Last week, I shared seven mistakes that we had made while growing Proof, things that I would do differently if I had another chance.
This week, I want to go over some of the things that we’ve done well because we have had quite a few successes as well over the past 2 years. Just as learning from our failures can help you from making the same mistakes, learning our successes can give you ideas for growth strategies to try at your own business.
Without further ado, here are the 7 things you should do to be successful when building a SaaS business:
1. Find a technical co-founder
We started Proof two years ago, and one of the keys two our success is that I have a technical co-founder. This is key.
If you’re thinking about starting a company in tech, have a technical co-founder if you want to go far.
I don’t code. My other business partner, Chris, doesn’t code either.
But luckily, we have JP. He’s our CTO and co-founder. And he is amazing at building great products very, very quickly. He will get up a product that looks really good in several days. Faster than anybody else I’ve ever met, and he can intuitively build MVPs very, very easily.
Without JP, we’d be lost.
2. Launch early
We got paying customers before we even built the product. This is key.
Launch the product when you’re still embarrassed about it. For us, before the product was launched, we had three or four people using it. It was in beta.
You couldn’t sign up on the site. We had to manually install Proof notifications on your site for you.
But one day, we hosted a webinar. We invited a bunch of people to it. I think we had about 200 people show up to this webinar where we pre-launched the product, and we pitched it. At the end of the webinar, we said, “Hey, it’s not ready yet, but if you sign up now, and pay $1000, you’re going to get access for the next year once it’s launched, and you’re going to get a big discount. You’re going to be part of the founding club, and we gave away t-shirts.”
We ended up having 38 people sign up on that webinar. They signed up on the webinar, paid $1000, and all of a sudden, we had $38,000 in seed money. Plus, and probably more importantly, we validated that this is an idea that people really wanted.
We also honed in our messaging, and it was just a great idea for us to do that.
And so, if you’re thinking about launching, here’s my advice: launch early, and think about pre-launching like we did with that webinar. In short, sell the product even before it’s quite ready.
3. Focus on a niche, and get influencers to push your growth
We focused on a specific niche, and we got the influencers of that space to help power our growth.
This is key. We laser-focused on people that were doing coaching and selling courses — and particularly those that were running webinar funnels or membership sites.
We spoke to them, and the copy wrote itself. Since we were laser-focused on our customers, we realized that there were probably about 40 or 50 people that are the big influencers of this niche. If we could get those 40 or 50 people using our product, talking about it, and becoming product evangelists, we could get Proof to spread really quickly.
Then, we started reaching out to all these different influencers and getting them to sign up for it. Before you knew it, people were messaging me on Facebook, and saying, “Proof is everywhere. Everywhere I turn, people are talking about it and using it.”
That wasn’t really true. We only had a couple hundred customers.
But because we picked the right market, we had a fish bowl, an echo chamber of a market. To our target customers, it seemed like everyone was using it, even though only some of the right people were using it.
4. Bring on advisors
We looked at our list of 40 to 50 influencers, and we said, “We don’t really know many of these people.”
I knew a few of them, but I didn’t really know how to get a hold of them because they’re busy people. So, I reached out to a few people and asked them to be an advisor, and what I wanted from the relationship wasn’t so much advice. These people weren’t even in SaaS.
I said, “I want the connections to all the other influencers in the market. Can you help me?” So, we give them some equity, and in turn, we asked them to connect us to all these different influencers, and get these influencers using our product.
Before we knew it, we had probably 45 of the 50 people on our target list using Proof, and that came through the advisors. It allowed us to really kind of storm the market, and get a lot of traction really early on because we have up a little bit of equity.
So, it’s something that worked really well for us. Highly recommend this tactic if it fits your business model.
5. Emphasize brand and design early
From the beginning, we really cared about design.
We wanted design to be a big part of what differentiates our brand. As a result, I think we’ve got the best-designed product on the market.
Interested in Brand? Check out our interview with David Cancel about the importance of brand for startups in 2019.
Now, brand is not only wrapped up in design. A brand is so many more things. It’s the vision that you have, it’s the mission that you’re on. And it’s sharing that, it’s sharing the people aspect of your business, and it’s creating a compelling vision for your market.
Now, we’ve been able to build a really strong brand because we’ve kind of build this beach-head into the market where a lot of competitors come in. It’s really hard to put a dent in our product because people really like it.
They like the people behind it, they feel some connection to us as a brand and not just a product.
I think it’s really easy for SaaS companies to get really cold and sterile. If anything, we’re trying to become much more human. We’re trying to become much more personable, much more delightful.
We’ve seen how even when new competitors come in and have the same features, battling over features is a lost cause. You’ve got to have great features, and you’ve got to have a great product. But features are easier and easier to compete against, easier and easier to copy and clone.
You’ve got to have a great brand. A strong brand is one of the moats in SaaS.
6. Storm the market
From the beginning, our thought was that we’ve got a relatively easy product to copy.
There’s a lot of virality built into our product, and so we need to make a huge push at the beginning to establish market leadership.
As I did the math and studied other companies, I noticed that the market leader gets so much of the reward. A disproportionate amount of the reward.
We said, we need to become a market leader, and entrench ourselves, and establish this idea of social proof marketing, and we did that. Because we grew so fast, we got into YCombinator because of that growth.
We became the market leaders because of that growth, and we quickly shot out to number one, and we’re over twice as big as the second biggest competitor because we stormed the market and we established that beach-head early on. So, I think it’s really important. Once you’ve got a good concept, once you’ve got some product market fit, go storm the market, and get there as fast as you can.
7. Don’t be afraid to move
Moving to Austin, Texas has been another one of the keys to our success.
We were in Annapolis, Maryland, which is a town of 40,000 people. We tried recruiting some people there, and we even tried doing the remote thing. None of it was really working for us. It wasn’t that fun.
Ultimately, we decided we need to move to a city where tech is happening, a place where we could hire engineers and recruit people nationally, and where we can just build a great company.
We looked at San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta, Nashville, and Austin.
We were looking for a place that was both good for business and tech, but also good for raising a family, because we all, the 3 co-founders, have kids, and we want to have more. So we ultimately landed on Austin, Texas, and the decision has just been a slingshot for us.
Finding all the great talent here, getting involved in the tech community, and meeting a bunch of great people has been a huge slingshot for what we’re doing here.
And so, just getting into a place where we can actually succeed, and where we’re not just trying to push this ball uphill in many ways. At the same time, we’re also connected to Silicon Valley. We know we need to be out there, we know we need to be connected there. A lot of our investors are there. We’re kind of thinking of this two-pronged approach. We’re going to live in Austin, we’re going to build the company here, but we also want to be connected to the center of the SaaS universe right now, which is Silicon Valley. So, moving to Austin was a huge win and huge success.