You can read Part 1 of the SaaS Growth Series here.
So you spent many weeks or months in building your SaaS product. How do you then go about building traction for your product? How do you get your first 100 paying customers?
In this post, I will cover what I have learnt about building traction for SaaS products. In order to make the post more relevant, I am going to make some broad assumptions. I assume that the product being built is for the SMB market (self-service sales) and not enterprises (where you need a sales team to pitch the product). I also assume that you have done enough customer development throughout your initial build stage such that you have built a product that the market really wants (Product-Market Fit, if you will). This would involve working fairly regularly with a set of 5 or 10 customers or potential customers throughout your build stage — researching and validating the idea before you start building, regular feedback on what you’ve built etc.
Once your basic product is in place, you then start building traction. Traction for SaaS startups can be defined in many ways — some define it as getting to $1 Million in ARR, some define it as getting your first 100 paying customers, some define it as getting 1,000 free or paying customers to use your product etc. I define traction as getting your first 100 non-affiliated paying customers. These are customers who have not worked with you during the build stage. These are customers who have perhaps never even heard of you.
Channels to Acquire Non-Affiliated Customers
The foundation of all customer acquisition is built on identifying the right customers, targeting them and then acquiring them. Let’s now explore the channels you can use to acquire these 100 non-affiliated paying customers.
If you can depend on your personal network to get your first 100 customers, you can ignore the rest of this post. On a serious note, if you can actually depend on your personal contacts or contacts of your personal contacts to get your first 100 customers, your job of building traction just became easier. Some of the popular folks in the SaaS domain (eg. Hiten Shah) have such a massive following that building traction for any new product they make becomes very easy.
You could also attend industry conferences to personally invite potential customers to use your product. Remember, the point here is to get to your first 100 customers. So even reaching out to people on Twitter who have in the past tweeted about a problem that is directly or indirectly related to the space your product is in, just might help in getting those first set of customers.
PR / Communities / Bloggers/ Influencers / Directory Listings
I have put a lot of things under this all encompassing category of PR. Anything that can help you build awareness through publicity comes under this category. This could involve introducing your product on Product Hunt (and there’s a complete process on how to do this right — here, here and here), Hacker News, TechCrunch, VentureBeat or any such online community, blog etc. Another way in which you can identify these online communities or blogs is by checking out the acquisition sources of your competitors on SimilarWeb and targeting those sources. You should also list your product on the software directly lists such as Capterra, G2 Crowd etc.
Also included in this channel is the coverage you can get from influencers. Influencers are a much abused channel in B2C startups. However, the dividends could be significantly high for SaaS products if influential people can start talking about your product. When BrowserStack launched their product, known folks in the front-end engineering domain such as John Resig, Chris Coyier and Paul Irish used the product, loved it and tweeted about it of their own volition. There could not have been a better way for BrowserStack to acquire its first set of customers.
Content and SEO
Generating content and optimizing for SEO is a gradual long-term strategy that provides massive benefits but only after sustained efforts over a period of time. To optimize the time it takes to reap the benefits of SEO, you could start building content (blog articles) while you’re building your product so that SEO can start delivering as soon as you are ready to launch your product. Please note that you have to be smart about the kind of content you create. To figure out the content you should be creating, go on Google Ads to see the keywords people search for, pay attention to the suggested or related keywords on Google, or go on SimilarWeb to see the keywords that your competitors rank highly for and build content accordingly.
If you are able to attract visitors based on your content, you should be asking them for their email addresses so that you have a solid list of potential customers even before your launch!
If you have funding, you could explore the domain of paid advertisements. Perhaps your findings on keywords for Content and SEO could be used here. However, you could end up burning money on dozens of keywords to eventually find a set of keywords that work for you.
Business Development and Sales
This is applicable if you’re selling to enterprises where your ACV (Annual Contract Value) is large (anywhere upwards of $20,000 per year). Also, with such large ACVs, traction could even mean getting your first 10 paying customers who use your product extensively.
If you’re selling to enterprises, you would likely need some sort of an inside sales team that can go sell for you. Of course, in the initial stages where you’re trying to get your first few customers, it is mostly the founder who would do the selling before you hire sales folks.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could ride on the coattails of a bigger, much popular product? It is difficult to establish mutually beneficial partnerships for a startup launching its first product. However, if done right, it could be a great way to acquire new customers. Microsoft publicized both SauceLabs and BrowserStack on their Developers page a few years ago as simpler website testing alternatives to downloading VM (virtual machine) software from the Microsoft website to test how your website rendered on the IE browser. The process of downloading and using VMs was complicated and time consuming. Therefore, Microsoft developed a lot of goodwill with the software developers for introducing them to these easier website testing alternatives. Additionally, SauceLabs and BrowserStack ended up acquiring hundreds and thousands of customers who had a genuine need for the product through this partnership with Microsoft.
Virality / Word of Mouth
If you have a great product, hopefully people will talk about it with their friends and colleagues. BrowserStack went from 0 to double digit million $ revenues purely on the basis of word of mouth. People tried the product, loved it and went and evangelized it to their networks.
Or you could put mechanisms in the product to make it go viral. Dropbox gave you more space if you got your friends to sign up. When WebEngage launched their first website notification product, you could see WebEngage’s logo and a link back to WebEngage on all notifications being used by free users of the product. This built great virality into the product. Similarly, when you use Typeform to submit a form or SurveyMonkey to take a survey, you will notice that both these products prompt you to create your own form or your own survey once you’ve submitted the original form or survey. This then creates tremendous virality into the product that can help you acquire new users fairly quickly.
Even if you are able to harness your channels of acquisition to acquire users, your efforts will not yield results unless you have a great product onboarding experience.
New users should be able to perceive the value that your product provides to them quickly. The faster the users get to the proverbial Aha moment with your product, the faster they will convert into paying customers. BrowserStack does this beautifully where hundreds of browsers and devices are available to you to test your app or website on as soon as you sign-up. Getting to the Aha moment with BrowserStack literally takes less than 10 seconds.
Almost all great companies I can think of such as Mailchimp, Dropbox, Asana, Zendesk etc. have invested many hours in building that great onboarding experience from the start. In fact, in some ways your onboarding starts even before the user actually signs up. If you don’t have a convincing message on your homepage or if you’re not able to convey the value your product provides or the problem it addresses, chances are that the majority of your visitors will not even sign up on your website.
Metrics to Track
Assuming you have been able to generate enough traction and your onboarding experience is great, how do you quantitatively track whether your initial customers are actually able to derive value from your product over a period of time. The behavior of your initial customers could portend success in the longer term with a much larger customer base.
Following are some of the key metrics you should track and analyze on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to infer whether your initial customers are actually able to derive value from your product.
- Unique Days of Usage: If your product is being used 3 or more unique days in a week over a sustained period of time, you know that there is some value that your product provides to the users that is driving such behavior
- Total Time of Usage: The more your users spend time on your product on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, the higher the value the product provides to them
- Activation Rate: I define activation rate as the ratio of users who signed up and used your product extensively to the total users who signed up. The extensive usage can be defined in many ways. At BrowserStack, we developed a formula that would score the user’s engagement in the first few days after registration. Certain parameters like usage of certain features or testing on multiple devices resulted in a higher score representing a more engaged user. The objective was to identify the cut-off score where you then invest efforts in increasing the activation rate of those users whose engagement was below the cut-off scores
- Adoption Rate: If you have a product like Asana or Front that caters to teams, you should track whether users have invited their team members to the account and also the activation rates of each of the members in the team. If the activation rate for the team members is low, then there should be mechanisms built into the product through which you can increase the adoption rate of the product within teams
- Churn Rate: If majority of your users are canceling their subscription or are not using the product even after activation, then you should question whether your product has even reached the PMF stage
While you might invest your efforts in multiple channels of acquisition, you would generally find that only one or two channels of acquisition tend to give you the most returns. The faster your process of identifying these key channels of acquisition, the faster you will be able to acquire your first 100 non-affiliated paying customers.
Lastly, regardless of the channels of acquisition, if you’re targeting self-service sales (i.e SMB customers), you should expend enough efforts in onboarding. The key to building great products that leave a lasting impression on the customers almost always begins with a great onboarding experience!
You can read Part 1 of the SaaS Growth Series here.