Everything I wish I'd known before starting Saasify 2 years ago.
I started working on Saasify two years ago with one clear goal in mind: to help developers like myself go independent.
I'm a reasonably experienced entrepreneur, so as I dove in, there are a lot of basics that I managed to do well such as:
- Talking with (literally) hundreds of prospective customers
- Focusing on a core mission that I care deeply about
- Releasing product early & often
The end result, however, left a lot to be desired. Saasify struggled to find product / market fit, we failed to raise capital, and I ended up getting pretty burnt out towards the end.
Looking back, there are lots of things that I wish I'd done differently.
in my previous post, I explored the feedback that Saasify received from VCs, and in this post, I'm going to focus on my key takeaways — e.g., the most important lessons that I wish I'd known when I was just starting out with Saasify two years ago.
Ultimately, Saasify failed to raise capital, and despite early validation in terms of developer signups and usage, we've failed to find product / market fit.
I'm very proud, however, to say that there are a handful of profitable products being run on Saasify by Indie Hackers from around the world, including Reacher and Notion2Site (ranging from ~$100-$500 MRR).
After about 18 months of bootstrapping Saasify, I was feeling pretty burnt out and my physical and mental health were at all time lows.
COVID certainly didn't help.
So I decided to take a much needed break away from Saasify to focus on myself and reflect on everything.
Given all of this feedback (and my more personal concerns), I've come to the conclusion that I will be fighting an uphill battle trying to build Saasify into a successful platform at scale.
I would've been so much better off investing more time early on in researching and exploring the market. Before touching any code.
As a developer, my default mode is to build since that's where I'm most comfortable. It's the part of the creative process that I enjoy the most, so I inevitably end up focusing most of my time & energy there.
But no matter how good of a developer you are, if you're working on the wrong problem / market / product, it won't end up mattering.
In my case, I had a general idea of the problem I wanted to work on (helping devs go independent), and I dove in way too quickly thinking that I would build and experiment along the way.
But what actually ended up happening is that the product I had built slowed me down drastically over time. Don't get me wrong — it's not that I cut corners or had a sloppy stack. I'm very proud of the architecture and general craftsmanship that I put into Saasify.
But at the end of the day, what started as an experiment ended up as a burden of sunk costs, hampering my ability to try things out and explore new ideas.
So if you find yourself in a similar situation (and as a note to myself in the future), I can't recommend doing these three things enough:
1. Pause to research the space you're interested in. Extensively. 2. Do as much customer research as possible (like actually talking to people 😂 😂 😂 via the Mom Test). 3. Try to validate demand and market size before building any product via a landing page or by asking questions in related communities.
This is another one that sounds easy but is incredibly difficult and subtle to follow through on in practice.
Reflecting back, I wish I would've been a lot clearer up front with myself what I wanted to personally accomplish with Saasify.
To my favor, I did write a decently well-defined mission statement, which I'd encourage all founders to do.
But I wasn't crystal clear about the company I was looking to build and why. E.g., I jumped back & forth quite a bit between the bootstrapper mindset with the goal of just becoming profitable versus the traditional startup mindset with the goal of building a VC-compatible platform at scale.
Looking back, I always wanted to build the latter and that's why I spent so much time focusing on solving the problem of building Micro SaaS products in a repeatable manner.
I would've been so much better off, however, if I had focused on Saasify through this lens early on, gotten feedback from potential investors earlier on, and reached the conclusions around market concerns a lot earlier on.
But I didn't do this early enough because I wasn't crystal clear with myself about my intentions and goals from day one.
Do yourself a favor and write down your personal goals (what you're looking to build and what your definition of success looks like) and your reasoning (why do you care about solving this problem) as early on in your journey as possible. This is not just some meaningless exercise, but rather one that will help guide you as you make countless minor decisions along the way.
What is your TAM (Total Addressable Market)?
Who are your target customers?
How many of them are there?
How many of them are a good fit for using your solution?
How many have you spoken to? How did those conversations go?
It's one thing to say that if you're incredibly successful, you could penetrate a larger market or target different markets altogether. I was initially convinced that Saasify had a huge TAM because it could eventually encompass all SaaS in much the same way that Shopify has captured a large portion of the e-commerce market.
But what early-stage VCs are looking for is a very well-defined initial market that can be quantified using a bottoms-up approach. This is important if they're going to properly analyze the risk vs reward potential of investing in your company early on.
This was ultimately one of Saasify's biggest roadblocks.
We didn't have a clear way to measure the indie hacker / bootstrapper market, and even worse, it was really difficult to identify how many of these makers would consider using Saasify versus rolling their own solution.
This problem was made worse by the fact that most of our target makers were developers who are much more likely to build their own solution as opposed to using a pre-built platform.
Having a solid understanding of a well-defined target market should be a top priority in the early phase of building any company. You can't develop good answers to these questions without talking to lots of potential customers who are intimately familiar with your target market.
What's your go-to-market strategy?
How will you reach your target customers at the right time when they're deciding what solution to use?
These questions cut to the heart of how you will connect with prospective customers, and "launching on ProductHunt" is definitely not a GTM strategy.
In Saasify's case, we had to do a decent amount of education and awareness building around Indie Hackers and other communities that cater to bootstrappers.
If anything, I'd say that our GTM was complicated by the fact that we had to both market Saasify itself as a platform, and also spend time and energy marketing products built on top of Saasify.
This was twice the amount of effort, and it really involved building two different playbooks that made it even harder to focus.
Thinking through your initial go-to-market strategy is an extremely important part of due diligence that should ideally be done before building any product. This doesn't have to be super fleshed out from day one, but it should be written down somewhere. If you're unsure where to start, I'd recommend talking with a GTM expert like Kevin Raheja (one of my key advisors).
You're going to receive a lot of feedback from different people. Much of it will be noise. Developing a system for identifying the most critical feedback is an invaluable skill for a founder.
The people giving you this critical feedback need to have the right mix of encouragement and an honest, no-bullshit tone that cuts to the core of your riskiest assumptions as quickly and concisely as possible.
In my case, I was lucky enough to have a few experienced advisors who were brutally honest with me at various points along my journey.
But it still took me a long time to truly accept the reality of what they were telling me.
My founder blinders were on, which can be both a blessing and a curse, but in the end, I can look back and confidently reflect on the advisors who cut to the chase and gave me the most valuable feedback along the way.
These are the people who will make your best advisors.
Identify these key advisors early on in your journey. They will likely be experienced founders themselves. De-emphasize anyone else who either provides empty words of encouragement or who isn't able to provide the type of honest, critical, insightful feedback that cuts to the heart of things.
This one's incredibly important, but so easy to forget as you inevitably get caught up in the excitement of building product, acquiring your first customers, and wearing too many different hats to focus and stay sane.
Take time for yourself.
Prioritize your health over everything.
I would regularly get into the habit of working late into the night and pushing back my sleep schedule until I ended up circling around. This was doable largely because I didn't have any regular work commitments that forced me to stay on a regular, healthy sleep schedule.
Get out of your work bubble regularly.
This one was exacerbated by COVID — I live in NYC and wasn't able to get away from my apartment and "work mode" for months at a time.
Prioritize relationships especially for people important to you that are outside of the tech bubble.
And finally, as I write this out, I know full well how these things are easy to say and much more difficult to stick to in practice. So maybe this one is more targeted at my future self...
Prioritize your mental / physical health and long-term career over anything startup-related.
There's so much content out there about startups. Add in bootstrapping, marketing, design, product development, fundraising, etc and and resources like YC's Startup School.
There are more quality resources than ever for learning how to start your own company, but the one key thing I'd call out is that a lot of them focus on specific tactics.
Tactics are important — don't get me wrong. It's very useful to have a minimum viable toolbelt of tactics for different situations. But the higher-level strategy is so much more important for founders to understand and embody in their mindset.
I feel like it's so easy to get caught up in marketing tactics or software engineering tactics ala bikeshedding because they are so tangible and easy to discuss. But if you're consuming a ton of content about building startups, just remember to occasionally ask yourself if you're more interested in the prospect of building something as opposed to the reality of building something.
Check out this awesome article to learn more on the difference between strategy and tactics.
Founders should focus on strategy over tactics. Related content consumption is fine for founders, but try to focus on resources which emphasize strategy over lower-level tactics.
I wasn't alone for all of Saasify. For ~6 months, I was working with Chris Villa as a co-founder.
After getting rejected from YC and differing on a few key decisions (bootstrapping vs raising and marketplace vs standalone), Chris decided to go his own way, and I definitely can't blame him. (Hi, Chris 💕)
Of course, I had other minor contributors as well and no shortage of advisors.
But looking back, there's a clear difference in my mind between the time I spent working with Chris versus when I was working mostly on my own.
One of the things I've started doing more recently is prioritizing working with other indie hackers on specific, focused SaaS products. It's been a great way to build on top of Saasify while forcing myself to get out of my silo.
When I'm ready to start my next company, I will be very hard pressed to start working on an idea in earnest without having a few other people on board.
Networking and relationship building are incredibly important skills for aspiring founders. Even if you don't have a specific idea, the more people you meet who are ambitious and have complementary skillsets, the more you'll be able to lean on those relationships in the future when you do have something worth building. Identifying the problem space that you're interested in is a crucial first step, as it'll help keep your networking focused on people working within that space.
Bootstrapping a business is hard.
I gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars in opportunity costs if I were to have taken the easy path in my mind of going back to working at FAANG. (Yes, I know that I'm incredibly privileged to have that type of job as a backup option) Spending my own money while attempting to find product/market fit led to a lot of unnecessary stress.
Founding a venture-scale business is even harder.
I was frequently going back & forth between the bootstrapper / indie hacker / Micro SaaS world and the traditional VC world. Tyler Tringas, a new-age VC, whom I have a lot of respect for also straddles this divide with Earnest Capital.
Tyler's advice to me was that our target customers may be bootstrappers, but what Saasify's trying to do as a platform is much larger and therefore a better fit for traditional VC.. And traditional VCs didn't respond well to the size and makeup of the bootstrapper / indie hacker market.
And finally, finding a happy compromise between these two extremes is the most difficult and personal.
Differentiating between what I was passion about and what the market looked like, and being able to effectively sell that vision to investors is where Saasify ultimately hit a dead end.
I should've been clearer with myself up front about the type of company I was setting out to build. Writing down these goals and and my reasoning early on and sticking to them would've helped me immensely in the long run.
There's no way around it — building a successful startup is incredibly difficult. But there are ways to make your journey much easier, and I hope that some of these key takeaways will help you along the way.
As I review this post, two things stand out:
- It's gotten pretty long (sorry!)
- It's overall fairly negative
I've focused mainly on the negative because I feel like confronting these lessons head on is more constructive and useful.
With that being said, I'd like to end on a positive note.
For all of the difficulties I've encountered building Saasify and all the stress and burnout it's led to, I'm in a much healthier place now as I look back and articulate my takeaways.
One thing I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt is that I'm still extremely glad that I followed my passion and took a chance working on Saasify. I've just learned so much along the way, both about myself and about startups / product / marketing / bizdev / fundraising / strategy.
Don't worry about me, though — I'm already actively exploring my next venture in the Passion Economy space, albeit without jumping into things so quickly this time. 😉
Follow along with my journey on twitter @transitive_bs.