Whether you want to launch your product business or diversify with a product MVP aligned with your service-driven company, you need a methodical approach that gets you closer to success.
Building a product can be an extensive exercise consuming both time and capital. But with the right type of due diligence, this could be a streamlined process that is easy to follow and execute over the course of several months.
This product guide is designed for:
- Service-based businesses eager to productize their services or build a separate stream of recurring revenue
- Consultants, coaches, freelancers interested in generating predictable revenue and decrease the reliability on their own time
- Larger businesses afraid of the extra overhead in pivoting with a new product line
- Executives or managers who want to bootstrap a side project that doesn’t compete with their employer (or targets an acquisition upstream)
If you recognize yourself in the target market, let’s jump right in.
1. Why Do Startups Fail?
CB Insights has conducted a detailed survey uncovering why startups fail.
So what are the leading reasons why a new product may not reach profitability (or market adoption)?
- No market need (42%)
- Ran out of cash (29%)
- Not the right team (23%)
- Get outcompeted (19%)
- Pricing/cost issues (18%)
- Poor product (17%)
- Need/lack business model (17%)
- Poor marketing (14%)
- Ignore customers (14%)
Experienced entrepreneurs are well-versed in building successful products in a safe manner.
This includes an action plan going over all of the aforementioned concerns, implementing risk management techniques, product planning, market validation, funding planning, and proper market analysis.
My guide assumes that you are already employed (in an organization or self-employed) and want to safely launch a product without having to quit your job. This safety net provides some leverage, but since your time is limited, you have to act smart and employ the right strategy to make this work.
2. Keep ROI Top of Mind
No, I’m not discussing your own ROI down the road. Successful products are profitable (and scalable) but we need to discover the reason before we aim for the win.
Launching a product that scales will depend on your opportunity to identify an idea worth paying for (unless you pick the ads route).
There are loads of popular businesses out there available for free.
Think of the 9gags of the world. It’s a fun place to hang out at, but will customers pay to access memes they would otherwise browse on Facebook?
You need a profitable business model that allows you to scale. Some of the largest players on the market have grown solely thanks to massive piles of cash from VCs while you need to pivot, prove the market, and then grow slowly (while making some profit) or looking for external investment.
Which is why you need a business idea that customers will be eager to pay for.
The main reasons people would pay for a product is if:
- The product saves time (less time needed for accomplishing the same amount of work)
- Additional opportunities are available (strategic partnerships, tapping to databases that are not public, etc.)
- Users can save money (like aggregating several $100/mo products into one that costs $100/mo alone and still allows them to operate properly)
- The product solves their problem better (or just enough) compared to expensive products on the market
- Customers can streamline operations with a checklist, a business process management system, a CRM which makes them and their staff more effective
- The product automates important processes which increases efficiency and frees up operational resources
- The solution educates and increases competencies, leading to new business opportunities for them
- The product aggregates data from different places and provides simplified, effective, actionable insights to success.
Other ways to frame the same problem exist, but effectively they still revolve around ROI: customers making more or saving time (and troubles).
Once you focus on this mindset, your future product will be a competitive market player worth paying for.
3. Coming Up With Product Ideas
“Ideas are a dime a dozen”.
Generic ideas ARE widespread. But this is only correct if these ideas are vague, not related to a business plan, not profitable, too hard to execute, targeting a tiny market, competing with popular brands, outside of the industry expertise of the prospect…
Bottom line, ideas are important (and hard to generate).
The best ideas you can come up with are:
- Related to your own skillset (expertise, education, background, hobbies)
- Tailored to an audience you know (your clients, friends, your local user group, an untapped local market)
- Cheaper to execute (easier to invest in compared with Uber and their fleet or a physical store with furniture)
- Too expensive
- Too hard
- I can’t solve this problem
- This is taking forever to accomplish
- I wish there was…
- We can’t do…
Everyone is dealing with annoying and tedious tasks that could be automated or improved. As long as you can identify a common problem, this sparks an opportunity for you.
Of course, it doesn’t necessarily have to be closely related to your target market. And even your own skillset. It’s just easier to land leads and execute if you know your market and have the background in place.
Searching through Facebook groups, reddit, Quora, other communities (including open Slack groups) can yield some ideas, too. Using LinkedIn to send a short poll to dozens of target contacts can spark new ideas as well.
And here are several idea lists that could jog your creativity:
- 101 Digital Products to Sell
- 72 Real-Life Digital Product Examples and Ideas
- 20 Digital Products to Sell Online
- The Most Profitable, Popular Digital Products to Sell
Take a moment to revise your own habits and problems. You’re likely able to automate a task yourself, document a process better, create an educational onboarding course, invest in a product that gathers industry stats for you.
Assuming you’re already considering a couple of ideas, it’s time to spend some time in competitor research.
4. Competitor Research
There are several reasons why it’s crucial to study your competitors ahead of time:
- You learn what works and what doesn’t
- Your competitors have paved a successful way to sell and convert — this is the easy win
- Certain public channels (like social networks) work better than others (and it’s easy to find this out)
- Packaging is important — and other businesses have been there already
- Pricing plans take forever to invent but you can gauge pricing based on other products on the market
So how to identify your competitors?
First, prepare a spreadsheet listing your competitors on the left and a list of columns to the right.
Every column will identify different factors you want to utilize and adapt to your own product. For example, you can add a separate column for the motto, call to action text, pricing, credibility factors, social media followers, number of monthly blog posts, backlinks, team size, notable clients you can gather.
Then unleash your detective skills and gather a list of keywords relevant to your own product. You can extract 10-20 long-tail keywords and initiate your research process on:
- Google (or Bing if you’re into that)
- Ubersuggest (for keywords)
- Listicle blogs (“Top X products for …”)
- Comparison websites suggesting product alternatives
- Social networks
- Facebook groups
If you have identified a couple of competitors already, you can run a backlink analysis or competitor research in a tool like SEMrush or Ahrefs:
This won’t yield a ton of helpful resources but in Buffer’s case, Hootsuite and Sprout Social are dabbling in the same space. You can search the brands straight back on Google and comparison sites or Quora and find other products that target the same audience.
When you list some companies down, find influencers within the organization. It’s likely that some members of the leadership teams are prominent conference speakers or interview for podcasts. This way you can find other sponsors or speakers in your industry worth researching further.
Gather your competitor list in the spreadsheet and look for trends. What works so far and what possible gaps you can tap into?
5. Defining the Target Market
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the industry, think of the best possible target market you can start with.
Most businesses approach the global market of “mothers” or “African Americans” or “car drivers” as the very first step. This is rarely practical unless you’ve invented the next Internet (and even so, you would need to test a smaller market first).
The best target market isn’t broad but rather small. We’ll cover projections first, but try to aim for a market you can gain a double-digit share over the first couple of years.
If the leading product in the space serves over a million users and you’re aiming for 20% market share in about 2 to 3 years and need 200 recurring users to break even, look for a realistic market of 2,000 to 5,000 users first. Keep in mind that you’ll face rejection and deal with churn rates first (which bumps the estimates a bit).
However, 2K to 5K prospective clients is a nice small size to start with and expand later. This could be 30 to 40-year-old mothers living in Texas who work assistant jobs (online). Or virtual assistants in the US making at least $20/hr working for non-digital corporations.
Your target market will shape your entire marketing and sales strategy over the first year or two.
And don’t worry about limiting your space too much first. It’s easier to expand or launch a separate vertical or two and it’s much more important to tailor your messaging as much as possible to the desired audience.
Here’s a short video on buyer personas that I’ve prepared for you:
Browse the followers of your competitors on social media. Commenters on blog posts. Participants on Quora discussing relevant matters. Your product can target a smaller segment of this audience or an untapped market that hasn’t found the right tool (yet).
Validating your product idea is paramount to the success of the endeavor.
Regardless of your planning so far, you may very well be on the wrong track.
Competitors exist. There’s always space for new players on the market. But is your strategy solving the actual pain points your prospects are struggling with?
- Whenever possible, start with a simple landing page, a strategic content on Medium or LinkedIn pulse, or anyplace else if you have access to a relevant audience (online or offline, at meetups or conferences).
- Identify 20 to 30 prospects you can interview. Reach out to them on LinkedIn, via email, a phone call or offline if possible. Gather as much intel for their product use and pains — and see what it takes for them to convert.
- Be helpful and help back. Find out how you can return the favor.
- Learn what your prospects love about their solution and what they need. Gauge the price points and the ROI.
- Investigate the actual value proposition for the product. What pain point does it tackle head-first? What your product truly needs to succeed?
Depending on what stage you’re at, prepare some wireframes or even charts of what your product is supposed to do. Find out if they are excited about what’s preliminary coming and whether they would be willing to jump on a closed beta at some point.
Alternatively, if you aim for a larger test group, you can design a Typeform or a Google Forms survey and send it over. It’s less personal but emailing 300 people may yield 60 to 80 responses which is a good starting point.
(I frequently receive similar requests from students doing research.)
The truth is, most people are inclined to encourage you if they aren’t required to commit early on. If you can get some preliminary approvals to add them to a list and invite them to a beta, it’s a good start. Some products may be worth funding via Kickstarter if that’s your plan — ask them during the meeting and invite them later to confirm the hypothesis.
The validation phase will likely reveal the answers to questions you haven’t asked yet. Value propositions you haven’t considered. Additional mini-niches you can target more effectively with a handy feature and better user experience, more flexible pricing, access to sub-contractors or something else.
7. Scope of Work
In terms of implementation, it’s crucial to define the scope of work necessary for a minimum viable product.
To validate your idea successfully, you need a scrappy build that gets the main job done. Nothing less, nothing more.
None of the leading products on the market launched as the version widely available now. Successful businesses employ thousands or tens of thousands of teammates in charge of various initiatives.
But the core product started small – doing one thing better than any other product.
There are several groups of features you’ll need to get the ball rolling:
- Your USP (Unique Selling Proposition)
- User Interface
- Misc features
Unique Selling Proposition
What’s the number one reason prospects would sign up for your product?
- For Airbnb, it’s booking a place to stay at. Not fancy filters, nor reviews, just raw data and booking.
- For Facebook, it was connecting to classmates. Not the global universe, not dating, not Groups or Events.
- For Uber, it’s booking a ride with an app. Not Uber Eats, different vehicles, trip cost estimates.
Your product exists for a reason. You can expand indefinitely once it picks up, but don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Start small, test the market, grow from there.
The more you expand the core scope, the more expensive your MVP and the longer it takes to market. Make sure you cover what’s necessarily to pitch your first prospects. Consider it a tool rather than a platform.
UI sells. It’s the prerequisite for successful marketing.
More importantly, user interface obeys user experience (UX). Sometimes it only takes booking with 2 clicks instead of 3 to convert booking agents adding a thousand orders a day. It adds up.
Understanding consumers’ behavior plays an integral role here.
Design your process as straightforward and intuitive as possible – and you’re onto something.
For web applications, WordPress is often the go-to choice for launching an MVP. The myriad of available themes is a cost-saving exercise you can afford at first. Let alone the seamless upgrades if you decide to keep it as your main web powerhouse.
We’ve launched SaaS products on top of WordPress generating 6 figures in their first year. And I’ve worked with businesses running 8-figure product businesses relying on WordPress. It’s perfect for MVPs and powerful enough for a long-term business engine.
You can always redesign later and build a more robust platform. You just need the leap of faith from a dozen customers to justify the effort.
Miscalleneous features represent the core platform logic almost every app requires.
For web-based SaaS, you need to support:
- User sign-up and login
- Forgotten password
- Contact page
- “My account”
- An easy way to manage billing options
- A sign-up form for emails or early registrations
I’m talking about the general principles of every application out there, web or mobile.
While tedious, it’s important to gather these as a part of the scope of work. It’s easy to forget about or omit them (which leads to scope creep and surprises when quoting or setting deadlines). Especially in terms of defining your billing plans – when you account for flexible pricing, annual plans, different taxes across countries or states.
Just avoid introducing actual “features” that your app may benefit from in the future. Make sure your use cases can get accomplished toward executing the USP. That’s what you have to care about first and foremost.
Infrastructure is the other component your solution requires for starters.
Web applications usually require hosting. However, a $5/mo shared hosting account doesn’t usually work.
- If your app requires cron jobs to automate hourly emails or reports, your host may not support that. Or maybe a Python integration script pulls data from Google Ad Manager and your host only supports PHP.
- For billing, you need a verified account with PayPal or Stripe or a clear integration with Gumroad or FastSpring. This process may take a while to execute properly and connect to your sign-up process.
- Sending email blasts frequently? You cannot demand on the core mail() function your server supports. Consider a separate account with Rackspace or a designated solution like Mailgun or SendGrid.
- If you stream videos, consider if YouTube or Vimeo are suitable for your product. If not, you may need to roll with Amazon S3. It’s tricky to set up but the pay-as-you-go model may set you up for success (unless you mess up and receive a 4-figure charge at the end of the month). Amazon also handles media transcoders for different resolutions across devices.
Again, we are talking about the essentials here – but if you depend on premium accounts and your billing is on hold or your emails never reach your customers, you won’t make it to the next step.
Don’t forget the support system. Ticketing, live chat, email support – or even phone support – may be required to serve your new customers. Solutions like Freshdesk or Zendesk are pioneers in the space and tools like Intercom may be a handy hybrid feature that enables live chat with ticketing in mind.
Plan your billing and legal specifics carefully before you pivot.
From an accounting standpoint, make sure you clearly understand the state or country regulations of receiving payments and issuing receipts and invoices. Selling internationally can be a trouble at first – with GST in Australia and different VAT rates across Europe (and sales taxes in some US states), and different paperwork requirements for individuals and companies.
Using a service like FastSpring may solve some of these challenges. However, there is an approval process that doesn’t match all sorts of plans (mostly from a fraud protection standpoint with memberships that don’t necessarily provide value).
Legally speaking, you may require a data processing agreement for GDPR or CCPA across California. A cookie management solution to stay out of trouble. Privacy and Terms and Conditions pages carefully describing what goes into the app (and what data would be transferred across the board).
Keep in mind data protection laws and how you store your data. You may be expected to comply when the authorities request access – or instead, encrypting data may be the expected solution.
Other tangible aspects like licenses or copyrights for assets you use matter as well.
Once you’ve got this covered, it’s time to plan the resources required to get this rolling.
8. Resource Planning
So far so good!
Your competitor research is steady and your MVP plan is ready.
Who is going to execute the actual implementation?
There are several different takes depending on whether you’re just starting out or can tap into the pool of resources in your company (or a different business you partner up with):
- Doing everything yourself
- Allocating some internal resources
- Outsourcing implementation and handling the admin work
- Delegating the entire process
Building a Product Yourself
If you are a technical entrepreneur (employed full-time or a freelancer building this on the side), the development process is fairly streamlined – considering you’ve done your homework properly.
Otherwise, it would be tricky to build an actual application people would pay for. It’s not impossible for simple tools – and great marketers can sell virtually everything – but here are several popular tools or services you may keep in mind.
- WordPress – again, the platform provides the UI you need for a demo and the infrastructure required to build a setup that sells. It may be scrappy unless you’re a developer, but hey, bundling a few plugins together is a decent way to prep a scrappy MVP.
- Instapage or Leadpages – landing page builders if your site is subpar. Build all sorts of landing pages with block editors and available templates, sign up users to your email list or receive customer requests.
- Shopify – if your product is on-premises, you can use Shopify to set up an eCommerce store with a theme and manage the sales process accordingly.
- Webflow – a no-code CMS (a simplified version of WordPress) for simple web builds. It supports Zapier which we’ll cover next.
- Zapier – an integration system that supports over 2,000 apps and allows for automated triggers to get the job done. For instance, every Instapage submission may connect to a 3rd party product of yours for a sign up. Or send a message in a Slack channel. You can receive stuff via email or forward emails to a system that handles anything else. Extremely powerful with loads of options.
- Pipedream – an alternative of Zapier which requires some coding, but it’s usually simple snippets you can integrate in your site or app.
- Airtable – a powerful spreadsheet-alike database that pipes data from numerous platforms. If your product is data-heavy, you can automate tons of triggers from different data points (analytics, contact forms, social), and bundle them in an Airtable plan. As soon as you manage to integrate this for every user, you’ll be in a great shape.
There are other scrappy tools to build yourself a product – but if development is not your strong suite, plan carefully for whatever is available on the market.
Utilizing Spare Internal Resources
If your team isn’t fully booked, consider allocating resources for the product build (and all encompassing activities discussed in this guide).
We organize our work around “retainers” whereas our customers pay for anything from 50 to 450 hours per month. Our staff is booked across projects and we have established monthly retainers internally for SaaS products we develop in-house.
This way, you will be able to allocate different skill sets (design, development, servers, marketing, QA) depending on your team structure, and plan the project development over the coming months.
Set up a brainstorming session with all involved parties (or at least the responsible executives) to build an ultimate list of everything that needs to happen: design, site setup, landing pages, hosting, support, billing plans and integrations, legal, the actual feature development.
Build the roadmap and add everything to your project management system. Set some milestones in place for accountability.
Even if your team isn’t experienced in product development, this is a proven way to scale your operations without interfering with your workload.
If you don’t employ engineers (or you’re fully booked and they don’t specialize in product development), consider the breakdown defined in the previous step and creating an extensive roadmap for outsourcing to a third-party agency.
Looking for a reputable vendor is complicated in the ocean of web development companies out there. You will need to cross-check multiple channels – your own network, asking other entrepreneurs for advice, working with a technical consultant, using freelance networks, looking up vendors on Google, browsing Clutch.
I’ve prepared two separate guides to help you make the right move:
- How can non-technical founders make a technical business work
- How important is technical leadership in every company
In any case, budget for an account manager or a product owner in-house handling the day-to-day operations when working with an external vendor.
With development outsourcing taken care of, don’t neglect the remaining aspects of the engineering: hosting, platform setup, billing, marketing, presales and what not. Add legal to the mix and this will fall into your bucket.
Outsourcing Every Step
Outsourcing your entire business is an expensive (and risky) endeavor – but still a viable option for certain types of products.
If your billing options are simplified and streamlined – and you don’t process too much sensitive data – the operations won’t put too much overhead to the process.
The business will still require your guidance and vision – especially when it comes to marketing collateral, sales channels, and everything in-between.
There are several ways to execute this.
- Partnership. Having a vendor who is accountable and has the incentive to push forward can unlock new opportunities. I own shares in three different businesses I’ve supported both as a consultant and as the lead executive of my development firm.
- Consultancies. World-class businesses offer the complete package (including market research, validation, staffing, even helping you apply to VC funds). This tends to be really expensive (millions or tens of millions per year) – unless you find small boutique consultancies or business advisors with a strong network or running multiple companies.
- Full-service agencies. There are reputable agencies with 40 to 100 staff members handling design, development, infrastructure, 3rd party integrations and more. With the right planning in mind, most of the heavy lifting will be taken care of. Some full-service companies offer marketing services as well – a required perk for ongoing growth. And in terms of legal or other required aspects to launch the business, they work with partner firms and can manage the process for you.
I’ve been involved in all stages of product planning and development as a partner, a vendor, an advisor, and a client. Depending on how much control you require and how much time you have to spend (and budget), you can build the right setup for success.
9. Financial Projections
If you opt in for the last option, “Outsourcing every step”, you may delegate the complete project plan to a third-party.
However, it’s an expensive venture – and oftentimes, it requires a budget ballpark ahead of time.
This is especially valid for the marketing portion of work. If you need to recruit new staff members – say support, operations, product management, that’s a separate consideration to account for.
And estimating is hard. We switched to a retainer-based business model that overcomes the challenges of scope creep, missing key requirements, and spending days in functional specifications and ballparks.
While building your budget plan, add a 2x to 3x multiplier to your initial estimate. Odds are, you’ll cross that as well.
But in any case, it’s always best to rely on a proven financial model. In SaaS, there are plenty of templates and available models out there – and Stephane Nasser performed a thorough review of 12 SaaS projection models.
Stephane built the methodology around 5 key metrics:
- Financial statements
- Analysis capabilities
- Revenue modeling
- Costs modeling
- Additional features
I’ve also gathered several other plan templates that work in different scenarios – so let’s take a quick look at some of the leading models.
Baremetrics Model – Jaakko Piipponen
Baremetrics have spent quite some time developing their financial plan – something that led to the development of their financial modeling software Flightpath.
The model takes scenarios and unexpected cases in mind (such as COVID), and allows for a reasonably complete structure of MRR (monthly recurring revenue) calculation across the main categories of expenses to account for.
It’s an exemplary piece if you’re pitching for massive investment and need the most complete financial plan there is. However, it takes forever to fill out properly. Thus, take some time to review and study the essentials, but if it’s too complex for your startup, apply the best practices to a simpler model for the time being.
The SaaS CFO Model
Ben Murray, a.k.a. The SaaS CFO, has developed several models around financial SaaS planning.
His template spreadsheet covers a lot of areas around expenses, projections, financial tracks, but also allows for a partial fill depending on what you need.
Attached is the “Actuals” sheet with exemplary data for business expenses, costs, licenses, fees, salaries that account for initial projects and required loans over time (until the business is profitable).
The “Revenue” sheets are straightforward, mostly focusing on ARR (annual recurring revenue), churn (lost customers), field services. Based on the ARR and the ongoing growth, the sheet fills out the breakdown of annual churn rates, new net MRR, growth percentages and more.
While the UI isn’t perfect, it’s a traditional spreadsheet which can be a good starting point.
The Alexander Jarvis SaaS Template for Startups
This powerhouse by Alexander Jarvis is a lot to take in and competes directly with the initial model by Baremetrics we reviewed.
However, there are a couple of important notes to make:
- The standard SaaS plan is paid – sells at 319 EUR at the time.
- There’s a professional Enterprise SaaS version available which covers each and every possible metric you can think of – available at 1,299 EUR.
Now I would definitely recommend you to grab a copy if you’re launching a serious product that will occupy the next couple of years (or more) of your time with dedicated staff available and working full-time on it.
Jarvis took the time to gather essential KPIs from investors and VCs regarding metrics you must follow and track down. Some of the sheets in the template get into so much detail you can directly pass it to your marketing team and ask them to report monthly, period.
The model assumes upsells and downsells, every acquisition channel separately (with a detailed breakdown for some like email), conversion rate metrics for each one of them, and tons of reports and graphs to analyze once the data is in.
Other Financial Metrics and Tips
While it’s always great to follow the leaders and rely on the best practices (which is why we went over three leading templates), I’ve bookmarked some notes and scrappy templates also worth listing here:
- ProjectionHub’s templates – available models for 20+ industries. Especially helpful if you’re entering a new market you don’t fully comprehend yet
- MonetizePros’s spreadsheet – extremely simplified, one sheet, just the basics. What I like here is the correlation between traffic and subscriptions (and the validity for other membership-based business models)
- FinModels Laboratory – another interesting model with a training video covering key metrics you may enjoy as an alternative
- OnPlan’s projection tips – best practices on defining total addressable markets, what do investors care about, how to build your case, and industries worth tackling now
- Early-stage SaaS model – even while validating the concept of the idea, setting one of these up is a quick and powerful exercise for you and the team. It covers a tiny fraction of what the professional models do, but can be filled out within an hour or two with some light research
Your financial projections will determine budgets, time frames, and resources – as well as the right way to fund the business.
The guide focuses mostly on bootstrapped MVPs, but following the good practices can very well be a lucrative deal for an angel investor or VCs further on if that’s what you’re after. Otherwise, the combination of savings, “friends and family” funds, and loans/credit cards is what self-made entrepreneurs rely on for their very first ventures.
While marketing sits at #10 in this guide, make no mistake: the marketing phase starts as early as #3, coming up with product ideas.
The earlier you start, the better you’ll do in terms of the head start every product needs.
For starters, there are several basic things you want to set up as early as possible:
- Purchase a domain for your product and set up a simple website (or at least a landing page). Expired domains sometimes help with domain authority and you may be able to find great domains in GoDaddy’s auctions, Flippa, Facebook groups. At least a landing page collecting emails is required for starters.
- Starter content pieces around the key problems you solve. If you can author them yourself (or delegate to your marketing team), great. Otherwise, write down 5 simple outlines for the top problems you solve and outsource to a freelancer. Google takes a while to index content and calibrate the search terms – and you can start to rank for some long-tail phrases in 2 to 3 months.
- Social accounts – upon launch, you want some head start there, too. Sign them up early on and connect them to Buffer or another auto posting service. Collect 20-30 useful links from the web and add them to a recurring queue. Add 1-2 hashtags per post.
You can double-down on one or two of these channels early on if you can.
If SEO is what you aim for, more content works best.
If you plan to rely on paid ads, focus on your landing pages and send traffic there. Or develop one solid piece with a lucrative call to action (which may generate some links as well).
Press releases ahead of time (a couple months before launch) can generate some early testers or subscribers to your lead landing page.
During the competitor research phase, prepare a sitemap for your key website. Lots of SaaS solutions start with 4-5 landing pages first – homepage, contact, features, industries, probably an about page or testimonials, reviews, media. Depending on what you can source early on, plan the design and content phase ahead of time.
Most of your marketing approaches will be a combination of outbound first with some inbound for credibility or outreach. User experience, clearly defining your buyer persona, answering their questions through your feature list (and ideally, case studies you’ve developed for every persona) will make the world of a difference.
Depending on the cost of your product, whether it’s SaaS or on-premises, and the target persona, some channels work better than others. For instance, the next Figma or Canva can crush it on Instagram. ERPs may work best on LinkedIn. Consider your audience early on and figure out which channels rely on direct, personal outreach, and which ones would work with PPC directly.
A free plan is the most compelling opportunity for your customers. Your product can be listed alongside other free or freemium products. Freemium solutions *can* be used for free, even with limited features, which makes them a strong competitor to other products on the market.
Don’t forget affiliates. Resellers, marketplaces, affiliate marketers can be one of your best channels to start with. Clickbank, JVZoo, Zaxaa enable you to connect with affiliates and offload commissions easily. The sooner you start to get in touch and discuss deals, the better your launch will go.
A SaaS product we developed in 2012 got several marketers with email lists of hundreds of thousands each to email blast their crowds, generating over $30K over the first week.
(So don’t neglect email marketing as a viable alternative – this is why I pointed out a starter landing page with an email form early on).
In any case, you’ll need to engage in press, branding, and sales initiatives at first. There’s no quick shortcut unless you can afford to spend 2 years generating loss until you pick traction organically. Direct pitches in your network, Facebook groups, LinkedIn – setting up demos, organizing webinars, and even going live are known instruments for product marketers and entrepreneurs.
And if you’re running out of ideas on promotion channels, here’s a promotion guide I built with strategies that work in 2020.
I won’t focus too much on the release phase since it depends a lot across different products and organizations.
Some companies are confident enough and have the resources to organize a solid launch party with 20 affiliates on board, probably even a physical event, alongside a well-times PR campaign.
Sometimes, it’s tied to a specific event – say, a keynote you can announce the product at or an event you sponsor where you can offer early bird tickets to your target audience.
I tend to launch as quickly as possible with an MVP that works. This allows me 2 to 3 months to talk with beta testers and tap into my own community, gather some sample data, polish onboarding glitches, improve documentation, and ideally have some reviews or testimonials I can start with 🙂
Once we’re good to go with 20-30 test users, we launch a press release combined with a paid campaign and then jump to direct outreach for both customers and media partners for link building or reviews.
12. What to Focus on Next
Once you’re live, your product is out there. Congratulations!
The post-launch phase is confusing – but it takes time to normalize everything and get to a stable point.
You’ll be dealing simultaneously with a number of activities:
- Running and optimizing campaigns
- Polishing bugs and glitches
- Gathering customer feedback for upcoming versions
- Optimizing your support workflow
- Possibly look for additional help in support or marketing
- Try to get on as many podcasts or interviews for exposure while the iron is hot
- Monitoring scale and infrastructure, along with billing processes
- Sort out upsell or downsell processes, as well as other caveats like recurring payments or switching providers
- Direct sales, outreach, and running demos
- Collecting reviews and testimonials
- Preparing case studies for audiences similar to your early adopters
Don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to build the portfolio of your customers early on. SaaS growth is exponential, the higher the buzz, the more sign-ups you’ll convert.
Your first 20, 50, 100 users play a critical role in the success of your product. Track them down and sell them directly if needed. Solve support issues for them yourself. Make their experience count – because if they stick around, your reviews will shine bright and your brand will evolve in no time.
Your early adopters took a leap of faith in your product. Your scrappy MVP with no bells and whistles, purely based on your own sales pitch or solving a painful problem in a spectacular way.
So go out there and close your first customers. Keep them around whatever it takes. It’s easier to grow from 100 to 500 customers than it is from 0 to 100 – you just need to take it to this point.