Launching a SaaS product - 6 lessons learned

Photo courtesy of StartAgain 

Photo courtesy of StartAgain 

This is the third (and final) part in a series of blog posts documenting our path to launching our SaaS product, Screenful. We have now happily launched and ready to share the lessons we learned along the way. The previous posts, if you missed them, are available here:

When it came to our product launch, we had two goals: build brand awareness and generate sales leads. We weren’t too optimistic about actually making a lot of sales at this stage, but we wanted to learn which channels would generate most qualified leads. If I'm completely honest, when it came to getting exposure, we didn’t knew what would work and what wouldn’t.

We know that the 'throw everything at the wall and see what sticks' approach is often taken by startups. It's not an ideal strategy as you can end up wasting resources on things that don't work - something we were to discover. 

Lesson 1 - Make sure you have news to tell

Crafting a press release and contacting journalists are likely to be high on your list when you're planning activities for your product launch. The challenge is that since everyone else is doing that as well, you may have hard time being noticed. Journalists are looking for stories that generate clicks, so your story should be newsworthy i.e. something that is both new and interesting for a wide enough audience. 

We thought we had interesting story - after all, no one else had introduced a product like ours; an analytics tool tailored for software development, and which used large screens as a primary user interface. It turned out it wasn't newsworthy. No matter how cool you think your product is, a startup is launching a product is not news. 

What makes a press release newsworthy? In addition to introducing a novelty product, you should have social proof to show that it really matters. Who are your customers? Did you get an investment from top tier investors? Can you mention any high profile individuals in your team? You better have some big names to drop, otherwise your press release will be ignored. 

We should have known that. But crafting a press release seemed like such a standard step that we couldn't skip it. And we did get some good learning that helps us to be more prepared next time. But in the hindsight, that time could have been better spent on other activities. 

Lesson 2 - Focus your efforts on right channels

As we didn't know what channels would work we tried a little bit of everything. In addition to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, we also did some guest blogging and directory submissions. We got few likes and shares and some visits to our website. But that's about it. No notable increase in the number of new signups per week. 

We also sent out a newsletter to our list of about 1000 subscribers that we'd acquired during the last two years, which resulted to some nice comments and visits to our website. But still no increase in new signups.  

Then we posted to Product Hunt. Finally the needle started to move. 

Google Analytics page views

Google Analytics page views

We ended up at fifth position for that day with 250 upvotes. These were the results:

  • 15 000 visitors to home page
  • 114 signups within 48 hours
  • 30 more signups during the following 2 weeks

The results we achieved from Product Hunt totally shadowed any other attempts of getting exposure. In fact, we got more visitors to our site within 48 hours than in the previous 12 months combined. That's one heck of a community - and taught us the importance of choosing the right channel for your audience.  

If you're interested in details, we've documented our our Product Hunt launch in another post.

Lesson 3 - Have your onboarding process ready

When users sign up to your service, they come with a certain expectations regarding the quality of your onboarding process. They expect your onboarding flow to be similar to other products they've used before. Depending on the type of product, that may involve things like guided setup wizards and online documentation in the form of tutorials, FAQs, and case studies. They also expect availability of features like password change / recovery, and support for credit card payments. The list gets longer the more signups you have as each have their own must-have feature that they expect to see.

We had pretty much none of those implemented at the time of our launch. After all, our pilot customers didn't mind waiting for couple of days or weeks for us to setup things for them. But your online / SaaS customers expect getting an access to a polished product right away. 

That may sound like a happy problem to have, but believe me, it doesn't feel that way when you see potential customers walking away, disappointed. 

Of course if your product solves an urgent problem then you may get away with half-baked experience but there will always be those who rather stay away from anything that feels like immature technology.   

Lesson 4 - Reserve plenty of time in your calendar

This is related to the previous one in the sense that the less prepared your product is to handle large amount of signups, the more work you end up doing manually. In our case that meant we worked almost exclusively on processing signups for the week following launch. This work included sending and responding to customer emails, setting up trials, fine-tuning configurations, updating data on CRM... and so on. All of this ad-hoc work had a toll on our other duties and our productivity (in terms of R&D progress) plummeted for that week.  

For the sake of your sanity, keep your calendar as empty as possible for the next one or two weeks following your product launch, and accept the fact that it will have an effect on your normal routine. 

Lesson 5 - Timing is crucial

When it comes to launching, timing is crucial. If you launch too early, your product may not be polished enough to stand out from the crowd. Don't misunderstand the concept of MVP - it's not the simplest version of your product, but instead, the simplest version of your product that is awesome.

On the other hand, if you wait too long, you may find the market is already taken by competitors. Or you may find your startup running out of cash with no paying customers in sight. Good luck with fundraising in that situation! 

So you need to find a balance there. Taking shortcuts here and there is pretty much unavoidable. Just choose carefully which shortcuts to take. There's a fine line between a mere inconvenience and a complete showstopper when it comes to customer experience. 

We couldn't have launched any earlier and we couldn't have survived much longer without launching, so for us there wasn't that much playing field anyway, it was just the right time for us. 

Lesson 6 - Celebrate your victories

Getting a product out of the door should be the primary motivation of any product developer. That's why we do this job, right? You started from scratch and created a product that solves a problem you thought was worth solving. You released your solution to the market and found some early adopters to give it a spin. There are still rough edges to even out, but now you're letting your new customers provide feedback to drive development forward.

That's both liberating and extremely rewarding, so don't forget to let your team to know you've achieved a major milestone. Get out of the office and have a few drinks. Always celebrate - and learn from - your wins!

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This article was written by Sami Linnanvuo

Sami is the founder & CEO of Screenful, the company that turns data into visual stories. You can follow him on Twitter @sl1nna