The Most Important Lesson of Building and Running My Own SaaS Startup

January 21st, 2017

Before MailDB, I built a SaaS product called Navilytics.

Navilytics was a web analytics tool. Much like Google Analytics, it provided insight to your website visitors.

It went much further though than the standard tools in that it would show you what visitors actually did on your website via recordings, heatmaps, scrollmaps, and more. This was done by tracking all user actions - every mouse movement, click, keypress, and scroll. This data was then used to create the playbacks, heatmaps, and so on.

I spent close to a year developing it from start to finish, ensuring the platform and code worked flawlessly. Needless to say, I thought the technology was awesome and couldn't wait to announce to the world that Navilytics was finally done and ready to use.

Unfortunately though, I had some naive ideas about SaaS that ultimately led to me having to sell it.

This post is not about how successful it was, but rather, how I learned the most important lesson from its failure.

Right to the Chase: Why did it Fail?

I had a major false idea about SaaS, and really, business in general.

The idea was that if I develop this amazing product that's better than everything else, then the product will sell itself.

If, after just reading that, you feel the strong urge to close the current tab because you still believe it... you are the target of this post.

It sounds simple enough, and you've probably heard that saying before, I'm sure.

Allow me to elaborate though with the goal of having this idea removed from your thought process if it hasn't been already.

How this Idea Caused Me to Fail

The main idea as mentioned was that I would build Navilytics into this amazing product. Afterwards, I would do just a bit of marketing here and there, and the avalanche of referral traffic from all the happy people telling their friends and coworkers about my amazing new application would come tumbling in.

Some of you may be thinking to yourself, "That's absolutely insane", and you're right! The problem is though... I'm a software developer.

We as software developers (and most engineering types in general) like to think highly of our work. Some of us are die hard perfectionists when it comes to code. While this is a very good thing on the product development side, it can be the most detrimental thing to running a business when more time is spent on product development than marketing.

After developing Navilytics until it was production ready (which again took close to a year), I finally released it to the public, and... well it didn't really do anything. It didn't really do anything for the first month, in fact.

I tried in vain to do just above the bare minimum marketing wise. This included posting to reddit, Hacker News under Show HN, Facebook and AdWords, so on and so forth. The only thing that seemed to work was integrating with other SaaS products that were already well established. Their users would see Navilytics, and I would get a few paid sign ups.

After half a year of this supposed 'hustle', Navilytics only had around 700-800 users and was making $1,400 monthly.

The Best Live Case Study: Getting Schooled by a Professional Marketer

It was around this time that I was contacted by a new competitor - a company called Hotjar.

The founder of Hotjar saw the same opportunity in the market as I and we were actually developing the exact same product at pretty much the same time, unbeknownst to each other.

I checked out their website after reading his email, and this is when I became enlightened you could say on everything I had been doing wrong with Navilytics.

He had been marketing Hotjar before a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) was even ready. Not only that, but he was executing every part of a sound marketing strategy 'by the book'. Everything was perfect - his follow up emails, social media, content marketing, paid ads and remarketing, networking, contacting influencers, etc.

Not only that, but he and his team created something I had never seen before that was driving an immense amount of traffic to their site.

Landing on their homepage, you would be shown an email entry form notifying you that you could request an invite for access to their beta platform.

This is an early version of their homepage

After entering your email, you would be taken to a 'waiting list' page. This page explained that there was a queue for beta access, and in order to get a higher position and gain access sooner, you could share a custom invite link they made for you and try and get others to sign up. Every successful signup increased your position in the waiting list.

Hotjar's queue page

This was genius. It was so creative and worked so well in fact, that people have blogged about it (this is where the queue picture is from, thank you User Experience Rocks!) and you see this strategy being used now by a large number of startups.

When Hotjar finally went live after months of being in beta, they had over 60k people signed up. Today, they have over 200k members. Large difference from the 700-800 Navilytics had.

Steps I Would Take Now

1. Get feedback on your idea before you begin development

There's no need to spend months, possibly years developing a product only to find out that no one is interested in it. Before you begin building your product, try to identify who your target audience is and how you're going to solve their problem. Once that's been done, you should contact at least 20-30 people from that audience and see if they would use your product to solve that problem. If you get an overwhelming response of 'Yes, definitely!', then you're probably on to something worth pursuing.

This is a great post on the subject (and on early marketing for your startup in general).

2. Build an email list from Day 1

After you identify your target audience and validate your idea, create a landing page for the product with the goal of getting people to sign up to your email list.

By having this up and running from day one, you won't be wasting any traffic, and you'll be building a list of potential users who will be ready to use it the day it launches. Instead of waiting to market until your product is fully complete, you can spend all that time collecting emails and launch to hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of interested people.

3. Focus everything around marketing, not your product

Something the aforementioned blog post points out is asking yourself, 'Does this help the business make money?' For instance, does making sure you have 100% test coverage help contribute to the business making money in the short term? Eventually it would be really nice to have, but the answer is no - no one will care that your image upload function is fully tested.

4. Don't just market your product, market it well

This is something someone pointed out to me, mentioning how the problem wasn't just the timing of when I started marketing, but the effort I put into marketing as a whole.

If you're focused on it, marketing your product should take almost as much time as developing it. This is why people are hired full-time to handle it. It takes a ton of work to do correctly, and if you do not do it correctly, then you're essentially wasting your time.

Content marketing is a good example. What would be better, writing 10 low quality articles that get a few visitors a month, or one really well thought out article that gets shared on Facebook and LinkedIn thousands of times?

Another great example of this is the 'How Differential Steering Works' video on YouTube.

Odd example, I know, but bear with me. That video was made in 1937 but is still shared today on popular sites such as reddit due to its production quality and information. Heck, I'm sharing it right now. I think it really demonstrates how quality content can stand the test of time and become a reference.

5. Reward people for sharing your product

It's key to offer something in return for those who share your product. While people will still share if they think the product is cool enough or really helpful, it provides more incentive when they're rewarded for doing so.

We implement a waiting queue as explained above, which has the added benefit of allowing us to slowly onboard users to our platform. If any major issues come up during beta testing, we'll be able to handle it without worrying about traffic.

6. Don't go alone if you can help it - form a team

Coding and marketing are both full-time jobs. While some are able to split their day up and handle both well enough to be successful, you really need a team behind you to excel. Not just any team either - you want people who are really good at what they do.

That friend of yours from high school who ran a personal WordPress blog back in the day? He's probably not the best person to have in charge of your content marketing.

One of the dreams I had early on was doing this all on my own, running my own business for the next however many years. I've realized though that this can be one of the largest hindrances when it prevents you from reaching out to others and networking. Networking in this industry is hugely important, which leads me to my next point of...

7. Don't be afraid to network with others

If you are the extreme extrovert type, you can compeltely skip this step!

Networking is huge, and the more connections you make and relationships you form, the more support you end up having. Emailing other SaaS owners (even your competitors), speaking with others at events, getting involved on forums - all of this can help you build your network.

It can literally pay to get advice from those more knowledgeable than you. You may learn things you would have never learned otherwise just by having that network. What you'll find too is that many people are more than happy to talk with you and give advice, you just have to start that conversation.

That Ended Up Being More than One Lesson!

Marketing your SaaS is complicated; there is no silver bullet that will guarantee a ton of traffic and success. The main thing though that I really wanted to get across with this post is that marketing needs to be a main focus in the day to day operations of your SaaS.

To end with the best marketing quote ever for software engineers:

Good products deserve to be marketed

If you have any thoughts, questions, or would like to share your own experience, please comment below!