Like many developers, I love cranking on side projects. It’s how I taught myself to code and continues to be a ton of fun, but that passion is hurting my ability to reach my goal of bootstrapping a profitable SaaS product.
My graveyard of projects is evidence of the fact that I’m guilty of coding first and asking questions later — the infamous “built it and they will come” fallacy. And I haven’t even learned how to get people to show up once I’ve built the damn thing, so I usually just give up and move on to something else that sounds fun to build…
If I ever want to solve a legitimate problem for real people and start my own SaaS business, I have to learn how to efficiently and reliably validate or invalidate ideas before wasting months building something no one wants.
So, here’s the breakdown of my first attempt at testing the feasibility of a new SaaS idea before starting to build the first version. I go into detail in the rest of the post, but here’s the high-level overview of stuff I did that ultimately led me to NOT proceed with the idea…
I’ve never built a successful product or anything that has been used regularly by users. And all of the tactics/thinking I employed here were derived from a couple years of reading, participating in forums, etc. So, I am in no way laying out some tried-and-true way of validating, merely documenting my journey and showing what I did and learned along the way.
Here are just a few of the resources that have been great for learning more about critiquing and validating a SaaS idea.
I’ve barely started implementing what can be gleaned from these resources — but hey, gotta start somewhere!
This experiment is basically my “Hello world” for marketing and non-technical stuff.
I used to be a financial planner, and even I struggle to manage all of the mundane, complex responsibilities that adulthood requires. Taxes, insurance, personal documents, implications of switching jobs or moving apartments, etc. — it’s a lot to keep track of and handle effectively.
I wish I had someone — something — to nudge me along, give me practical advice, send me reminders well before I need them, keep me accountable, and just generally make adulting easier. I know my friends and colleagues have the same pain points, because they know I used to work in finance and often reach out to me for basic advice/guidance.
So I thought about making an automated assistant to keep track of boring adult stuff (expiration dates, important tax deadlines, etc.) and send timely, relevant text messages with reminders, guidance, tips, resources, etc. that would make the user more responsible and help them get more stuff done with less brainpower.
Normally, I’d just start hammering out code, building the notification system, hooking up SMS, learning some AWS services, adding unnecessary features, on and on and on for months. And I’d love every minute in my cave playing with cool ideas and tackling fun technical challenges. But that just isn’t a sustainable approach to building a successful SaaS product.
I finally took the advice of many and built a super basic landing page to showcase the idea and collect emails.
It took me a day or two total to…
Here’s that initial landing page.
I knew this first version of the landing page was pretty crappy, but it took very little time and was enough to gather some initial feedback.
Rather than setting up ads or blasting the url out to my target audience of young professionals, I made a post on Indie Hackers, an awesome community of folks working to bootstrap their own products. You can see that first post here. I was super upfront about what I was doing — trying to validate an idea with a simple landing page and no product to back it up.
You can read through all of the comments, but I had the following main takeaways from this post and the awesome people who helped me flesh out the idea.
Given the combination of negative feedback on my landing page and initial evidence that Ashby could become a worthwhile thing to build, I decided to invest some more time (maybe two days total, spread out over a week, interwoven with tons (too much) of reading about effective copy and landing page design, as well as critically thinking about the verbiage used by commenters from the Indie Hackers post) making a more legit landing page that addressed the questions and concerns I’d just learned about.
I also followed Buffer’s example of building a landing page that led to a frank explanation that the product wasn’t ready, and that you could give me your email to be kept in the loop about Ashby’s progress. I also provided a checklist of important documents to those who signed up as incentive. I’d made the checklist for another old project, so no extra work besides rebranding 🎉.
Clicking “Get started” led you to this page…
Now, with a more legit landing page and firmer understanding of how to present Ashby as an idea, I used a handful of simple tactics to gauge whether I was knocking on the door of a problem that needed solving.
This ended up being a total dud. I struggled to pin down keywords and a product/industry that was a good fit…
Here are the final results along with some search phrases that led to views. A 1.3% click rate, with some “Ashby: the movie” noise trickled in there…
I’ll chalk this one up to a combo of inexperience with Google Adwords, a hastily thrown together ad AND a sign that Ashby may not resonate with folks the way I’d need for validation.
Another cheap, targeted, simple way to test the resonance of a product idea.
The targeted audience…
I read that the average click-through rate of Facebook ads across all industries is 0.90%. So my 0.49% and 5 likes wasn’t dismal — but again, not what I want to see if I’m going to commit hard to building even a simple first version of Ashby.
To keep the ad train rolling (because I’m an introvert and this requires no human interaction…), I thought I’d give Quora a try. I love it for learning about potential markets and gathering insights, so maybe I might like their ad opportunities, too.
Quora Ads is pretty new it seems, so I’m not sure how to interpret a 0.27% CTR, but I’m assuming it’s nothing to celebrate. So overall, generic ads aren’t convincing me to go all-in on Ashby.
I continued to participate in a regular stand-up of sorts on Indie Hackers, where I’d post my progress and a link to the Ashby landing page. I got tons of great feedback, advice and motivation there.
I also responded to another post on IH, where several folks commented on how they liked the concept of Ashby. Lots of advice and encouraging words, and an email signup or two, but I take those comments with a grain of salt, because everyone is so supportive and, while they’d tell me if my idea was crap, they also are obviously enthusiastic about tech products, which isn’t typical of most consumers.
So, after using the handful of simple methods above to try and get eyeballs on the landing page and capture emails, I got 15 email signups. People seemed to want that checklist given the click rate.
And here’s how many people visited the site the whole time period of having Ashby out in the open, which was a couple weeks. I totally forgot to exclude my IP address so that session stuff is useless!
So out of 225 visitors, 15 signed up, which means my landing page had a conversion rate of 6.67%. I have no experience gauging the success of a landing page, but this article suggests that my result ain’t anything great, but not terrible either. More lukewarm results….
To get a feel for whether Ashby would be solving a problem that people strongly want a solution for, I made a quick Google survey without any mention of Ashby.
I posted the survey on r/SampleSize (about 30 responses) and also shared with a group of friends who would be ideal users of Ashby (about 10 responses).
I tweaked the form a bit while it was still active, adding questions that seemed helpful to test my idea, so some results have smaller response rates.
Ok sweet, most are 21–30, a.k.a. young workers who could benefit from Ashby. The 18–21 could also be helpful, because they aren’t too far off.
Ok ok, when I export to Excel I’ll see if there’s any meaningful difference in responses from folks that responded “Yes” or “Maybe”.
Eh, ok this isn’t looking like a promising option. I considered it for an MVP, because it’d be easiest to build, but just doesn’t seem compelling. I could interpret this as folks being disorganized and not saving copies of docs securely in the cloud, and they would if they had something like Ashby, but gonna assume they just get by doing the bare minimum and don’t worry about it.
Geez, so a minority lack confidence. Doesn’t mean a market doesn’t exist, just that it’s smaller than I hoped. Maybe they’re lying….
Alright, that’s a great response there. So folks really want to be responsible adults, which Ashby would make more attainable with less effort.
Mmmm, that’s a lukewarm response in my eyes. I was hoping to see people begging for help…
I’m lazy and forgetful
I neglect stuff sometimes
I have ADHD.
I wish I understood how taxes work and that everything was easier to do online.
Because they’re mundane, I sometimes don’t think to do them but otherwise, I’m pretty on top of things
Because I never learned how to do it
I always feel like I could be better on top of things, but also I have anxiety so
I’ve got it more or less down
Because otherwise I forget and I’ll be in trouble
Because I’m not a fucking moron.
I hate adulting and procrastinate doing taxes for example
I have adhd which can make it hard to focus on or remember my responsibilities
I pretty much have all my stuff sorted
I’m still a child at heart
I am not a calendar.
nobody taught me how to do this shit
I procrastinate and can be forgetful
Time. Don’t always have enough time to research.
Cause I’m lazy
Those responses are nothing surprising. I feel that it’s probably all true, but my form led them to that final “why” so may have been a bit distorting.
I did a basic breakdown in Excel as well, just to see how the folks in my target age range or those with ADD/ADHD responded, and it was pretty much how the results broke down above, so no need to dive into that.
To make an absolutely basic version/MVP of Ashby, one that was purely through SMS like the landing page screenshots illustrate, I’d need to…
So overall, building something that’s both minimal and actually valuable to early users is looking like more than a couple weeks. Maybe I’d be OK dedicating a month to an MVP, but that’s longer than ideal — especially with the new mindset of coding less while trying to create a software product.
This is obviously a consumer product, which already makes marketing and monetization way more difficult as a bootstrapper. I have no intention of raising money, so I’d need to get creative to make money on a B2C product.
I did some thinking about how Ashby could add value to businesses, just to see if there was a way to avoid it being strictly B2C. I had a couple ideas…
Ok, so B2B doesn’t have a super clear path to success. Feels like I’m forcing my idea into a market, rather than creating a solution for a market with a problem.
Maybe I could niche it down to a small subset of consumers, like young professionals with ADD/ADHD, tech people, etc. Even still, the idea of Ashby is super generic by definition, in helping with life’s most common and mundane tasks, so I may have shot myself in the foot there.
When all’s said and done with these thought exercises, my attempts at finding a viable, small initial target market feel forced and not compelling.