This is a story of how to get a SaaS startup from an idea to exit. The story of how I launched, marketed, grew and sold my first micro SaaS – HeadReach. I’m sharing all the marketing frameworks and formulas that helped me do that on a shoestring budget.
Before we jump into the post:
This is a long post. For those of you who don’t have enough time to read now, I’ve packaged it into a neat PDF document. You can download it below.
Featured image: David, the co-founder of HotJar talks about the success formula for SaaS companies at the
Back in late 2016, we launched HeadReach, a sales tool for lead generation. It’s a SaaS that helps you find emails of people you want to sell to. Think of it as LinkedIn plus emails minus the high price tag.
In 3 months we grew the product to a bit shy of $2,000 in MRR and a few thousand users.
Just as we started growing, in February 2017 Google emailed us that they’re closing the Site Search API – the primary “technology” we use behind HeadReach to find leads.
Google didn’t close our product – we managed to scale back to a different 3rd party API. However, dropping that bomb was anything short of a sobering glass of cold water for us.
It’s not a sustainable business strategy to put all your eggs in one basket by relying on a single 3rd party API.
After the Google bomb, we tried to build our own proprietary tech. We put a hard and persistent fight with data scrappers but never figured out how to index data on a large enough scale without spending too much cash.
After exploring a myriad of possible alternatives, databases, and partners, we decided to put the project in zombie mode due to the technical difficulties.
Zombie mode – a walking dead project. When the product is operational, but you don’t actively work on it.
About a year later we approached LeadFuze, one of our competitors and overall amazing entrepreneurs, and we sold the HeadReach user base and marketing assets to them. They have solved that technical barrier and managed to build a sustainable business in the field, so it was just natural to sell to them.
Staying true to our core value of transparency, I’m going to share with you the entire HeadReach journey with all the triumphs and downfalls.
My motivation is not entirely altruistic, in any case. I use this content to build a pre-launch audience of startup people and marketers for my new product – Encharge. So if you find this article useful, please subscribe to my email list.
The HeadReach From an Idea to Exit Timeframe
From an idea to the acquisition, this is how the HeadReach journey looked like time-wise.
The Y-axis displays actively paying customers. The X-axis is the timeframe in quarters.
The HeadReach Numbers
Some lifecycle numbers and unit economics for HR:
- Total revenue generated: $18,453 – Excluding income from the LeadFuze acquisition.
- Total expenses: $15,316 – Our marketing was completely organic, but we have marginal expenses for APIs. Also, this includes expenses for contractors.
- Funding: $10,000 – Self-funding from our previous startup.
- Total customers: 230 – For the whole lifecycle
- Total registrations: 7299 – Including trials and paid customers
- Total GA users: 56,664
- Visitor to trial CR (conversion rate): 12.88%
- Trial to customer CR: 3.15%
- Churn rate: Around 12% – High churn rate due to the business model of the product and the low-value customers we attracted.
- CAC (Customer acquisition costs): 0 We haven’t relied on
Coming Up With the Idea
The initial idea for HeadReach was very different from what the final tool became.
Being a content marketer, one day I said to myself that there should be a tool that generates marketing opportunities for each of your content pieces. Automagically!
Next day I was already working on validating this idea.
HeadReach is an online tool that generates reliable outreach lists with targeted prospects and promotion opportunities.
Validating the Idea
Instead of building an application prototype I decided to focus on customer interactions as the shortest way to gain knowledge and validate the riskiest hypothesis.
I watched an interview with Rob Walling, co-founder of Drip, and one of his concepts, really stuck with me. If I had to paraphrase it was something like:
A working software piece is not an MVP. It’s a prototype.–Rob Walling
An MVP is more like:
The shortest route to the activity that generates the most knowledge for you and the most value to the customer.
At this point we wanted to test the biggest risk for the idea: would people care enough about this information to pay us money?
In other words, instead of building software that generates data automatically I had to create lists with the data manually. We took off everything unnecessary for our MVP and created the 1st ever version of HeadReach – a concierge service for outreach/promotion lists.
A friend of mine Karl , a creator of a popular marketing blog (and as of recently, co-founder of MRR media), suggested that I should make an outreach list for one of his posts. In exchange, I would receive the first testimonial for HeadReach.
I put together this list:
Also, I designed a simple landing page for the MVP with a single CTA.
How We Define Success?
Now as we had an example list and a working landing page, we had to decide what is our goal for this MVP.
For the HeadReach MVP, we agreed that 20 paying customers in 2 weeks is a great validation result.
A rule I still respect to these days:
Always define what the expected outcome of your marketing campaign is.
It has to be quantifiable and time-specific.
- 20 paying customers in 2 weeks
- 500 trial registrations
- Nurture 5% of our email subscribers to become paying customers
- Improve acquisition
- Nurture leads into customers
- Increase CLTV
How to Track Your Marketing Goal?
For the MVP of HeadReach, I used something called a “quant-based marketing spreadsheet” or “hypothesis spreadsheet.”
You list all potential marketing channels, your expected results (visitors, CR, etc.) and then cross-reference your hypothesis with the real results and find out if your assumptions for the channel have been confirmed or not.
There are many other ways to track your marketing goals.
If you use a marketing automation software, make sure to check if it supports some sort of campaign goal tracking.
I’m currently using Autopilot’s Goals. A neat feature that allows you to track your target CR for a specific marketing journey.
You define what a converted user looks like by using user segments. For example, this could be “users that submit a survey” or “users who make a purchase.” You choose your target CR goal and the expected timeframe. Autopilot then tracks the CR for users moving through that journey (i.e., funnel) and tells you how you’re doing:
If you prefer to keep things simple, you can go analog and use a whiteboard.
We currently use a whiteboard to track our pre-launch marketing efforts at Encharge. On the left half of the board, you see the marketing column. Number of weeks, activity for the week, and achieved subscribers (our KPI) for the week.
Marketing the MVP
In the first 24 hours of marketing the MVP we achieved:
- 7% CR on the landing page
- 15 paying customers
- 20 lists – some customers purchased multiple lists.
- Around $400 in revenue. We were silly enough to underprice our lists which ultimately cost us more money than we made in the validation process.
As a side effect, one of the top SEO players (Nick Eubanks) hired me to create an outreach list for him which brought another $200.
People cared about this data!
What I used to market the MVP?
- My previous email list (500 subscribers)
- Facebook groups
- Direct outreach marketing to influencers with cold emails or DMs.
Long messages and personalized videos work great with Facebook groups.
For influencer marketing, I used a simple, custom-tailored message. Nothing fancy but it works wonders:
Thanks for accepting my friendship request. I’ve been reading a lot of your stuff on SeoNick. Haven’t got a chance to get to your eBook yet, but hopefully, will do that soon
I’m just testing an idea for a tool that creates 1-click content promotion strategies. You can check it out here: headreach.com
Would love hearing your opinion on this if you have 2 minutes to check it out?
The goal of this tool is to make content outreach ridiculously easy. Imagine 1-click content promotion.
You simply chuck in your URL and — Huzzah! — You get thousands of outreach opportunities. Hours of painstaking list building transformed into a neat content strategy in seconds.
At the moment, the validation is all manual. I’m personally creating the list instead of an automated tool. You can see an example list here.
Let me know?
Doing Customer Development
With some initial validation for HeadReach, we were confident enough to move forward with building a prototype for the tool.
A big mistake startup guys do at this stage is that they consider the validation process done and dusted. They seal their leads list, put it to the side and disappear in the shadows of their computer cave for a couple of months to code their new, uber innovative product. Wrong!
Customer development is a long and tough process. The purpose of the leads you’ve collected in the beginning is not to have a list for the sake of having a list. It’s to build a relationship with them and use them to guide your product creation.
Ask them questions, jump on calls with them, show them what you’re working on with wireframes and prototypes.
Here’s an email I used to send to all of the people that bought the list from HeadReach MVP phase:
I’ll do my best to provide the 2nd list over the next week.
As I mentioned, we’re currently working on a tool that automates this list, and would be greatly helpful if you find few minutes to answer my questions below. We need SEO experts opinions!
1. What’s your biggest pain with doing outreach now?
2. What did you find most valuable in the list?
3. Was anything missing in the list that you wanted to see?
4. Could please check out this concept screenshot of the tool we’re building, and let me know what you think – is there anything unclear with the interface on it?
5. Would you pay $29 per list for a tool that generates the same quality of results as the manual list we made for you?
Thank you for your time!
It’s pretty straightforward. The idea is to keep the potential customers in the loop and identify what the #1 most important feature for them is.
Identify Potential Buyer Personas
At this stage, you should have a rough idea of whom you’re going to sell to.
Here are the buyer personas for Encharge (our new product):
Below are some of the fields I use to define personas, along with an example Encharge persona named Co-founder and CMO Colling:
Co-founder & CMO Collin
Motivated, self-driven, opportunistic, hard-working
“Build something people want to use before pushing the growth button.”
Self-motivated, wants to build a great product and to be his own boss
Build a successful SaaS company to $50k/mo
- Marketing automation is in the hands of the developer.
- Can’t achieve advanced marketing automation without asking the developer or using complex, clunky software solutions.
- Needs to integrate with his marketing stack to create cohesive customer experiences and better segmentation
Has worked in marketing before starting his own company. Now he’s fully vested in his business – building a SaaS company.
Has 50 paying customers and 5000 email subscribers.
Wants to get more sophisticated with tracking, understanding and improving the customer journey.
Wants to personalize his communication with his customers across different channels.
Starts to think about retention and LTV.
Slack, Trello, Gsuite, Spotify, Airtable, Chrome extensions
- Social media
and acquisition strategy
The personas will drastically change as you launch and grow your product, so think of them as a hypothesis and adapt them as you go.
Collect Your Feedback in a Repository
Once you start getting some insights from potential customers, make sure to put everything in one place.
This is the Customer Development repository I currently use for collecting feedback for Encharge:
It’s an Airtable document, and by far I think it’s the best way to collect and organize feedback. It’s a database of your potential customers, their feedback and which persona they fall into.
I recorded a quick video to show you how to use the template:
The repository has 5 tabs:
- Feedback – a list of all feedback sessions. For convenience, each session is named with Interviewed person’s name – Stage that he was interviewed in, but you can use another convention.
- People – a list of people that have been interviewed.
- Companies – companies of the interviewees.
- Features/complains – notable feature or complains from people.
- Personas – a list of potential buyer personas so you can link specific people to personas.
Thanks to a feature in Airtable called Links (or relationships), you can link different records across the repository. For example, you can easily keep track of all feedback sessions that have a specific feature or complained mentioned. Or all the people that you’ve interviewed that work in the same company. Or all people that match a particular buyer persona.
Another neat feature that I like is the ability to attach files to a specific record. (Something that Google Spreadsheet doesn’t have). I keep a full log of all things recorded – chat snapshots, audio recordings, files, etc. Airtable has seamless integrations with Google Drive and Dropbox, so that makes it even easier.
With some validation and customer feedback collected, we started to work on the product.
I wrote a massive eBook on outreach marketing that I used to collect pre-launch leads for HeadReach. It’s quite similar to what I’m currently doing to grow the pre-launch audience of Encharge.
With the HeadReach acquisition, LeadFuze now owns the rights to this eBook so you can download it from their website. Where you can also see the landing page, I used to generate pre-launch leads.
The eBook helped us generate quite a lot of buzz and some pre-launch traction:
- 1280 subscribers in 3 weeks
- 550 organic Twitter followers.
Unfortunately, we never really got to leverage social media subscribers at HeadReach, but the pre-launch subscribers were an early driving force for HeadReach.
You can copy a lot of the marketing tactics we used for the eBook launch to kickstart pretty much any email list.
We did a few things right:
Excellent SaaS Landing Pages
I created 2 pre-launch SaaS landing pages – one landing page for the eBook and another one for the HeadReach product itself.
This was the landing page for the product:
And the one for the eBook (dissected):
A Blitz Marketing Campaign
The second thing we did great was what I call a Blitz marketing campaign.
Blitz marketing – a very intensive marketing campaign in a short period of time.
While methods like SEO rely on slow, methodical growth, blitz marketing is all about going heavy in a short period of time. For the HeadReach pre-launch that was 2-3 weeks.
With Blitz marketing, you can also be more liberal in the ways you share your content. Since you aim to get the best possible results in the shortest period, it’s entirely OK to re-publish the same content on multiple channels and outlets even without a canonical link (something that would be considered a heresy in the SEO world.)
Some of the channels that we hit hard at the pre-launch included:
- Reddit (798 sessions)
- Facebook – mainly from groups (742 sessions)
- ProductHunt (595 sessions)
- BetaList (530 sessions)
- Medium (348 sessions)
- and my personal blog (in Bulgarian)
And the marketings tactics we executed:
- Integrating a viral share loop
- Re-publishing content on external channels (Medium, Reddit forums, groups, and other communities).
- ProductHunt (that’s for the eBook, not the actual product launch on which I talk more later)
- Writing content on my personal blog
Integrating a Viral Loop
For the eBook, we used a tool called Gleam. Gleam helps you run giveaways, rewards, and other cool widgets to help you collect more emails.
While their focus is giveaways, they have an app called “rewards” which is a more advanced social payment platform. Think “Pay with Tweet” but with much, much more options and flexibility.
My initial thought was that we should ask for:
- A Tweet
- Twitter follow
- And a referral
A whole 4-step sign-up process to get the eBook. I was wrong. Only about 3% of all users were able to reach the latest step and download the eBook. Most of them were giving up after the 3rd step.
We took off the referral step asking only for an email, a tweet and a follow. Conversions went up drastically to about 8% of the people completing all actions.
You can also look into more powerful tools for viral sharing like UpViral. I’d recommend UpViral for more advanced marketers or people that do giveaways on a regular basis. It offers some power features like sweepstakes, landing page and email A/b testing, lead fraud detection, one-click email sign-ups (think UTM links), advanced reporting and a lot more.
Recycling on Reddit
If you don’t know already – Redditors hate you. They’re very sensitive to any kind of promotion and are looking for the smallest opportunity to ridicule your manhood with sarcastic comments.
Here’s how to do Reddit better:
- Write an excellent content piece.
- Post it on Reddit. You have to publish your best content inline, i.e., as a text post, not an external link.
- Get your friends to upvote your posts to get a little bit of initial traction. Important: do not send them to the exact post URL (deep-linking) as you risk getting shadow-banned. Send them to the Subreddit instead and make them find your post and upvote it from there.
- Don’t be discouraged and don’t get in confrontations if you meet an angry Redditor.
- Recycle your post and publish it in different subreddits. I had the exact same post get 0 upvotes in one subreddit and 124 in another. Be careful not to overdo this! I’d say no more than 3-4 subreddits and do it gradually – 1 per day. Republishing your post on too many subreddits will get you banned (don’t ask me but I know.)
Using these steps, I managed to beat my personal record on Reddit and got a post with over a 100 upvotes, 50 comments, and a solid 9.40% email subscribers CR.
Republishing on Medium
I hadn’t designed a Medium strategy. I just knew that the post would perform well on Medium because it was performing so well on Reddit already.
At the time, I had 600 followers on Medium because I had connected my Twitter account with my Medium account.
My first Medium article got almost a thousand reads and brought a few hundred visits to HeadReach with an exciting email subscriber’s CR of 24.64%
If I have to do this exercise again, I’ll use a free tool called Upscribe. It allows you to embed email forms into your Medium posts. Unfortunately, Upscribe didn’t exist at the time of this story.
Launch the eBook on ProductHunt
By the time, I launched my outreach marketing eBook on ProductHunt I had already collected about 400-500 email subscribers.
I sent them a quick email to review my eBook on PH (instead of upvoting it):
Books get much less attention on PH than products, but that’s also a good opportunity to stand out and become a number one book for the day.
This was a neat move that generated a couple of hundred pre-launch leads more.
Posting HeadReach on BetaList resulted in a few hundred subscribers for the HeadReach beta.
These days I’m not a huge fan of BetaList. We’ve submitted a couple of other products on their site but never really got any good leads from there. It felt like most of the leads are curious startup guys who don’t have a business. Unless your audience is startup guys, you might be better looking to pre-launch somewhere else.
Facebook was the second channel with the most views to the HeadReach website when pre-launching. Majority of the Facebook views came through Facebook groups.
Facebook is a channel that I’ll be heavily relying on when pre-launching Encharge, as well.
After the traction from our pre-launch campaign – about 1500 emails in total at 25% landing page CR – we got down to developing the product.
My co-founder put together a development roadmap:
We spent the next few months trying to build the tool we promised.
April was spent mostly looking for someone to help us with development. Finding a suitable developer in our country proved to be quite hard. We even tried UpWork.
:: Tip on using UpWork when hiring people: make sure to avoid agencies. Freelancers are generally cheaper than agencies, but often it’s hard to tell them apart on UpWork. ::
In the end, we managed to attract my former co-founder who is an also great dev, although with a colorful personality that I’d describe as anything short of scandalous. Without diving into too many details, I’ll say that he was living in a religious sect at the time of this story.
Mistake from that month: Not having enough focus
We were building too many features. Even on that roadmap, you can see a whole set of 6 features. We should’ve focused merely on feature #1.
Expenses from that month:
Mostly marketing expenses for marketing the eBook and having the email list:
- Yumpu eBook preview
- MXToolBox (blacklisting monitoring)
- Quoo (content promotion)
May was a bit weird. We’ve been 1 month into building HeadReach, but my co-founder was still running our previous business.
Although we had saved $10k for getting HeadReach of the ground, we were afraid to close our previous business, yet.
Juggling between 2 projects is tough. If I had to re-do this again, I would’ve turned off the light of our previous business much sooner.
Expenses for that month:
$683. The first expense for a development contractor.
We dedicated June to VC and angel investors. We were pondering with the idea of finding external funding to help us with developing HeadReach faster.
We got rejected by 10 different accelerators.
I won’t go into too much detail as this topic is worthy of having its own article, but investors weren’t a good match for us anyway. We pretty much lost that month going for the wrong thing.
Expenses for the month:
Trying to Pre-sell HeadReach
With a demo video of our scrappy prototype, I started showing HeadReach to a small number of early adopters, the loudest and most vested ones. I didn’t want to blast the whole email list as we weren’t sure if what we’re showing is relevant. We didn’t have an account or billing systems set up, but I was fiercely doing my best to pre-sell the product.
Here’s the message that I used to try to pre-sell the tool:
[HeadReach UPDATE + SPECIAL DEAL for Outreach Champions]
Kalo here. We’ve been very busy working on our outreach lists tool and finally have the 1st feature ready. Still very early development, but as part of this group I wanted to show you first what we’ve got.
With Page Mentions we’re able to show all people related to a website domain/company that you referred to in an article or a site.
Check out example results for “nma.vc” — http://headreach.info/web/site/submitkeyword/?id=5247747C
This is just the 1st module from 25 that are in our development pipeline and we’re still expanding on it — expecting to deliver x3 times more results.
— — SPECIAL DEAL — —
Type in the comments below 1 URL for a blog post or a website and I’d run it through our tool and send you back the results via PM or email completely free.
If you like the results, you can order a pre-paid package for 5, 10 or 15 searches.
Pre-Package #1 –5 searches — $50
Page Mentions Pre-Package #2 –10 searches — $90
Page Mentions Pre-Package #3 –15 searches — $130
These are early supporter’s packages and come with 15% LIFETIME discount once we launch the tool publicly in September.
You can use the searches right away. Just send us the URLs that you’d like us to run through the tool. Or keep your searches for later once we build the others features. (Next module in the pipeline is Influencers and will be ready by the end of next week)
— — HOW TO ORDER — -
Send the money to PayPal email “[email protected]” with a note about the package you’re ordering along with the URLs you’d like us to search. Or get in touch with me here via PM or [email protected]
If you’re not happy with the results, we offer 100% money back guarantee.
By ordering a package, you will support us a bootstrapped startup and help us cover expenses for our servers and paid services we use right now to show you these accurate results.
This deal is first come first served deal, and it’s extremely limited!
PLEASE do not feel angry at us if we’re not able to take your order. We’re working uber hard to make this tool the best outreach marketing tool out there, but this comes at a price — we’re dealing with heavy server performance, complex bugs and pretty much everything that comes with a bootstrapped software startup. Let me know your thoughts?
Make sure to select HD for the video!
Unfortunately, we never obtained the fruition of our hopes with our pre-selling efforts. We didn’t get a single pre-order.
With our pre-selling hopes crushed we got back to building the product.
A Tip on Pre-selling: Use a Prototyping Software
If you don’t have your product ready for demoing you can use a tool like Adobe XD, Sketch or Marvel to simulate an interactive software from your static designs. Marvel is the easiest one to use if you’re not a web designer. You can create visual prototypes such as this one – a prototype we made for one of our ideas. Although a bit out of the skill scope for a marketer, I highly encourage you to get the hang of one visual software, it would save you back and forth with your team’s designer.
A Solution Pivot
From March 2016 up until our public launch in November 2016 we were building the product. And when I say building, I mean we spent 80% of our time figuring out HOW to build it.
Lead generation is a tough field to get into. Scrapping large volumes of data from locked-in sources like LinkedIn is reserved only for the savviest and most financially favored companies. We were neither of those.
We were forced to make a significant product or “solution” pivot — we had to dramatically limit the feature set of HeadReach to only finding contacts of prospects. That was the only way we could get this thing off the ground.
A pivot is a “structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.”
Types of pivots:
You can read more about the startup pivot pyramid here.
First Product Feedback
In September we had a product demo for HeadReach, but it was so bad that even the core features were barely working.
To make matters worse, at this point our pre-launch leads were getting very cold. If there is one thing I learned about nurturing leads is that you should keep them warm by sending at least one email every week or more often.
No communication with your leads in 3 months, and you can consider your email list dead.
To figure out how to position our future beta and better segment and orchestrate the beta invites, we’ve put together a survey. A great thing about the surveys in Iterate is they record the answers even when someone leaves the survey un-submitted.
The survey was also helpful to identify sales messages to use in my communication with potential clients. I’m literary using answers from the survey in the copy of my SaaS landing pages.
Would become our final USP:
Why think about sales copy when your clients can write it up for you?
Without wasting too much time I showed the first demo of the tool and emailed 15 early adopters:
The message I sent with that video:
I’m showing the #1 requested feature — a prospecting tool that will help you find targeted people for outreach with real emails and social profiles in seconds. Click Play to watch 5 minutes video of our new feature.
As SEOs and content marketers we know: Finding the right people to reach out to is a hell of a lot of work!
It takes way too much time to search for relevant people.
Once you’ve identified them, it can then take even more time tracking down their valid email address and social profiles.
Then you have to find something unique about each lead to add relevancy to your contact with that person. That’s why we’re creating the fastest way to find the right people for outreach without the usual hassle.
NEW FEATURE: Save up to 20 minutes per lead search with our People Finder.
Find the right people to reach out to with a single click. Get direct access to anybody’s verified email, social profiles, job position, and biography.
SCAN A BLOG POST and get all relevant contacts you need to start your outreach campaign and promote your content by reaching the right people
Example results for http://fortunelords.com/start-a—> http://headreach.info/web/prospector/post/5246724G
If you want us to test the search for you drop me a name, company, domain or post URL and I’ll send you the results back.
I’m looking for some feedback. What are your thoughts on our People Finder feature?
Results From the First Product Demo
Almost 5 months after we decided to develop HeadReach and we finally received some good feedback and some strong signals from people interested in buying the tool:
Thanks for this. I really liked that your tool has a lot of depth.
Getting the photo, email, position, and social media profiles — tons of data for a single site. So we can easily figure out the right decision maker.
Don’t bother about running the remaining searches for now. Focus on getting the product ready soon. Since you took some time to respond, we completely the outreach activity for that assignment.
But if we had headreach, we would have saved a ton of time. So the value is clearly there with headreach.
All the best with the development work going on. I’m really excited to try it when its ready.
We continued developing the product.
Closed Beta Launch
Around October 2016 we had some sort of a working closed beta with a basic account system set up on WordPress and WooCommerce. Pretty unconventional setup for a SaaS but it was the fastest way to market for us. As I look back, I wouldn’t recommend it unless it’s necessary.
I’ve sent an invite to a small number of selected early adopters asking them to try the tool.
Responses came in quite fast.
It wasn’t what we expected. People were divided evenly between two camps, both with equally bad feedback.
The first group complained that the software was simply not working, which was not a surprise. That first version of HeadReach was terribly buggy and under-developed.
The second group was disappointed that the product is not what we’ve promised in the pre-launch campaign. I.e., not very happy with our solution pivot.
It was terrible. Our closed beta was a fail. No one became a paying subscriber.
We didn’t know what we got wrong.
With 1500+ leads and zero paying customers for our Beta, we were really up the creek. We were desperate for a breakthrough in our market or the technology.
Around October 2016, I found out that we can use one of Google’s APIs – Google Site Search to improve our product significantly.
Later that API became a core part of our infrastructure. So much so that HeadReach would not work if it wasn’t for GSS.
We spent the next 2 months rebuilding the product from the ground up using the newly found technology in order to make our product more “acceptable” for usage. My co-founder was doing his full-time job at day and moonlighting at night building HeadReach.
Public Launch and the First 10 Paying Customers
We finally launched HeadReach publicly around the middle of November.
I still picture how we were watching the live session recording of our soon-to-be first paying customer, stalking him as he jumps between the billing page and the rest of the pages until he finally subscribed to a $49/mo plan.
Our approach to getting the first 5 customers was conceptually straightforward but damn hard to execute. Yes, I feel you, it’s not marketing automation, but sometimes you have to do things the hard way. You know, PG’s iconic essay on doing things that don’t scale.
I was reaching out with personal video messages to some of our pre-launch subscribers. If you remember the segmentation survey we did back in September, I was using that information to craft personalized messages for each subscriber. Recording your screen with CloudApp is easy. Make sure to show your face, too.
- If it was a web design agency, I was showing them how to use HeadReach to get more agency clients.
- If it was an SEO/content marketer, I was explaining how to do outreach to get more links. I was doing what fancier startups call customer success.
In total, I’ve recorded more than 2 hours of personalized videos in the first week of the public HeadReach launch.
Apart from that, we were offering a bulky 50% lifetime discount. It’s not an amazing long-term strategy, especially when you have marginal costs but it’s a pretty decent motivation booster to help you get off the ground.
Using Inspectlet for Proactive Support
In the first month of launching the product, we very much relied on Inspectlet to proactively track what our users are doing and where they get stuck. Since we didn’t have that many users, it was relatively easy to follow what each one of them did in the app.
As soon as I saw someone experiencing an issue with the app, I was recording a personal video for them with hands-on instructions. This in combination with the early adopter discount was a factor in acquiring our first 10 customers.
Tip: Install Inspectlet or FullStory and allocate at least 20 to 30% of your time to proactive support until you get your first couple of dozen paying customers. Think of it as customer success and customer development all-in-one.
Public Launch Email Sequence
Apart from the personal emails, I had prepared a simple 3-email launch sequence for the whole email list.
The first email was a generic “we’re live type of email.”
The second email was a value-based email describing the possible use cases for the HeadReach tool.
The 3rd email was a promotion follow-up with a scarcity element.
Landing Andrew Warner as One of Our First Paying Customers
I’m a huge fan of Andrew Warner from Mixergy – one of the most influential people in the startup community.
As I was lurking through the premium Mixergy Facebook group I stumbled upon this gem:
A list of the tools that Andrew is paying for to run Mixergy. You can notice RocketReach, one of our direct competitors.
I wasn’t mopping around for too long and went straightaway for the pitch:
With the green light from Andrew, I sent him and his team an email:
Onboarding the Mixergy team, wasn’t all a smooth sailing. I had to follow-up twice. When they finally signed up, I had to do a lot of manual prospecting for them. Andrew’s VA telling me which person she needs, and me doing whatever it takes to find the email including a lot of Googling, using other tools and so on.
All things considered, this was a superb onboarding experience which let to Andrew writing a testimonial and later hunting HeadReach on ProductHunt (win, win, win).
From 10 to 40 Paying Customers in 2 Months
December 2016 – February 2017
The beginning of 2017 was pretty good for HeadReach. The traffic to our site was slowly but steadily growing, and we were converting about 10 to 20% of that traffic to trials.
A big thing for growing our cold traffic was guest posting.
Link Building and Guest Posting
As much as I love SEO, when it comes to HeadReach, I never did link building and guest posting for the SEO juice. It was all about getting traffic. Quick.
Here’s how to do link building for traffic right:
Identify good article opportunities
There are a few ways to identify great guest posting/link building opportunities:
1) Google for top-level seed keywords and prospect the top 10 articles. Those articles get huge volumes of traffic. For HeadReach that was “find email address.”
2) Google for competitor round-ups. Lists of products or services in your category. For HeadReach this meant lists of sales tools. Ask them to feature your tool and make sure to give them a demo of how you stack up against the rest of the guys in the list.
3) Find dead competitors and do the “broken link” outreach.
We had an old competitor named Emailbreaker that has been shut down for quite a while. I used the Backlink Watch tool to find pages that contain active links to the now-closed Emailbreaker software.
Then using HeadReach (of course) to find the person in charge of the post or page that has the broken backlink, I emailed them with a suggestion to swap the broken link with one to HeadReach.
This email helped us acquire a link in the Yesware article which became our number 1 traffic source.
Although, the conversion rate from visitor to trial is not spectacular from a top of the funnel article with an unqualified audience (about 0.5% compared to the platform-wide CR of 3.5% for HR) it’s an excellent source for brand awareness, and generally the significant traffic volume makes up for the low CR.
Another Pivot – Pivoting Towards a Sales Audience
Around January 2017 we were generating about $1k in MRR.
Based on customer feedback we decided to pivot the product towards a sales audience.
Not the easiest decision we made. The sales field is exceptionally saturated – dozens of direct competitors and hundreds of substitutes and alternatives.
Fortunately, we handled that well, and the pivot didn’t lead to a reduction in CR in any of the customer journey stages. Despite increasing the friction on our signup process by asking for a company email and phone number.
Contrary to the popular belief of going niche, for us entering a horizontal market was ultimately a smart decision that exposed us to more opportunities and made our marketing efforts easier.
Launching on ProductHunt
Within that period we also launched on ProductHunt.
ProductHunt is an excellent source of early adopters and potential paying customers.
Now, I won’t get into too much detail of how to execute a successful ProductHunt launch. However, I can summarize a few key points:
- Find a reputable hunter with influence in the community. A lot has been written on how to get people to hunt your product, but advise boils down to: create a valuable relationship with an influencer. There are some shortcuts like searching for hunters that look for products to submit on a regular basis. As previously mentioned, we managed to get Andrew Warner to hunt us.
- You must have a tribe of people ready to upvote you – a Facebook group or an email list. Nurture your community and then get them to rep you and your product on PH.
- Prepare yourself – have a well-written plan for the launch day and the weeks beforehand. The most successful campaigns are the ones that are engineered down to the finest detail.
- Do you have any unfair advantages? – for example, we leveraged the advantage of being a startup from a small country with a limited technological presence. Launching a bootstrapped software in Bulgaria is a mini-celebration event since very few people do it. A small but united community got together to help our little startup climb up the PH ranks and reach top 5.
We managed to acquire about a dozen paying customers in the first week or so after our PH submission. Also, PH was major traffic and lead source in the months to come.
Nurturing the L
With leads coming in from our brand new traffic from ProductHunt and all the guest posts, we had to put our heads down on the next stage of our customer funnel – the nurturing phase.
79% of marketing leads never convert to sales. Lack of lead nurturing is the common causeMarketingSherpa.
It doesn’t matter if that number is lower or higher for your business. The non-negotiable fact is that for the nurturing stage of your funnel you must have at least 2 type of marketing campaigns:
- A time-based onboarding/nurturing email sequence.
- A behavior-based onboarding/nurturing email sequence.
These two campaigns are the bare minimum.
Let’s dive in on how we executed these two campaigns at HeadReach.
A time-based 9-email onboarding sequence
We pushed every new subscriber that registers for HeadReach to a simple time-based broadcast email sequence. The purpose of this sequence was to provide as much value as possible and educate the potential customers on the possible use cases for the tool.
A behavior-based nurturing sequence
The other sequence we built was a behavior-based email campaign. We used API triggers from HeadReach to trigger different emails in ActiveCampaign.
- Send an email when if a user doesn’t use any of their trial credits.
- Send an email when a user uses 3 of their trial credits.
- Send an email when a user uses all of their free credits.
- Send a follow-up when a user uses all of their free credits but doesn’t upgrade.
Behavior-based emails are a super powerful way to convert your leads into paying customers by sending the right communication at the right time.
Growing HeadReach Steadily
Around February 2017 things were looking up for our micro-SaaS.
We managed to grow to a few thousand customers and about $2k in MRR with 0 spending on marketing and CAC.
I’ve been primarily focused on the marketing strategies that have already worked of us – link building, writing guest posts and making partnerships with lateral software tools in the sales field.
I got HeadReach featured on a number of sales outlets like the Close blog, RecruitingTools.com, a number of Medium publications and others.
We also saw some word-of-mouth organic growth. More and more people started mentioning the HeadReach tool when talking about automating sales and prospecting. Exactly what we wanted.
I fired any freelance clients that I had at the time to be able to work full-time on HeadReach. I was waking up at 5 AM and keeping myself intentionally full with marketing activities until the late hours of the afternoon.
Things were looking good.
It was all good and optimistic until one day my co-founder Dany forwarded me an email from Google.
When Google Closed Their API
March – July 2017
The subject line was:
“Attn: Legal department”
You do not want to receive an email from Google with that subject line.
At first I was like “Oh…here we go, Google’s trying to shut us down because we use them to index protected data.” (Not our first time we did something grey-ish through the Google systems.)
When I saw the full email, it was a bit worse than that:
They were closing their search API.
It wasn’t a special treat for us. The search API was going down for everyone.
To give you some context without boring you to death with technical details about this API:
The chief technology we based HeadReach on was the Google Site Search (GSS) API. Through that API we pull data from sources like LinkedIn. In combination with a few other APIs and our in-house algorithms we were able to provide one of the complete lead databases without investing ginormous lumps of cash for infrastructure, crawling, servers, etc.
We had 2 options
- To continue using the “downgraded” version of the Google Search API. At first we weren’t sure if this would work out but after some back and forth with the Google support team and some local testing, we figured out it’s possible to keep our lights up with the non-premium version of the API.
- To build our own “Google API” that would index information from LinkedIn. The best possible rebound. Unfortunately, also, the hardest.
Point 1 was much easier to execute but not very viable long-term.
The email Google dropped on us was like a sobering glass of cold water. We quickly realized we’re building a house of cards. Giving up ourselves entirely to the mercy of the big G.
Our goal was to create a sustainable lifestyle business. However, building a proprietary scrapping technology was not something we had intended on our roadmap for the next 12 to 18 months.
We decided that we’ll give it a go and see if we can build something on our own.
Trying to Build Our Own Scrapper
The period between March and July 2017 was quite agonizing for us.
We had to figure out a very tough tech challenge – how to index hundreds of million of pages on a shoestring budget. To be precise, we had to crawl about 200 millions pages each month.
We spent a few months learning scrapping, talking to different experts in the field, discussing partnerships with potential data sources and so forth.
Despite putting a hard and persistent battle, we never really managed to get our crawler to be able to scrape such large volumes of protected data without breaking the bank.
All things considered, I’m super happy about spending the time on this challenge. I learned I could be resourceful beyond what my skills limit me.
Deciding to Move on and Sunsetting the Product
After a few months of tiring battle with tech-related issues, we decided that we’re going to pull the plug on HeadReach and put it in sunset mode. We didn’t want to invest time and resources in a product that doesn’t have long-term potential, even if it showed some good initial traction.
Not an easy decision but I still believe it was the right one.
HeadReach was operational up until the summer of this year. Thanks to the marketing automation systems that we had in place, the site was still generating new visits, trials and paying customers although slightly declining with the time.
After almost a year of running in zombie mode (live but not actively developed) we wanted to put closure on the project and approached one of our competitors.
After some back and forth, we agreed to sell the user base and marketing assets to LeadFuze which ultimately put an end to our startup journey with HeadReach.
I can’t disclose the acquisition price, but I’d say that selling HeadReach was much better than killing it in the shadows.
If you intend on selling your SaaS product I highly encourage you to get in touch with Thomas from FE International. I met Thomas in person on the last LTV Conference in London and I can vouch that he knows his thing. It’s a huge topic but a good starting place is this article on how to value your SaaS business.
What Lies Ahead for Us after HeadReach?
After a short retreat from the startup scene and flirting with a few unsuccessful product ideas, we’re finally back on track working on our next big thing.
If you work in the marketing field, I’d love to speak with you and get your feedback. Drop me a line at [email protected]
I really hope you found this startup documentary useful. Please don’t hesitate to ask me any questions or critique me. And make sure to follow our journey.
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