Ten Successful Software Founders Share What They’ve Done To Build a Large & Active Community Of Users

Mitch Russo
Feb 5 · 23 min read

Many people have ideas for an app or a SaaS business but don’t know where to begin. We hope to correct that.

Authority Magazine started a new interview series called, “5 Things You need To Know To Create a Successful App, SaaS or Software Business”.

In the series we interviewed successful business leaders who founded or lead an app, SAAS , or software company. They each shared what one needs to know in order to successfully start a software company, and what one needs to do to build an active and large community of users.

Please enjoy ten highlights of our interviews.


Bhavneet Chahal, co-founder of GoSkills.com

Can you share with us three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large and active community of users?

We reach potential learners primarily through inbound inquiries from organic search, paid advertising and partnerships, and referrals from happy customers.

As a company, we like making data-driven decisions. SEO and customer feedback are part of that process. We optimize our content with keyword research to try and reach the largest number of people searching for a specific term. We also regularly review course ratings and get feedback from customers to see what people like and where we could improve.

And of course, having a high-quality product is essential to growing and retaining subscribers. We strive to keep our courses and learning management system as high-quality and user-friendly as possible, while keeping costs low. This has helped us build our subscriber base to where it is today.

GoSkills uses a SaaS subscription-based pricing model, where individual learners can purchase monthly or annual subscriptions to our courses. The recurring subscription model results in regular revenue each month.

We have a freemium subscription model for our business customers, which includes free access to our learning management system (LMS) with the option of purchasing upgrades to enterprise-grade features and the award-winning GoSkills course library. We chose this model so we can provide businesses of all sizes the ability to train their teams without the exorbitant initial outlays or minimum user requirements typically associated with an LMS.

By adopting a product-led growth strategy and a recurring revenue model, we are able to keep our costs low and revenue high. Having a self-service platform also allows us to more easily scale GoSkills operations to work with more companies without imposing a high administrative cost.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app, SaaS, or software company?

  1. Spot the opportunity — what is the gap in the market?
    I saw the opportunity to create high quality online courses from my time at Groupon — online courses were the most popular ‘product’ category and the courses sold weren’t as good as I hoped.
  2. Surround yourself with the right people
    I can’t emphasize enough the importance of finding people with complementary skills and having a shared vision and goal that you are all working towards. Teamwork makes the dream work!
  3. Come up with a better solution — think carefully about design and UX
    We differentiated ourselves by focusing on an excellent end-to-end user experience — from bite-sized course lessons to a simple and fun interface to learn with.
  4. Know your audience
    Conduct customer surveys often, analyse the data and keep a watchful eye on customer feedback. Once you understand who your customers are, their motivations and their likes and dislikes, you can better serve their needs and help them achieve their goals.
  5. Know how you will get your solution to your audience — how will you reach their eyeballs?
    It’s essential to not only innovate on product and technology, but also on your customer acquisition channel. I feel like this is often overlooked, and is essential to ensure you keep growing by always finding new ways to reach your audience.

David Thomas, CEO of Evident ID

Can you share with us three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large and active community of users?

Evident’s platform has millions of users. The steps Evident has taken to get here are a relentless focus on user experience, working towards the goal of being the best and easiest verification platform for both individuals and businesses, and maintaining a proper balance between friction and security, so that businesses are able to onboard individuals faster and safer than ever before.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app, SaaS, or software company?

  1. Have an initial focus on a narrow customer segment. We initially found that the sharing economy was in desperate need of better trust and safety, and because marketplace companies were onboarding providers and new users at an alarmingly fast rate, we began focusing our efforts there.
  2. Implement a simple pricing model. Our transparent pricing model allows our customers to pay for a higher level of identity and credential verification assurance, or save money with a lower level of assurance, but with optional step-up verification to catch fraudsters. A simple pricing model can offer the best of both worlds, and appeal to a wider range of prospects.
  3. Think outside the four walls. You’ll stay focused as best you can and come up with lots of ideas that you think are great, but don’t forget to test those ideas outside of the four walls of your SaaS business. Which brings me to my next point…
  4. Obsess over your customers. Maintaining a constant focus on getting customer feedback can be a big differentiator. You won’t be able to stop other SaaS companies from getting into the exact same business you’re in — the way you’ll stake your claim is by taking care of your customers and keeping them happy.
  5. Love the struggle. People who build businesses aren’t just in it for the long-term success, they do it because they love the struggle of creating something from nothing, especially if they’re genuinely passionate about it. Those who enjoy and appreciate the journey are more likely to build a successful app or SaaS business.

Christy Laurence, founder of Plann

Can you share with us three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large and active community of users?

  1. Build a product that is so solid that your users can tell from the first time they login how it can help them. Getting people to see value immediately saw massive word-of-mouth traction for us which was a sign we were on the right track from the start.
  2. Our company is customer funded, so I’ve learnt the importance of working really hard to focus on what challenges our users have and obsess about solutions to help them, and if they’d pay for them to be fixed. You have to be constantly listening to what they are asking (which might not be what they are actually saying).
  3. Our brand is fun, relatable and incredibly empathetic. We’re a consistent cheerleader and best friend there to help you with free content, help and support. It’s been a huge piece of work, but our brand voice is everywhere throughout our product, blogs, emails and even our app store updates. Having a strong brand that’s a little quirky and different to other software companies has definitely been an advantage.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app, SaaS, or software company?

  1. Product Market Fit is everything. Do whatever you can to serve an underserved audience, pivot, get traction and find more customers that are willing to part with their money (and then help those people clone themselves, to do your job for you) before you run out of money. At Plann, I spent 10 months researching and asking people, before we launched, what their biggest challenges on Instagram were. I shared my ideas for how to fix them and actually asked if they would pay (friends and family don’t count here!). If they said yes, I added them to an email list and sent out Instagram marketing tips as part of a pre-launch campaign. (My first email newsletter I had 25 people on it!) It has now grown into the hundreds of thousands and I still put in the same hard work and pack value into each edition. It meant that when Plann launched, we hit Product Market Fit immediately with 1,000 paying customers in the first 7 days. It wasn’t luck: we’d really understood what our people needed.
  2. Show Value Immediately. Attention spans are short; gone are the days of long instructional videos and tooltips. Now there’s only space to let someone click around and get to know your product within their first minute (or less!). Make it easy to get your people into the product, remove as much friction as possible during the signup process and find a way to show your customer value immediately. It feels like we review our signup and onboarding process every single week! We watch and listen to what our people are doing when they land inside Plann and continuously clear the way to make sure they see how quickly they can upload photos (or use stock images!) to drag and drop to design their best Instagram gallery. The faster someone learns how your product can help them, the easier your job is to convert them and turn them into loyalists. Put all ego aside and do nothing but help your people get what they need from you the fastest way possible.
  3. Obsess About the Customer Experience, With Data. Your gut feeling can only get you so far, it’s so important to have real numbers and data to work with. You might think you know what features your people are using, but until you track what they’re doing, or straight out ask them, you’ll never really know and there’s a chance you could end up making a wrong move. Our analytics stack as we’ve grown into enterprise level has changed as Plann has evolved, but right now we couldn’t live without MixPanel (in-product analytics), FullStory (watching user-sessions), UserLeap (customizable in-product survey tool) and Google Analytics.
  4. Business Metrics. Even if you’ve taken millions of dollars in funding to build your brilliant idea, eventually you need to become a business. Without customers and people buying your product — there is no SaaS business! Spending time understanding cash flow management, cash projections, your cost to acquire a customer, conversion rates and your customer lifetime value will stop you throwing money at things that might sound great but are actually costing you money. At Plann we’re incredibly strategic with where we use our marketing dollars and it’s not uncommon for us to talk about the cost of acquisition per channel. We’ll also talk about conversion rates daily and talk about what multiple tests we’re running to make each piece of the marketing and product funnels better. It’s likely we will be running over 15 tests at any time and reviewing revenue and cash flow metrics every week.
  5. Teamwork! One of the biggest reasons startups fail is that the team doesn’t work as a team unit, for example, individuals not taking ownership or are not agile enough to bend, learn and move as a tech startup requires. Working in a tech startup is unlike any other job in the world! There are always about 7 fires burning and you just have to do your best to prioritize the one brightest one. Ensuring everyone in the Plann team has the tools to perform what’s expected of them and bringing their personalities to work while having a clear runway to do their best has been really important. I like to hire smart people and then get out of their way, however if the data and numbers aren’t working out, without a clear reason why, I’ll jump in to help out, as the last defense.

Jamel Robinson, Founder of Melini

Can you share with us three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large and active community of users?

We had a successful private beta with 500 testers to help us ensure the app is user-friendly while debugging the glitches. Melini is free for all consumers/users to explore through the app.

We offer advertising space for business owners using a cost per click auction model. This model helps business owners create exposure on our explore page, search engines, and competitor pages.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app, SaaS, or software company?

The five things you need to know to start an app company is:

1. Market research is key. The best question to ask yourself, “is there a need for my app?” If so, how can I make my app more efficient to compete in the market? Who are my potential competitors? What’s my niche in the market? What makes my product different?

2. Join an accelerator program near you. These programs help you learn what you need to be most effective when starting your company. They provide additional resources, such as mentors, events, and investors.

3. New ideas will begin to flow the more you focus on your craft, so be sure to write all your ideas on paper or smartphone.

4. Create a functionality plan for your app. Visualize how it will look and sketch it on paper. I use a software called “Sketch” to create UI design mock-ups.

5. If you don’t have coding experience, there are online classes and tutorial programs on YouTube. If you’re able to hire a contractor, you can find experienced developers on Upwork.


Sarah Bolt, Founder of Forth

Can you share with us three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large and active community of users?

Our strategy has always been to have the best results dashboard in market. In practical terms this means that we’ve taken the following key steps:

1. Strong visualisation — It uses impactful visuals to communicate scientific information in a manner which is both engaging and easy-to-understand.

2. Mobile first approach — As the majority of our uses access their data via mobile, our designers have to design mobile first. Not always popular as designers like to work on big canvases at the outset then adapt them down.

3. Learn & adapt — we’ve totally redesigned our platform since we first launched. It’s so important to put yourself in the shoes of the consumer, and gather feedback from them to improve your offer. Technology and consumer trends don’t stand still, so it’s important we keep our technology fresh and add new functionality. I can’t imagine we’ll reach the finish line as we’re constantly coming up with ways new ideas.

At Forth we offer multiple models including both subscription and one-off payments. As this is a new growing segment there is still a lot of work to do to convince people to invest in their health. Our one-off payment route is a great way to attract customers who may be wary of the commitment of subscription. However, once people gain the data on their dashboard, they see the value and tend to stay committed, which means we have a lot of repeat business without the need to handcuff our customers to a subscription model. Additionally we offer customers the option to create bespoke testing profiles that they can build on, as we find once users have purchased the initial test, additional ‘top up’ purchases are highly profitable.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app, SaaS, or software company?

1. If you’re not a techy make sure your co-founder is

I had a clear vision as a consumer of the service I wanted to build but lacked the technical skills to bring it to life. Our technology platform is key to our offer so bringing on board a technical person whom I knew shared my passion for healthcare and had the technical expertise which would be such a core part of the business was essential.

2. Don’t expect perfection on your first release

The list of everything you want will undoubtedly be long, the key thing is to understand what your core functions are, get this right and go live. You can add new features over time. This will enable you to go live sooner than if you wait for the perfect app, you can also get feedback from customers to help mould future updates. You have to view it as an iterative process.

3. It will take longer than you think and hope

With all the greatest of intentions and planning, there will be bumps in the road that will delay your app going live. Be prepared for this. Every phase whether it’s planning, designing or testing are important and should not be rushed. When you go live for the first time, if it’s full of bugs you’ll just end up frustrating and possibly losing your customers. We tend to schedule each work phase into sprints and the tech team plan in great detail what will be included in each sprint.

4. Just because your app exists doesn’t mean it will be seen and downloaded

Do not forget to allow time and budget for marketing. There are so many apps now available you need to stand out and be seen. Even if you have the best app in the world, unless you have marketing in place driving traffic to your app, no-one will see it as it will just drown in the sea of other applications.

5. Understand your audience

Being clear on who your audience is important as it affects everything from the UX, design and tone of voice to the implementation of your functions. For example, an audience more experienced using apps will be familiar with swiping left and right to access additional features, a less familiar audience may require more obvious buttons. Things like this needs to be understood at the UX stage otherwise you will end up making on-the-fly changes during development which will add more time (& money) but also slowly move away the original plans and design potentially causing the user experience to suffer despite you trying to make it better.


Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora

Can you share with us three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large and active community of users?

Lots of people think that success is a linear path. When they look at success, they look at the end result, jumping to the outcome and skipping over the boring, hard stuff that must have happened along the way. But the path to success isn’t straight. Success is achieved through a series of twists and turns, through a series of challenges that must have been solved, not through one brilliant move.

After working with many companies, I’ve come to find it useful to use the ones and threes to mark off the stages of growth, e.g. $1 million, $3 million, $10 million, $30 million, etc. Each time a company enters a new growth phase, it needs to change direction. The three initial steps any company should take in building a billion-dollar company include 1) proving the idea 2) proving the product and 3) proving the market. Once a company has achieved these three steps, they can then focus on proving the business model, vision and more.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app, SaaS, or software company?

Building a startup is one of the hardest yet most rewarding things you can ever do. If I were to go back in time, I wish someone would have told me the following:

Find an outlet for a balanced life. I was fortunate enough that I started my family. I had a daughter about one year into founding the company. When I’m with my daughter, I’m forced to put my company aside — it gives me perspective of everything we do.

It’s not all on your shoulders. No matter what you feel. I’ve heard people say things like “being a CEO is the loneliest job in the world.” Don’t believe it for a second. You’re surrounded by great people inside your company and it’s a team effort.

You have to have a mission — and everyone around you has to buy in. Startup is about sacrifice. When you have a mission, you transcend yourself, transcend the individual and make it more about the company.

Can you visualize yourself doing what you’re doing in 10 years? This is a piece of advice I got from Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce. He actually asked me a really interesting question, “How old are you? Now add 10 years to that. If you can still visualize yourself doing that, then you’re ready to start this company.”

Enjoy the ride!! There’s going to be great days, and there’s going to be dark days. No matter what it is, make sure you enjoy the ride.


Outi Pietilanaho, Co-Founder of Vimma

Can you share with us three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large and active community of users?

Apart from the number of users, we’ve really taken priority on the quality of interaction the users have on our platform.

  1. Value proposition. We focused 100% on finding out what influencers need and want in order to build a software that would turn out to be something they really cannot live without in the long-run. It is relatively easy to find someone who uses your software once or twice, but finding a strong value proposition that keeps people coming back is something you need time and dedication for.
  2. Feedback. We are very rigorous on collecting feedback. In the early days, we called almost every person who used the platform and tried to understand what they want to do with it. We still pick up the phone multiple times in the week — we don’t just sit and wait for feedback or assume people will get back to us with praises or complaints. We go hunting after feedback more aggressively than we go hunting for potential new users.
  3. The human touch. We are an AI company, but we want to interact with our users as real people. In the early days of building a user base it is vitally crucial to know your users really well, talk to them every day and support them throughout the entire journey. Later, when the community grows, you can build support structures that catch the users that need help. But even then, it is really important that you have a great customer support that really cares for the users!

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app, SaaS, or software company?

Here are some of my top advice for anyone thinking about starting a software business.

  1. Do not start building any software before you are sure what your customers really need! So many founders start with a “great idea”, and then proceed with building a product, just to find out that not so many people actually needed the solution they developed. Instead of spending weeks building software, you could just pick up the phone first and see if you can find at least 5 customers who are willing to pay for it!
  2. When you start building your solution, make sure you only build the most crucial parts to test if your customers are going to use the software. If you’re building something that genuinely solves their problems, they will use your solution even if it does not work perfectly or if it does not look that great. We started with only a simple landing page that had a web form — and only weeks after we saw enough people interacted with it, we started building the first bits of software.
  3. Don’t be afraid to be inefficient or make mistakes in the beginning. Do things that don’t scale, as long as it brings you closer to understanding your user and their real needs. We created our first nano-influencer marketing campaigns entirely manually looking through hundreds of Instagram profiles and talking to everyone personally — this was obviously not paying off, but the lessons were valuable and speeded us up along the way because we knew exactly how to automate the processes.
  4. Learning is more important than revenue in the beginning. If you focus too early on making money you might be missing out on a lesson that could turn you into the next big thing. The obvious observations are available to everyone, and if you stop iterating and learning after building the first or second version of your product, you’ll end up competing with hundreds of others who can and will do the same. But is you keep experimenting, keep measuring and keep adjusting you can learn something unique that others can never replicate!
  5. Don’t try to persuade a massive audience to use your app in the beginning. First, persuade individuals, solve their problems and really pay attention to understand their wants and needs. After you get to know 5–10 people to the bone, you know exactly what they need, when, how and why they’ll use your software. Then you can go out and find 5 million people that have exactly the same needs and motivations.

Nick Huzar CEO of OfferUp

Can you share with us three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large and active community of users?

OfferUp makes money several ways, but all of them are designed to make it easier for people to buy and sell. Among our millions of listings, we also feature native ads, which we see as a way to provide more options for buyers. For example, if you are searching for a coffee table, you will see mostly local independent sellers’ items listed, with a handful of ads from larger companies as well. It was important for us to keep the ratio of ads to independent sellers low, since a local buying experience is what we are at heart.

Sellers can pay a nominal fee to promote their listings as well, which help with their items’ visibility to potential customers. We also offer nationwide shipping, and there’s a small fee involved with shipping your items.

Last, but not least, is our extremely successful autos business. Thousands of dealers across the U.S. use OfferUp to sell their cars locally, and last year we created OfferUp Autos. It’s a membership program which includes a set of digital tools which help dealers better connect and communicate with buyers who are looking to find a great deal.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app, SaaS, or software company?

  1. Validate your product with real customers. I was one of OfferUp’s first users (as a new dad selling things throughout my house) and I continue to use the app all of the time. I asked friends and family to use the app and help me test things. In fact, I asked them to give me brutal feedback because it’s only through consistent and honest criticism that you can realize your strengths and grow
  2. It always takes way longer than you think. Persistence and perseverance matters more than anything. If you believe in your idea, you need to take the time to see it to fruition. If you keep going, especially when times get tough, luck will find a way
  3. Finding the right people is hard — network your butt off. The people you choose to work with are your most valuable asset, so you need to make sure you invest in your relationships. Be in a constant state of improving your team and choose people who are as driven as yourself.
  4. In the beginning, choose to believe in yourself and your vision. Most other people won’t, that’s okay. When you’re in your really early stages of development and fundraising, not everyone will choose to invest in your idea, and that’s okay. Having people that don’t see the vision is great, because it means at that point, they aren’t funding the competition
  5. Make health and personal time a priority. Establishing a company and a business is a marathon and not a sprint. Take time to rest when you can, because there will be plenty of late nights. Manage your personal and spiritual health wisely, so you don’t burn out

Brooke Cates Founder & CEO of The Bloom Method

Can you share with us three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large and active community of users?

In terms of our community, my team and I provide education and authentic perspectives around motherhood to all of our moms. Whether on social media, within Studio Bloom, collaborations with other experts, and in constantly supporting our subscribers outside of our virtual walls.

We do the best we can in providing support and on-going conversations/education in our private FB group as well as encouraging our moms to reach out and support one another. It’s been amazing to witness the women in our community support one another and cheer each other on — It’s a beautiful thing….

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app, SaaS, or software company?

  1. Be innovative — be willing to push the status quo and create something new
  2. Listen to your subscribers — your clients and subscribers will help you build the app of your dreams. Of course you are the chief creator but listening to the needs of your subscribers is vital to the longevity of your success.
  3. Develop a killer team — I couldn’t do what I do and Studio Bloom wouldn’t have achieved the success it has without my team. From my coaches, to my photographer, and of course my behind the scenes ninjas, these women are the glue that holds our app together, the continued passion that helps drive our overall vision and continue to slay’s time and time again.
  4. Accessibility — When we decided to take The Bloom Method digital, accessibility was really important to me. After-all, part of the creation of our virtual studio was around making it easy for busy moms to give themselves and their bodies what they needed. For us, accessibility meant more than just an app, we wanted women from all over the world to be able to take classes with us and what’s accessible for some isn’t for others. Studio Bloom can be accessed via IOS, Android, on smart TV’s, apple TV, Google Play, Firestick, Roku, and your desktop. We wanted moms to be able to squeeze in a workout no matter where they were because accessibility is everything to a modern mom.
  5. Community — Previously owning a brick + mortar studio, the continuance of community was extremely important to me. It can be easy for women to feel secluded doing online workouts so we draw in community where we can through meet ups, our Studio Bloom Facebook group, and on social media like Instagram. We try to allow our subscribers to get to know us (myself and my coaches) beyond the classes they take with us on Studio Bloom. It’s important that these women know that we are here supporting them and cheering them on as they move through their motherhood journey with us.

Jeremy Baker Co-Founder of Retail Zipline

Can you share with us three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large and active community of users?

There’s no big secret to our growth, we’ve just been maniacally focused on building the most effective and easiest to adopt retail communications product in the world. This has caused our customers to really take notice, and most of our growth is through word of mouth from one retailer to the next. We have almost a cult like following, which is really strange to say about enterprise software, but it’s true.

We charge a flat rate per store and we chose that model very deliberately. Many products charge per user, and that would probably allow us to charge our customers more money. But, that pricing model causes the retailer to choose which users get access and creates unnecessary barriers.

When it comes to communication, you want everyone to be on the same page. Pricing that allows everyone to use the product is critical.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app, SaaS, or software company?

  1. Be very deliberate about your hires and don’t hire too quickly. Learning to do more with less will not only give you more runway, it will also build valuable culture for the company.
  2. Be generous but smart with equity; define partnership clearly from the start so there are no surprises when success hits.
  3. Love your customers. Go above and beyond and do things that don’t scale… but don’t undercharge for your product. Charge what it’s worth.
  4. Don’t innovate in areas that aren’t relevant unique to your business, but don’t offload core differentiators about your business.
  5. Never forget that it’s all about the people. We exist to enable positive change in our customer’s lives, not to build a product or a company. The work is second to the impact.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Mitch Russo

Written by

Author of The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies & Power Tribes — How Certification Can Explode Your Business

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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