We just passed a five-year birthday for TribeBoost. TribeBoost has succeeded beyond even the loftiest goals I had.
This is not going to be a silly “I am such a genius post.”
I realize that much of our success is often good luck and timing.
Being in the right place, at the right time, and getting to know the right people is a big part of the success for any SaaS startup.
In this post I will attempt to document lessons learned after five years of a new software-as-a-service (SaaS) business.
Starting a SaaS business can be boiled down to three core steps:
- Getting started. Cultivating your core business idea, starting to work on it, creating your business entity, hiring first people, etc.
- Building your product. Understanding the problem and needs of your audience. Building a product offering that thrills these people.
- Marketing. Growing your targeted audience with those who care about the problem you are solving. Getting enough people informed about your business so you can grow revenue and fuel continued progress.
While the first two steps are important, we mostly discuss marketing in this blog. So this post focuses on the marketing step.
You start from nowhere…
How do you get enough people to know about your business and get them to buy from you?
It can be hard to get that first customer.
“Why should I trust that you could help me?”
I will guide you through three topics:
- What Worked
- What Worked at First, But Stopped Working
- What Never Worked
First I should mention that there were things that we never did try.
A few of these were things that we should have tried.
Why you ask?
Partly due to my own ignorance, stubbornness or just a lack of funds from being a bootstrapped business.
Here are some of those things…
— ThoughtFlame (@ThoughtFlame) May 13, 2016
The Never Tried
We never attempted email marketing at TribeBoost until very recently. I am scared to admit that as email marketing is a core tool for many SaaS businesses.
Before your remove my marketer’s club card…let me explain.
I was locked in to growing this SaaS business through social media marketing and developed tunnel vision.
Social Media was working, so I doubled and tripled down on my social marketing efforts.
Another issue with email marketing for me was my distaste for most email marketing programs. The ones that had a nice UX also seemed to be not very intelligent.
For example the thought of sending an offer to someone on the list that was already a customer. I don’t want to be sloppy like that.
We did recently sign up for ConvertKit and it looks like a solution that is easy to use while being powerful. I am encouraged that list members can only exist once within the system and not in multiple places.
Dated & Maybe Even Ugly Website
I hacked out our website five years ago in a rapid fashion. The site stands largely as it was built back then.
When you are busy working with clients and see the business is moving forward rapidly, it can be easy to not getting around to a website revamp.
Surely a better website can convert better and would lead to more business, but a plain website is OK if you are solving a problem that people care about.
I am encouraged to revamp the site soon, especially after discovering ThriveThemes.
ThriveThemes is a suite of WordPress themes and plugins focused on online business, marketing, and lead generation.
We used it for our new ThoughtFlame website and it is much better than tools we have used in the past.
PS: It also works well with ConvertKit.
— ThoughtFlame (@ThoughtFlame) July 26, 2017
I reached out to partner with a small tech-savvy PR firm that seemed like a great fit.
You know…you scratch my back, I will scratch yours?
They were pleasant and smart, but in discussions I learned how expensive PR firms are.
Even little ones that just got started.
With their very lowest rate and considering our barter offer — it was still going to cost around $5000 per month or more just for the basics.
We could not afford that.
Considering the continuing decline of mainstream media, I doubt that PR delivers enough value for prices like that. I could be wrong, but that is my hunch.
I wanted to attend conferences to network within my industry and meet potential clients.
However I could not get past the total cost (and opportunity costs):
- Most of the workweek is lost = lost business momentum.
- Cost of attendance, flight, hotel, & meals = roughly $2000 – $3000.
- To make this a value proposition (and not just a vacation) = need to bank at least six new clients during the conference.
Can you generate six new clients during a conference? I did not trust that I could.
Thankfully even without email marketing and the like, we managed to generate hockey stick growth.
Here is what we did try…
— ThoughtFlame (@ThoughtFlame) May 5, 2017
Things That Worked
Social Media Marketing
Building a company involved in the social media marketing economy, we obviously felt a need to be engaged in that path.
The great thing about social media is that you can make progress with just sweat and mind power. Money helps to achieve Facebook reach, but with Twitter & LinkedIn you can generate momentum without money.
So that is what we did of course!
We focused on Twitter. As Twitter had some advantages over LinkedIn.
Twitter in comparison to LinkedIn:
- Real-time and in the current moment
- Conversations are easier, especially with multiple people at same time
- Connecting to people you do not know at all feels normal and not creepy
- You can put out questions and comments to groups of people and it is not viewed as being spammy (like it would elsewhere)
Using Twitter we were able to find our first customers.
When you are starting from zero, the importance of this cannot be understated.
I simply got into conversations with people about Twitter, social media marketing, and the like.
One conversation sticks out in my memory.
Someone tweeted to me that they want to try out TribeBoost, but had no money to afford it.
We have a free two-week trial, but usually it is under expectation that the client will consider becoming a paying customer after the free work is done.
This person was telling me that even if we totally knocked it out of the park, we were not getting paid. He had no money.
At first I had the knee jerk thought:
“What is in it for me? Nothing it seems. Do I want to work for free?”
Thoughts like these are poison — as this is a mindset of scarcity and not abundance.
Being straight with myself, I adjusted my thinking to a mindset of abundance.
Of course I had time. We only had a handful of clients.
Who was I kidding?
So we did the work for free…and to this day still provide him free service.
Why would that be?
Well this great person, who I now call a friend, has done all of following for us:
- He published the first review of TribeBoost (completed unprompted)
- Told countless others about our service and raved about us
- Soon he had a new job at a bigger business and gave us some real paying business. At that time it was one of our biggest deals ever.
This was a total game changer.
— ThoughtFlame (@ThoughtFlame) June 2, 2017
Initially the TribeBoost Blog was done with little care or effort. I wrote about what came to mind and seemed interesting to me. I was not thinking strategically.
Eventually I smartened up and realized that with all of the content out there — your stuff better be good.
Being good is vital to getting noticed.
You also need to write about what your audience cares about.
While at first most of our traffic was generated via social, after putting out quality content regularly we started getting a ton of traffic from Google Search.
There is almost a direct correlation between our growth going exponential and taking content marketing more seriously and thinking strategically.
Our revenue started to grow monthly, and did so every month for four straight years.
I noticed a fun social media marketing podcast and appreciated how it was informative while not being stuffy like other podcasts.
I loved that they did not have the same group of knighted “social media marketing experts” like other shows featured. Instead they had guests that knew marketing and were not consumed with constant self-promotion.
I reached out to Chris Curran from the show to discuss a sponsorship offer and we worked out a mutually beneficial deal.
This was a great as we were able to help each other. We both got new revenues out of this partnership that we would not have seen otherwise.
Think about what that means. It is like money falling from the sky.
I would like to do more podcast sponsorships, but many podcasts are not interested in sponsorships, are already fully booked, or are demanding advertising fees that are way beyond the ROI.
Going forward I think we will need to start our own podcasts.
What new podcasts do you want to see? Let me know!
Reaching out to Influencers
The idea was to reach out to people that were interesting, smart, in related niches, and who had an audience.
Instead of asking people I did not know for a favor (never a reasonable idea, but many do it) — I offered to do them a favor.
I offered to help them grow their Twitter audience. Something we had perfected.
For free. No strings attached.
This worked and I should have done more influencer outreach.
I can tell you that outside of a few, we received word of mouth business later from most of these influencers.
Things That Worked Initially, but Stopped Working
Initially Google Adwords could get us new clients for a cost lower than our lifetime customer value. But the cost crept up to the point that it no longer makes economic sense.
I tried revamping ads, improving the strategy, but the cost per signup has gotten too high.
When we started we were the only company offering Twitter targeted follower growth as a service. The social media marketing services space has gotten more crowded lately. So that likely is part of the explanation of higher cost.
— ThoughtFlame (@ThoughtFlame) February 27, 2017
Things That Never Worked
(aka Complete Wastes of Time & Money)
I think I know a little bit about marketing…but I have never been able to make Facebook ads work for me.
I experimented a great deal with text and imagery and studied winning Facebook advertising strategies. I did not just wing it.
The results you wonder?
Over $1000 invested for a grand total of ZERO leads.
$1000 can buy you a pretty fun weekend in Vegas or it could go into Mark Zuckerberg’s gold-lined pockets.
We recently gave it a go again using a service that promises to generate Facebook Ads success.
So far it does not look any better. After 3 weeks it has generated nothing — zero leads.
Maybe Facebook ads are not a good fit for certain SaaS companies such as ours?
I tried Outbrain after a suggestion from a colleague. It did generate traffic, but the people it attracted were not right and thus led to no new business.
I had great hopes for our affiliate program as there are many affiliates in the marketing space.
The first challenge was finding an affiliate SaaS program that did not feel like a parasitic situation.
Most affiliate SaaS programs were charging crazy money five years ago. I trust there are more reasonably priced solutions today.
Eventually I found a solution that felt like it was priced fairly. It was easy enough to setup too.
We signed some affiliates. But I don’t think we ever saw a single lead in the end.
After 3 months it felt like a waste of time and money. I was willing to give it another month when I discovered that the affiliate software had a bug and was preventing new clients from signing up with us.
That was frightening and I cancelled the affiliate program immediately and never looked back.
Our clientele tend to be high-end and sophisticated. My hunch is that affiliates likely do better with basic and lower-priced offerings and not SaaS companies such as ours.
— ThoughtFlame (@ThoughtFlame) May 24, 2016
So there you have it. After five years the things that worked and those that did not with marketing our SaaS business.
Got a brain overload? I hope not.
Some lessons that stick with me from the past five years are:
- Never be afraid to try new things.
- When things do not work, do not hesitate to stop and focus on what is working.
- Advertising can be overrated. I think people like it because it feels easy. Throwing money at a problem instead of rolling up your sleeves and doing tactical work.
- Smart social media marketing in today’s world for SaaS businesses is more cost-effective than digital advertising.
- Content marketing works if you take it seriously and put in the time and effort.
- Your product needs to be great. As ultimately word of mouth business and repeat business has been our greatest growth hack. This is probably true for many SaaS businesses and startups.