CASE STUDY

How To Scale a B2b SaaS Startup From 150 Leads a Month to 10,000 — and a $100M Acquisition

Crossing the chasm one niche at a time and perfecting our lead machine

Boaz Lantsman
Funnel Optimization
8 min readDec 22, 2020

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Rain is falling hard as a man navigates his way forward
Photo by Nick Scheerbart on Unsplash

There is a general belief that optimizing a funnel is a thing for b2c startups only. But the truth is that fleshing out your funnel is as crucial to b2b startup success as it is for b2c. ARX (Algorithmic Research Ltd) is a great example.

The company: an unusual journey

ARX had an unusual journey. It was founded in 1987 by students of cryptography pioneer Adi Shamir, the “S” in the RSA algorithm. Ten years later, the company was acquired by Cylink for nearly $100M. The acquisition failed. In 2001, Cylink’s management was about to write it off.

To save the company, ARX’s management, headed by Gadi Aharoni, bought it back for a symbolic amount — and a mountain of debt. ARX’s team worked hard. They took no pay for a while. Two years later, the company paid off most of its debt and stood on its feet again.

By this time, the markets for the company’s products were shrinking. New technologies were replacing old ones. It was time to develop a new product. Digital signatures were chosen. CoSign was created.

The starting point: 150 leads, 1% conversion rate

I joined as Head of Marketing in 2009, four years after CoSign was launched. When I joined, CoSign was one of the pioneers in the developing digital signature space. It was an enterprise digital signature solution that allowed for signature-based digital workflows to remain paperless, compliant, and secure.

CoSign sales were around $150K/month. There were 70 CoSign customers, paying an average of $25K each. The company’s website had 15K visitors a month — not bad for a developing space with limited online searches. It managed to capture 1% of them— mostly through the contact form. These 150 leads fed 4 sales managers and a VP.

After a few months, I developed CoSign’s go-to-market strategy. It had two components: conquering the market one niche at a time and perfecting a lead generation machine.

Step 1: Crossing the chasm: focus on one niche

Our niche-based go-to-market strategy was greatly inspired by Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm and the follow up Inside the Tornado. The books provide a market penetration framework for innovative b2b startups.

The main idea is to target one niche at a time — a niche with a critical common use case that is underserved. To win the niche, startups need to concentrate their resources on it and provide a full solution for the use case. Once you conquer the first niche, the beachhead, you expand to adjacent or similar niches.

For CoSign, this niche was clinical trials. Several of our customers were using CoSign for clinical site visit reporting. In this use case, a representative of the company monitoring the clinical trials visits a site where they are conducted, writes a report, signs it, and sends it to the manager in the main office. The manager in the main office countersigns the report and sends it to the pharmaceutical company. The report bearing both signatures must arrive within 10 days of the site visit.

Meeting the 10-day deadline requires two express couriers for $30/report. A compliant digital signature solution can save a lot of money. We focused on that niche and use case. Around half of our budget and effort was placed on it.

Step 2: Perfecting the lead generation machine — start with the funnel and assets

The other half of our marketing budget and effort went on optimizing our customer acquisition machine. Since all potential prospects had to pass through our site, improving the conversion funnel was our top priority.

If we could double our conversion rate, we would double the efficiency of all our digital marketing efforts with a single stroke.

The site didn’t have a clear funnel at the time. There were many navigation options, but no clear hierarchy and path. It was hard for users to figure out where to go.

ARX’s homepage when we started:

Source: Wayback machine

As a result, we got very few leads other than contact forms. Contact form leads are the highest quality, but we didn’t want all the relevant visitors who weren’t ready to talk with sales to simply disappear. So we created appealing ebooks and white papers as lead capture assets.

Step 3: Define the personas — and build the site for them

To build an optimal funnel, we needed to deeply understand our users. We ran surveys, interviewed customers, collected insights from the sales managers, and analyzed our CRM for job functions and company types of the users most likely to convert.

We started by defining and prioritizing our personas. Then we organized our homepage to act as a gateway for each persona, based on priority.

We learned that there were two main types of job functions we had to cater to. First, line managers, who wanted to extend paperless workflow efficiency to processes requiring signatures. Line managers came in two states: beginner and advanced. The beginner was just starting to learn about digital signatures. The advanced was sold on the benefits and looking for the right solution.

The second type of job function we needed to cater to were IT professionals. They were called in to make sure the solution plays nicely with other technologies they had in place.

In terms of our priorities, advanced line managers were the top target, followed by beginner line managers, and IT pros. We wanted the homepage to reflect this prioritization and for all personas to quickly find and enter the section catered exactly to their interests.

An early version of the new homepage illustrates this:

Source: Wayback machine
  • The top strip is focused on advanced line managers. All the “learn more” calls to action send the user to a section in which we present our best pitch and lead to a contact form.
  • Below the top strip, on the left, is the “Learning Center”, an area designed for beginners: we provide information about digital signatures — and offer a white paper in return for the user’s details.
  • The bottom center shows numbers and logos for credibility.
  • On the right is the entrance to the technology section for the IT manager.
  • Beneath that, we placed an ebook requiring registration as bait for quick capture of user details.
  • At the very bottom, we placed the free trial feature we just developed.

Early Results: 3 months — tripled conversion rate

Once we went live with the new funnel, our conversion rate immediately doubled to 2%. Most of the growth came from premium content downloads.

During the first months after going live, we were obsessed with finding what wasn’t working well and fixing it. We collected and analyzed all the data we could get — where people click, what pages they view, where they exit. In addition to data, we spent many hours watching user videos trying to understand what didn't work well.

After three months our conversion rate climbed to 3%.

Step 4: Continuous optimization

After the encouraging start, we experimented with changing the texts, calls to action, offers, even steps.

We noticed that the free trial, though hidden away at the very bottom of the homepage, was doing surprisingly well. We made it more prominent. Users flocked to it.

We changed the homepage again, making the trial the main call to action. It became our top lead capture mechanism. We fine-tuned the free trial funnel — the trial registration page, pricing plans, activation, and onboarding. The success of the free trial drove the company to adopt a SaaS model.

Step 5: Landing page-based funnels and a surprise

We analyzed our site’s traffic sources and landing pages. Each landing page that received significant incoming traffic was optimized to feed into a relevant funnel.

We were surprised to discover that much of our traffic was coming from Microsoft Office. It took some time to figure out why. Apparently, there’s a digital signature capability in Office. To complete the digital signature you need a certificate. You can only get a certificate from a third party, such as ARX.

We traced the steps a user that wishes to sign an Office document goes through before reaching our site. This understanding helped us make the right offer in the right way. Our lead capture rate for these users jumped from 20% to 50%.

Step 6: 7-digit deals and new niches

Concentrating our efforts on clinical trial reporting paid off. Within a couple of years, we were closing multi-year seven-figure deals with the biggest players in the space. CoSign was the standard. No one could dislodge us.

We branched out to adjacent niches, like healthcare, and to similar use cases, such as drawing approval workflows in engineering design. We created landing pages for each niche. From the landing pages, users were led to industry-specific content and offers.

Results: 4x traffic, 16x conversion rate, 10k leads

The increase in conversion rate slashed our customer acquisition cost. Our marketing campaigns became very efficient. Our budget multiplied.

Traffic grew 4x. Conversion rate grew 16x. Leads grew from 150 a month to 10,000. Most of the 10,000 were just contacts of people registered to get something. They were not ready for sales. We needed a way to handle them.

We introduced a marketing automation platform for lead scoring and email marketing. Registrants were scored based on their job title, company size, and industry. Email flows were created and optimized for each persona and industry. User engagement was measured and scored. Once the combined demographic and engagement score passed a certain threshold, the lead was transferred to sales.

This was not good enough. Our sales managers got swamped with leads that they were expected to chase down. These leads had the right job function in the right company and were engaged with our content, but weren’t ready to talk to us. We needed another layer of qualification before sales. We hired an inside sales rep. Eventually, we had a whole team.

Endgame

CoSign became the clear leader in several niches. Sales grew by almost 10X. In 2015, ten years after CoSign was launched, DocuSign acquired ARX for nearly $100M.

Everything I learned about funnel optimization in this journey and beyond is available in How to create a conversion funnel you can scale with: A detailed guide for tech startups.

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Boaz Lantsman
Funnel Optimization

Helping Shopify apps scale. Co-Founder/CEO www.prys.io - Shopify app growth platform, www.convert2x.com - Shopify app growth agency