How We Find A Way to Grow our MRR by 800% in 6 Monthsby@iammarcthomas
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How We Find A Way to Grow our MRR by 800% in 6 Months

by Marc ThomasApril 25th, 2020
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Marc Thomas is the head of Growth at Powered by Search, powered by Positive by Search. He explains how he switched from a near 100% direct sales model to a hybrid SaaS model. He shares some insights on how we found a low-touch sales model and share some results of that change. The post is probably one of the longest blog posts I’ve ever written. There’s something in here for anyone interested in how businesses grow online and particularly how SAA businesses engineer growth.

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At the end of 2018, my co-founder Steve and I sat down and reflected on the year. We had grown 100% across many key metrics during the previous year and usage of doopoll had increased 300% in a matter of weeks. 

We were doing a lot right. But there were challenges that we wanted to face up to and we knew we’d need to make changes if we wanted to grow a sustainable business. 

The biggest challenge was switching from a near 100% direct sales model to a hybrid which prioritised creating a system for growth that didn’t require us to always be at a sales pitch. We wanted to be able to find new customers and reach new audiences around the world without having to leave Wales (where we’ve been HQed since we started in 2015). 

And I’m pleased to say, that a little over one year later, we’ve made huge progress towards what we think will be a great SaaS business model for us. 

For context, doopoll is a real time survey tool that gets our customers 3x the response rate vs traditional survey products and has many great ways to review and share results including a view designed specifically for live event interaction. Objectively, it is a better looking and performing survey product than market competitors. 

We run on a Software as a Service (SaaS) model with packages available for SMEs between £9 and £100 per month. The majority of our business is still enterprise which we won’t delve into in this post at all. 

We decided to focus specifically on improving the SME business rather than our enterprise business. Currently, enterprise contracts make up 75% of our revenue. That side of the business is super important to us and is now fairly mature and we’ve got customers who have entered their fourth year of renewal with us in 2020. 

The reason that we focused on SME is because generally it is a lower touch model and we felt that we could impact that line on the balance sheet most effectively with a systematic approach to growth. 

It’s an incredibly exciting time for the business. And today, I want to share some insights on how we found a low-touch sales model and share some results of that change.

This is probably one of the longest blog posts I’ve ever written. There’s something in here for anyone interested in how businesses grow online and particularly how SaaS businesses engineer growth.

Demand Curve Growth Training

We wanted to get a jump start to the growth work we were doing. And as we were fairly green to this model, we decided to go find some people who could teach us how to do it more effectively. 

That’s why we applied to the Demand Curve Growth Training program. I had read this phenomenal post by Gil at Astra who had gone through a previous iteration of the program (note: it has changed quite significantly since then). After reading the blog post, I read Julian’s growth guide and then emailed Gil who highly recommended the program. 

We decided to take the plunge and pay the course fee (which only really works out to about 4 days of consultant time anyway) in order to acquire the skillset we’d need to run growth at doopoll. 

Most of what follows refers to the work we did as part of the Growth Program that Demand Curve offer. It is phenomenal and I would 100% recommend you do it if you identify with any of the points I’m going to make in this post. Here’s a link to check it out.

What were the goals here? 

We focused on three key goals for this project. Where possible we left explicit numerical values out of our goals (CAC:LTV is an exception) because the point was to develop a nascent model rather than achieve ROI right away. 

We were well aware that in the immediate and short terms, developing a sustainable growth engine would require us to make mistakes and that when you’re talking about paid acquisition in particular the mistakes can be costly. 

So here’s what we went for:

Find a marketing channel that reliably sends paying customers Make the cost of acquisition less than the customer lifetime valueIncrease the conversion rate from viewed website to paying customer

We’ll share more about how we did against these goals at the end of the post.

Key results from this work

First of all, before talking about the strategy we developed and the tactics we used, I thought it might be useful for you to be able to see some of the results from this work. 

The results below are a snapshot of two segments:

  • All SME revenue to date (I’m calling this pre-growth)
  • All new SME revenue since September 1 2019 (I’m calling this post-growth)

For reasons that I suspect are obvious to most people, I have scrubbed actual figures from these charts and provided percentages instead. At some point in the future, we’d like to be more open about the £££s and actual figures.

Generally, I have included the current month’s figures too even though we’re only a few days into it by this point. Consequently, it looks as though growth has slowed somewhat – in reality, this isn’t the case. 

So without further ado, broken down into categories of results, here’s what we saw. 

Impact on revenue

Overall, we saw a substantial growth in the number of customers and users. Mostly, because we’re a business, we look at the financial impact rather than the number of non-paying users etc. 

Take a look a this chart for example. Light green bars show the MRR values of new revenue added to the SME segment since September 1 (Post-growth). The purple is the MRR of our existing customer base (Pre-growth). 

Above: Light green is growth work, Purple is pre-growth work

SME revenue segment of work we did on the course grows on average by 75% each month. It now accounts for 10% of our SME revenue overall. 

Overall, we increased SME revenue by 17% in this period.

While the new MRR added is a small portion of the segment of customers who predate the growth work we did, there are two really key things to note. 

Firstly, the velocity of this growth is impressive. This equates to an 800% growth from September to March. 

Secondly, the acquisition model of all the pre-existing business was high touch, direct sales which has an incredibly high real Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) because it requires humans to be finding, pitching and ultimately closing deals. All of the revenue included in the post-growth segment came through low-touch or no-touch acquisition models. i.e. I only started speaking to these customers after they had started paying us. 

Validation of this model is one of the most valuable things I have ever achieved in a work context. For me, it is proof that a business like ours can grow in a scaleable way online.

Customer metrics

Below: Here's a chart of the growth in the number of paying customers

At first I sort of looked at the number of votes cast on doopoll as a vanity metric. I thought that it might not actually be a good indicator of how we are doing as company and as a product. 

However, paired with the growth of the revenue and post-growth customer segment, I realised that it’s a useful indicator of how much usage people are getting through the product. During the last few months, we surpassed 1.5M votes on the platform. 

Most significantly in that respect, we saw 20% of all votes ever cast come within late October – early January which represents a huge increase in usage. This trend is continuing into the new year. 

Funnel metrics

Above: Visits to doopoll between the first and last week of the program. 4x increase.

Now that I know the benefits of it, I can’t believe that we had never measured conversion rates down our funnel before. 

But to a certain extent, it hasn’t been a thing we needed to manage because our business has always been tilted heavily in the direction of direct sales. 

However, once you start thinking about a low or no touch sales model, you need to make funnel optimisation your mantra. It’s literally where you’re losing or gaining money. 

To give an idea of how much we managed this, I’m sharing the percentages for progression at each stage of the funnel and the difference between the first and final weeks of the growth program. I’ve also noted the volume of traffic to show just how valuable the changes to a funnel can be when the top scales. 

Funnel figures are affected by loads of things and to be honest, ours still fluctuates a lot. But the key takeaway is that we’re seeing significantly more people move to the purchase stage than we ever have. 

Why is the week 1 funnel data so weird? 

When you don’t have a system in place for ushering people down the funnel, you end up with lumpy data because it’s either hand holding (direct sales) or pot luck as to whether you achieve your goals. 

Although some stages of the funnel at the start of the program look impressive, the final numbers definitely do not. We just weren’t converting. Any good numbers higher up the funnel are total vanity when you realise that. 

On the other hand, the funnel data from the final week is relatively steady and converts at a higher rate. 

Factor in that traffic increased by about 4x between the first and last weeks of the course and you’ll hopefully get the picture that this has significant business impacts.

Non-tangible metrics

It’s a contradiction in terms, but there are also a number of unquantifiable metrics to have come out of this project. 

The first one is an incredible boost in team morale. Every time we get a notification that a new signup has progressed to ‘get 10 responses’ or ‘purchase’ (two key conversion events) it’s like a party happens in our slack channel. Emoji reactions up the wazoo! 

(Aside: we used to have a slack bot that pinged us all a link to ‘Tuscan leather’ by Drake when someone paid us through Stripe. We had to turn it off. We were getting too many notifications )

Additionally, the feeling of confidence in the business model we’re heading towards increases with every new iteration of the product and every conversion rate optimisation (CRO) change that we make. 

Finally, the diversification of our sales model was something we’d always dreamt of in the business but hadn’t found a channel for. When we set out in 2019 to drive this forward, we thought we might see early results, but the work we’ve done exceeded all our expectations. 

Key steps to building our growth system

Those are the headline numbers and results. But how did we get there? 

I’m going to outline a summary of the work that we’ve done since September to move forward with this. 

Side note

Let's talk more about this

There’s a huge amount that we could talk about here – I’d love to talk about this in more depth with podcast producers and write guest posts.
If you’re interested in that, drop me a line on [email protected] 

1. Completed a value propositions sheet

One of the most valuable things we did on the course was get a concrete spreadsheet of value propositions written up. I worked with Eric Nguyen throughout the growth program and it was really helpful to do that. 

But Eric’s feedback on our initial run through of a value props spreadsheet gave us the foundations for growth. Most of what we did after this stemmed from his input here. 

Here’s a snapshot from version 3 of our value props sheet. It’s almost unrecognisable from draft 1. 

2. Completed a review of our competitors’ growth activities 

I saw a blog post by Mathilde Colin (who is the phenomenal CEO of Front) where she outlined what she does with her time. One of the things she does regularly is to review competitors offerings. 

It feels awkward to admit that I looked at what our competitors are doing. But I’m glad that I went really in depth on this step. 

In fact, I think I probably went a little too far and spent at least two days trying to reverse engineer everything that our competitors are doing. 

If you’re thinking about developing a market, definitely don’t skip competitor research. It’s part of my day to day now. 

I signed up for several competitors’ sites and tried to create surveys/polls on each. There were things that were bad and things that I loved about each of them (Shout out to SurveyMonkey’s Genius tool for the best onboarding experience of any survey tool - genuinely something I’m jealous of!) 

But more than just the experience of using the product, I tore apart and analysed:

  • Marketing site structure
  • SEO performance
  • Paid advertising copy
  • Paid advertising design
  • Customer segments
  • Missed opportunities for growth

And I continue to do this on a regular basis. It is one of the most high leverage growth tasks. Why make mistakes when you can learn from people who are already doing well? 

3. Built a growth strategy

Taking all of the above into consideration, I outlined a growth strategy which was the guiding structure for the following six months. 

I can’t say that I stuck to it entirely because you have to be ready to make changes based on your experience. But this document prevented me from straying too far from the fold. 

4. Tore down our onboarding and made simple changes to improve this

A key part of our understanding of the funnel and why people weren’t converting to paid instantly pre-growth work, was the review of a customer’s experience of using the marketing site and doopoll product. 

We did a few things here to really get an understanding of what was going wrong. 

Firstly, we set up Hotjar on the marketing site to give us an understanding of what the average user was doing. While it provides many things, we only really used the Heatmaps (clicks, scrolls and moves) to see what a section of anonymous users did when they landed on our home page in particular. 

Secondly, I pretended that I had no idea what doopoll was and signed up for the product, writing about my experience of trying to understand what to do as I went along. If you do this for your own product, I think you’ll be amazed at the basic wins you can achieve. Here’s one of my own observations: 

It’s not obvious to me that I can create surveys. All the create buttons refer to ‘poll’ but all our marketing refers to ‘survey’ – swapping those labels will help. I actually can’t see the ‘Create a new poll’ button because I’m trying to work out what the two surveys that are prepopulated there are for. 

Basic stuff. Quick wins. 

Finally, I watched a number of user sessions on Fullstory to ensure that I wasn’t missing something obvious. I segmented by both existing users (of all pricing tiers) and new signups from the previous 1 month. 

Man, you have no idea how hard your ‘simple’ product is to use until you have watched people who didn’t make it try to use it. We found several amazing opportunities for improving growth right away by doing this. 

5. Rewrote our landing page copy

I started my career as a journalist. I’ve had my copy torn apart before and so I’m no stranger to it. 

But it stung the first time I got my reviewed copy back from Eric at Demand Curve. At the end of the day, this is the reason we signed up: to learn what we were doing wrong. And writing an in depth feature on the life of an academic is different from writing landing page copy for a SaaS product. 

I’m glad we persisted though because the landing page copy that we produced was more relevant to the value propositions that we’d created and refined at the start of the project. In fact, parts of the landing page copy we added to our new landing page were pulled directly from the value props. 

Before our landing page copy update and it’s not clear what doopoll is or why it’s better than the alternatives: 

Post landing page copy update and the value props are forefront and instantly clear. This landing page copy update saw conversions increase significantly and instantly:

As you’ll see further down this page, we eventually changed the copy and layout of the page again in line with our optimisation strategy. 

I wanted to show you the middle step here so that you can appreciate that we didn’t just pluck a high converting winner out of the air. Good growth is iterative and systematic.

6. Tried cold outreach as a channel

So, this is awkward, and it got a lot of laughs when I brought it up…. but we already tried cold outreach. 

Actually we did some super corny stuff. 

We initially tried a campaign with recruitment firms (who benefit a lot from what we provide). And we thought that to grab attention we would send customised images with Lemlist (which is a good tool but didn’t work for us in the end). 

One variation of the campaigns we tried ended an email sequence with a last ditch attempt where the subject line was: ‘I want to work with you so bad I got a {firstName} tattoo on my arm’. 

Let’s just say that the responses were divisive.

Some people absolutely loved it and booked demos of the product based on it(the minority).

Most were ambivalent.

Some were actively mean about it – which, if you’re going to cold email people weird pictures, you’re going to have to deal with, I suppose. Here's an example from this:

Thanks "Charlie." If that even is your real name, 

So when Demand Curve suggested I try it again, I was sceptical. Ultimately their approach is significantly different and focuses on short, text only emails to very well targeted groups. 

Here’s an test e-mail from one of the Demand Curve approaches I made (in my co-founder Steve’s name) (There’s a couple of fields missing from this person’s entry on our mailer tool which is why it doesn’t read 100%): 

We didn’t see results from this but I think it’s because I got the targeting wrong to be honest. It’s something that we’re going to take a look at in future and I expect to see stronger results knowing what we know now. 

It’s also hard to stay focused on this kind of activity when you can turn on paid advertising and see immediate results from people who aren’t going to send you vitriolic replies asking to never hear from you again. 

Which brings us to….

6. Set up Google Ads and ran first campaigns (about 7 days)

Google Ads was initially really expensive for us. 

One of our competitors is SurveyMonkey who are an absolute giant in the survey tool market and are difficult to outbid for ranking share. 

That said, we invested heavily in setting up Google Ads to ensure that we could acquire customers through it. 

It’s now our best performing channel and is close to being profitable for us (another couple of months we’ll be hitting the targets we’re looking for). 

The set up of Google Ads is ridiculous. There’s just so much to see and do. 

And yet, when you get the hang of it, it can be strangely simple. I’m probably missing loads of opportunities here still but the docs on the Demand Curve course were so helpful and in depth. 

The rush of seeing a huge stream of people from all over the world signing up and converting was hypnotic, euphoric and generally addictive. But the come down is a killer. 

7. Set up Facebook and Instagram ads and ran first campaigns (about 14 days from copy > design > structuring > campaign launch)

Update on above: once we started building campaigns and ad creatives for Facebook, I started to appreciate just how simple it had been to set up Google Ads. 

Facebook has about a trillion different ways to serve an ad and a million formats for doing so. 

One of the trickier things for me was getting my head around the ad group and budgeting set up. My brain doesn’t work too well when it comes to mental arithmetic. 

So defining the correct number of ad groups to test and the budgets to assign to each so that I didn’t go vastly over budget was tough for me. Luckily, I’m good at spreadsheets and making tools using them. 

So here you go: a spreadsheet template for working out how to structure your budgets on Facebook/Instagram ads (just change the top couple of values) (Please make a copy of the sheet rather than editing this template).

8. Ran ads on FB/IG and Google Ads for about 14 days – burned a lot of cash at this point

It took me about 21 days from starting to write and set up ad campaigns on FB/IG and Google Ads before I pressed ‘go’ 

But then when I did, it was like drugs. The rush of seeing a huge stream of people from all over the world signing up and converting was hypnotic, euphoric and generally addictive. 

But the come down is a killer. 

We doubled our ad spend for the first 14 days so that we could get a meaningful set of data to decide how to improve our conversion to paid. 

I sort of naively thought at this point that the money would just start flowing in. After all, our messaging was right. The targeting seemed spot on. The strategy was followed. 

And yet, except for a tiny handful of new customers, all our ad spend was being burned fast. 

Admittedly, it was really naive to be freaking out about this and so this reply to a pretty soul searching email to Asher King Abramson who was one of the cofounders at Demand Curve at this point (He’s actually struck out on his own now at Got Users. Look him up too.) was really welcome: 

9. Turned off ads to fix our funnel

Taking Asher’s advice here was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. 

Again, naively, I hadn’t thought that turning off ads was something people did once they were all set up. And I didn’t want to go cold turkey on my new found addiction. 

But actually, turning off ads gave me the headspace to objectively look at how we were doing and where the funnel was breaking down. 

10. Started work on conversion rate optimisation 

The most significant growth changes came in the period where we decided to start optimising the funnel based on the stuff we learnt from the step previous to this one. 

To do this, we did a number of different activities including: 

Setting up a funnel chart (a simplified version can be seen above)

  • Identifying points where there was a low conversion rate to the downfunnel steps
  • Brainstorming ideas on how to improve those drop offs

Now, this feels like such an obvious step to take. But at the time, it felt totally revolutionary. For the first time, I felt like I had a grip on what it meant to engineer growth. 

Growth isn’t about paying for new users. It’s about getting better at helping people accomplish the goals you need them to and where they get value. And doing it all in a systematic way. 

11. Changed our pricing model in response to user research – first paying user comes within minutes which was incredibly rewarding

The key thing that we learnt from our CRO work was that most people just didn’t have a reason to pay for the product. And that’s mostly because we weren’t asking anyone to. 

Analysing our funnel, we learned: 

  1. Often people want to create several surveys a year but might not do a survey every month
  2. Particularly for event organisers, the 14 day trial model doesn’t work because they’ll often create their live surveys more than 14 days before their event starts
  3. A lot of people want to see the number of responses they get before they decide to invest their time and money into surveying
The key thing that we learnt from our CRO work was that most people just didn’t have a reason to pay for the product. And that’s mostly because we weren’t asking anyone to. 

The change we made was significant. We switched from being a product with a 14-day trial to being a freemium product with a clear upgrade point: when you hit 10 responses, you’ll need to upgrade to get the rest of the value from the product. 

We wrote about this in great depth here if you want to know how it works.

We were kind of panicky as we pushed the changes because we didn’t know how it would be received but the feedback was instant. 

Within 30 minutes of this update, we saw a conversion to paid from a new customer. Then another. Then another. 

The response to this change on social media announcements was unexpectedly positive:

And most importantly of all, this model appears to work for our customers. They’re creating surveys at a higher rate than before, getting more responses and upgrading all the time. Here’s that graph of our customer growth again: 

12. Turned on paid advertising

Is this obvious? I still don’t know how obvious it is. 

The most effective way of us to improve our growth engine and convert at a higher rate is by turning on Google Ads in short bursts.

After every funnel change and growth experiment we make, we turn on ads, acquire a couple hundred new users and then turn off ads. 

The following week or two tells us how successful our optimisations or experiments are. 

This is the cycle that we’re on now. 

13. Wrote and published a big guide to customer satisfaction 

We decided towards the end of last year to write a guide to customer satisfaction. It’s one of the main use cases of doopoll and so we wanted to try to acquire new users who were interested in searching for terms related to customer satisfaction.

The guide is comprehensive and follows Kevin Indig’s Microsites 2.0 structure. Shout out to Jim Miller at Salesbloom for helping us with this work. Great guy. Check him out.

It’s way more labour intensive than any of the work I’ve done on other channels but ultimately, the ROI of it increases over time assuming I’ve done the right things.  

The guide probably took about 14 days to write and another 14 to publish because we built a whole new content type on our CMS to deal with it – this was an arduous task but ultimately very rewarding as it sends us customers free about 2-3 times a month at the moment.

We didn’t do this as part of the Growth Program – but realised that if we wanted to do this, we should get started as soon as possible.

14. Designed first A/B test and increased landing page views to free signup from 4% to 14% on our first test

The final Demand Curve project we did was to run an A/B on our landing page. 

The key message from Demand Curve on A/B testing is to test a big swing. They recommend not focusing on small optimisations like button colours etc. 

Instead we decided to completely rebuild our landing page.

After analysing heatmaps and a whole bunch of other data on our website and beyond, we decided that the biggest impact we could have was in helping people quickly understand what other customers are using doopoll for. 

This approach was totally nailed by Notion and we thought that it could work for us. So, hands up: we took heavy inspiration from what they did. If someone on the growth team there is reading this - thank you for the inspiration. 

Here’s heatmaps of the before and after. If you’ve never seen one before, the overlay of glowing spots is where people clicked: 

We decided the minimum change we wanted to see was a 10% increase in conversions (why not shoot for the stars eh?!) and plugged the data into Optimizely’s calculator to work out what the sample we’d need for this was (surprisingly low to be honest)

We ran the A/B test using Google Optimize and fairly quickly (1 week) found a clear winner. 

The new landing page is now live on our site. It converts at about 14% from page view to sign up. Which is significant when you’re trying to optimise your funnel. 

How did we do against our goals?

Beyond the nice charts I shared above, I think it’s useful for me to share the ways that we evaluated the ROI of this work. 

Taking the goals we set for ourselves at the start of this growth project, here’s how we did: 

Find a marketing channel that reliably sends paying customers 

  • Since September we have increased MRR of SME customers by 17% in this period. 
  • Google Ads is by far the best channel we tested

Make the cost of acquisition less than the customer lifetime value

  • The ideal ratio for us would be 1:3 (CAC:LTV)
  • Average Net MRR churn rate for the period is 0.82% (i.e. we’re growing revenue rather than losing it)
  • Although as this model is nascent, there’s probably not enough data to make concrete assumptions but we’re currently at around a 1:1.5-2 CAC:LTV

Increase the conversion rate from viewed website to paying customer

All of the above can be affected by three main things: 

  • Lower the cost of acquiring a free signup
  • Increase the conversion rates in the funnel
  • Increase the value of paying customers’ accounts (upgrades etc)
  • We’re currently converting quite well (Viewed landing page to share a survey is 1.76%)
  • We’re now working towards getting customers to 10 responses on their survey at a faster pace. This is our key conversion point. 

Key learnings

Before I finish, I wanted to share these three quick takeaways that I have from running this work from total novice to a high degree of confidence in my growth abilities.

Growth is about systems rather than hacks – A lot of people end up with poor results because they focus on tactics that worked for people they know. Strategy is more important and systematic approach to strategy is best of all.

Most people don’t grow astronomically over night – It’s usually the accumulation of small gains over time that makes an impact. If you take a systematic approach to growth, you don’t need to get hung up on rapid growth figures. 

Growth for a SaaS project is a whole business project – Opportunities get missed when growth work isn’t driven across teams (product, marketing, sales, customer success).


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I hope it has been useful and insightful for you. It was originally published on doopoll.

Three calls to action: 

1. Create your next survey on doopoll – it’s free to get started and your experience of using the product will be so much more pleasant than if you go for one of our competitors. 

2. Share this post with your networks – Thank you in advance.

3. Chat to me further – as I mentioned I’d love to talk more about how we did this and appear on your podcast or on your blog. Drop me a line at [email protected] if that’s something you’d be open to.