Hey folks. It's been a while (about six weeks) since I last sent out an update on my quest to build a profitable SaaS business.
Honestly, I haven't gotten nearly as much done as I wanted to. I've spent four of the last six weeks learning Objective-C and building an "emergency" iPad app as fast as I could for my job.
Once I had that iPad app ready for testing, the priority was relaxed and I've been back to focusing on building my own business over the last two weeks.
I'd been wanting to sit down and get a good, clear picture of my direct competitors and their content/marketing strategy. I knew from the beginning Customer.IO would be a competitor for the lifecycle email feature, and that MixPanel/KissMetrics were competitors for Visitor Analytics.
(I use the term "competitor" here to mean they offer the same services that my product offers, not that I'm in some kind of competition to win the most customers.)
After analyzing their content and marketing strategies, I wasn't convinced that I could produce content on an equal level, having not nearly as much experience in SaaS and software businesses.
With that in mind I decided to switch my target market from software/SaaS businesses to ecommerce businesses. From now until I'm satisfied I can expand into targeting an additional market/type of customer, my product will be focusing on ecommerce.
Targeting ecommerce businesses meshes really will with my own personal skills. The biggest part of my full-time job is building, maintaining and growing our three ecommerce businesses. I can draw on that experience when creating content and building features that ecommerce businesses need.
The product itself will stay largely unchanged. It's still email marketing and visitor analytics, but I've added a couple of very useful tools for ecommerce businesses; Tools that I use on our own websites.
Now, considering that I've decided to target a different type of customer, the content that I've been posting on Iron Conversions (these emails and blog posts, mainly) doesn't really fit. However, I want to keep writing about building the business, and I don't want to move it all to another website.
Instead, I've renamed my product to Bantam, and I'm keeping Iron Conversions as my personal blog. You can check Bantam out at www.getbantam.com. It's largely the same if you've checked out Iron Conversions in the past, and I haven't quite finished moving over a few pages like features and pricing.
(Why "Bantam"? I like to name my web projects after animals, specifically birds. I also suck at coming up with clever, SaaS-y names, so the project name stuck.)
Writing and procrastination
Over the last couple of weeks I've been trying to write 750 words every day. I've been using a writing tool called Draft by Nathan Kontny to help me with that.
I'm usually a huge procrastinator, especially when it comes to writing anything. Draft lets you set a word quota every day and emails you reminders to ensure you're writing.
I just finished up my first (free, 32-page, rough-draft) ebook, "Optimizing Your Shopify Store" a few days ago. The biggest help in finishing it was Draft's reminders saying "Remember to write 750 words today. You've got a streak of 10 days going, don't break the chain!".
I know that reads like an ad, but I'm not getting paid or receiving any benefits for mentioning Draft. I just really like it.
Have a great day,
"You should build an audience". "My mailing list is my most valuable resource". "If I hadn't built up a following, I wouldn't be where I am today".
By now we've all heard this repeatedly, usually coming from some of the more well-known personalities in the SaaS world like Brennan Dunn and Nathan Barry. Brennan and Nathan both have mailing lists reaching sizes of 7000+, and both point to these mailing lists as the reason they are successful.
It makes a ton of sense. Build up a following of people who want to hear from you and who are excited about the product you're building. Combine that with a great product and the much higher conversion rate of a mailing list, you're on track for a great launch.
I did the opposite of that with my inventory app. I hunkered down for 6-ish weeks and built it without telling anybody but Laura (my lady, and she doesn't count). Even then it wasn't a big surprise when nobody bought it, or even visited the website.
This time around I'm going to take a crack at building an audience before releasing Iron Conversions.
I've already got a mailing list weighing in at ~350 subscribers, but I don't expect it to convert much because that's not why most people signed up. My goal is to start and grow a launch list to 750 or more people before an official launch.
How do you build an audience?
In the past I've struggled with the "how" of building an audience. Should I be writing a blog post every day? Should I be tweeting 10 things at specific times? Do I need to start a podcast?
The answer became obvious when I started building up a mailing list for my inventory app: Give people something useful.
I wrote up a long, detailed guide teaching them how to use Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc to do very basic inventory tracking. Along with that course I offered free Excel inventory templates.
I tailored these courses and templates to whatever business they were searching for. All I asked in exchange is their email address, where I would also send them another free course about best practices for managing their inventory.
Of course, some people would just plug in their email address, download the inventory template and then unsubscribe. That happens surprisingly few times compared to the amount of people that join the mailing list and stay there.
This method not only yielded a huge boost in the amount of new trials I got every week, it was also great for organic SEO. Even though I haven't touched the free courses since I built them, they still bring in a few new mailing list subscribers each week.
That's the plan for growing my Iron Conversions launch list. I'm going to be creating valuable content that my target market will want to exchange their email addresses for.
"Don't focus on your next 60,000 subscribers"
Recently Brennan Dunn talked about his mailing list on the Bootstrapped Web podcast. Brennan gives some really great advice: “Don’t focus on your next 60,000 subscribers, focus on your next 1,000".
That's exactly what I'll be doing, and of course, I'll be talking about it right here.
Have a great day,
P.S. Quick update on Iron Conversions: We're about halfway to being beta-ready and looking for beta users. Let me know if you're interested.
P.P.S. I've updated the home page to give a better idea of what it does.
Three weeks ago I talked about switching my focus from an ERP product for printing companies, to working on a related product, broken off from a core feature in the ERP.
The new product was essentially a tool for tracking an order through the preprint - postprint process at a printing company. It was mostly geared toward the artists and designers at printing companies.
It had two important features: First up was a proofing tool. Graphic teams at a printing company aren't very different from designers in the web business. They make a design of some sort, then send it to the client to get the "Okay" on it. In a printing company, that design would eventually be turned into a physical product.
The proofing feature was pretty similar to Basecamp and other project management apps, in that the artist would upload their proof and then invite the client to view it. The client would then annotate it, write notes, draw on it, approve it or request a revision.
The second feature was a version control tool with unlimited storage, which seemed to be a great way to differentiate my tool from the competition, all of whom require the user to delete their proofs once they use up a certain storage quota.
(I know, I know. Storage ain't cheap. My business model was to charge them to buy X gigabytes when they needed more storage.)
Now if you're a proponent of The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, you're probably hoping I didn't actually build those features before I validated this product.
Thankfully, I did not. The only work I did on this product was detailing the core features, and then two rounds of customer development.
I did all of the customer development in person with the artists at my own printing company, and through email at three other printing companies and screen printers in my area.
The first round of customer development focused on the proofing and order management features. This round indicated that the proofing tool was far more valuable than the order management tool, which was clunky and only got in the way of the proofing.
The second round of customer development focused on the version control tool. The main benefit I saw behind this feature was letting the artist revert back to an older version of a design if the client were to suggest that.
The artists I talked to, however, just didn't understand it or didn't think they would get much use out of it. I decided I'd nix the version control tool because of that feedback, and because it would be a poor experience for the user waiting to upload their 200-800mb PSD files every day.
At this point I had a straight up proofing tool. It only did proofing, which isn't to say that's not useful.
..and that's when things got crazy and I lost focus. I wanted to make this product unique from the other proofing tools that did the same thing, had been around longer, and were being sold for cheaper than I wanted to sell.
I'm unhappy to say that the plan for this product changed 3 more times, until it ended on something similar to a "proofing & time tracking" app for freelance developers.
You've probably noticed by now that I've been using the past tense quite a bit here. Let me remove the mystery: I'm not building that product anymore, and I'm not building the ERP anymore.
Over the last three months I've been stubbornly focused on building something directly evolved from Rakasheets, my inventory management product. This has been a big liability and a source of much frustration for me.
As much as I'd like to say that I took a struggling product and built it back up into something profitable, it's time for me to get realistic.
I don't care enough about solving the inventory management "problem" for small businesses. And while the proofing "problem" for printing companies could have been potentially profitable, I don't care enough about that market either.
I certainly don't know the first thing about "proofing & time tracking" for freelance designers. I'm not a freelancer, and I'm definitely not a designer.
Now I'm not saying you have to personally care about or be invested in a market or product to build something profitable, but keeping interest in a project I don't care about is something I personally struggle with.
So why was I trying to do that? Well, mostly out of pride. I wanted to take my inventory product (which got way more attention than I thought it ever would) and prove that I could make it profitable.
Essentially, I had pigeonholed myself into rebuilding Rakasheets, or something evolved from Rakasheets. And for the last few months that I've been trying to do that, I've been thinking "Boy, if only I could make something for people like me. I'd be much better off".
But that's over now! I'm not rebuilding Rakasheets, I'm not building the ERP, I'm definitely not building a time tracking tool for freelance designers. I'm building something that I personally care about and want to use. I'm building something for developers and SaaS businesses.
I'm (more than) happy to announce that I'm going to be building Iron Conversions, a lifecycle email tool for software businesses. If you don't recall, I had vaguely mentioned it a few times before I announced that I would perform CPR on Rakasheets.
It's been a business idea I've had for months, and I'm excited to finally start working on it.
Have a great day,
P.S. Here's the landing page for Iron Conversions, where you'll find a more detailed explanation of what it does.
I just finished up switching this blog's comment system over to Disqus. I definitely like using Disqus, but unfortunately the transition wasn't as buttery smooth as I had hoped it would be.
For a little background, Iron Conversions does not use WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger or any other popular system for the blog. I whipped up every piece of it in C# and I'm pretty pleased with how well it works. Not that building a simple blog is that hard.
However, the comments system has been the source of much annoyance over the last few months.
First of all, filtering out any link or malicious scripts took much more than a simple string.Replace(<script>, ""). Eventually I had to start using HTMLAgilityPack for C#. While that's a wonderful little library, it can get pretty complicated and the documentation for it is pretty poor.
Second, sometimes quotation marks and ampersands would cause the backend to throw exceptions about unsafe input being received by the user. I've had a few cases of people tweeting me to tell they just wrote a huge comment and the blog threw an exception instead of letting them post it.
Finally, spam! Every day I get a few pieces of spam in the comments. Luckily I set up a notification system so I caught them right when they were posted. Instead of trying to set up a complex filter to detect spam, I just went the route of placing a simple image asking what "4 + 8" is. After that, I had literally zero spam.
Well, it turned out to be a lot more work than that. Because I don't use WordPress or other blog engines, I had to import the blog's old comments via XML. This is where I ran into trouble.
To test it out before I began, I straight up copied the XML import example from Disqus and tried to import it, but that threw an error about a "missing or invalid message". However, Disqus had no documentation on what the "message" was and the website just directed me to contact support.
Being stubborn, however, I decided I'd try to figure it out myself before contact support. After some fiddling, I ended up appending a "<message></message>" to the comment XML. A bit more fiddling revealed that the <message> tag was supposed to have a plain text version of the comments...
But I wasn't storing plain text versions of comments, only the html comment, which was invalid in the <message> tag. That problem lead to the most tedious task in the history of the universe. I had to build the XML by hand for every single comment on the Iron Conversions blog. Luckily there were only around 50 comments in the last 3 months, but it still took over an hour to complete.
I ran into some minor issues when trying to import a few of the comments, due to strange formatting or symbols. Also, I wasn't storing the user's email, only their hashed gravatar link, which Disqus does not accept. Because of that, all imported comments (except those from myself) do not have Gravatars or emails associated with them.
Anyway, Iron Conversions now uses Disqus for comments, and it's a huge improvement. I'll be sure to use it from the beginning for any blog I build in the future.
Here's the final XML, for anybody that runs into this problem. Note that the <wp:comment_id> tag needs to be unique for each comment. If they aren't unique, only the first one will be imported, and the Disqus importer won't tell you that the others weren't imported.
Have a great day,