How to start a SaaS business in 2021 (and get your first customers through the door)
Building a SaaS business can be incredibly rewarding, but it’s not easy. Even if you have a great idea and a fantastic product, it’s getting harder to stand out, get noticed, and find those first customers. The good news is that, with the right strategy, it can be done.
When we were working on Airborne, a sales engagement platform for agencies, we successfully built a pipeline of over 300 prospects—all before the product was even in beta. When it was time to launch, we were able to get over a few thousand MRR in our first month of release.
Here’s how you can do the same.
Lay a solid foundation for your SaaS product
While you’re in the early stages of building your product, the most important thing you can do is find out what the appetite is like for that kind of product. To do that, you’re going to need to talk to people.
Reach out to the kind of people you think would benefit most from your product.
Tap your personal network, send out some emails, connect with people on LinkedIn; whatever works for you. The channel you use isn’t as important as your approach. Rather than pitching to them, ask for their advice and recommendations. Explain that you’re working on a product that’s specific to their use case, one that addresses a specific problem that you think they have, and you’d appreciate it if they could help you validate it.
In our case, we interviewed everybody we could get our hands on to let them know we were building a product that was going to fundamentally change the way they worked, and we wanted to show them what we were doing.
If you can’t find anybody who’ll talk with you, that’s a sign that you probably need to stop right there and rethink your product. However, if you’re asking for help and the product has potential, people will generally be willing to help you out and offer their input. If that’s the case, those people are your pipeline. Without even selling the product, you’ve already been pre-selling it, and you’re likely to find your first customers in that group.
Scale up your growth
Getting those initial customers is great, but soon you’re going to want more. In my experience, the best way to have a steady flow of customers is to consistently engage with them in the places they hang out.
The first place to look is on social media. Post questions on LinkedIn about the market you’re serving and the problems you’re solving. Start conversations on Facebook. Establish yourself as an expert on Quora and answer questions relevant to your product.
The next thing you should do is join lots of communities, whether they’re on Facebook, Slack, Discord, Clubhouse, or anywhere else people are gathering. Along with SaaS Community, there are plenty of places where you can network and get the support of others who’ve gone through the same challenges. Notable communities include RevGenius, Nathan Latka’s SaaS Hackers and the SaaS Growth Hacks group. You can also sign up for Product Hunt and BetaList for some additional exposure.
In addition, join communities that cater to the specific market you’re serving. Find out where your target market is hanging out, join those groups, and start meeting people.
Finally, consider applying to join an accelerator. Some accelerators will require you to give up equity in your business but can provide you with funding and guidance in return. Other accelerators don’t take any equity and act as more of a community. You may not receive any funding, but you can still get mentorship and advice to help you grow.
Implementing a distribution strategy
To further build awareness, at some point you’ll need to step out of your comfort zone and reach out to other people in your target market.
Thanks to a certain global pandemic, the move to digital communication has greatly accelerated. To stand out, you need to have a solid understanding of how to craft a compelling message for cold emails. Likewise, you need to be comfortable picking up the phone and making calls. You don’t have to cold call a hundred people a day but, for some people, a phone call is the best way to connect. For others, social media is effective. Automating messages through LinkedIn can get some great results (just be careful who you use—you don’t want to end up being banned on the platform!).
Whether you’re building awareness or reaching out to your target market, the key is that you’re not going in talking about your product. Instead, you’re answering questions and contributing to discussions in fields related to the product. You’re an expert in that field (or at least you should be), so use that expertise to build authority and gain a following. Even with your direct outreach, you shouldn’t go in with the hard sell. Instead, introduce them to the product and how it can make a difference in their lives.
With the right foundation, finding your first customers becomes a lot easier. However, it’s important that you put the work in well before you plan to launch the product. It’s much easier to get people to talk to you when there’s no product to buy and they know there isn’t going to be a sales pitch.
Then, when the time comes and your product is ready, give the people who helped you out the product for free for a few weeks. Get those beta users onboard and use their feedback to iron out any bugs and identify potential improvements. If the product does its job, those beta users will become your first paying customers. Then, if you continue building awareness and reaching out to your target market with effective messaging, you’ll soon develop a steady stream of customers for your SaaS product.