these tasks within Outseta, which can be connected to a payment gateway in seconds. If you have an existing Stripe account, here’s how to connect Stripe to Outseta (all you need is your “secret key.”)
Without using Outseta, we would have had to build the free trial logic manually. We probably would have billed manually for some time, as we would have had to write something automated to handle billing based on the number of properties tracked. This logic easily could have taken 3-4 weeks to complete and integrate with Stripe.
Next, we needed a way for people to sign-up and login to the product from our website. Using Outseta’s sign-up and login widgets, I was able to easily drop this code into our website pages.
Here’s documentation on how to integrate Outseta’s sign-up and login widgets with your website and product. I embedded the sign-up widget directly on our free trial page, which you can see here: https://www.comparerentalbookings.com/free-trial/. I used a pop-up for the login functionality so that users can come back to our website to login to their Compare Rental Bookings account.
Using these widgets also meant we didn’t need to build lost password workflows—realistically it could have easily taken a month to build the functionality that these widgets gave us out of the box.
We can also see who has registered for the product and who is logging into the product without needing to access our database or integrate with a CRM system. This is something we likely would have done further down the road if we weren’t using Outseta, but it’s a nice added benefit at this stage that makes it really easy to identify which accounts are engaged.
With the technical implementation of Outseta complete, I set out to prepare us to bring on and support new customers.
First, I set up our sales pipeline stages within Outseta CRM so we can track sales.
Next, I added Outseta live chat to our website. All I needed to do here was add a script to the <body/> tag of our website pages. I also set up our shared customer support inbox so users can submit support requests by emailing us at at support(at)comparerentalbookings.com.
I then used Outseta’s knowledge base to author some articles that I thought would be helpful to our early customers. We mapped the knowledge base to a custom subdomain that’s accessible here: http://support.comparerentalbookings.com/support/kb#/categories.
As a final step, I set up activity notifications so that Dave, Dimitris, and myself get email updates whenever an account is created or updated. Again, this callback functionality is free and available to us out of the box.
Just like that, we had a fully operational business ready to scale.
Using this process, we were able to launch CompareRentalBookings.com in about 6 weeks while working part-time. We have the tools in place that we can easily use to scale the business to thousands of users and millions in revenue. Perhaps most importantly, we have known, low overhead of $99/month and far fewer manual processes and disparate software tools.
How Outseta Helped Us Get Our Product To Market Faster
- We saved time by not needing to build free trial logic.
- We saved time by not needing to build sign-up (product registration) or login (product authentication) functionality.
- We saved time by not needing to build lost password workflows.
- We saved time by not needing to build infrastructure for activity notifications.
- We saved time by simply adding a script to our product that handles account upgrades, downgrades, cancellations, user management and permissions, and updates to billing information.
- We saved time by not needing to spend any time integrating software solutions—our CRM, help desk, marketing automation, and live chat tools work seamlessly together from the get-go.
Key Benefits Realized By Launching With Outseta
- We increased efficiency by not billing manually to start. We didn’t have to write an automated script to handle billing based on the number of properties tracked.
- We can now change pricing models and experiment with new pricing plans without any development help. We can change our pricing plans from within Outseta and our website and registration workflow will update to reflect the changes automatically.
- We can see who has registered for our product and who is logging in consistently (a useful barometer for user engagement) without accessing our database.
- Our technology stack is completely free and likely will be for several more months. Once we cross 250 contacts in our CRM, all of this functionality will cost us just $99 per month with no limits on users, contacts, emails, or conversations.
Have any questions about the process we used to launch CompareRentalBookings.com? Wondering if Outseta can help you get your SaaS product to market faster? We’d love to hear from you—just drop us a note as a comment below!
By Geoff Roberts 12 min read
When we first started building Outseta we stated outright that we weren’t interested in raising venture capital—instead, we planned on bootstrapping the business and remaining independent. It wasn’t that we had any issue with venture capital per se, it was simply a reflection of never wanting to have our hand forced in pursuit of growth if we thought it wasn’t what was right for the business. There’s a lot of advantages to organic growth that aren’t discussed enough.
Over the past 12 months there’s been an explosion of new financing options and models made available to companies that feel like us. And many of them are attractive to the extent that they’ve flipped our own internal dialogue.
This post is for other early stage SaaS companies who are similarly considering whether some of these new forms of capital make sense for their business. I’ve read the fine print to highlight the unique attributes of each fund and who they are best suited to—and I’ll share our own thinking in terms of each model’s appeal to our own business.
Key Personnel: Bryce Roberts
Revenue Requirement: Post revenue, but no minimum requirement.
Equity Stake: Yes, but diminishing to 10% of Indie.vc’s initial equity stake.
Board Seat: No
Investment Docs: https://github.com/indievc/terms
Application Deadline: March 1, 2019
Apply Here: http://www.indie.vc/apply
Indie VC is the OG on this block and describes itself as “growth revenue for post-revenue companies.” This is the company’s third fund, which is designed to support founders on their path to profitability.
The program is an accelerator that lasts for 12 months, with investments ranging anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million—the historical average for the fund has been around $285,000. Included in the investment docs is a predetermined percentage of ownership allocated to the fund should you choose to sell your company. Your company will begin repaying the fund 12 to 36 months after the investment is made.
Typically founders will pay 3%-7% of monthly revenue until they have repaid the fund 3x the amount invested. Each time a payment is made, the fund’s ownership stake is reduced with the founders’ ownership shares increasing. Founders can repurchase up to 90% of the fund’s ownership stake via these payments or lump sum payments, with the fund maintaining 10% of the equity that it was initially allocated.
How They Help
Indie.vc helps founders primarily by exposing them to one another and organizing quarterly events and retreats for portfolio companies. The fund also has monthly meetings with each portfolio company.
The Indie.vc model is really appealing to me—they’ve done this a few times already and I suspect they’ve worked out many of the kinks. I’m also attracted to the simplicity of their model—the predetermined equity stake in the business, the 3x payout that you need to return to the fund, and the fact that you can earn back 90% of the equity the fund initially takes.
I even like that the fund hangs on to a residual equity stake, so that they will continue to be in your corner for the long haul. The 10% of the equity they were initially issued that they do hang on to could potentially be seen as steep, particularly if they are funding companies that already have $20,000+ in MRR so that’s something to consider. But it’s always good to look at the companies and people that you take from money as long term business partners.
Revenue Requirement: No minimum requirement
Equity Stake: Yes—8%-15%
Board Seat: No
Investment Docs: https://tinyseed.com/faq/
Application Deadline: February 15, 2019
Apply Here: https://tinyseed.com/apply/
Like Indie.vc, Tinyseed is not just a funding model but a 12 month accelerator program. The fund focuses exclusively on subscription software companies and is willing to invest in pre-revenue companies.
Tinyseed invests $120,000 for your company’s first founder, then up to $20,000 per additional founder. The fund does take a permanent equity stake in your business of 8%-15%, although they do not take a board seat or hold any voting rights.
Of the money invested, a lump sum is delivered upfront to help out with start-up costs, with the remainder being paid out to the founders as salary on a monthly basis for the duration of the program. Founders agree to a salary cap (based off of the average salary of a software engineer in the nearest major city), and can increase their salary up to that cap as the business makes money. Any revenue beyond that salary cap is paid out as dividends, which are paid out to founders and the fund based on their percentage of ownership in the company.
The founders maintain complete optionality in terms of when to take dividends—if they prefer to invest revenue back into the business they have the option to do so. The idea here is that the fund gets paid when the founders choose to get paid. If the company sells, Tinyseed receives the initial investment back (minus any dividends paid to date), and then the proceeds are divided based on percentage ownership in the business.
How They Help
Tinyseed invests in cohorts of 10-15 companies at once so that portfolio companies benefit from exposure to one another—this includes weekly calls with other portfolio companies. They also have a network of mentors that’s about as strong as could be if you’re looking to build an early stage SaaS company. Mentors are available during scheduled office hours calls.
Tinyseed is particularly attractive to me because of the money, the advisors, and the ecosystem it would plug us into—the companies Tinyseed is funding represent our exact target market at Outseta. While it would be nice to have some additional cash to invest into the business and begin taking some salary, the $160,000 total doesn’t go very far when split between 3 founders. It would probably allow us to each take a salary of around $3,000 per month—not nearly enough to live on—making the fund’s money a more attractive option for single founders.
The advisors are a huge reason, in my eyes, to apply to this fund but they are also probably the biggest variable. How much interaction does a portfolio company actually get with each of the advisors? It’s not like Rand Fishkin has the time to work with 10-15 companies on SEO or Hiten Shah has the time do so the same with each on product strategy. I know the advisors are more than names slapped up on a marketing website, but the extent of their involvement is certainly an open question. The ecosystem, for us, is a no-brainer.
It’s worth noting that Tinyseed takes and keeps the largest equity stake of any of the options on this list, but the stake seems reasonable given that they are typically making earlier stage (riskier) investments. If I was an investor, this model would be hugely attractive to me—spending $120,000 to buy a 8%-15% stake in a company could prove to be hugely lucrative if a company does reasonably well. I’m sure this fund will see a huge volume of applications from some awesome companies.
As an operator, I love the model of the fund gets paid when the founders get paid—I think Tinyseed nailed this aspect of their investment model. While I’m not crazy about giving up 8%-15% equity in the business, paying dividends based on percentage of ownership in the company makes logical sense to me. I’m comfortable with the equity stake because it means that the mentors and other folks involved in this fund are going to be on your side for the long term, which is a pretty amazing benefit.
Side note—we’re applying to Tinyseed. Here are our application answers.
Revenue Requirement: No minimum requirement
Equity Stake: Yes, but diminishing. In their default terms Earnest holds a small residual stake.
Board Seat: No—upon request Earnest can become a board observer without voting rights
Investment Docs: Shared earnings agreement V1
Application Deadline: Open applications beginning in January 2019
Apply Here: https://earnestcapital.com/apply/
Earnest Capital makes seed stage investments in “bootstrappers, indiehackers, makers, and real businesses.” Their investment model was developed to align with founders who want to build sustainable, profitable businesses.
Earnest invests upfront capital in businesses typically after a product has launched, but before the founders begin working on the company full time. The investment model has two main components:
Businesses pay back a “Return Cap” which is 3x-5x the amount invested in their company.
In their default terms, Earnest will maintain a small residual equity stake in the business even after their Return Cap is paid back—this amount scales down as the fund is repaid, but never reaches 0. This means that Earnest and their advisors are still incentivized to keep helping you grow the business after the Return Cap is fully paid because they would participate in a sale if it ever happened. “We will likely still offer and do deals that have no residual stake after the Return Cap is repaid, but that will likely entail a higher total Return Cap to compensate for the lack of residual stake,” says Principal Tyler Tringas.
Earnest calculates “Founder Earnings” which is net income + any amount of founders’ salaries over a predetermined threshold. Similarly to Tinyseed, this model is designed to give founders the option to continue investing profits in their business if they see fit and the fund is only paid when the founders are paid.
How They Help
Earnest also has a strong network of mentors, all of whom have skin in the game having invested in Earnest companies. There is no curriculum or prescriptive structure to mentorship; Earnest companies are expected to tell the fund what they need and ask for help. All mentorship is handled remotely.
I’ve really enjoyed following Earnest Capital’s story and the research that went into them coming up with their investment model. I also like that all of their advisors have skin in the game—it definitely makes me feel like they’ll be accessible and helpful. Like Tinyseed, I love the alignment of the fund gets paid when the founders get paid, but Earnest is much more appealing to me if returning 3x the amount invested to the fund rather than 5x.
As with Tinyseed, I understand the reasons for this as they are making early stage bets, so it’s sort of pick your poison—a bigger return multiple or a larger equity stake. But I’d be hesitant to take too much money; the idea of taking on $200,000 and needing to repay $1,000,000 is a little daunting.
We are considering applying to Earnest as well—we prioritized the Tinyseed application given the pending deadline. Earnest also asks founders for some additional materials including a video overview of the product that we’ve yet to film. Stay tuned.
Key Personnel: BJ Lackland
Revenue Requirement: $15,000 monthly recurring revenue and gross margins of 50%+
Equity Stake: No
Board Seat: No
Apply Here: https://www.lightercapital.com/apply/
Lighter Capital provides “revenue based financing” to SaaS, tech services, or digital media companies based in the United States. They have provided funding to over 300 start-ups to date.
Lighter Capital makes investments of $50,000 to $3 million—up to ⅓ of a company’s annualized revenue run rate. The money borrowed is typically repaid over 3-5 years, with payments ranging between 2%-8% of your monthly revenue. Typically the money returned is between 1.35x-2x the amount borrowed.
Companies do not need to be profitable to secure financing, but there should be a clear path to profitability in the company’s future. Funding is typically received within 4 weeks of application, and follow-on rounds can be distributed in 3-4 business days. Lighter Capital only funds companies based in the United States.
How They Help
Lighter is not an accelerator and does not offer a network of mentors—instead it’s more of a true financing option. “Aside from the reporting, where we are most helpful is planning out a company’s financing, frankly” says CEO BJ Lackland. “As opposed to a VC we don’t necessarily need to know the best VP of Sales candidate in healthcare tech in South Carolina. What we know is if you’re doing X million in revenue and have this kind of burn rate and this kind of growth rate, what kind of capital is available to you from which different sources? Whether it’s angels, VCs, or banks, we probably know how to introduce you to any of those sources. So we can help with strategy, mostly on the capital side.”
Lighter Capital is without question the most attractive of these models is you’re simply looking for financing given the speed at which they make funding decisions and that you’re only on the hook for returning 1.35x-2x the amount borrowed. That said, there’s a reason for that—they’re taking on far less risk by only funding companies with $15,000+ in MRR and otherwise healthy financial metrics.
Outseta isn’t there yet, so at the moment this option is out of reach for us.
Key Personnel: Mitch Kessler
Revenue Requirement: $10,000 monthly revenue
Equity Stake: No
Board Seat: No
Application Deadline: Open applications
Apply Here: https://metcalfe.fund/#signup
Metcalfe Fund is a new financing option that “provides growth capital to online businesses using actual business data instead of a credit score.” The company invests in SaaS, e-commerce, and other types of online businesses.
After providing funding to your company, Metcalfe is paid back over time using an agreed upon percentage of your future sales. Repayment occurs daily with a small fixed percentage of daily sales being automatically debited from your bank account—they refer to this investment model as a Structuralized Future Revenue Purchase, or SFRP. The company provides financing in the range of $10,000-$500,000, which is typically paid back within 6 months for a 6%-10% fee (12%-20% annualized). Loan decisions can be made in a matter of days.
I asked Founder Mitch Kessler what factors are considered when making loan decisions. “In general we are assessing a company’s marketing sophistication and their financial health,” says Kessler. “We can cross-pollinate marketing and financial metrics, such as conversation rates, CAC, LTV, AOV, and Revenue forecasts to get a better idea of their potential future revenues aided by marketing, and if they are able to do this themselves or if they will need help from marketers in our network.”
Businesses must be based in the United States and have been in business for at least six months to qualify.
How They Help
Metcalfe’s funding model is focused specifically on delivering funding to be spent on digital marketing and growth. Metcalfe is essentially a marketplace of vetted marketing agencies and talent, which it will in turn introduce to the companies that it’s providing funding to. By playing matchmaker, Metcalfe seeks to provide agencies with clients who have money to spend while providing companies with pre-vetted marketing partners who will deploy the provided capital as efficiently as possible.
Of the alternatives on this list many are new and Metcalfe is the newest. Like Lighter Capital, this option will be out of reach for earlier stage companies that don’t yet have the $10,000 monthly revenue that’s required. For businesses needing a short term injection of cash to spend on marketing, this is a strong option with reasonable payback terms. It’s also a model that’s well aligned with more technical teams that don’t have in-house marketing expertise. Taking financing from a company that’s also pairing you with an agency partner they believe in is reassuring.
A new generation of financing options is here
All of the alternatives on this list are new and interesting options that allow founders to raise capital while maintaining control of their businesses—and more alternatives seem to be hitting the market every day. Rather than being shackled by cookie-cutter financing models, a new generation of entrepreneurs is learning that if you can dream up a new financing structure you can probably make it happen. But more importantly, there seems to be a new emphasis on building real, profitable businesses. I for one believe that’s a good thing that will ultimately result in stronger, more durable businesses.
By Geoff Roberts 10 min read
Today marks the two year anniversary of when we published our launch announcement, telling the world of our plans to build Outseta. While we’ve consistently published monthly updates to keep our customers and audience abreast of our progress, the two year milestone is a good opportunity for us to share more broadly some of the decisions we’ve made and what we’ve accomplished. I hope this is a useful barometer of progress for other bootstrapped SaaS start-ups with equally ambitious projects.
Let’s get right into it starting with how much we’ve spent on the business.
We’ve written in the past about our decision to bootstrap the company and shared our operating agreement publicly so that customers and potential employees alike understand how we make financial decisions. Dimitris, Dave, and myself have yet to pay ourselves any salary and are instead trading our time for sweat equity in the business. We’ve tried hard to be extremely financially disciplined and fight the urge to invest in growth prematurely.
2017 2018 Total
To date we’ve spent $32,179.72 building Outseta - roughly $8,000 in 2017 and $24,000 in 2018. The majority of our expenses in 2017 were related to software and development infrastructure required to build the product. Food and dining represented our biggest line item for the year - we admittedly got a little carried away there so we pulled back heading into 2018. Remarkably, Dimitris is still invisible when he turns sideways.
In 2018 you’ll notice some line items grew significantly. The $11,123.75 we spent on consulting services was primarily design related expenses, as James Lavine began working with us. We knew we needed more design bandwidth than we could afford, so James has been working for a combination of salary and equity (more on this shortly).
Forte fees represent payment processing costs associated with one of the payment gateways we support, Forte Payment systems. We invested about $3,000 in marketing, the majority of which was related to paid customer acquisition experiments we ran with Linkedin, Twitter, and Google Ads. We also signed up to attend MicroConf for the first time - an expense incurred in 2018 even though the event is this upcoming March.
One of the reasons we’ve been able to keep our expenses so low is that Dave, Dimitris, and myself have not yet taken any salary. Any time and money we’ve invested in Outseta has been in exchange for equity in the business. When we added James to the team at the beginning of 2018, we asked him to help us out 20 hours per month. We’ve been paying him for 8 hours of his time each month and he’s been earning 12 hours worth of sweat equity in the business each month. Here’s how equity in Outseta shakes out today.
Dave and Dimitris spent some time setting up our development infrastructure at the end of 2016 and invested more time in the business throughout 2017 as they worked to deliver our minimum viable product. Our founding team worked an equivalent number of hours throughout 2018, but Dave and Dimitris also kicked in some cash to cover our operating expenses which explains the differences you see in the equity allocation between each of us.
Dave, Dimitris, and myself will begin paying ourselves a nominal salary in 2019 - more on that in our next company update.
On the product front, we’re all very excited about the progress that we’ve made. 2017 was spent entirely focused on delivering our MVP. We began marketing and selling our MVP on January 1, 2018 while continuing to build out the product’s core functionality.
Dimitris has focused primarily on back-end development while Dave does both back-end and front-end work. James’ design work dramatically leveled up the usability and polish of the user interface throughout 2018. So far, we’ve built functional product that includes…
Customer communication tools
Other “scaffolding” SaaS businesses need
Widgets to sign-up or login to a SaaS product
Lost password workflows
Lead capture forms
When we initially scoped Outseta, we envisioned SaaS metrics and reporting as a key part of the platform. While we still intend to build these features, we de-prioritized them as there were (and continue to be) a number of features more immediately relevant to our customers. We have the infrastructure and designs in place for reporting, but will be focusing primarily on additional improvements to the CRM moving into 2019.
Generally speaking the product’s core features are in place. We’ll now focus on taking each of them deeper by adding functionality to draw us closer to feature parity with the point solutions we compete against (as long as it’s specifically relevant to SaaS start-ups).
Marketing Strategy and Results
With the exception of about $2,000 spent testing paid online advertising, we’ve focused our marketing efforts over the last two years entirely on “free” channels. This has included:
Launching Outseta on Product Hunt and BetaList
Launching on Product Hunt and BetaList is worthwhile - these channels provided a one-time spike in website traffic and account sign-ups and are a great way to stir up some early users. The day we launched on Product Hunt we saw more website traffic than any other day in the last two years, and both the Product Hunt and BetaList launches resulted in 30+ account sign-ups each.
In addition to these launches the other major spikes in traffic were a result of another company’s blog post published on Hackernoon that did really well and linked to one of our own blog posts and one of the most successful articles that we published on our own blog, 4 SaaS Start-ups And Their Quest For Independent Growth.
Email prospecting was our second biggest undertaking from a marketing perspective. My approach to email prospecting is very time consuming, but it was effective in starting sales conversations.
Emails sent: 452
While email prospecting did start the majority of our sales conversations in 2018, in retrospect I wish I had spent less time here. While it’s a strategy that I think was appropriate given our stage - my goal was basically to stir up a small number of early accounts without spending any money - if I could do it again I’d focus more time in areas that would deliver longer term, sustainable gains. Like content marketing.
Content Marketing Results
Content marketing is where I’ve spent the vast majority of my time and energy over the last two years - I began these efforts a full year before we had any product to sell. Our strategy has been pretty simple - we publish a monthly company update (only if we genuinely have something worth our audience’s attention) as well as one other post per month on topics primarily related to growing SaaS start-ups.
We published a total of 27 posts in 2017 and 16 posts in 2018, including a few guest posts on blogs from companies like Kissmetrics, Crazy Egg, and Capterra. Here’s our content calendar with a history of all of the posts we’ve published or you can check most of them out on our blog. Most of the content we’ve published either highlights our own entrepreneurial journey or is heavily researched, long form content of 2,000-3,000 words. Our top performing posts to date are:
I chose to invest in content marketing for a few reasons.
We have some internal competency in writing. I was a writing major as an undergrad and see writing as one of my strengths.
We’re playing the long game - we set out to build Outseta with a genuine 10+ year mindset. We started to feel the impact of our content after about 18 months, which was OK because of this mindset.
I view content marketing as an investment in our brand.
I view content marketing as a long term investment in building sustainable, organic traffic.
So how has it worked out for us?
In short, I’m really pleased with what our content marketing has done for our brand. In a relatively small period of time, we’ve developed a small but highly engaged audience. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the articles we’ve published from people I admire and whose opinions I trust.
As we continue to grow tying our content marketing investments to revenue is most important, but as an early stage company I’ve bought into a metric called Unsolicited Response Rate (shout out to Jay Acunzo for popularizing this measure). This is simply a measure of how many people send me an unsolicited comment or note after each piece of content that I publish. We’re all busy, so if someone goes out of their way to send along a note that says, “hey this post is awesome and/or helped me,” that’s a pretty good indication that the content is resonating and providing value.
Coupled with our publishing cadence, I’m proud that we’ve earned a “these posts are worth reading” spot in many people’s inboxes. More importantly in terms of measuring ROI, almost every account sign-up in Q4 of 2018 was either a referral form an existing user or someone who specifically mentioned that they found us through one of the articles we’ve published.
While the positive feedback has been great, I definitely haven’t spent enough time investing in what I call “deliberate SEO.” I have spent very little time on deliberate link building outreach, further optimizing older posts for target keywords, or working on content projects that were designed primarily for their SEO benefit or potential. Earlier this year I asked SEO expert Neil Patel how much time I should be spending on link building and he suggested 5 hours per week - I definitely haven’t done that.
While I’ve promoted my posts fairly aggressively (without paid promotion), my hypothesis has essentially been, “Focus on creating awesome quality content and links and organic traffic will follow.” While that’s proven to be true and our organic traffic has grown, outseta.com is still a low traffic website - I know we can grow organic traffic much more quickly.
I think that we’re sitting on a golden opportunity in the sense that with a little more time spent in this area, it should be relatively easy for us to grow our site traffic substantially. As we look to grow more aggressively in 2019, this is an area that I need to spend more time on.
Without spending much time on SEO, our website traffic went from about 4,000 unique visitors in 2017 to over 10,000 unique visitors in 2018. More importantly, account sign-ups grew from 32 in 2017 to 279 in 2018.
Customers and Revenue
OK, OK, I know what you’re thinking. All of the above it great, but how is Outseta doing in terms of customers and revenue?
We’re not publicly sharing our customer count and revenue only because we haven’t really invested in growth yet. The majority of the companies that we’ve signed up so far have been opportunistic or inbound. Our numbers are still very modest, but we’re happy to share them with any prospect that asks.
Most importantly, we’re trying really hard to be patient and follow Mark Roberge’s framework:
Customer success. Then unit economics. Then growth.
Heading into 2019, the product and company is at a point where we’re now ready to invest more heavily in growth. We recently took on a project that’s essentially providing seed funding to support these upcoming investments - we’ll be detailing this decision in our next company update.
We’re also committed to sharing customer and revenue updates for the first time later this year in tandem with the launch of Outseta's reporting features. Stay tuned and you can hold us accountable to that!
We hope our reality is helpful
We wanted to share this information because topics likely equity allocation and expenses are so often secretive in the world of technology start-ups. Beyond that, our social media feeds are so often flooded with the outcomes and performance metrics of a small swath of successful, heavily venture backed companies founded by celebrity entrepreneurs.
While our metrics and expenses are in no way jaw dropping, we think from product to marketing we’re chipping away and making slow and steady progress in the right direction. If you’re a team of “normal” founders that’s bootstrapping a side project into a full-time one, we hope this post is both helpful and reflective of what reality often looks like. Any and all questions welcomed!
By Geoff Roberts 9 min read
Handling objections is something that has always been part of a salesperson’s job. The ability to overcome the most common objections that you hear about your product or service can make or break your company; particularly if you’re a start-up.
I’ve been marketing and selling a paid version of Outseta to potential customers for a year now and I’ve spoken with close to 1000 SaaS start-ups in the process. This post serves two purposes:
To share 5 specific, actionable tips to help you better handle your start-up’s objections
To highlight our approach by directly addressing the most common objections that I’ve heard about Outseta
Let’s start at the top.
5 Tips For Handling Your Start-up’s Objections
Here are some hard gleaned tips on how to best handle objections from your start-up’s potential customers.
#1 - Beware of argumentative language
Early on I found myself writing in email and saying during product demos, “I would argue that…”
I wasn’t trying to be argumentative or combative - at all - I was just trying to advocate for a different point of view. While that’s the case, using phrases like this can subconsciously create a sense of conflict that’s unnecessary - there’s no need to position your point that way.
When I first drafted one of the answers to our objections that you’ll read below, I wrote, “I would argue that this list is exactly what start-ups don’t need at an early stage.”
“This list is exactly what start-ups don’t need at an early stage,” loses that argumentative context, however slight, with the added bonus of coming across as more factual, direct, and confident.
#2 - Talk about your strengths, not your competitors’ weaknesses
Your product will almost always be evaluated alongside competitive products, so it’s only natural that you’ll field questions from prospects about how your product stacks up versus the competition. And if you’re in any reasonably competitive market, there will always be instances where your competitors offer features or functionality that you don’t or that’s better suited to the prospect you’re speaking with.
When handling objections about your product versus your competitors’, my advice is essentially don’t go there. Your competitors’ product offerings are probably changing quickly, much like your own, and staying up to date on exactly what each competitor offers is probably not the best use of your time if you’re working in an early stage start-up. Instead, focus on what you do know - your product and company’s strengths - and emphasize why those strengths are important to solving your prospect’s challenges.
#3 - Acknowledge legitimate concerns as legitimate concerns - step into your prospect’s shoes - and ask what would alleviate their concerns
Remember that prospects are people. If they’re looking to make any decent sized investment in a product or service, chances are they’re responsible for that decision. If you’re selling a B2B product it most likely impacts their job, their life, and their chances of a promotion. They should have objections!
Once you talk to enough potential buyers, you’ll quickly learn what the most common and legitimate objections to your product are - acknowledging them and showing a little empathy and understanding of your prospect’s concerns goes a long way.
But far too many companies stop short of one critical step - be sure to ask the prospect what would alleviate their concerns. Oftentimes the objection is something you can’t immediately do anything about, but sometimes prospects can surface ideas themselves that make them feel more comfortable moving forward. You never know unless you ask.
#4 - Encourage them to challenge the status quo - start-ups don’t win by doing what everyone else does
The proliferation of business advice and content on social media and the web has created a copy-cat society in the business world, one where companies flock to replicate the latest best practices. But if everybody’s doing the same thing, no one is innovating towards gaining a competitive advantage. Just because one strategy or way of doing things is widely adopted doesn’t necessarily make it the best.
That’s what start-ups are all about! Don’t be afraid to point that out and encourage your prospect to challenge the status quo, politely.
#5 - Recognize not everyone is an early adopter - leave the door open for later
Working with an early stage start-up in any industry typically comes with a greater degree of risk than working with a more established company - we’ve all heard the old adage, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” And that’s totally OK - not every prospect is going to be comfortable being an early adopter of your product or service.
Early adopters are a special breed so when you find them, treat them like gold. And for those that aren’t quite ready to take a leap on your start-up, make sure to leave things on good terms and let them know that your door is always open. You might be surprised who comes knocking a year or two down the road.
How We Handle Outseta’s Most Common Objections
With these tips under our belt, let’s look at how we’ve applied them to handling the most common objections we’ve heard about Outseta.
Outseta sounds great. But how do I know you’ll stay in business?
This is a classic objection that every start-up company must face. At Outseta we’re asking our customers to trust us with mission critical aspects of their business - their CRM records, their billing system, etc - so this is a very valid concern.
We’ve specifically built our business with painstaking transparency to help alleviate this concern. Everything from our business structure to how we make financial decisions has been designed for longevity. Ultimately, most start-up SaaS companies go out of business for one of two reasons.
They couldn’t find any traction for their idea and were never able to acquire paying customers. After a year or two the founders burn out or lose interest and shut down.
They run out of money - maybe they raised venture capital or angel funding - but their burn rate outpaced revenue growth and unable to make payroll they’re forced to shut their doors.
At Outseta we’ve done everything possible to insulate ourselves from these circumstances. First, our product competes in very mature markets like CRM, subscription billing, and email marketing - these categories represent known, validated needs of the companies we serve. The market for our product already exists.
Second, we have very specifically chosen to bootstrap Outseta and minimize all expenditures related to the business aside from our own time. Our growth is funded by our own revenue by design, rather than by investors. Our founding team is self-sustaining financially, meaning from day one we haven’t been relying on Outseta to pay us the salaries that we need to cover our living expenses.
For most SaaS start-ups salaries are by far their biggest expense - often 50% to 80% of total expenses - so this is a huge advantage and puts us in a scenario where it’s highly unlikely that we’ll go out of business for financial reasons. We’re in this for the long haul!
I’ll be sacrificing some functionality by using Outseta instead of building a tech stack of more specialized software tools. Why would I do that?
Yes, you will be sacrificing some functionality. No doubt. But for an early stage company, that’s actually a very good thing. Hear me out.
Let’s start by look at a report put together by another SaaS company, Blissfully. They’ve built a SaaS product to help you manage all of your different SaaS products, which I raise because their business relies on companies using a slew of specialized software tools. Yet in their Guide To SaaS Management they cite the problems associated with using a slew of SaaS tools as…
Human resources and finance challenges
This list is exactly what start-ups don’t need at an early stage. We all like to buy stuff. We all want more. We all live in a world that celebrates excess where nobody wants to feel like they’re missing out on anything. You want all the bells and whistles, I get it.
But is that what your start-up actually needs? When was the last time you used the seat warmer for the middle seat in the back row of your SUV?
When you piece together your tech stack at an early stage, you end up with a bunch of tools that are only fractionally used. There’s a core function or process that each tool supports and is used for, as well as a whole bunch of excess features that remain untouched. Mailchimp offers over 100 email templates - how many are you actually going to use?
This fractional use phenomenon makes logical sense when you consider what SaaS companies typically do as they grow or take on outside funding.
They build a bunch of new features to help them go “up-market” so they can sell bigger deals to bigger customers. So those extra features aren’t meant for you as a start-up anyways.
They build a bunch of new features to help them move into new markets. So those extra features aren’t really meant for you either.
They build lots of integrations with other complementary tools. You might use a few of them, but most of them won’t pertain to you.
We’re neither going up-market nor building integrations because our software tools have been built together from day one. So are those extra features really doing anything for you other than driving up the price tag? Is the price, integration, maintenance, and aforementioned problems with a slew of more specialized solutions really “worth it,” or do you just want to know that those extra features are there?
Most importantly, whatever software tools you use are ultimately designed to support one of the processes involved in running your company. You need software to manage your sales pipeline. You need software to charge your customers and to help field customer service requests. These are core needs that are undeniable and important to fulfill.
But is it the software you’re using, with all the bells and whistles, that’s going to dictate whether or not your start-up is successful? Absolutely not. The start-up game is about staying alive long enough to win. You need to design and build a product that people actually need. You need sales people who can handle objections. You need to hire a great team.
The bells and whistles of your software products is not what’s holding you back, especially in an early stage company. Having more time to focus on the aspects of your company that really matter is what will dictate your success.
Won’t I outgrow Outseta? What do I do when that happens?
You betcha you will - in fact, we’re hoping you do! We’re not going up-market - we’re here to serve you better than anyone else can now. We’ve seen companies grow from nothing to $5M-$6M in annual revenue using software tools like Outseta - that’s the journey we want to ride along with you for.
Our founding team worked together previously at Buildium, a company that’s made the INC 5000 list of America’s fastest growing private companies 7 consecutive years. You know how long it took Buildium to go from $0 to $5M in annual revenue?
The point is even if everything goes well and you grow fast you’ll be using Outseta for a long time; all the while reaping the benefits of predictable, low financial overhead that companies swimming up-market can’t promise you.
When you do get to that point, we’ll be in your corner high-fiving with you and you’ll also have a major advantage when switching to new software tools…
Because all of Outseta’s tools are fully integrated from the get-go, we have one master database that includes all of your data - every CRM record, billing interaction, email exchange, customer support ticket, or live chat conversation that you’ve had. You own that data, not us, and we can easily export it for you so it’s not lost.
Try doing that when you’re changing from using 5 to 10 different software tools. That’s… well that’s SaaS chaos!
By Geoff Roberts 3 min read
The home stretch of 2018 is upon us and it’s been an exciting year at Outseta. We began charging users for the first time in January and the evolution of our product since that time has been remarkable to see. Here’s what we’ve been up to since our last company update.
New Feature! Live Chat
Live chat tools have been a big deal as of late - companies like Intercom and Drift, Hubspot and Zendesk - they’ve all gotten into the mix. While Outseta has long offered various customer communication tools - email marketing, a customer support ticketing system, and knowledge base functionality - this means of engaging with prospects and customers had been missing from our platform.
We’re psyched to announce that we now offer live chat to all Outseta customers - it can easily be installed on your website or within your product. A few specific advantages of our live chat offering…
Live chat tools have become very expensive almost overnight. With Outseta live chat, you can have as many users and conversations as you want for one set price. Your company will grow, but your bill won’t.
Because our live chat tool is built from the ground up as part of the same platform as Outseta CRM and our other customer communication tools, chat history is automatically recorded on CRM records. No integration necessary.
Live chat also represents an exciting milestone for us - it’s the last “core” piece of functionality that we plan to add to the Outseta platform. Going forward, you’ll see us taking each of our primary features deeper but we won’t be adding any new core features. We’ve got the functionality SaaS start-ups need to launch and scale covered.
You can read more about Outseta live chat here.
Update! Paid Advertising Experiment Results
Earlier this year we set off to run some experiments with paid customer acquisition channels. Our September company update detailed some initial results when we experimented with Linkedin advertising. Since that time, experimented with both Twitter advertising and Google Ads.
As you may recall, with all of our paid acquisition experiments we’ve needed to think outside the box a bit because our product competes against better funded competitors in extremely competitive categories. One audience we’ve decided to target is attendees of MicroConf, which is a conference specifically for self-funded software entrepreneurs.
Twitter offers marketers some pretty unique targeting abilities; in this case we chose to target ads to people who follow @MicroConf on Twitter. You can also target ads to people who use a specific hashtag (like #MicroConf for example). As such, we ran this ad to followers of @MicroConf.
The ad landed visitors on a landing page we designed specifically for this audience. Here are the results of that experiment.
Ad spend: $254.88
Clicks: 48 clicks
Account sign-ups: 2
Cost per account: $127.44
We also experimented with Google Ads (formerly called Google Adwords). This experiment was different because instead of targeting a specific audience based on demographic factors like we did with Linkedin or Twitter, this time we were targeting people who searched for specific search queries.
We conducted keyword research to identify search queries that were highly relevant to our product but had low search volume and low competition (to keep costs down). Here are the keywords we targeted and a few examples of what the ads looked like.
“Best platform for startup” and “Best free tools for startups”
“Subscriber management” and “Recurring credit card billing”
Here are the results of this experiment:
Ad Spend: $506
Account sign-ups: 27
Cost per account: $18.74
Having now experimented with Linkedin, Twitter, and Google ads we now have a decent baseline - at least some early understanding - of the opportunity each of these channels represents to our business. These initial results will at least be helpful in informing any future spending on paid digital advertising.
That’s all for this month. Thanks as always for following along.
-Geoff, Dave, Dimitris, & James
By Geoff Roberts 9 min read
If you’ve been hanging out anywhere near B2B marketing circles the past few years, you couldn’t possibly have missed it - live chat, modern messaging apps, conversational marketing - call it what you will.
It’s a space that’s on fire in 2018.
Fueled by companies like Intercom and Drift, the live chat battleground has become the new darling of the marketing technology world with countless start-ups and established companies from Hubspot to Zendesk jumping into the ring.
Live chat tools come with the promise of completely changing your approach to marketing, of revolutionizing the way you deliver customer support, and there’s even companies like Swayed that are building live chat tools with the goal of replacing sales reps altogether.
The rise of live chat is a good thing for B2B buyers and B2B sellers - it’s a direct response to the way people have increasingly chosen to communicate over the past few decades. From AOL Instant Messenger, to texting, to HipChat and Slack, chat based tools are the new normal and it’s a good thing that this is finally being translated into the B2B world.
But the good almost always comes with some challenges, particularly for the end consumer. I remember sitting at my desk back in 2010, just knowing I needed a marketing automation platform and trying to make sense of the differences between Hubspot and Marketo. Both were making a lot of noise online. Their sales reps were slick and convincing. And somewhere in the midst of all those shiny features I still found myself wondering…
“How exactly am I going to use this product in the course of my day to day job?”
Today’s buyers face similar challenges; there is a deafening amount of noise in this space at the moment. This post is for start-up companies who are thinking about live chat, trying to figure out how this channel fits into their technology stack and how it can be best leveraged at their company. My aim is to surface some sensible and often neglected truths about live chat so that you can see through the hype and make smarter decisions about how you can best leverage live chat at your start-up.
Live chat products are not new
Marketing technology vendors are notorious for creating hype; a bi-product of these companies competing for the attention of buyers alongside nearly 6,000 other companies. Pile on the growth expectations that come with the amount of venture capital that’s been poured into this space (Intercom and Drift alone have raised a collective $347M to date), and next thing you know live chat tools are being presented as something new.
Point blank, they’re not. So what is new?
First, the user adoption of these technologies has continued to grow; this market has long been sizable, but it’s continuing to expand. Second, the aforementioned VC dollars that have been poured into this space have cranked up the volume and noise around all things live chat.
A few examples to prove my point - LivePerson was founded in 1995 and IPOed just 5 years later in April of 2000. LiveChat Software has 21,000 customers and was founded back in 2002. SnapEngage was founded in 2008, and Olark was founded in 2009. Heck, software review site Capterra has over 238 live chat products listed on their site.
The point is, this means of engaging with customers whether it’s on your website, in your app, in a sales context or a customer support context; it’s been around for quite a while already. These tools are now more commonplace, but one could very easily argue that this was simply an underutilized means of engaging with prospects and customers previously.
Beware the vendor who sells you the hype; seek out the companies that will spend their time educating you on how to make the most of this channel. You have many, many good options to consider.
Live chat is notorious for creating lousy customer experiences
In order for live chat tools to really provide value - to become that engaging channel where website or product visitors can go to get truly personalized, on-demand answers to their questions - someone needs to be available.
The truth of the matter is staffing live chat appropriately is very similar to staffing a call center appropriately - it’s just not very sexy to say that. If nobody’s there to pick up the phone when you call in for help and you’re put on hold for hours on end, it turns what could have been a positive interaction into a really negative one. Frustration boils, patience is lost, and people move on.
We’ve all been there with live chat too - you ask a question, you get radio silence. Or worse yet, you get an autoresponder asking you for your email address. That’s the equivalent of walking into a brick-and-mortar store where there’s no one available to check you out, but there’s a sign-up form at the checkout register so you can sign-up to receive the store’s catalog in the mail.
This challenge is particularly tough to solve for start-up companies; while bigger companies likely have dedicated support or sales staff whose primary responsibility is to monitor incoming chat sessions, most start-ups don’t. Even with desktop notifications of incoming chats enabled, start-up founders are often trying to juggle responding to chat messages with their other responsibilities. If you’re in the midst of writing code, or conducting a product demo, or meeting a potential hire for coffee that incoming chat message is going to get put off.
Next thing you know you’ve turned off another prospect.
Think long and hard about whether you can truly staff live chat appropriately as a start-up company. It’s totally OK to say “not now” to live chat; maybe asking site visitors to submit a support ticket with the promise of a response in 24 hours is more appropriate for your stage. Whether you decide to leverage live chat or not, expectation setting with visitors is key - don’t be afraid to use live chat away messages liberally if they help you set expectations appropriately and avoid turning off site visitors in the process.
Bots are the very definition of providing impersonal service
As you read the previous paragraph about the challenges of staffing live chat appropriately, I could almost hear you calling out, “But there’s a solution to this problem! It’s bots!”
To which I say, please, beware of the bot.
If you’re bot aware of what I’m talking a-bot, bots are essentially autoresponder tools that use natural language processing to understand some aspect of what they’ve been asked through a live chat interaction. They then use this understanding of what they were asked to surface useful content that answers the question or routes the conversation to an appropriate person if someone is available.
You know what bots sound like to me? A phone tree. “Say one for sales, two for support.” This workflow isn’t new, it’s just wrapped in shiny new technology and packaging.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, I’d argue this similarity is undeniable. What many live chat vendors really don’t want you to know is that bots represent cool new technology that helps them attract software developers who are interested in working with these technologies.
I know, I know, I’m being particularly hard on the bot. In the vain of fairness, I’ll say this; there’s a reason so many companies are employing them. They can help route conversations appropriately. They can be available when a real person is not. They can accelerate sales cycles. All good things.
But the crux of my argument is the bot doesn’t really serve the customer, it serves the company employing the bot. If you truly believe in being customer centric, in putting the customer first, is routing someone’s question to a bot really the best way to deliver a delightful experience?
I would argue that it’s not.
Nobody has ever really wanted to chat with a bot, so if world class service is your objective have someone available whether it be by phone, via email, a live chat tool, or any other means of communication. If you think about it, there couldn’t be anything less personal than talking to a bot, could there?
You must contextualize your greeting messages to the content of your web pages
This final point is so often overlooked in the context of live chat discussions, it’s absolutely dizzying to me. Most live chat tools provide users with ability to prompt new website or app visitors with a greeting message (a proactive strategy designed to start conversations), or allow the visitor to initiate a conversation by clicking on a live chat icon, usually in the bottom right hand corner of their screen (more of a reactive strategy).
There’s a time and place for both.
What I see entirely too often is companies choosing the proactive path, but popping up the exact same greeting message on all of their website pages.
Home page: “Hi there, I’m here if you need any help. Please enter your email address in case we get disconnected.”
Features page: “Hi there, I’m here if you need any help. Please enter your email address in case we get disconnected.”
Pricing page: “Hi there, I’m here if you need any help. Please enter your email address in case we get disconnected.”
Again, this quickly becomes a nuisance and next thing you know your live chat tool is actually driving up your website’s bounce rate.
The good new is there’s an easy answer here - contextualize your live chat tool’s greeting messages to the content of the web page on which the message will display. If you have a website page that talks about email marketing, prompt site visitors by asking them a question about what they’re doing to increase their email open rates. If you have a web page that details all of the features of your company’s billing solution, ask site visitors how they’re charging their customers today.
In all of my experimentation with live chat tools, nothing has increased conversations or the value of the tool in general more than crafting custom greeting messages that fit the context of the page’s content.
For today’s buyers, there’s one problem that’s unfortunately prevalent; many live chat tools require you to upgrade to a higher pricing tier that’s unaccessible to start-ups in order to use custom page-specific greeting messages.
Unlocking “advanced” functionality in higher pricing tiers is the norm in the marketing technology world, and it’s very much a logical pricing strategy. But when vendors hide core functionality that’s really a must-have in order to have success with their products behind a massive price tag? That’s evidence of a growth-at-all-costs mindset and it’s ultimately the end consumer who loses.
Live chat is an increasingly in-demand means of engaging in the B2B world and can be really effective in helping companies communicate with their customers and prospects in real-time, on their terms. But like any new software trend, make sure you’re not blindly following the masses like a lemming off of a cliff. It takes careful consideration of your availability and your ability to contextualize your live chat experiences to deliver truly positive and personalized conversations that delight your customers.
Last year Clement Vouillon of Point Nine Capital wrote an article entitled The Rise of the Non “VC compatible” SaaS Companies. It made the rounds in tech circles online. And it expressed a growing sentiment in the world of SaaS start-ups; for the majority of SaaS founders the traditional VC model is a clusterfuck that makes very little sense.
Fast forward 18 months, and the article looks downright prophetic.
In recent months some of the most well known names in tech have announced that they’ve decided to buy out their investors. First it was Wistia, followed shortly thereafter by Buffer; both buyouts a sort of declaration of independence that gave both companies back the ability to build their businesses on their own terms.
Rand Fishkin of Moz poured his heart and frustrations into his book Lost and Founder, then began building SparkToro taking a drastically different approach than he did in building Moz. Investment funds like Indie.VC have turned from a little known “isn’t it cute what they’re doing” blip on your Twitter feed to a highly regarded fund with an extremely passionate following.
If you’re reading this post, this probably isn’t news to you.
I’ll be the first to admit that all of the above resonates with me - I think more companies looking to stay independent and operate on their own terms is, generally, a good thing. But that said, the dialogue around the “VC compatibility” issue has quickly become very much divisive and polarizing.
Venture capital is not inherently bad or the manifestation of greed and commitments to impossible-to-deliver growth. And the companies choosing the independent path are not all hipster led lifestyle businesses choosing nobility over bankroll and operating with a chip on their shoulders.
The fact of the matter is there are countless ways that you can choose to build your business, and even amongst this new flock of independent SaaS companies there are significant, deliberate differences in the approaches these companies have taken.
This post will look at two more established companies - Wistia and Buffer - and two newer start-ups - Outseta (my start-up) and SparkToro - taking a closer look at the pros and cons of the unique decisions each company has made on their road to independent growth.
TWO ESTABLISHED COMPANIES CHANGE COURSE
Don't fret, we just bought out our investors and took on some debt
$650,000 from angel investors in 2008
$775,000 from angel investors in 2010
$17.3M in debt from Accel-KKR in November 2017
Wistia, a Cambridge, MA based video hosting company, made waves throughout the SaaS world this July when they formally announced that they had taken on $17.3M in debt to buy out their investors.
The company had for a few years prior followed a growth-first path, hiring aggressively and prioritizing projects designed to make an immediate impact on their growth rate. This newfound focus created cultural issues within the company, saw the company’s monthly burn rate dramatically increase, and did little to accelerate growth. At the end of the day, “We broke pretty much everything,” says CEO Chris Savage. Perhaps worse yet, long tenured employees of the company began leaving, saying the new focus on growth “didn’t feel Wistia.”
Wistia is certainly not the first tech company to suffer from over-scaling, but their story is both unique and illuminating for a number of reasons.
First, Wistia had for years taken a long-term approach to growth. They had built a highly profitable business that was generally adored by its customers. They had been very deliberate about not raising too much money, and to date the company has only raised a total of $1.4M. Their first round of Angel investment in 2008 had not been a round for the sake of raising a round, or funds really even earmarked to invest heavily in growth. Founders Chris Savage and Brendan Schwartz only raised money when after two years, “we admitted to ourselves we needed some help from folks with more experience than us.”
Despite taking this carefully considered, only-what-we-need approach to growth they began hearing advice and a narrative that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere outside of the traditional Silicon Valley tech bubble.
“As we grew the company and began sharing our story, we kept hearing the same counterintuitive advice from other entrepreneurs — Wistia was too profitable. We weren’t spending enough on growth, thereby limiting our opportunity.”
While I’m all for reinvesting in growth, it’s hard not to chuckle when you hear that a business is too profitable. In a for-profit business, isn’t making profit the objective? The idea of temporarily jacking up your annual growth rates so you can sell your business at a high valuation multiple is really a much more sideways approach to growth if you take off your tech blinders for a minute and use your head.
But after a few years of more aggressively chasing growth and realizing that they were no longer having much fun, Wistia’s Founders decided something had to change. If they were to get back to growing Wistia on their own terms, some serious challenges lay ahead.
They needed to provide a return to their angel investors
They needed to provide return to their employees
With no intention of selling their business, they needed to replace their stock option plan
They didn’t have enough cash on hand to buy back stock, so they had to raise money
They had to raise debt which increased their ownership in Wistia, but also their risk
The solution to the problem that gave Wistia back the right to grow on their own terms came in the form of taking on $17.3M in debt from Accel-KKR in November 2017, an enormously difficult decision that has since been generally and rightly lauded in tech circles.
“We felt confident that the profitability constraints the debt imposed would be healthy for the business. Spending or hiring ahead of budget to try to juice growth weren’t options in this model and we’d be forced to grow the way we wanted to: sustainably, with a focus on creative, long-term solutions for our customers and team,” said Savage.
As one of Wistia’s very early customers, I watched the company grow up from afar and had heard bits and pieces of this story from those both inside and outside of the company. But as I reflect on this story, there’s three things that stick out in my mind that I admire.
Wistia’s Founders made the decision to take on debt after they received an offer to sell their company outright. It was a large enough sum of money to change their lives, and their family’s lives, forever. Not many people choose to walk away from a pot of gold. Especially when you’re taking on $17.3M of debt in a business with an annual run rate of $32M.
In raising debt, the company chose to provide a return to both their investors and their employees. It was the right thing to do, but this is exceedingly rare.
Ultimately one of the major reasons Wistia chose to raise debt was so that they could get back to taking long-term, creative risks that had been hadn’t been prioritized when they were pursuing growth more aggressively. While taking creative risks may not be what’s most important to your tech company, it’s one of Wistia’s four core values and is deeply important to them. I applaud them for “knowing thyself” and serving their values above all else.
Curious how he felt reflecting on the decision to raise angel money - a decision that ultimately resulted in Wistia needing to take on $17M in debt - I asked Wistia Co-founder and CTO Brendan Schwartz if he’d do anything differently.
“That money brought us two phenomenal teammates, a really helpful mentor who's still on our board, and lots of connections and help from investors. I'm quite confident we would not be as successful without raising that money initially,” said Schwartz. “The only thing I think we would have done differently in retrospect would be to structure the deal with some kind of payback terms similar to what Bryce has been doing with Indie.vc. I think that's a great way to preserve optionality - you can pursue the venture track or you can aim for profitability, pay back your investors, and maintain full control over your business.”
$120,000 through AngelPad start-up accelerator in August 2011
$330,000 seed round in December 2011
$3.5M series A round in December 2014 (60% was from Collaborative Fund)
Bought out main series A investors (representing $2.3M of $3.5M raised) in July 2018
Just a few short months after Wistia’s announcement another household name in tech circles, Buffer, announced that they were also buying out their investors. While they didn’t need to take on any debt to buy out their investors - let alone $17.3M worth - their story is uniquely turbulent in a number of ways.
Buffer began as very much a darling child of the tech world - they had everything going for them. After raising a total of $450,000 in 2011, Buffer would raise a Series A round of $3.5M in 2014 - 60% of which came from Collaborative Fund.
Buffer was so hot at the time - revenues were growing 150% per year - that the terms they got for their Series A were insanely good. They were doing $4.6M of revenue at the time and the business was valued at $60M - a valuation multiple of 13x revenues. The $3.5M they raised only required them giving up a 6.2% equity stake in the company… and no board seat. The company even took $2.5M of the $3.5M and paid it out to the Founders and early team members.
Without question, Buffer was flying high.
After the Series A, Buffer fell into a similar trap to Wistia - they hired too quickly, specifically to accelerate product development. Shortly thereafter Co-founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne and team had to make the tough decision to layoff a number of Buffer employees to regain financial control of the business. Morale took one on the chin.
Shaken by this experience and unwilling to compromise on many aspects of his company’s unique culture (open salaries, fully-remote team) that he viewed as Buffer’s secret sauce, Joel began articulating a vision for the company that accepted a slower, more deliberate growth rate. This vision was not aligned with his investors, or his Co-founder and CTO, both of whom would leave the company.
As tensions with his Series A investors increased, the fine print on the Series A term sheet surfaced some additional challenges if Buffer sought to control its own growth trajectory.
They needed to provide a return to their investors
They had to layoff employees after hiring too aggressively
They could not provide liquidity to employees or seed investors without majority support from Series A investors. They had to buy them out first.
Their Series A term sheet provided downside protection for Series A investors, who had the right to claim a guaranteed 9% annual interest on their investment at any point 5 years after the initial investment.
Communication soon broke down with Collaborative Fund and Joel found himself in a meeting where he was being asked if he would step down as CEO of Buffer if he could not afford the 9% annual interest his investors were entitled to after 5 years. If Joel was not willing to pursue growth that was in alignment with his investor’s expectations, he could be squeezed out of his company altogether.
Luckily for Buffer, the layoffs and slowed emphasis on growth had helped Joel regain control of the company and start operating profitably again; so much so that he was putting $400,000-$500,000 of profit away in the bank each month. Buffer spent $3.3M - about half of the cash they had in the bank - to buy out their main VC investors (who had kicked in $2.3M of the $3.5M Series A investment). Those that chose not to accept the buyout proved to be comfortable with Joel’s decision to grow the company at a slower, more organic rate moving forward.
While Buffer’s path to independence did not require walking away from a pot of gold and taking on a large amount of debt, the company’s path was both turbulent and admirable in its own right. Laying off employees, watching your relationship with investors who believed in you sour, losing a Co-founder and a CTO, and having it suggested that you might be squeezed out of the company you’ve spent the last 7-8 years of your life building is all agonizing stuff that will keep you up at night.
To make matters worse, when you “had it all” previously these things are even harder for your team and employees to understand. Said Gascoigne, “Whereas in the past we’d had it all and achieved growth alongside creating a unique culture with a fully remote team and high levels of transparency, it now started to feel like we had to choose between those things. It was suggested that some of the fundamentals that I had come to value could be removed to create a productivity environment that would increase the growth rate.”
Another takeaway for me from Buffer’s story is how easy it is for Founders and investors to become misaligned, even when both sides have good intentions. When Buffer set out to raise their Series A, they knew they were raising an “atypical round” in terms of the round’s size, not turning over a board seat, and only giving up a small stake in their company.
Collaborative Fund, who looks to make investments that are “better for the world” and “pushing the world forward,” was open to this structure granted some downside protection. Said Gascoigne, “We shared openly that we may not want to raise further funding, sell the company, or IPO. We were transparent that we wanted to be able to keep questioning the way things are done. Specifically, we communicated that we wanted the option to be able to give a return via distributions, not an exit.”
The point is these conversations were on the table from the get-go and from afar this looks like a situation where neither the Founder nor the investor meant any ill-will or malice. But while stashing away $400,000-$500,000 of profit per month and accepting a slower growth rate made a lot of sense to Joel, it certainly didn’t jive with the expectations of his lead investor; previous conversations had or not.
Ultimately what I appreciate most about Buffer’s story is similar to what I appreciate about Wistia’s.
Buffer chose to pay out $2.5M of the $3.5M they raised in their Series A to their Founders and early team. I applaud the decision to pay out those who were responsible for the company’s early successes and the company’s ability to raise that round in the first place.
While Wistia wasn’t going to sacrifice their ability to take creative risks, Joel wasn’t going to compromise the remote workforce and highly transparent culture that he’d built at Buffer. In fact, he saw these aspects of the company as largely responsible for their successes. I admire his recognition of this part of their culture as a strategic advantage and something that he would absolutely not compromise on.
TWO NEW COMPANIES PLOT THEIR COURSE
Our start-up structures are new and daring, we distribute wealth through profit sharing
Sparktoro, a Seattle based company that’s building a “search engine for audience intelligence,” is a product of Rand Fishkin (formerly Co-founder of Moz) and his Co-founder Casey Henry.
$1.3mm from 35 angel investors in June 2018
When Rand Fishkin made the decision to start building his next company after Moz, he came out of the gates swinging with his book Lost and Founder followed shortly thereafter by a very atypical funding round.
The traditional VC model was not a fit for his new business, and he wasn’t afraid to say it. He’s hell-bent on showing that there are alternative paths for Founders who want to retain the right to grow their company on their terms.
Rand and Casey chose a corporate structure and investment terms that are a departure from the norm - the company is a LLC and can pay dividends to employees and investors when the company does well. The company has the option to pay profits out to investors or choose to invest profits back into the company’s growth. On the surface, this structure looks similar to the deal Basecamp made when they took investment from Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos - a no control stake in a LLC that has now returned (via profit sharing) more than 5 times the amount Bezos initially invested.
The structure is also specifically designed to hold the Founders accountable; neither Casey nor Rad can take any profit or raise their salaries above the market average for Seattle until they have returned all invested capital to their investors.
Changes to this structure require that 80%+ of outstanding units (think of these as stock options) vote for the suggested change. If the company is sold, investors get to greater amount between the amount they invested or the worth of their outstanding units.
They wanted the ability to stay independent and profitable vs. seeking an exit or IPO
They wanted the ability pay out invested capital as dividends when the company did well
The Founders had different financial situations and didn’t want to wait to start working on SparkToro full-time
SparkToro’s path is most interesting to me because the decisions they made were very much intentional and deliberate. While Wistia and Buffer had existing investors and lots of success before they were faced with the financial restructuring of their businesses, if they wanted to plot their own independent course their hands were somewhat tied and they had to figure out how to best make that happen. Casey and Rand were starting with a perfectly blank slate.
The first thing that I like about what they did is they made a deliberate effort to highlight their new course in the hopes that others can follow or at least derive some inspiration from the decisions they made. This is evident in their one page term sheet, their investor prospectus, and even their mention of using tools like Carta to distribute units. All of this is helpful fodder and they took the time to make these documents clean, understandable, and generally as useful to others as possible.
But what’s really most interesting to me about SparkToro’s path was that behind the term sheets, financial figures, and equity structures they took the time to share the human element behind some of their decisions.
They could have bootstrapped the business, but they decided not to because that wasn’t an option for Casey’s family or financial situation. Rand had previously funded Moz in the early days via consulting revenue, and was well aware of the hidden costs and tradeoffs that come with bootstrapping.
And let’s face it - between Moz’s success and Rand’s standing in the worlds of marketing and VC-backed technology companies, money wasn’t only available but it was available on their terms. They got a decent valuation with very little traction and were able to add a number of key investors with a vested interest in their business without giving them voting rights.
While this scenario is exceedingly rare, it definitely removes the majority of the drawbacks often associated with raising money. While SparkToro did give up a good amount of equity, the only other real downside in this scenario is adding some complexity around reporting and legal costs earlier on than they might otherwise have. And while their investors don’t have voting rights, they still represent stakeholders that need to be considered in future decision making.
With these realities on the table, I appreciate the deliberately frugal approach and agreements Rand and Casey made regarding how their funding would be spent. By agreeing to take market level salaries and not allowing themselves to raise their salaries or dip into any profits themselves until all capital is returned to their investors, they’re demonstrating self-imposed financial constraints that show investors they’re being responsible and judicious with their investment dollars.
It was also cool to see the one area where they admittedly splurged - high quality health insurance through WTIA. They weren’t afraid to call out their needs in this area or compromise and put their families at risk by skimping on their healthcare until a later stage. Personally, I was not aware of programs like these and while WTIA’s program only serves the state of Washington, this set me on a course to exploring options like this for California residents (where I live).
All of which brings us to my start-up, Outseta, a fully remote team that’s building a suite of software tools specifically for early stage SaaS start-ups. We’ve been in business since late 2016, and since the get-go have been building our own intentionally independent path. Like SparkToro, we also open sourced our operating agreement in the hope that it would be helpful to others considering a similar path.
My Co-founder, Dimitris, also Co-founded Buildium, where we met. Buildium (founded in 2004) was set up as a LLC with a membership units plan to help drive employee retention and deliver financial rewards to employees in the case of a liquidity event. It was certainly one of the few SaaS start-ups I was aware of with this structure at the time. Buildium bootstrapped for its first 8 years, well past $5mm in revenue, before eventually raising money to keep accelerating growth. The path we’ve chosen at Outseta certainly reflects this past experience, but with some notable changes.
We wanted the ability to stay independent permanently and have all employees reap financial benefits when the company does well via profit sharing rather than pursuing an exit that makes a small number of shareholders wealthy
We wanted to to embrace self-management, a structure that rewards autonomy and focuses on rewarding employees for their contributions to the company rather than their positional authority or job title
We knew we’d be bootstrapping against heavily venture-backed competitors in a particularly competitive market
Our founders have very different financial situations, which we knew would predicate us taking a long term approach to building the company
The first thing that I’ll note is that by deliberately choosing to bootstrap in such a competitive market, we knew that we had to take a very long term approach to building Outseta. We have and are continuing to ramp up the amount of time we spend on the company - Dimitris is still involved with Buildium as a board member, and my Co-founder Dave and I both continue to take on some consulting work.
There’s obviously a trade-off here, one that was questioned recently when I was interviewed by Nathan Latka on his podcast. “If you’re so confident in what you’re building, why don’t you go all-in?” he asked. In short, our answer is…
We’re building a product with key functionalities - CRM, subscription billing, and customer communication tools (email, live chat, help desk) - that don’t need to be “validated.” These are established categories and known needs of the companies we serve - there’s no “first mover” advantage in this market and there are already players of all shapes and sizes.
Like Wistia, we think that needing to operate within the constraints of our own profitability is actually a good thing and will keep us financially disciplined.
I would argue that the path we’ve chosen is much more “all-in” than building the company using someone else’s money. We’re putting ourselves, our own time, and our own money on the line.
Perhaps most importantly, I’d say our ability to take this long term approach is only possible because of the relationships our founding team has with one another. I worked with Dimitris for 5 years previously at Buildium, Dave and Dimitris worked together previously at Sapient. In addition to the prior working relationships, there are friendships. While that creates challenges of its own, what it’s meant for us is a high degree of confidence and philosophical alignment in how we want to build Outseta.
Secondarily, it’s really important for us to share Outseta’s financial successes with our team without requiring an exit event. As such, all employees at Outseta are eligible to participate in profit sharing once they’ve been with the company for one year. We also issue membership units (like stock options) to employees and offer a buyback program so that if an employee gets a great opportunity elsewhere they can take it and still cash in on the value of their units. This program pays back employees based on the number of membership units they hold and the valuation of the company, which we calculate as 2X the past year’s revenues.
Finally, as Rand and Casey did it’s worth acknowledging that our founding team has different family and financial situations. This is certainly a potential source of misalignment, but at the same time it’s a reality that’s forced us to consider how we wish to structure and operate Outseta that much more.
Since day one, every hour spent working on Outseta has been tracked and everybody is earning sweat equity in the business commensurate with their time invested in the company. The plan, absolutely, is for us all to go full-time when we have the revenues to support our own salaries.
In the meantime, I have all the “normal” financial challenges that you might expect; I have a mortgage payment each month, school loans to pay off, and a fiance who wants to remodel our bathroom. On top of that, I simply need to “keep the lights on” as well as pay for my own health insurance. All of the above is without question stressful, especially when you look at friends with big-salaried corporate jobs and growing 401ks.
My advice for anyone considering bootstrapping that doesn’t have financial freedom is this; don’t fall into the trap of viewing bootstrapping as this noble endeavor that’s going to impose some short term limitations. Manage your burn rate obsessively, and create a plan to keep yourself financially afloat for 3 or 4 years.
I’m coming up on two years now making about a 50% salary without any benefits. I’m 32 years old and generally healthy, so I opted for a “good enough” health insurance policy that really just provides coverage were anything bad to happen to me health-wise - it costs about $280 month through Covered California.
Bootstrapping for 3 months is very different than bootstrapping for 3 years, so do some soul searching ahead of time to figure out if this is feasible for you.
Wistia and Buffer are two very admirable companies that have done well for themselves already. Outseta and SparkToro are really just getting started. But while all of these companies have made very different decisions to get to where they are today, they all share a common belief - that the right to grow your business at a more organic, deliberate pace can actually be one of the biggest advantages to long term revenue growth that’s out there.
If you’re considering a similar path I hope this provided some inspiration, and I’d love to hear about your company’s path via a comment below.