10 Software Founders Share the 5 Things You Need to Know Before You Start a SaaS
"Your product is not you, and you are not your product," says this one CEO on handling feedback.
Have you ever had an idea for a new app or software, but just dropped it because you didn’t know where to begin? Many people have the same experience. Wouldn't it be fantastic to turn that idea into a successful app?
Authority Magazine recently interviewed more than fifty founders who had an idea for an app or software and took that idea and created a flourishing business.
Among other topics, the SaaS founders shared the five things you need to know if you want to start a SaaS.
Here are ten highlights of these interviews.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Dennis Cail (CEO and Co-founder of Zirtue)
- Know why you are starting your app before you start. I’m a huge fan of Simon Sinek’s book, "Start with Why." The premise is you have to start with the "why" to get to the "how" and "what." The "why" for Zirtue is to create a more financially inclusive world by mobilizing and digitizing loans between friends and family.
- Know your blind spots and solve for your gaps. This requires you to part ways with your ego and admit your weaknesses. A good example of this is my decision to partner with my co-founder, Michael Seay. Michael is a strong financial engineer and I am extremely efficient as a technical engineer. This brings immediate value and traction to our FinTech company and that combination of skill sets has allowed us build and scale quickly.
- Know that you can’t do it alone. This is an extension of know you’re your blind spots. I couldn’t do anything I do without a strong team around me.
- Know your market and if you don’t know it, learn it fast. An example of this would be all the research we did prior to launching Zirtue to understand the market we were seeking to disrupt. Simple premise being you don’t have a business unless you have a clear market to support that business.
- Know that bad news never gets better with time. I am a huge fan of transparency and I have learned that if you want your stakeholders (i.e. investors, employees, users, etc.) to trust you, you have to trust them with the bad news as much as you trust them with the good news. Just have a mitigation plan and always be willing to ask for help when you need it. Leadership pride and ego is the death of most high potential companies.
Kathryn Rose (CEO of wiseHer)
- Start with why -- I know people are sick of hearing this but people keep saying it because it’s still the most relevant advice. Why would anyone care? Why this solution? Why now? Why you?
- Get out and ask people -- but make sure you’re asking the right questions. I asked lots of questions, and was able to get to the core of the issue.
- Know something about development -- you don’t have to be a coder (although that certainly helps), but you need to understand the development process, how things work, how developers think.
- Learn how to sell -- I’ve been in sales most of my career and I love it. I solve people’s problems and they pay me, it’s great! But so many founders are afraid of the sales process. You HAVE to be able to sell yourself and your ideas to potential cofounders, investors, employees and most importantly to your target audience. If you can’t sell, you’ll have a very hard time.
- Be able to be ok without perfection -- figure out the core thing you are providing and build that, come out from behind the computer and show it to people, get feedback and be willing to mold it to what the market needs and will pay for, not what you think is the right solution.
Justin Couto (Founder and CEO of SoCreate)
- Make sure you build an audience for your software long before you launch it. There is nothing more important that building your beta list. You never want to launch a product to the sounds of crickets chirping. Start as early as possible. This is probably the biggest mistake I made when launching my first company. My team and I worked super hard and built an amazing platform only to launch it without much fanfare. It is a mistake I will never repeat.
- Get feedback as early and as often as you can. Before we started building SoCreate, we interviewed roughly 60 professional screenwriters about their needs and challenges. We listened deeply and only started after we felt we had a really good understanding of the process beyond my own personal experiences. Continue to get feedback during the process.
- There will be good days and bad days. Only make important decisions on the good days.
- Be eternally optimistic. You can’t see the opportunities through the fog of pessimism, and there are always opportunities.
- Never give up. There is always another way. The only reason you won’t be successful is if you stop trying. The end might not be what you had planned or envisioned, but it will be sweet, oh so sweet.
Andrea Loubier (CEO of Mailbird)
- Know your metrics. You cannot make adjustments in growth for a SaaS company without knowing what growth metrics matter, and for most SaaS companies, the key is to have a low customer acquisition cost, and a high lifetime value.
- Know it’s hard, and if you have industry expertise that’s great, but more important is your ability to learn and adapt fast.
- Build a strong team, without a team, creating a SaaS business would not be possible. There are zero SaaS companies that are run by a one person show. You need a team, so build a great one. When we say that we should reinvest profits into the company, the key is to invest it into the people.
- Be patient and build a sustainable long term growth business that does not require VC funding to succeed. Inflation in funding resources in theory should help a business grow, however too many times we’ve seen SaaS companies consume capital too fast and too soon. They never build a sustainable company, they operate at a loss and many at some point shut down. If you want to do that, then go for it. But for a true SaaS business, you want to ensure inertia in business development by creating demand and serving those demands.
- Have other people, businesses and customers tell their story about how your solution has helped them. These use cases help validate and build a reputation for your SaaS company.
Jon Ferrara (Founder of Nimble)
- Many people make the mistake of having a vision and not really testing it. I think that one of the most important things you can do when considering starting a company is to go out and have conversations with prospects, customers and their influencers to get some feedback on how your idea resonates and what it might actually become. I did that before I started Nimble; I began to use social media to have conversations about my vision. It helped me start building my brand, get feedback on my vision and more importantly it made those influencers early contributors to the ideas of Nimble -- which got them to buy in. When we built the initial product, we built a minimally viable product. Rather than going out and spending weeks, months or years on building a product, we built it in 90 days and began iterating with our customers to see how it worked for them and how we could improve it. We began to tune Nimble to our customer’s needs.
- Let me tell you about a $4 billion based in LA called Cornerstone on Demand. They started out as an e-learning platform similar to Linda. They weren’t getting much traction at first, but there was a set of enterprise customers that began to use their cloud-based learning platform to host their employee training and other materials on. They started listening to their customers and tune to their needs. Eventually, they became the top HR cloud-based platform on the market. That’s what happens when you start small, iterate and listen to your customer’s needs.
- Next, you need to think about your development team. How are you going to do your development? Are you going to have your own in-house team? Are you going to find a technical co-founder who can do a lot of the front- and back-end work to really start small? Each of these has a different risk and reward. With Nimble, I put in my own money because I believed in what we were doing, and then I went and got investors. You should definitely think about your route to market; whether you want to bootstrap it or raise money, whether you want to do development in-house, or if you want to outsource (which has its own pros and cons as well).
- The other thing you want to think about is your name and brand story promise. There is a website called BrandStoryPromise.com that can help you with your positioning. A lot of your success will come from your brand story promise and name.
- The final thing is the whole website journey and your digital marketing efforts. The customer journey is critical to your business success. A company I really admire in this regard is Monday.com. They are a to-do tracking app. They’ve had incredible success by perfecting the digital journey and touchless model. I believe if you want to scale massively in revenue, you can’t do the touchless model. You can’t just generate eyeballs with ad words and drive them into a touchless digital journey. I think that to get that $5 billion in annual revenue, you have to have other people selling for you 24 hours a day. That’s how we scaled GoldMine, and that’s how we’re scaling Nimble today. We’ve signed Microsoft as our global reseller. They have hundreds of thousands of resellers that serve billions of users, and we’ve now evolved into the simple CRM for Office. Your go-to-market and channel strategies are critical before starting a SaaS product.
Libby Fischer (CEO of Whetstone Education)
- Take advantage of critical opportunities. My life before Whetstone didn’t exactly have the defining points of the traditional tech CEO’s CV. As a college student, I majored in Spanish. I didn’t know how to code. I had a love-hate relationship with software platforms in the past; but I was in the right place at the right time. Most importantly, I had the right attitude for the circumstances that were put in front of me. When you take over a failing company, you can’t linger on the mistakes of the past. You have to stay positive and think outside of the box to achieve success where others failed. My non-traditional background and my willingness to take advantage of this opportunity has turned Whetstone into a multi-million dollar company and impacted thousands of school leaders, teachers and students across the country.
- Progress can’t always come from behind a desk. There’s a time and a place to sit behind your desk and stare at your computer screen. However, it’s impossible to completely understand the needs of your customers when you’re stuck in your office. When I took over as CEO of Whetstone, our product was in bad shape. It wasn’t adding value to our users’ lives and we were getting awful feedback from customers. Rather than tweaking a few lines of code, I knew that a larger shift had to take place in our product and our offerings. Whetstone could not have made this shift without understanding the true needs of our customers. I got out of my office and journeyed to every school I could to shadow principals and administrators to get a better grasp of their needs. The result was a fundamental change in what we delivered to schools and it led to an enormous shift in how school leaders viewed our product.
- Practice what you preach. Whetstone Education provides a platform for classroom observation and teacher feedback. Our whole value proposition is that we offer a tool to make feedback more approachable. That being said, I knew that I needed to incorporate observation and feedback into our own internal processes as a company. As Whetstone’s CEO, it is my core job responsibility to develop and empower my staff to achieve at their highest possible level so that we can serve our clients effectively and meet our business objectives. I take this part of my role so seriously that I hold weekly one-on-ones with each of my five department heads. This way, we problem-solve, brainstorm, and plan out how they are going to accomplish their objectives and key results (OKRs) -- all of which are designed to help the company grow. The frequency of these meetings sometimes gets an eyebrow raise from fellow CEOs who think it’s overkill; but Whetstone’s growth rate, retention rate, and extremely low employee turnover tell me something’s working. Beyond helping my team members accomplish their business objectives, I feel it’s my personal responsibility to help them grow their careers.
- Prepare your employees for life after their job. As much as I’d like to believe everyone will be at Whetstone forever, I know that the sad day will come when folks move on. I want to be happy for them when that day comes, and I’ve learned that one thing I can do to help them build strong careers is to give them the opportunity to build relationships across industries. One of the privileges of being CEO is constant invitations to interesting events around the city and country. I bring my team members along with me as much as I can so that they can meet other leaders and learn about other ideas or problems they may be interested in solving. In the meantime, they bring back ideas and energy to make Whetstone stronger, so everybody wins! Employees have a way of circling back to previous roles or previous industries they’ve worked in. I want to make sure that Whetstone is thriving and seen as a place worth coming back to if and when people choose to.
- The only way to grow your business is to listen. Leaders who reject feedback or constructive criticism will never advance their businesses. Your customers and staff will inform you of where the market is going and where the rough spots are in your company. Your advisors and mentors will allow you to bounce ideas off them and offer you valuable advice. Personally, I’ve found that the best things in life are on the other side of fear, and every big issue I’ve had as a CEO stemmed from a little issue that I was scared to approach earlier. I conquered this (and my imposter syndrome) by listening to the people I chose to surround myself with.
Matt Barnett (Founder and CEO of Bonjoro)
- Family, Business, Health & Friends: Pick one to do well. Pick one to do okay. Pick one to do once every few weeks. Write one off completely. And if business isn't the first or second priority -- maybe question if you really want to start this.
- Don’t expect family and friends to be able to understand and support you when it gets hard. Find some other founders, preferably more experienced, to learn from and grow alongside, they get it. When we were deciding to go all in on Bonjoro or not (never run two companies they tell you), I knew three other founders who’d launched second products and companies which outgrew their original one -- they all told us to go for it, and here we are.
Decide what you want to build, half the features, half them again, then launch that. If customers won’t use or pay for your solution in its simplest form, you’re wasting money building features on top of that. The first Bonjoro was a desktop recorder widget that sent a plain text email with a link -- zero branding, zero name, zero design and we sold it.
Build a brand, not just a product. People will follow a brand for life, even if you don’t have the product to back it up. We had multiple customers in our early days pay us for a half-finished product because they believed in what we were doing and wanted to see us succeed.
If you have to bet on one thing for success, bet on team. With the right team, the product can change, the company can change, the customers can change and your team will still do what it takes to succeed. We built three products before we dared call ourselves successful. I may be the founder, but it’s my team that got us there.
Theresa Piasta (Founder of Puppy Mama)
- Know your audience, how to find them and what they truly want and need.
- Find the difficult balance between, first, listening to others’ advice and second, staying true to your vision. Sometimes naysayers have valid points that you shouldn’t ignore, but don’t let them shut down your passion and drive.
- Users now expect the 2-click simple gratification that Uber and Amazon offer-- if you build an app, stay ruthlessly focused on user experience and convenience.
- App design and development is very expensive so take the time to really understand the expenses and assume everything will cost two times what you estimated.
- Building communities online to build brand trust is getting to be more difficult without marketing funds to “pay to play.” Many of the bootstrapped methods we’ve tried in the past on social media platforms are becoming more challenging due to saturation of other brands.
Adam Famularo (CEO of Erwin, Inc.)
- Understand your competitive advantage: Before you invest or start up a business, you need to understand your unique competitive advantage. You need to ask yourself: What makes you unique to your customers that nobody has today? What might be patented or too difficult for someone else to copy? How sustainable is this advantage?
- Team: This is crucial! You need to make sure you spend the money to build a great team. Making sure the people can work together with a shared vision. Things are going to change a lot along the way … and this team needs to change with you, the business and each other.
- Cost to acquire a customer vs. lifetime value: This is really important for a SaaS business. How much is it going to cost me to acquire a customer and what type? of return can I expect over the next three to five years?
- Operations: How you set your company up is so important, as in operations development, etc. You need to figure out the most cost-effective way of running your business. One example, in our case, is to look for geographies with amazing talent but less expensive than a big city. We are headquartered in New York but located on Long Island. We used a similar hub strategy in the U.K. and India -- great talent, less cost.
- Ability to exit: If you were going to give your business a eulogy, what would it say? There are so many ways to exit -- VC, acquired, IPO -- what are you building toward?
Sarah Kuhn (Founder of Juna)
- You should have a business model figured out. Not everyone can be an Instagram or Facebook, those are unicorns for a reason. Your business model might change but you should have an idea of how you are going to make money before you invest capital in your app. For me this was so clear because I had been working in subscription fitness companies. Whenever I was pitching anyone the idea or talking about the business I never even mentioned how we would make money. Every time someone would say, “Well how are you going to make money?” I would have this moment of, “Oh duh, I’m so sorry I didn’t mention it, it’s a subscription model."
- If you can avoid it, don’t skimp on development. I know it’s so tempting to get your app developed overseas by someone that can do it at a fraction of the cost, but ultimately you want to make sure that your engineering is sound. This is the lifeblood of your company. If it’s not working or if you have a critical bug, your ability to act fast is really important.
- Your product is not you, and you are not your product. It’s so hard to not take things very personally when this is literally your life's work. But at the end of the day you have to hear criticism and figure out how you can improve -- not let criticism be the demise of you. On the flip side, don’t be overly confident of praise.
- Be flexible. Six months ago the direction I thought Juna was going to go was so different. Now that we’re in the market and talking to users the product is going in a different direction. If I had stuck to my original vision then I’d be building a product that my customers didn’t care about.
- Know your KPI’s. As a business owner you need to understand your metrics and how to impact each lever. When you’re early stage that might mean just knowing where people are dropping off in the funnel and how long they are sticking around but you need to know the impact drivers to manage and improve them.