SaaS (Software as a Service) is today’s digital commerce darling. Delivering your software on a subscription model provides recurring revenue. Your business gets more predictable cash flow, and your users reduce their sense of risk.
It’s easy to think that the most important success factor for SaaS is the technology.
But even folks who don’t primarily think of themselves as “technical” can build a strong SaaS business — if they have the business and marketing know-how to make it work.
Defining the problem set is 90% of the battle
One theme that you’ll find running through Digital Commerce Institute is this one:
The most important skill set you can develop as the owner of a
digital business is … business.
Being a brilliant writer, programmer, graphic designer, or even marketer isn’t enough. You have to become a damned smart businessperson.
Luckily for you (and me), those skills are 100% learnable by anyone. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is speaking from their own insecurity and lack of experience.
“Sorry to burst your bubble, but an idea you come up with is a terrible place to start a new business.” -Nathan Barry, founder of the ConvertKit app
And the most important business lesson of them all is: Build the product or service that your market wants.
Not “needs” (from your point of view). Not “should have.”
And most definitely not “I have this killer idea …”
If you don’t start with a SaaS idea that your market wants and will pay for on a recurring basis, none of your other skills can make your app successful.
First the who, then the what, then the why
So how do we come up with this idea?
If you already have an audience who follows you (on your Facebook page, blog, LinkedIn group, etc.), you have a giant advantage — take advantage of that. Observe and question that audience to find out what they want from your topic … and from you.
For most of us, the most important question to ask at this stage is, “Who do I serve?”
If you don’t have an audience yet, find someone else’s that you can serve. Look for a cohesive group with a shared set of interests, problems, and challenges to solve.
Again — these folks might be congregating around a Facebook page, a blog, a LinkedIn group, etc.
Business is really the art of finding a cohesive group of people and then serving those people in a meaningful way.
Observing their complaints, their wishes, and their frustrations will lead you to some ideas on What will solve their most annoying problems?
Take your time during this phase. You’re looking for as many opportunities to problem-solve as you can possibly find. This is the phase of product design that leads you to solutions that are:
- Focused on a specific market need
- Simpler to design and build, because you know the core functionality needed
- Highly marketable
The right way to approach “Why”
Once you know who you serve and what you can help with, you’re ready to craft a meaningful Why.
I’m not a fan of most of the “Why-centered” talk in business these days — because it focuses on “Why am I in business?”
To be brutally honest, your potential customers really don’t care. The question to answer instead is,
Why are you the best resource to help?
What is it about you and your business that uniquely qualifies you to solve this problem?
The answer may not come to you right away, but keep asking. Often, this question will lead you to tighten up your “Who” or your “What” (or both), until you have a problem you can serve like no one else can.
Effective execution is the other 90% of the battle
Like so many ways of making a living online, there’s a mythology out there about launching a successful SaaS app.
From the outside, it might look like a question of getting your 12-year-old nephew to program it, running a few Facebook ads, and figuring out how to count all the dollars that are raining down on you.
To paraphrase Christine Kane, There’s no such thing as business like that.
Building a useful, successful SaaS app is hard. You need to have a good appetite for problem-solving, for developing business skills, and for hanging on tight during those rollercoaster days.
A dedication to serve your audience, combined with a little intelligent stubbornness, goes a long way to helping you stick it out. If you’re not quite sure you’re ready for that at this point, you might go back to your Who and your What and consider some easier-to-implement solutions to their problems.
For example, an ebook or an online course are typically faster to design and build, and can be run successfully with a very small team.
And that challenge to build a brilliant SaaS app will still be there when you’re ready for it. (Even if the specifics will look quite different down the line.)
What to do if you aren’t the programmer
Can you build a successful app if you aren’t a programmer yourself?
Absolutely — because it’s the business aspects that are the most challenging, not the technical aspects.
Here’s what Laura Roeder, who founded the social media scheduling app Edgar had to say about it:
“A non-technical founder needs more than just a great idea — generally what they bring to the table is marketing/business acumen. I can’t program my way out of a paper bag, but I crafted the strategy to get us to the 4,000 small business owners we serve today. Without tech we would have no product, but without marketing we would have no customers.”
– Laura Roeder, Edgar founder
Nathan Barry talks about how he found a developer for his successful and well-regarded Saas app, ConvertKit:
“The next thing that I did was turn to my own audience, and if you have an audience, that’s the most amazing place ever to get employees of any kind. I put out a call to action, and I said, Hey, I’m looking to hire a developer for this project. If you’re interested, please get in touch.“
Because he wasn’t an expert in the language his app was being written in, Barry also brought in an advisor who could take a look at the actual code being written.
He also recommends going from one developer to two as quickly as you can, so you can create redundancy and resilience in your coding team.
“Software has a tendency to go down and have problems and bugs and things like that, and often those need to be fixed really quickly. If you’re relying on just one person, you’re going to be in trouble.”
The secret weapon of smart digital entrepreneurs
You might notice that Nathan went to his audience to find the coders for his app.
An audience is an incredibly powerful “secret weapon” for anyone looking to create or grow a business online.
The audience is the collection of people who are paying attention to your content. It’s normally made of a mix of customers, leads, prospects, other experts in your field, and the occasional heckler.
Whatever kind of digital business you might be building — an ebook empire, a series of digital courses, the next killer SaaS app, or some other model — you’ll want to get started building an audience.
Many business owners think of the audience as simply a group of prospects, but it can be much more. An engaged audience will:
- Spark new business ideas
- Let you test the marketability of your projects
- Help the word out about your business
- Connect you with valuable resources, like Nathan’s programmers
- Build your authority and reputation
Want to know more?
Obviously, there’s more to building a terrific SaaS app than we can cover in one blog post.
But we do have an in-depth case study for you inside Digital Commerce Institute. In it, Nathan Barry talks about the seven-step process he used to get ConvertKit designed and built.
He drills down into:
- How he developed ConvertKit on a tiny fraction of the usual budget
- Why starting with a killer idea is the worst place to start a new business
- The “idea extraction” process Nathan used to find a marketable idea for his app
- The hard-nosed, zero-BS way to validate your market idea
- The single factor Nathan chose to ignore when hiring his app developers
- Why you don’t need to be a designer to design a high-quality product
- The secret sauce in his marketing
- The counterintuitive move that increased his success by more than 10x
And you can get instant access to this case study simply by activating your free Digital Commerce Academy membership.
Click here to get started … and find out everything else you get with your free membership.