Starting a company is an exciting endeavor, but it comes with numerous challenges, especially when building a bootstrapped SaaS product. When my co-founder Ben and I decided to build Podigee, we focused on understanding the problem well and delivering as much value as possible. Staying true to the idea of serving others helped us overcome the many challenges that we faced as founders. Here are some lessons we learned along the way.
It's essential to have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve with your product. What problem are you solving? While it is important to ask yourself questions like “Who is your target audience?”, “What makes your product unique?”, and “What is your marketing plan?” I would not recommend spending too much time in the beginning writing these ideas down on paper. Instead, focus on actually doing. Ben and I had the advantage of being able to write the code ourselves and run it without the need for a team at first. This helped us immensely because we were able to iterate, try, listen to feedback, and constantly improve and revisit our assumptions.
It's essential to be open to change and adaptation. Your initial vision may not be the right one, or it may need to evolve as you learn more about your customers and the market. Be willing to adjust your vision (and product) as needed.
Keep iterating: Building a product is a continuous process. Be open to feedback and use it to improve your product. Regularly review your product, test new features, and keep improving the user experience. Sometimes, you will have to sacrifice ideas or even production-ready features to keep your product focused.
Engage with your customers and prospects to understand their needs and pain points. This will help you identify gaps in your product and opportunities for improvement. Try hard to talk to people from the industry you are in. You might be surprised how many pain points there are to solve that you would not even see by yourself. Do not overuse customer surveys at this point; they will cost you a lot of time and might provide you with too much information that is not actionable. Focus on quality instead of quantity.
Since you are talking to people in your industry, you will find that like-minded people in the same industry form communities. These communities are extremely helpful and valuable for diving deep into the needs and wants of your current and potential customers. Communities can help you jump ahead of the curve, as you will stay informed about what is happening and being discussed. But as with everything, do not forget to use your best judgment before jumping into solving a problem that might not be there!
While it's important to talk to real people, be careful not to base all your decisions on the feedback of a single customer. Aim to build a product that solves the needs of a larger audience. Often, when we talked to customers and saw that their feature request was interesting for us, we tried to figure out what would be a version of that feature that would be valuable and appealing to most of our customers, or at least to a significant group.
Our gut feeling is more relevant than you might think. You have to trust your instincts. Data is important, but it's not the only factor in decision-making. Use your intuition to guide you when the data is inconclusive or conflicting. Especially when bootstrapping and without huge resources, you will not be able to afford market studies or large-scale customer surveys. The traffic data and conversions might not be enough to base your decisions purely on data.
One of the most important pieces of advice that I would give to founders is to offer the best value for money to your customers. Be honest and transparent about your product and your intentions. As a bootstrapped business, you should not differentiate yourself by creating perfect landing pages with outstanding copy and lots of promises. Instead, focus most of your time on creating "deep value". Deep value is what makes your product useful and what makes someone willing to swipe their credit card to solve a problem or relieve a pain point. There is no easy path towards understanding true deep value, but talking to people in the industry and your first customers and using your intuition will go a long way.
Resist the temptation to undercut your competitors with lower pricing. This may attract customers in the short term, but it's not a sustainable business model, especially when you don't have VC money that can be thrown out the window to grow a random metric. How long do you think you can stay in business if you have thousands of users who use your product but don't find it valuable enough to pay for it?
As technical founders with a programming background, Ben and I did not have to discuss much about the technology we would use to create Podigee. As Ruby on Rails programmers, it was only natural that we should use it to build fast and without additional obstacles. If you already know a tech stack pretty well, why risk the success of your product by choosing a different stack that you are not familiar with? And honestly, I confess that it was thanks to Ben that we did not rewrite the entire codebase at some point. His conservative and pragmatic approach helped me stay grounded and focus on building new features and optimizing the performance of the existing stack, instead of chasing the latest and greatest framework du jour. Today, I would consider it reckless to rewrite a production-grade application using a new tech stack unless there is a huge, objective, and undeniable need for doing so. But that happens very rarely.
Got that brilliant idea in your head? Write it down. Give it enough thought. Only when writing ideas down on paper (physical or digital) will you see if the idea is consistent, if it has evident shortcomings, or if you completely forgot about some of the consequences of a potential implementation and rollout. Usually, before starting to work on a feature, I would share my thoughts with Ben by writing up a feature concept. It would not always be extremely extensive, but it would always provide a rationale, a summary, a description of the current state and the potential gains. Also, it would mention here and there some technical ideas as well in order to validate that the feature can actually be implemented as intended. After a little back and forth, Ben and I would usually agree on a version of the feature that we would start implementing.
Marketing is crucial for the success of your product. But there is not a single marketing strategy available to bootstrapped products and businesses that will work around the problem of not having a good product. Make your product good. Make it better every day. Keep improving it. Let it speak for itself. Then, once it speaks for itself, boost it further by implementing a sound marketing strategy. What is a sound marketing strategy for a bootstrapped business? That is a topic for a different blog post.