On a Monday morning in late September 2017—about 9 months into building my start-up, Outseta—I emailed perhaps the most well known venture capitalist in the tech industry.
I’d been intro’d by a friend and mentor—the response that landed in my email inbox came quickly.
I remember turning those words over in my head slowly—this was a person whose perspective was hard to ignore. And frankly it was just about the most positive response I’d heard from a VC, many of which had thrashed the idea altogether.
But all that aside, I’d worked as an operator in a number of SaaS start-ups. I’d seen first hand how much time and technical resources were allocated to buying, integrating, and maintaining the technology on which these businesses relied. And they required the same tooling—subscription billing to charge customers, authentication, transactional emails, and more.
Features like these were absolutely tablestakes in the context of all the SaaS start-ups I’d worked with. How could delivering these features in a single platform not be preferable? I believed in my heart of hearts that it was.
And there were the obvious parallels—I’d just come off building an all-in-one, vertical SaaS product for property managers. I’d seen first hand how most software markets outside of SaaS were dominated by all-in-one products. And there were companies like Shopify that had built massively successful businesses by making it easier for e-commerce founders to launch their businesses.
Why not SaaS?
The truth is the idea of building an all-in-one product to launch and grow a SaaS company is both highly polarizing and one that’s been attempted many times before. This post is going to explore the history of this idea, review many of the current products in this space, and maybe help you formulate your own opinion on SaaS-in-a-box tools along the way.
Current SaaS boilerplate products
The following products come in many different shapes and sizes, but the common thread among them is they offer many of the tablestakes features required to launch—and in some cases operate—a SaaS business. In most cases the value delivered by these products is speed to market.
Please note—I am not intimately familiar with any of the products mentioned below aside from Outseta. These are simply products that I was referred to in the context of writing this post, or that I had pre-existing knowledge of as a founder operating in this space. I’ve included some comments on each—just enough to give you a bit of context as to those that might be most relevant to your project.
Bullet Train is a SaaS-in-a-box for Ruby on Rails specifically. Founder Andrew Culver is one of the few founders on this list I’ve chatted with and is a really nice guy. In my opinion this is probably the best example of a framework specific SaaS-in-a-box.
Wave is a starter kit that uses Paddle as a payment gateway.
SaaS Pegasus is a starter kit for Django specifically.
RailsRocket is a bit different from the other projects on this list—it’s a way to build actual software applications (not just deliver the tablestakes) without writing code.
Gravity is a SaaS boilerplate to build apps with Node.js and React. Founder Kyle Gawley has been an outspoken advocate for SaaS boilerplate products, and also offers a product specifically for launching iOS and Android apps.
Taylor Otwell’s Laravel Spark is a billing focused solution for Laravel. It supports both Stripe and Paddle as payment gateways and supports per user pricing models.
ABP Commerical is an open source and community driven web application framework for ASP.NET Core. They offer templates, themes, and modules that can be used to build your own web application.
SaaSify started off as a SaaS-in-a-box, but has undergone a bit of a pivot and is now focused on helping you monetize your API. You can build your product in any framework, give SaaSify access to your REST API endpoints, and they’ll help you monetize your API based on usage. They also include a marketing site and campaigns.
Divjoy is a React codebase generator that integrates complimentary services like Stripe, Vercel, Firebase, and Mailchimp.
Serverless SaaS is a starter kit for React apps. The product also includes a landing page and a blog.
Jumpstart is a SaaS starter kit for Ruby on Rails offered by founder Chris Oliver.
Now that we’ve covered some of the leading products in this space and the various flavors SaaS boilerplates come in, let’s take a closer look at why a popular equivalent to a “Shopify for SaaS” has yet to emerge.
The challenges of building a SaaS-in-a-box
“Many have tried to do something integrated. There really haven’t been any successes.”
There are lots of good, valid reasons why we haven’t seen a dominant player emerge in this space. Shopify didn’t launch until 2006 and certainly wasn’t a household name very quickly, despite e-commerce becoming popular well before then. SaaS became popularized well after e-commerce, so it’s certainly a newer industry—but still with so many developers familiar with SaaS, you’d think this would have come to fruition already.
I’ve turned this question over many times over the past 5 years and I believe the major challenges that have prohibited this idea from becoming popularized (yet) are the items listed below.
Point solutions do one thing better
If a software product has a singular objective, it’s likely going to do that one thing better than an all-in-one product would—no argument from me. It’s simply a matter of being able to put more resources behind a single function, instead of many.
There’s also a psychological component at play here—people generally want to buy products that are the very best at what they do. And developers have the technical skills to integrate a whole bunch of tools—they can do the work, so they often do even when they recognize it may not be the best use of their time.
Framework specific solutions have a smaller target market
Many of the attempts at building a SaaS starter kit have been framework specific—there are nuances specific to each framework, so it’s simply difficult to build a product that can easily be used across frameworks. With so many different development frameworks out there, that’s made it tough for a framework specific tool to rise to the level of prominence that Shopify has.
It’s a BIG undertaking
More than anything, I think we haven’t seen a massively successful attempt at this idea because it’s simply a huge undertaking from a development perspective. And starter kits aside, products like Outseta that aim to support the entire customer lifecycle are that much bigger. I can tell you from firsthand experience, it’s much more like building 4-5 software products than one.
For example, we’ve needed to build a CRM, authentication, and billing tools all to the point where they are reasonably competitive with the point solutions on the market—it’s not easy to do that once, let alone across three product categories.
What that’s meant in practice is that it took us a full two years to deliver a minimum viable product—and closer to four years to develop significant revenue. And this has been working with three developers that could be CTOs anywhere.
Many attempts at this idea have been made by solo developers—in short I think that’s just not terribly feasible. There’s simply too much to build that would require a timeframe very few solo founders would have the stomach for. I maintain that if I could start over again, I wouldn’t bootstrap Outseta. It’s simply a venture scale product.
Beyond that, many solo developers have tried to get around this by taking shortcuts. There have been lots of attempts at this idea that simply stitch together other technologies in a fairly usable way—think Stripe billing, Mailchimp, and Salesforce. These products can certainly come to market faster, but at the end of the day the benefits aren’t much beyond what a developer could easily do on their own with Zapier or API integrations.
Attempting to change the predominate tendencies developers
Developers are engineers and they take pride in their craft. No matter how many times they read The Lean Startup, developers have a huge bias toward over architecting their products at an early stage. They have the skills and technical expertise to build for scale and security from day one, so they do it. For many of them assembling the perfect tech stack is both fun and a point of pride.
Ask a carpenter to build you a step stool, and they’re going to build you a pine box then polyurethane it until it gleans—even if there’s a perfectly suitable plastic crate within arms reach.
While building an all-in-one product to launch and grow a SaaS business is anything but an easy endeavor, my own perspective has transitioned from “maybe there’s a nice little business here” to “I think this may very well be a massive opportunity.”
There are without question tablestakes that all SaaS products need
Just as e-commerce companies all need a storefront, item descriptions, and payment processing tools, SaaS companies similarly have a feature set that nearly all of them require.
I’ve never come across a SaaS company that didn’t need billing, or authentication, or CRM, or email tools. Founders have a propensity for thinking their companies are more unique than they are, but particularly in the early days most would be better suited starting with a simple set of tools so they can get traction as quickly as possible and devote their time to what truly matters—building their core product.
Over time as a business scales, it will undoubtedly become more complex and have more specific requirements—and that’s OK! Many e-commerce companies that are now household names started out using very templated Shopify tools before they evolved into the more sophisticated storefronts that they offer today.
The smartest serial founders I know almost universally like the idea
SaaS really hasn’t been a popular business model for all that long now—but it has been for long enough that the number of repeat, successful founders is significant. In my experience these people almost universally understand the importance of speed to market, having spun up all the tablestakes required to launch a SaaS product on their own several times before. They understand from first hand experience how time consuming that can be—and the opportunity cost in terms of product development that comes with it.
VCs are changing their tune
I mentioned that I think building “the Shopify of SaaS” is a venture scale idea, and even in the last 5 years I’ve seen VCs change their tune. Take for example Elaine Zelby, Partner at Signal Fire—she drafted this articulation of the idea.
We’re not raising VC money at Outseta, but we’ve received interest in funding Outseta from 40+ VCs just in the last 12 months—without question there’s money available to fund a serious swing at this idea.
Billion dollar companies like Hubspot are building all-in-one products
I am absolutely astonished that it took this long for ANY company to realize the benefits of a CRM system that has a billing system built in. The benefits are overwhelming—then Hubspot recently announced the launch of their own billing tools.
Hubspot now offers CRM, payments, email, and help desk tools—their product suite has developed into what we started building at Outseta 5 years ago, although it’s more horizontally focused. If that’s not massive validation of an all-in-one tech stack being a favorable product, I’m not sure what is. And it’s commonly accepted that vertically focused software companies can serve their customers needs in a greater degree of depth…
SaaS itself is a vertical!
The no-code space is making many developers reconsider their own behavior
Many developers still scoff at the notion that no-coders had or will have any impact on their own behaviors—I get it—but I’ve seen the number of developers with an interest in no-code tools accelerate dramatically.
Whether you like it or not, no-coders are changing the landscape in terms of who can launch a tech start-up and how they can go about building their products. There will always be a time and place for developers—developers will always have technological superpowers compared to the rest of us. But without question they are simply not as necessary as they once were in the context of launching many types of early stage tech start-ups.
There’s a new breed of no-code founders that’s growing rapidly, that can launch and validate start-up ideas quickly. They can grow products to hundreds of thousands or even millions in revenue—and many of them are particularly dangerous because they have other skills like sales or marketing expertise that make them particularly capable.
Many developers are starting to pick up on this trend and are actively looking to no-code tools to help them similarly progress their projects at a faster rate. That’s a good thing for everybody—and again, there's absolutely nothing wrong with a no-code product or a SaaS starter kit helping you launch, validate your idea, and start to grow more quickly. You can develop a more robust and sophisticated means of delivering your product at a later stage when the early success of your product warrants that investment.
Many people who consider the idea of a SaaS-in-a-box product look to a company like Stripe as the likely candidate to develop it—I certainly get that and it’s a logical conclusion to me as well. But while Stripe has continued to improve its own payments tools for SaaS founders, their product offerings haven’t waivered much beyond payments… they are a payments company.
While that’s the case—their mission statement of “Increase the GDP of the internet” certainly leaves ample room for them to develop more vertically focused, all-in-one tools. If that’s something they pursue, we’ll see.
But for now I can tell you that I know many of the companies on this list, Outseta included, have taken the SaaS boilerplate idea much further than it’s been taken historically.