Building a Product: One month later, $119.50 in the bank

by Brennan Dunn on — Get free updates of new posts here

590 sign ups, 2,584 tasks created, 2,943 comments posted, 10 paying customers, and 37 days later, my first SaaS product is profitable. Okay, so just upwards of $100 is less than my hourly consulting rate, but this is a long-tail game. I don’t have a mountain of marketing money behind me, or high profile investors who propel my product to the honeypot that is technical blogs. I’m proudly bootstrapped, and am looking forward to seeing where Planscope will take me over the next few years.

“Years? That’s like – forever!”, you might question. After all, we’re used to overnight successes (that really aren’t overnight). And while Planscope isn’t going to pay anything but the cable bill anytime soon, each Stripe payment notification email I receive is a reminder of the what I’m building towards. I work closely with my users – freelancers and small consultancies, an audience I identify with – to build Planscope to satisfy exactly what they need (after all, I want them to keep paying me monthly because I’m helping them make more money in their consulting business!), and not the desires or requests of investors, or a need to quickly recoup marketing expenses.

So here’s what I’m doing, what’s working, what sucks, what I’m planning, and how I’m going to get Planscope paying the bills.

Building Planscope has been a part time effort. I stay busy with my day job (I run a consultancy) and two young kids, but I gave up a day a week for the last few months to work on the project.

Create an announcement list

No one wants to launch to crickets, and having an announcement list is a great way to build up some excitement about your product. Before writing my first line of code, I put together a sales letter landing page that highlighted why the state of project management software for freelancers sucks, and what life will be like after people start using Planscope. A lot of announcement pages are built using LaunchRock – and there’s no way you can identify pain and a remedy in a single, vague sentence.

Over the three months it took to write the first version of Planscope I managed to get about 500 subscribers, and every few weeks I’d update the list with screenshot teasers and a roadmap of what I was working on. A few people unsubscribed, but they likely would never have signed up in the first. I was uneasy each time I saw someone unsubscribe, which at first kept me from wanting to send newsletters out. This is the wrong attitude to take.

Be proactive with your support

About half of my customers paid me before their trial was up, and that’s because they raved about the support. I use Intercom to monitor who’s using Planscope, how many times they login, and if they’re actually using the product. I try to talk with any user who will lend me their ear, but I’m especially active in helping those who load in tasks and come back daily. We’re not behind a credit card firewall, so a lot of our users sign up with bogus email addresses because they want to peak inside. Also, I decided not to send out activation emails, because the overhead of a few unused kilobytes in the users table is insignificant and just another barrier of entry. The result? Some people have replaced their fake emails with real ones once they start liking the product, and fake accounts still linger, causing no harm.

Support is more than just helping people who are stuck. Support is education, because as product creators we make a lot of assumptions about how people think and use our software. My idea of support is educating my users on how to use the product, and then educating myself on how I can make using Planscope more straightforward. I’ve received emails the length of novellas from users with feedback that’s helped fix incorrect assumptions I’ve made.

Have a killer “blank slate” page

When we build products, we fill them with lots of fake data and often forget about new users. Your conversion process doesn’t end at the signup form. A successful conversion is going from being a visitor on your landing page to be an active user of your product, so it’s paramount that product developers spend time thinking about how to engage users.

My first blank slate was pretty blank. I quickly discovered that a lot of accounts had zero tasks and zero activity. Because I still need to “sell” users once they’re in, I carried over a lot the tone of the marketing site into the product, but complemented this message with immediately actionable steps. My new blank slate has increased engagement 10x for all new accounts.

Don’t write off word of mouth referrals

A pretty large percentage of our users are from Finland. Why? I have absolutely no idea. I don’t know anymore in Finland, as far as I know no one that follows me on Twitter hails from there, so what happened? I reached out to an early adopter from Finland and asked, “So – what’s up with Finland?” I soon learned that because I’d answered his question quickly and from my phone (“Sent from my iPhone” was the signature), he decided he had to tell all of his web developer friends. And so it goes.

Word of mouth is free, converts amazingly, and gives you an army of advocates. Be nice, supportive, and helpful, and you’ll be rewarded.

Be flexible, and don’t code for the edge cases

I haven’t written any code to handle failed credit cards, and I don’t plan to anytime soon. Cards are usually declined because they expire or the card in question was lost and the owner canceled it. I could go the route of locking accounts when a payment’s declined, causing aggravation for the account owner – especially if one of their clients try to login and can’t. Or I could send a friendly email, asking the user to update their card at their convenience. A friend of mine took this approach, and the few users he’s had to do this with have never forgotten how refreshing his approach was.

I’m also able to see who’s logging in and when with Intercom, and yesterday I saw someone sign up again with an alternative email because their trial expired. I emailed him, asked if he wanted to extend the trial for his existing account by a few weeks, and the rest is history.

Launching isn’t a single event

You’re small, and there probably wasn’t a ribbon cutting ceremony heralding your arrival onto the SaaS landscape. Only you can shut down your product, so only you can declare defeat. You will have bugs, people will write to you about how your UX is abysmal, and no one will want to write about you.

If you think your launch day is it, you’re going to be pretty bummed once your traffic trickles to a halt and signups drop. But keep at it, promote wherever you go, talk to whoever will listen, and your product’s pulse will be steady.

Cheer for the turtles

We all know the story of the turtle and the hare. While I’m not trying to compete with any rabbits, I see Planscope as something that I’m continuing to add equity to. Whether that be subscription payments, happy users, or plenty of relevant, crawlable blog content, I look forward to seeing a long, steady, and linear progression in growth. Exponential growth is exciting and makes for great stories on TechCrunch, but growing slowly and steadily let you fine tune your product over time, and build the perfect application for whoever you’re targeting.

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Brennan Dunn writes about the business of freelancing. Over the years, his weekly articles and courses have helped 32,000+ freelancers grow their businesses. If you enjoyed this article, join his weekly newsletter.
  • Niall O’Brien

    Great article, is your SaaS app a Rails app hosted on Heroku by any chance? Just curious as you haven’t mentioned operational costs. Thanks!

  • Art Skvira

    Thanks for sharing your experience Brennan – definitely being able to validate incorrect assumptions early on and act on that is something that can make or break a business. Please keep on writing those “checkpoint” articles!

    • Brennan Dunn

      Art – will do! This is a VERY old post, I’ve written a few update blog posts since then :-)

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