The No-BS Approach to Building Your SaaS Startup’s Launch List (Part 2 of the Epic Guide to Bootstrapping)
All the nitty-gritty, real, no-bs, no-hype info you need to actually build your SaaS startup’s launch list. Can you stomach it?
[This is Part 2 of the Epic Guide to Bootstrapping a SaaS Startup from Scratch — By Yourself. In case you just stumbled across this, you should probably start with Part 1.]
In this installment of The Epic Guide, I’m going to be walking you through how to build your launch list, using real-life examples from my SaaS company, Tamboo.
First off, a reality check.
Let’s get a few things straight.
Unlike the self-professed startup gurus out there, I’m not going to sell you a truckload of manure.
I am not going to promise you that if you follow what I spell out here that you’re going to build a launch list of 100,000 emails overnight.
In fact, I’m not even going to promise you that you’re going to get a single email. For reals.
But I do promise that I’ll show you how to figure out what you need to do to eventually get those emails — and to over time, build your list.
Just to be clear, and so you can level-set your expectations: You’re probably not going to get it right at your first attempt. I don’t care how fancy your landing page is. The truth is, it’s probably just an awful (but very shiny) turd. Because that’s how we all start out. We don’t know better. Until we do the work to learn how to stop sucking.
You’re also probably going about promoting your launch list entirely wrong. No, you do not post it on HackerNews, collect 50,000 signups and go your merry way to millions in ARR. That might have worked for Buffer, but in all likelihood, you don’t stand a chance of reproducing that.
What follows is pragmatic, honest, battle-tested advice on how to go about building your SaaS startup’s launch list. By yourself.
You will not have overnight success.
It will suck.
Are you ready?
A Quick Update
Since its original publication, The Epic Guide has become an *insanely* popular resource for bootstrapped startups — on the verge of becoming a “cult classic”!
I’ve had an insane number of people asking me for even more down and to the point advice for building their startups — so much so that it’s inspired me to give The Epic Guide the full-length book treatment.
If you’re interested in learning more about the book or if you’re itching to pick up a copy, head on over to this page I’ve set up for The Epic Guide to Bootstrapping a Startup By Yourself: The Book!
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming:
Confession: I played a trick on you.
If you’ve been playing along at home, I played a trick on you in Part 1 of The Epic Guide.
Remember how I told you to reach out to people about your “guess” (not idea!)?
I tricked you into making sales.
I know it probably didn’t feel like sales. And I know I didn’t make you ask for money.
But it was still selling.
If you played along, I got you to do the following:
- Prospecting. By getting you to scour the internet to find ways to identify, locate, and contact people that might be interested in what you have to offer.
- Qualifying and Investigating. By getting you to reach out to them and determine if they actually have a need that you could solve with your offer, and how interested they are in a solution to that need.
- Demonstrating. By getting you to tell them about the solution you have in mind to satisfy their need.
- Closing. By getting you to ask them if they would be interested in trying out what you have to offer when it’s ready — and getting their commitment to do that.
I’m a sneaky bastard, I know.
But I did it for your own good.
Because if I had told you “We need to test if you even have a chance of selling this thing”, you would have frozen up, procrastinated, and have done nothing.
The very thought of doing cold sales makes most people clam up and break out into cold sweats.
But that’s just what we did. (You did do what I told you to do, right? If you want to stop being a wantrapreneur, you better stop getting off on reading about other people doing things and start doing them yourself.)
We tested if we could sell our solution, and identified who we could sell it to — and why.
This is critically important.
At the very least, you should be able to sell your SaaS one-on-one, in hand-to-hand combat. Fight Club style. Mortal Kombat style.
In fact, this is how most enterprise software is sold. One-on-one. Not through brilliant marketing or word of mouth.
Just remember: If you can’t sell your SaaS one-on-one, you probably aren’t going to be able to market it. At all.
And yes, that’s what we’re going to be testing next.
Oooo, is that a scary word?
Time to get over it.
The reason you need to build a launch list is not just so you have a potential customer base to launch to. That’s nice, but that’s not the real reason you should be doing this.
The real reason is because you typically build your launch list through marketing efforts.
And so you use the results of your launch list as a gauge for whether or not you’re going to be able to successfully market your SaaS offering.
If you can’t get people to give you an email address, you’re sure as hell not going to get them to fork over their credit card number.
It’s that simple.
So, let’s put away the scary word MARKETING for now and get back to building our launch list. Feel free to call it something different if it makes you feel better about what we’re going to be doing next.
You haven’t built enough landing pages until you’re sick of building them.
I hate building landing pages.
Actuallly, “hate” is not a strong enough word.
“Loathe”, “despise”, “cringe uncontrollably”, or even “hate with the passion of a thousand burning suns” would be more apropos.
But I still use them.
Because building a landing page is way faster, cheaper, and smarter than going off and building a full-fledged marketing site or just running off and building my app idea and then finding out (after months of development) that nobody gives two shits about it.
So, yes, we’re going to be building a landing page. (Grab some beers, it helps.)
Truth be told, building the actual landing page is the easiest part of this process. You can use services like Leadpages, etc. to build one out, or you can roll your own if you’ve got the “itch”…
So aside from the ability to collect an email address and save it off in a database somewhere, what do you need for your landing page?
First off, you need your messaging.
Remember that exercise that we did in Part 1? (You did do the exercise, right?)
Yeah, we’re going to be using that. Because not only did we go through that exercise, but also because if you did in fact get your 20 Heck Yeses, you’ve already tested your messaging. Do you detect a pattern here yet?
Your landing page needs to incorporate those messaging elements.
It needs to articulate (not necessarily in this order):
- Who is this for?
- What does it do?
- Why should they give you money for it?
You also need to incorporate some sort of promise. What are you promising (explicitly or implicitly) that people will get if they decide to use your service? You need to make sure they understand that clearly.
You may have heard some “lean startup” gurus running around telling you to create a page that looks exactly like a finished marketing site, complete with screenshots, etc. and that you should “trick” people into signing up for your service to test if they’d pay for the finished product.
This is a tempting but horrible idea. Don’t do it.
First off, it’s just to make you feel better about what you’re putting in front of people.
Second off, you’re going to piss people off by tricking them.
Put yourself in their shoes. You click on a link, see something you want, sign up, put in your credit card number, and then get a message that pops up saying “Haha, just kidding!”
Like I said. Don’t do it.
Be honest. Or don’t do this at all.
That being said, what exactly do you put on your landing page?
It’s pretty simple. You’re going to pick one (and only one) feature or aspect of your potential solution, and you’re going to put together a page with the messaging you’ve tested for your solution.
That one feature or aspect should be the main thing you think people would pay money for, and should be the one feature you would build out for an MVP (Minimum Viable Product — we’ll get to that in a later installment).
Assume that it would take you one year to build your whole solution. Just assume that. You need to pick the one feature you would start with that you could build in a month that people would be willing to give you money for. Yes, one month. And yes, give you money. That’s the thing we’re going to talk about on our landing page. Nothing else.
I don’t care how many great features you have cooked up in your head. Write them down in your Moleskine or put them on your Trello board. But they’re not going on your landing page. You get to pick one. Pick it wisely.
No screenshots. No mockups. Just text.
Now, I’m going to break rank here with all the gurus out there.
Your first landing page should not have any product screenshots or mockups. None. Zero.
You’re probably thinking WTF?! right now. Good. Let’s undo all that brainwashing you picked up from all that entreporn.
There will be a time for screenshots. Now is not one of them.
Right now, we want to test if our messaging is something that the market responds to, and if it can stand on its own.
Product screenshots are like cocaine-laced catnip to developers and other techies. You will be attracting the wrong type of attention if you use them at this phase.
Instead, you need to nail your messaging. People need to respond to it. Without fancy mockups or sexy product shots.
That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be visually engaging. It should.
So what should it look like then?
I don’t know.
You’re going to have to put something together that follows these guidelines. Just take a guess. Try your best, but know it’s just a first pass. You have to start somewhere.
Just make sure that your text is clear, to the point, and as short and sweet as possible. You’ve got to grab your visitor’s attention out the gate, tell them how you’re going to help them, and convince them to take an action.
If writing short and to the point is something you struggle with (and I still do), read up on copywriting. I highly recommend the book The Copywriter’s Handbook: A Step-By-Step Guide To Writing Copy That Sells to get a good understanding of style and approaches.
Just to give you a frame of reference, here’s what Tamboo’s original first-pass landing page looked like:
This was when I was first expoloring the concept of Tamboo. I had some feedback based on conversations with people (get those 20 Heck Yeses!) that helped to influence the verbiage, but other than that it was still a WAG (Wild Ass Guess).
After some time and experimentation (which we’ll get to), I was able to distill the essence some more and really narrow in on the messaging:
See what I mean?
No product shots. No mockups. Just sweet, zeroed-in text that piques their curiosity, promises some outcome, and compels them to “get on the list”.
And do you know what the most beautiful part of this was?
I didn’t have to try to figure out what the app should look like. I didn’t have to code up some basic screens. I didn’t have to mess around with Visio or Omnigraffle or Photoshop. I didn’t have to screw around with any of that. And people still signed up, validating the concept and more importantly, validating the marketing messaging.
As a sidebar, this is a tactic that I use when I want to test out if I should build new features.
Once you get your product in front of people down the road, you’re going to (hopefully) get feedback. Usually, people will be clamoring for some feature that you don’t have. Instead of just running off and building that feature, build a simple landing page like I’ve been talking about and test to see if you can get people to sign up for that feature.
This works because the best features you should be building are features that people are willing to directly pay money for, or are features that enable you to reach a whole new market. Otherwise, they’re just “nice to haves” IMHO.
And yes, I eat my own dog food.
Here is the first-pass landing page for Tamboo Analytics — a new feature that people have been begging me for and that I think could open up Tamboo to a whole new audience:
If you do go the approach of adding a landing page for features, make sure you keep it at a URL that you can convert to a feature page later on. For example, the above is located at https://gettamboo.com/analytics. After the landing page phase is over, that will become the feature page for Tamboo Analytics.
One other thing — see the “Learn More” button?
I had a lot of people asking how it was even possible that Tamboo could do what I was promising them. Rather than busy up the page with even more text, people that want to know can click that button and get the skinny:
So what happens after they click the “Request an Invite” button? You add their email to your list (just a table in a database) along with the HTTP referrer that sent them (so you know where signups come from), thank them, and then ideally ask them to take some other action to help you out.
(By the way, if you’re looking at this and thinking that Tamboo Analytics sounds like something you’d be interested in, you can get on the launch list here.)
As a heavy mobile user, this may sound contradictory, but: I FUCKING HATE MOBILE.
Because as a developer, not only do I have to worry about testing pages out on different browsers and browser versions (looking at you, IE), but I also now have to worry about testing it on different devices and goofy ass resolutions. I honestly don’t find pleasure in modifying layouts ad nauseum until they look *just right*. (Sorry if that’s your thing.)
That, and everybody wants their shit to work on mobile.
Building a purchasing app for an ERP system? Ooohhh, that HAS to work on mobile!
Building an email marketing app? MUST. HAVE. MOBILE. EDITOR.
I honestly just tune out when the mobile song and dance comes on.
If you’re building out landing pages and marketing sites, the vast majority of your traffic is going to come from mobile users.
So. Like it or not, you need to test for mobile. I repeat: YOU NEED TO TEST FOR MOBILE.
And no, that does not mean opening up Chrome’s Developer Tools and playing with the different device settings (although you should be doing that).
It means pulling it up on your mobile device, your friends’ mobile devices, your parents’ mobile devices — as many as you can get your hands on. And it means looking at it like you are your intended user. Does it feel natural? Is the experience what you would expect? Is it hard to enter your email address?
Trust me on this.
Test for mobile. Or be sorry you didn’t.
How much time should you spend building out your landing page?
As little time as you can possibly muster.
Chances are you’re probably going to have to revise the thing a gazillion times before you dial all the knobs in properly.
Don’t spend more than 1–2 days on it.
If you’re on day 2 and you’re still unhappy with it, fuck it. Run with what you got.
Because the things you’re going to learn by putting it out into the wild are going to help you better understand what changes you’ll need to make.
No more than 1–2 days.
Unleash the Kraken!
Can you feel that?
We’re just about ready to launch this monster out onto an unsuspecting world.
You’re probably pretty nervous and excited. That’s cute.
Stop. Get your hopes, dreams, and desires in check. This is not the time or the place for them. Get hard. Get tough. Because this is where the emotional roller coaster picks up speed.
Push that deploy button.
Light that turkey up! (Whatever that even means…)
That’s right. Nothing.
People are not going to find your landing page by some stroke of luck and good fortune. Unless you are some SEO god, you’re not going to rank in Google for months. If at all.
This is where you get to do some legwork. Let’s dig in.
Time to hustle.
Remember in Part 1 when I told you to find where you could find people that would be interested in your solution?
You did do that, right? (See how this all adds up? That’s why you need to be playing along at home and not just reading this.)
We need to start promoting our landing page. Those places where you found people who were willing to talk to you about their need and your solution are the best places to start.
Let’s say you found some awesome forum where you were able to connect with people. You should probably invite people to sign up for your launch list there.
But don’t be spammy.
This is not okay:
Hey! Sign up for my launch list here: http://example.com/selfish :)
Rather, you need to participate in the conversation and give them good reason:
I wanted to thank everybody for talking with me about the problems a lot of you were having with __________. Your feedback has been absolutely invaluable to me, and I can’t express my thanks enough!
I thought some of you here might be interested to know what I’ve been doing with all of that great advice, so I wanted to share.
What I’ve learned is _____________. And I really think that my idea of doing _____________ could be a huge help to any of you experiencing that.
If you’re interested in _____________, please feel free to sign up for my launch list at ____________. Once I have this thing built out, I’ll send you an email so you can try it out yourself and see if it helps you with __________.
Thanks again, and let me know if there’s anything else I should be thinking about!
Beyond that, you’re going to have to start to get creative.
There is no “one size fits all” marketing channel.
You’re going to have to go hunting. In strange and foreign lands. Using strange and bizarre weapons.
This part of the process is more of an art than a science.
There’s a lot of guessing involved. Lots of wild ass guessing. And lots of spaghetti stains on the walls.
I’ll give you some ideas (and some opinions) that should help get you moving. But don’t limit yourself to these. Get out there and figure it out. That’s how marketing works. You gotta figure shit out on your own sometimes. It hurts. It sucks. It’s uncomfortable. I know. But you’re the one that wanted to do this, right?
Let’s burn some money!
If you’re serious about this, I’m going to ask you to burn some money.
And yes, I’m serious about that.
I want you to spend $5 a day on advertising to drive traffic to your landing page. For at least a week. I’m pretty sure you can spare $35. If not, skip lunch for a week.
There’s a few reasons for this.
First, you need to understand how badly you suck at advertisting and targetting as soon as possible.
Second, you need to learn to have a healthy respect for how quickly you’ll lose money on advertisting.
And third, paid acquisition can actually work pretty well for email capture pages. (Not so well with actual SaaS signups, but that’s for another installment.)
There are a few things you should know about paid advertising before we get started.
First and foremost, don’t try to be too cute or clever. Get attention, promise an outcome, and tell them what to do to get that outcome. Period, the end.
Something as simple as these work:
I know. They’re kind of boring. But that’s because I’m not trying to win an advertising award. I’m just trying to get people that would care about what I’m offering to click. (Don’t think I’m advocating that these are examples of “good” ads. I’m not. They can probably be a whole lot better. I’m just giving examples of some ads that I get conversions from. Same thing with the landing pages featured.)
A few notes on effective ads.
First, use an attention-grabbing image and use an attention-grabbing headline. (Check out that copywriting book I mentioned earlier to learn about writing passable headlines.)
Second, try to have your ad reflect your landing page in some way. At the very least, the messaging must be complementary. If someone sees an ad advertising email marketing, they expect to be taken to a page that talks more about email marketing — not a page that talks about elephants.
Third, don’t offer “free” or “gimmicky” stuff in the ad. It brings “free-seekers”, not potential customers. It also tends to turn away otherwise serious prospects.
Last, use your ad messaging to pre-filter people if possible. Let’s say you have a SaaS offering that lets owners of Toyotas do something cool with their car. Your add should not try to appeal to all car owners. Instead, you should say something like “If you love your Toyota, you’ll love XYZ”. Something that tries to filter out non-Toyota car owners from clicking.
Okay, so where should you put these ads, and how do you go about doing that?
I hope you like pain.
Pretty much all of the major advertising platform tools suck. Bad.
They’re slow, confusing, hard to use, difficult to navigate, and frustrating to spend any amount of time on.
It absolutely floors me that this is the best the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Google can come up with. It’s disgusting.
For many of these companies, this is how they make their money — advertisting. Yet the tools they put out there are just horrid.
Sorry, I digress.
Where were we? Oh yeah. Advertising tools. (Grrr.)
If you’re just starting out, I recommend that you try Facebook Ads and Twitter Ads. NOT Google AdWords.
There’s a few reasons for that.
First off, Google AdWords is horrifically expensive compared to Facebook or Twitter. That $5 a day? That can be one click on AdWords. That same $5 a day on Twitter?
Second, if you use AdWords, you have to target by keyword. It’s like playing “Guess what I’m thinking?” It’s hard. It’s unnatural. And you’re just going to lose a whole lot of money until you get good at it. By comparison, targeting on Facebook and Twitter is much more natural. You can target by demographic, by interest, or even by who they follow.
So, Facebook and Twitter it is.
A few words on Facebook and Twitter advertising.
First, start out by trying the option to drive clicks to your website. Yes, the option to drive conversions is attractive but takes some work to set up and the costs are different.
Second, choose the Pay Per Click option. They might try to sneak a “Pay Per Impression” option by default. Find that. Change it to Pay Per Click.
Third, try to set a manual bid of something like $0.25 — $0.50 per click and see if you get results instead of going automatic bid. If that doesn’t get enough impressions, try out the automatic bid option.
Fourth, try to go narrow on your targeting for starters. Go broader if you’re not getting enough impressions or clicks. A good first-time strategy for targeting is to target by a known interest. On Facebook, you might want to target people interested in certain websites. Trying to reach the startup crowd? You could go after AngelList, HackerNews, etc. On Twitter, try to target people based on their following of a complementary product. If you’re selling guitar tab software, find people following Gibson, Martin, etc.
Last, make sure that you add UTM parameters to your URLs. You need to do this because a lot of the traffic coming from these ads won’t have referrers set. Adding UTM parameters helps you know the traffic source. Google it.
Don’t over think it.
Just get something out there.
Run the ads for a week and see what happens. See what you learn. See if you get email signups. If not, step back, look at your ad, look at your landing page, look at your targeting, and try tweaking some knobs. That’s how you learn. That’s how you eventually “get good” at this. That’s how you eventually get paid advertisting to work for you.
One last word on these guys. “Audience Networks”. Twitter and Facebook have Audience Networks, which are basically just sites or mobile apps that are showing their ads (outside of Facebook or Twitter themselves). For starters, try throwing ads with the Audience Networks enabled. You’ll get a lot of traffic that way. But just a word of caution. If you’re not getting conversions, you might want to try running ads without the Audience Network (just going right after Facebook and Twitter themselves). There is a lot of … shall we say “dubious” … traffic that I see coming from the Audience Networks. (Just don’t call it click fraud!)
Forums aren’t always friendly.
Forums look like attractive targets for promotion.
I post one link, and I get all these people! Like shooting fish in a barrel!
Believe it or not, you’re not the first digital marketing genius to have that same thought.
And here’s a little secret — they ruined it for everyone.
No, you can’t just show up to a forum and promote your landing page.
Big. Big. Big. No-no.
Unless you like running away from an angry mob armed to the teeth with brickbats.
So what can you do to tap into all those people in that forum without pissing them off?
You mean aside from actually engaging in a conversation and becoming one of the in crowd?
Well, after you have built up a small reputation for insightful commenting, you can start to share blog posts and other content marketing — so long as it doesn’t reek of self-promotion. It has to be valuable. It has to be helpful. It can’t be just anything. And then, indirectly, you can promote your landing page (see next section).
But trust me. Don’t just blast links to random forums.
Blogging and Content Marketing
The idea behind using blogging and content marketing for promoting your landing page is that you create content that you can share. Content that is related to your solution, but not about your solution. Content that people who are in your target market would care about.
And then at the bottom of your page, you throw a little “hey, come check this out” section. Here’s an example of what we have on Tamboo’s analytics-related content marketing pages:
Now, this works since the visitor knows they’re on a company site. If you’re doing a blog, etc., you should use something a little different. Something that uses the messaging you’ve developed. Something that tells them “Hey, do you fit my target market? If so, you need to check this out!”.
But bottom line: You have to promote your blog posts and content marketing. Just writing it and hoping to get organic search traffic is not going to cut it. Blog posts and content marketing are sharable, and can be shared on social media or in forums without inciting a riot (again, so long as they are valuable pieces of content and are not self promotional).
Another option to consider is guest posting. This is finding someone else with a blog with an audience and writing a guest post for them. In the bio, you talk about your upcoming startup and give a link to your landing page. Same rules apply. Something valuable to the readers about something they’re interested in. Not about you (although a plug here or there isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
Promoting on Social Media
Yes, you absolutely should. But don’t expect a ton of people to “click through”. I’ve found that you’ll get a ton of likes and retweets from people who never even look at your page. Just so you know what to expect.
Other People’s Platforms
The key takeaway here is that you need to find where other people are and get your message in front of them.
There is no way that people are just going to start showing up.
Not unless you’ve promoted the hell out of yourself.
That’s why you need to be on the look out for Other People’s Platforms — places where people congregate that you can get your message in front of them.
Social media. Podcasts. Blogs. Forums. Help sites. Email lists. Anything you can think of.
And when you put your message in front of them, try to let them feel like they somehow “discovered” you. Just like trying to convince someone of something and letting them think it’s their idea. This is a powerful way to persuade people — letting them think that they “found out about this thing”. Not you telling them to use your solution. Let them connect the dots.
Rinse. Repeat. Do this over and over again until…
So how long do you need to do this for? How much traffic do you need? How many signups do you need?
(Don’t you love that answer?)
But seriously. You should be trying to build up to at least 100 people a day visiting your landing page. That’s a big number for starting out, but it needs to be. It will take you time to figure out how to make that happen. But you need those numbers because for every 100 people you get to your landing page, you *might* get 1–10 signing up to your launch list. Everyone’s results will vary. I’ve seen some people boast of getting 30–40% signup rates. Don’t expect that. That’s unicorn shit.
How many signups do you need? Shoot for 100. Make no mistake though — the first 10 are going to be insanely hard to get. That’s just because this is your first pass and you’re going to need to tweak things, try new things, and throw lots of spaghetti until something sticks. That’s the point of all of this. Finding out exactly what sticks.
If you’re not getting the results you’re expecting, you’ll need to spend some time troubleshooting things. I never said this would be a fun process. It takes time. It’s not going to be an overnight win. It’s not going to be a “fix this one thing and everything will work” sort of thing.
First off, if you’re not getting signups, you need to check if you’re getting visitors to your page. Use a tool like Google Analytics to track your hits and where they’re coming from.
If you’re not getting traffic, you need to promote more, in as many places as you can find. That or you need to start testing different calls to action (the thing that you say to people to get them to click on your links). If your calls to action are boring or not something people are interested in, it doesn’t matter where you promote them — people just won’t click.
If you are getting traffic but no signups, there’s a couple things to consider.
First, is the traffic you’re getting quality traffic? Like I said about the Twitter and Facebook Audience Network, you can get a ton of traffic, but it doesn’t mean it’s good traffic. Meaning, are you sure the traffic that’s coming is from people that match your target market?
Second, maybe you need to tweak your landing page. Try different variations to see if you get a different response. Try different messaging. Ask the 20 people you got Heck Yeses from to give you feedback. There’s tons of articles on the Googles that can give you different ideas to try out for your landing page if you think that’s the culprit.
Finally, if you’re stuck and you just want to “see” what people are doing when they come to your landing page, might I recommend that you try using Tamboo? It’s a shameless plug I know. But if you want, you can try it out for free. And I guarantee you’ll get a better understanding of what’s going on than just sitting there spinning your wheels.
Next Up: Make It Rain
This ends Part 2 of The Epic Guide to Bootstrapping a SaaS Startup from Scratch — By Yourself.
In Part 3, we’re going to focus on GETTING PAID! Be sure to follow me on Medium or on Twitter as @cliffordoravec so you don’t miss out!
In between Parts, I offer short Interlude pieces. You can read the first interlude for Part 2 here: Expect Everything to be Unexpected.
UPDATE: Part 3 is now available!