iSPIRT works to transform India into a hub for new generation software products, by addressing crucial government policy, creating market catalysts and grow the maturity of product entrepreneurs. Welcome to the Official Insights!
One would think that the new sexy in the startup capital of the world is self-driving cars, AI/ML… I got news for you! AI/ML (esp. Machine Learning) is not listed in Gartner’s hype cycle for 2018.
This was corroborated on my recent trip to the valley and the US east coast, where I met several investors, founders, corp dev and other partners of the startup community. It was evident that the AI/ML hype which peaked in 2016 & 2017 is no longer considered a buzzword. It is assumed to be table stakes. What you do with AI/ML is something everyone is willing to listen to. Using AI/ML to solve a high-value B2B SaaS problem is Sexy! (Gartner trends for 2018).
As the hype with AI/ML settles down, B2B startups across the globe are discovering the realities of working the AI/ML shifts for SaaS. Many AI tools & frameworks in the tech stack are still evolving and early pioneers are discovering constraints in the stack and creatively building workarounds as they build their products.
Many entrepreneurs are watching from the sidelines the unfolding of the AI/ML hype, wondering on many valid questions like these (and more):
Q: Do I have to stop what we are building and jump onto the AI bandwagon? No. Q: Are the AI/ML resources mature & stable to build better value products? No, they are still evolving. Q: Do I need expensive investments in constrained resources? No, not until you have a high-value problem to solve.
B2B SaaS startups go through 2 key struggles. How to find market-fit and survive? And how to stay relevant and grow. And if you don’t evolve or reinvent as the market factors change, there are high chances for an upstart to come by and disrupt you. The iSPIRT entrepreneur playbooks look to help entrepreneurs get clarity on such queries and more. Our goal is to help our startups navigate such market shifts, stay relevant and grow. Our mini roundtables Playing with AI/ML are focused on WhyAI for SaaS discussions in multiple cities. If you or a startup you know may benefit do register
The MiniRT Agenda
Seeding & creating an active discussion on Why AI/ML? What is the higher order value being created? How to identify the value & opportunities to leverage AI? How to get started with an AI playground (if not already running)? How to think of data needs for AI/ML investments, How to address the impact on Product & Business… Insights from these sessions are meant to help refine our approach & readiness to leverage AI/ML for building higher order value products. And in doing so building a vibrant community focused around navigating this shift.
Upcoming PlaybookRTs on AI/ML
6-Oct (Chennai) 10 am – 1 pm – MiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS – Shrikanth Jagannathan, PipeCandy Inc 18-Oct (Bangalore) 6 pm – 8 pm – MiniRoundTable with Dr Viral Shah on AI/ML Tools & discuss your ML/DeepLearning challenges 27-Oct (Delhi/Gurgaon) 2 pm – 6 pm – MiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS, Adarsh Natarajan, CEO & Founder – Aindra Systems TBD (Bangalore) – MiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS, (based on registered interest) TBD (Mumbai) – MiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS, (based on registered interest)
The AI+SaaS game has just begun and it is the right time for our hungry entrepreneurs to Aspire for the Gold, on a reasonable level playing field.
Please note: All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely and to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.
Early stage SaaS startups typically struggle with one of two things. When you are just starting out, the first struggle is all about mere survival. Will we find customers willing to use and pay for our product ? Good teams typically manage to find ways to negotiate that first challenge. The playbook has been sufficiently commoditized that if you execute well enough, you can actually succeed in getting those early customers. Its a challenge for sure, but is getting easier and cheaper to overcome — which takes me to the second challenge. Once you survive that initial phase, how do you continue to stay relevant and grow? For if you don’t grow, you’ve only prolonged the inevitable and will likely get disrupted into irrelevance by the next upstart that comes along. When you play in a commodity market, that’s the sad reality.
If you find yourself gaining customer adoption, you can be fairly certain that competition isn’t far behind. Unless you find a way to establish sustainable differentiation while you have that head start, you will ultimately die. And that differentiation now increasingly comes down to the value of the data flowing through your platform and how you are able to leverage it better than your competition. In other words, if you are not thinking about constantly learning from the data that you are gathering and enabling implicit intelligence via your products, the odds of survival are going to be stacked against you. Given the significance this topic carries for us at Swym, I was really excited to have the chance to sit in on Ashwini Asokan and Anand Chandrasekaran’s session on AI/ML for SaaS at SaaSx5. And they most certainly didn’t disappoint. With a lucidly laid out argument, their talk served as a strong wake-up call for the SaaS founders in the room that weren’t sufficiently worrying about this topic.
SaaS growth is slowing
Ashwini started out by underscoring the fact that SaaS growth was slowing in general. There’s no denying that most solutions are rapidly becoming commoditized — building a good product has gotten fairly prescriptive, costs have come down and barriers to customer adoption are a lot lower than they used to be. That inevitably leads to markets getting very crowded, making survival increasingly difficult. If you don’t stand out in very defensible ways, you will perish. To make matters worse, AI is slowly but surely causing entire categories of work to disappear — Customer Support, SDRs, Financial/Market Analysts, to name just a few examples. If those workers were your market and you were helping them be more efficient, you are in trouble because your market is disappearing with them. You better be evolving from being software that’s serving those people that in turn serve a function, to actually serving the function itself. Of course you do this with human assistance, but in a progressively intelligent fashion that makes you indispensable.
Embrace the platform mindset
In order to stay relevant, you really need to create a viable roadmap for yourself to graduate from being a simple feature that’s part of a larger platform (No one likes being told they are nothing but a feature, but this really is where most early stage SaaS products sit today) to becoming the platform itself over time. It can most certainly be done because the opportunity exists, and the access you have to your data and how you are able to leverage it is likely to be the most effective weapon to get you there. Think really hard about new use cases you can light up, automations you can now enable, important solutions that hitherto weren’t possible or practical — enabling those capabilities is what will give you stickiness. And you can in turn leverage that stickiness to allow others to build on the data platform you’ve created to expand your moat. Easier said than done of course, but it is the only path to staying relevant. Alexa, Salesforce, Adobe, Hubspot, and most recently Stripe with their just announced app store, all come to mind as stellar examples of execution on this strategy.
How should I be thinking about Data Science?
Anand followed that up with some really good advice on how to go about this, especially touching on what not to do, and it was clearly resonating with the audience. For instance, when he highlighted the fact that most AI initiatives that start with “Here’s the data I have…what can I do with it?” are doomed from the get go, a lot of heads in the room were nodding in agreement — seemed like a pretty common trap that folks had fallen into. Instead, his advice was to identify the end goal that mattered first, with the caution that this could be deceptively challenging. Once that goal is well understood, then focus on the data you have and the gaps that exist — and your challenge basically boils down to filling those gaps and cleansing/validating your data. Those are your most critical, time-consuming steps in the process for once you get the data quality you want, it becomes much simpler to build and iterate your model around that and figure out how to engineer this into a repeatable part of your workflow. The sub par data quality is one of the most common causes for AI projects “failing” and no amount of modeling proficiency will save you from bad data or a poorly understood problem statement.
Get on the train, but don’t lose sight of what got you here
I’m really glad to have had the benefit of listening to their talk in person, and now that I’ve let the arguments sink in over the past couple of weeks, a few truths have become indisputably clear in my head. The AI shift is not one you can ignore as a SaaS founder. If you don’t get on the train, you’ll likely end up under it. And no, getting on the train doesn’t mean simply attaching a “.ai” to your domain name and claiming success. It really comes down to internalizing your vision for why you exist, identifying in very clear terms how yourroadmap to making that vision a reality will need to evolve given the AI shift. How do you see your problem space changing in the the next 2–5 years thanks to AI, and what does that mean for you? And given your existing strengths, what can you do to make the most of that shift?
Its important to remember that a lot of the fundamentals of a good SaaS story still don’t change. For instance, a sound distribution strategy is still very much necessary, for without sustainable access to customers, the rest of it is moot. Likewise, you want to be able to protect the access you have to your most valuable asset, your data) and lower the barriers enough for adjacent players to be able to work seamlessly with your offering. All those advantages you have still very much matter. Really, the biggest mental shift you need to make is thinking very deliberately about how the world around you is changing because of AI, and how you leverage those strengths so you continue to have proprietary access to the data you need and become an integral part of that change.
The article is authored by our volunteer Arvind Krishnan, CEO & Founder – Swym Technologies.
David Vs. Goliath had a happy ending, but the odds of beating Goliath as a startup are slim and most startups do not have a fairytale ending, unless…
At SaaSx5, I had the opportunity to hear Vijay Rayapati share his story of Minjar. This was a fairy tale with all the right ingredients that kept you engrossed till the end. With angels (investors) on their side, along with Minjar and Vijay’s prior experience, Minjar could have faced many Goliaths in their journey. Instead of going the distance alone, Vijay followed the Potential Strategic Partner (PSP) playbook (Magic Box Paradigm) and identified one in AWS. His reasons were clear, one of the biggest challenges a startup faces is distribution. And, a PSP can open several doors instantly, making distribution easier, revenue growth faster and gives the startup multiple options. As a startup, you need to think about a PSP early in the game at the “Flop” and not at the “Turn”. You need time to develop a PSP and you need to start early.
Identifying a PSP in your vertical maybe easy, but building a relationship with them is the hardest. It requires continuous investment of time to build the bond with the PSP such that they become the biggest evangelist of your product. This involves building relationships with multiple people at the PSP -from Business, Product & Tech- to make sure you have the full support from the company to scale this relationship without roadblocks. In the case of Minjar, with AWS as their PSP, it opened roads to customers, built their brand and also increased the value of the company. One of the highlights of the Minjar story was about the CTO of AWS, evangelizing the product at their conference. As Vijay ascertained “Invest time in people who can bring visibility and credibility to your company”. Focusing on these people is a sales channel by itself, and a Founder has to be involved in building that channel when it shows glimmers of hope. The Minjar story had a happy ending, because they invested more time in building their PSP relationship and limiting other marketing activities: they did not spread themselves too thin. This involved multiple operational changes like training, presenting thought leadership & co-selling at conferences, and making sure the end users at the PSP are successful in using your product. It is also important to note that a partnership is not a reseller or transactional relationship. A partnership is a relationship of strengths, in which each entity brings unique skills and together provides exponential value to the end customer. Partnerships work when you have champions leading on both sides of the table and one of the best outcomes a PSP can provide to a startup is a strategic acquisition. A PSP is one of the best ways for a startup to exit, especially if you have not raised a lot of capital.
At Tagalys we have tried to develop relationships with PSPs; twice, and we seem to be making good progress today after one failed attempt. My learnings resonate with Vijays’ and some of them are
Persona: Not every large enterprise, who might also serve your target customer, is a valid PSP. An enterprise is an ideal PSP if the value you provide as a startup is something that can be incorporated into the product or process of the Enterprise, and without which the end value of the enterprise depreciates. If your startup is not important to the customers of the PSP, then they are not a match for your startup.
Timing: In your early days, a startup needs to focus on customers, customers and more customers. A PSP is likely to work with you only if you are part of the affordable loss for them. Very early in your stage the risk is too high for the PSP to consider the relationship an affordable loss. Remember, you are adding value to the PSP, hence any risk in the value proposition you bring to the table, is a risk to the end customer. Only after having proven your value to your own customers, will a PSP be willing to take you to their customer.
Credibility: Today, Tagalys works with many recognizable customers in the country and that makes the process of gaining credibility & trust easier. Your product is only as good as what your customer says it is. For a PSP to work, you need buy in from stake holders like the CEO, CTO & Product Managers and they are going to put their neck on the line if they can trust you. Customer references are the best channels to gain trust.
Lifecycle: As CEO, I have time to invest in meeting with various stakeholders at the PSP because our product is in steady state. This steady state of the product is theright time to speak with a PSP because your team can take on this additional responsibility. We also have a clear understanding of our expected outcomes, risks and upside in working with the PSP, hence our conversations are well guided and makes the discussion very productive.
Bill of Materials: While Tagalys is a line item in what the PSP provides to the market, we are an important line item who can potentially extrapolate the end value provided to the customer.
Not every startup can find a strategic partner, but one thing is for certain, as Vijay said, “You miss 100% of the shots you do not take”.
Antony Kattukaran is the Founder & CEO of Tagalys. Tagalys is a merchandising engine for online retailers, dynamically predicting what products to display across search & listing pages to increase conversion.
Since SaaSx second edition, I have never missed a single edition of SaaSx. The 5th edition – SaaSx was recently held on the 7th of July, and the learnings and experiences were much different from the previous three that I had attended.
One primary topic this year was bootstrapping, and none other than Sridhar Vembu, the CEO and Founder of Zoho, was presenting. The session was extremely relevant and impactful, more so for us because we too are a bootstrapped organisation. Every two months of our 4.5 year-long bootstrapped journey, we have questioned ourselves on whether we have even got it right! If we should go ahead and raise funds. Sridhar’s session genuinely helped us know and understand our answers.
However, as I delved deeper, I realised that the bigger picture that Sridhar was making us aware of was the entrepreneurial journey of self-discovery. His session was an earnest attempt to promote deep thinking and self-reflection amongst all of us. He questioned basic assumptions and systematically dismantled the traditional notions around entrepreneurship. Using Zoho as an example, he showed how thinking from first principles helped them become successful as a global SaaS leader.
What is it that drives an entrepreneur? Is it the pursuit of materialistic goals or the passion to achieve a bigger purpose? The first step is to have this clarity in mind, as this can be critical in defining the direction your business would take. Through these questions, Sridhar showed that business decisions are not just driven by external factors but by internal as well.
For example, why should you chase high growth numbers? As per him, the first step to bootstrapping is survival. The top 5 goals for any startup should be Survive, Survive, Survive, Survive, Survive. Survival is enough. Keep your costs low and make sure all your bills are paid on time. Cut your burn rate to the lowest. Zoho created 3 lines of business. The current SaaS software is their 3rd. They created these lines during their journey of survival and making ends meet.
Why go after a hot segment (with immense competition) instead of a niche one? If it’s hot, avoid it i.e. if a market segment is hot or expected to be hot, it will be heavily funded. It will most likely be difficult to compete as a bootstrapped organisation and is henceforth avoidable. Zoho released Zoho docs in 2007, but soon as he realized that Google and Microsoft had entered the space, he reoriented the vision of Zoho to stay focused on business productivity applications. Zoho docs continues to add value to Zoho One, but the prime focus is on Applications from HR, Finance, Support, Sales & Marketing and Project Management. Bootstrapping works best if you find a niche, but not so small that it hardly exists. You will hardly have cut throat competition in the niche market and will be able to compete even without heavy funding.
Most SaaS companies raise funds for customer acquisition. Even as a bootstrapped company customer acquisition is important. As you don’t have the money, you will need to optimise your marketing spend. Try and find a cheaper channel first and use these as your primary channel of acquisition. Once you have revenue from the these channels, you can start investing in the more expensive one. By this time you will also have data on your life time value and will be able to take better decisions.
Similarly, why base yourself out of a tier 1 city instead of tier 2 cities (with talent abound)? You don’t need to be in a Bangalore, Pune, or a Mumbai to build a successful product. According to Sridhar, if he wanted to start again, he would go to a smaller city like Raipur. Being in an expensive location will ends up burning your ‘meager monies’ faster. This doesn’t mean that being in the top IT cities of India is bad for your business, but if your team is located in one of the smaller cities, do not worry. You can still make it your competitive advantage.
Self-discipline is of utmost importance for a bootstrapped company. In fact, to bootstrap successfully, you need to ensure self-discipline in spends, team management, customer follow-ups, etc. While bootstrapping can demand frugality and self-discipline, the supply of money from your VC has the potential to destroy the most staunchly disciplined entrepreneurs as well. Watch out!
And last but not the least – It takes time to build something successful. It took Zoho 20 years to make it look like an overnight success.
As a first time attendee of iSPIRT‘s annual SaaSx conference, I didn’t know what to expect as we drove along the western coast of India towards Mahabalipuram – the venue for SaaSx5. From all the chatter around the event on Twitter, it looked like the who’s who of SaaS leaders in India were attending. Upon arrival, I took my seat with my colleague and looked around. There were only about 100 people in the room, very different from most conferences I’d attended in the past – a lot more exclusive, and a melting pot of SaaS founders building a diverse set of products. It had all the markings of an inspiring day, and it did not disappoint.
Starting with a keynote from the estimable founder of Zoho, Sridhar Vembu, the day was packed with talks and discussions focused on growing one’s SaaS company in the current technology landscape, primarily led by founders of notable SaaS companies of the country. One such event was an unconference on “Setting up and Scaling Sales across Segments and Geographies”, led by Ashwin Ramasamy from PipeCandy.
Picture this: about 80 founders seated in a room, circled around Ashwin who was leading the conversation about setting up and scaling your sales team. Since the flat organizational hierarchy at SignEasy, and the culture of openness at the company provide me with a wonderful vantage point of all functions across our company, including sales, I was eager to listen to the different perspectives that the founders brought to the table. At the start of the discussion, Ashwin graciously asked the audience for talking points they’d like covered, and the discussion began. A plethora of topics were discussed, starting from the very definition of inside sales, leading up to when and why to deploy an inside-sales team. Hiring and putting together the right sales team, including whether it should be in-house or outsourced, was another hot topic of debate with many founders offering their own experiences and perceptions.
The conversation then steered towards outbound sales and the mechanics and economics of that, which contributed to some of the biggest takeaways for me – things that cannot be found in a book and are only learned through experience.
The success rate of outbound sales peaks at 2%, as opposed to the 40-50% success rate you come to expect with inbound sales. This was an interesting insight, as it’s easy to assume your outbound effort is underperforming when it could actually be doing quite well. Also, you should use the interest you’re receiving through the inbound channel to refine your outbound strategy – your inbound interests are a goldmine of information on the kind of industries, company sizes, and job functions your potential customers represent. At SignEasy, we are constantly honing our outbound target by capturing as much information as possible from our inbound requests.
Further, the efficacy of your outbound sales effort is a direct function of the maturity of the market you’re in – for a saturated market with tens of other competitors, outbound usually fails to make a mark because it’s difficult to grab a potential customer’s attention. This is a great rule of thumb to decide if outbound is for you, depending on the market your product serves.
Outbound sales also requires dedicated effort rather than a ‘spray and pray approach’ – a minimum 6-month commitment is crucial to the success of your outbound strategy. Founders should be deeply involved in this initial effort, sending out 500 emails a day for at least 3 months, and tweaking and iterating through them as they get to the most effective email. It’s also important to dedicate yourself to a channel when experimenting, but also experiment and exhaust numerous channels over time to zero in on the most effective ones.
The value of this discussion, and indeed the day, was best expressed by the ferocity with which my colleague and I took notes and wrote down every piece of advice that was being dropped around the room. Being product leads of the SMB business and mobile products respectively, Phalgun and I were amazed at how much we could relate to each point being discussed, having been through and living the journey first-hand ourselves at SignEasy.
SaaSx5 was nothing short of inspiring, and we emerged from it feeling uber-optimistic about SaaS in India, and what the future holds
For people who are have attended earlier SaaSx I don’t need to tell this, but for all those who are attending the event for the first time – SaaSx is an informal event for knowledge sharing by SaaSprenuers for SaaSprenuers. This is why we have it on the beach for the last 3 years. 🙂
If you don’t know what this is about, SaaSx5, iSPIRT Foundation flagship event for software entrepreneurs of India, is being held in Chennai on 7, July 2018 (Saturday). SaaSx has been instrumental in shaping Global Software from India in the last 3 years. This year the theme is to help SaaS entrepreneurs setup for growth over the next 1-2 years.
So the first 50 confirmed list #SaaSx5 companies is here. It has been a slog for us going through all the applications we received, especially the initial drive to set extremely fair criteria and process. Listening to feedback from earlier SaaSx this year we decided to allow Founder and +1 (from their leadership team). Having a tag team we believe is extremely helpful to the founders in learning, assimilating and taking it back to their teams. This also meant that given the small limited space we had to be strict in our curation to ensure most SaaS product startups had an opportunity.
By the time this post goes live many other invites will have been sent and confirmed. We will continue to announce the companies finalized as we go along, so they can start preparing for the amazing sessions.
There are still spots, so if you have not registered or confirmed your invite (check your email), please do it quickly.
In no particular order, here are the first 50 (based on their confirmations).
Taking a line from the popular Brown Bear children’s book, I believe that our SaaS startups have a real opportunity to leverage some leading shifts in the global SaaS evolution. While there are many areas of change – and none less worthy than the other – I am highlighting 3 shifts for SaaS (tl;dr) which our entrepreneurs can actually work with and help change their orbit:
Market shifts with AI/ML for SaaS to build meaningful product & business differentiation,
Platform Products shift to transform into a multi-product success strategy,
Leveraging Partnerships for strategic growth and value co-creation.
I joined iSPIRT with a goal to help our community build great global products. I believed (and still do) that many entrepreneurs struggle with the basics of identifying a strong value proposition and build a well thought out product. They need strong support from the community to develop a solid product mindset & culture. My intent was to activate a product thinkers community and program leveraging our lean forward playbooks model.
I had several conversations with community members & mavens on playbooks outcomes and iterating our playbook roundtables for better product thinking. I realized that driving basic product thinking principles required very frequent and deeper engagement with startups. But our playbooks approach model – working in a distributed volunteer/maven driven model – is not set up to activate such an outcome. Through our playbooks model, our mavens had helped startups assimilate best practices on topics like Desk Sales & Marketing, something that was not well understood some years back. This was not a basic topic. The power of our playbook RTs was in bringing the spotlight on gaps & challenges that were underserved but yet highly impactful.
As a product person, I played with how to position our playbooks for our entrepreneur program. I believe our playbooks have always been graduate-level programs and our entrepreneurs are students with an active interest to go deep with these playbooks, build on their basic undergraduate entrepreneurship knowledge, and reach higher levels of growth.
The product thinking and other entrepreneurial skills are still extremely relevant, and I am comforted by the fact that there are many community partners from accelerators like Upekkha to conclaves like NPC and event-workshop formats like ProductGeeks which are investing efforts to build solid product thinking & growth skills.
As the SaaS eco-system evolves, and as previous graduate topics like desk sales & marketing are better understood, we need to build new graduate-level programs which address critical & impactful market gaps but are underserved. We need to help startups with meaningful & rapid orbit shifts over the next 2-3 years.
Discovering 3 Shifts for SaaS
Having come to this understanding I began to explore where our playbooks could continue to be a vibrant graduate-level program and replicate our success from the earlier playbooks. Similar to an entrepreneur’s journey, these three shifts became transparent through the many interactions and explorations of SaaS entrepreneurs.
Market Shift with AI/ML for SaaS
There is no doubt that AI is a tectonic shift. The convergence of big data availability, maturity of algorithms, and affordable cloud AI/ML platforms, has made it easy for SaaS startups to leverage AI/ML. During a chance roundtable learning session on Julia with Dr. Viral Shah & Prof Alan Edelman, it was clear that many entrepreneurs – head down into their growth challenges – were not aware of the realities behind the AI hype. Some thought AI/ML should be explored by their tech team, others felt it required a lot of effort & resources. The real challenge, however, is to discover & develop a significantly higher order AI-enabled value to customers than was feasible 2 years ago. While AI is a technology-driven shift, the implications for finding the right product value and business model are even greater.
As I explored the AI trend I saw a pattern of “gold rush” – build a small feature with rudimentary AI, market your product as an AI product… – making early claims with small changes which do not move the needle. It became clear that a step-by-step pragmatic thinking by our SaaS startups was required to build an AI-based leapfrog value proposition. This could help bring our startups to be at “par” and potentially even leap ahead of our global brethren. Here was an opportunity to create a level playing field, to compete with global players and incumbents alike.
To validate my observations, I did quick small research on SaaS companies outside of India on their approach with AI. I found quite a few startups where AI was already being leveraged intrinsically and others who were still trying to make sense. Investments varied from blogging about the AI trend, branding one as a thought leader, to actually building and delivering a strongly differentiated product proposition. E.g.:
There are no successes, yet! Our startups like Eka, Wingify, FreshWorks, WebEngage… have all been experimenting with AI/ML, stumbling and picking themselves up to build & deliver a higher level of value. Some others are setting up an internal playground to explore & experiment. And many others are waiting on the shore unsure of how to board the AI ship.
How do we enable our companies to create new AI playgrounds to analyze, surface, validate and develop higher order customer values & efficiencies? To chart a fruitful journey with AI/ML there are many challenges that need to be solved. And doing it as a group running together has a better chance of success.
The AI+SaaS game has just begun and it is the right time for our hungry entrepreneurs to Aspire for the Gold on a reasonable level playing field.
Shift to Platform Products
As market needs change, the product needs a transform. As new target segments get added different/new product assumptions come into play. In both these scenarios existing products begin to age rapidly and it becomes important for startups to re-invent their product offerings. To deal with such changes startups must experiment and iterate with agility. They require support from a base “internal” platform to allow them to transform from a single product success strategy to scaling with multiple products strategy.
This “internal” base platform – an infrastructure & layout of technology components to interconnect data & horizontal functional layers – would help to build & support multiple business specific problem-solution products (vertical logics). The products created on such a platform provide both independent as well as a combined value proposition for the customers.
Many startups (Zendesk, Freshdesk, Eka, WebEngage…) have undertaken the painful approach of factoring an internal platform to transform their strategy & opportunity. Zoho has been constantly reinventing itself and launching new products on a common platform, some of which are upending incumbent rivals in a very short period of time. WebEngage transformed itself from a “tool” into an open platform product.
“As the dependency on our software grew, customers needed more flexibility to be able to use their data to solve a wide range of business problems…significant difference in the way we build products now. We have unlocked a lot of value by converting ourselves into an open platform and enabling customer data to flow seamlessly across many products.” – Avlesh Singh, WebEngage
The effort to build an internal platform appropriately architected to support growing business needs (many yet unknown) is non-trivial and requires a platform thinking mindset for increased business development. It must be architected to allow rapid co-creation of new & unique product values in collaboration with external or market platforms. This can help the startup be a formidable player in the growing “platform economy”.
Leveraging Potential Strategic Partnerships
A strategic partner offers 2 benefits for startups. First is the obvious ability to supercharge the startup’s GTM strategy with effective distribution & scale. How does one make a strategic partnership? Pitching to a strategic partner is very different from pitching to a customer or investor. PSPs look for something that is working and where they can insert themselves and make the unit economics even better.
“I thought I knew my pitch and had the details at my fingertips. But then I started getting really valuable, thought-out feedback…I had to focus on pitching to partners, not customers.” – Pallav Nadhani, FusionCharts
The second leverage with a partner is the ability to innovate in the overlap of the partner’s products & offerings and the startup’s product values. A good partner is always looking for startups which can co-create a unique value proposition and impact an extremely large customer base.
“…we still have only three four percent market share when it comes to customers. So if we have to participate we have to recognize that we are not gonna be able to do it alone we’re going to have to have a strategy to reach out to the entire marketplace and have a proposition for the entire marketplace…you need to (do it) through partnerships.” – Shikha Sharma, MD Axis Bank
Both these partnership intents if nurtured well can bring deep meaningful relationship which can further transcend scale into a more permanent model (investment, M&A…).
Working with the 3 Shifts of SaaS
While each shift is independent in its own importance, they are also inter-related. E.g. an internal platform can allow a startup to co-create with a partner more effectively. Partners are always interested in differentiated leading-edge values such as what is possible with leveraging AI/ML. Magic is created when a startup leverages an internal platform, to co-create a strong AI-enabled value, in the overlap & gap with potential strategic partners.
And that’s what I see
I see a vibrant eco-system of SaaS startups in India working on creating leading global products. Vibrancy built on top of the basic product thinking skills and catapulted into a new orbit by navigating the 3 shifts.
Also, if you are interested in volunteering for our playbook tracks, we can really use your support! There is a lot to be done to structure and build the playbook tracks and the upcoming SaaSx5 for these shifts for SaaS. Please use the same form to indicate your support.
Ending this note with a sense of beginning, I believe that our startups have a real opportunity to lead instead of fast-follow, create originals instead of clones. They need help to do this as a running group instead of a solo contestant. It is with this mission – bring our startups at par on the global arena – that I am excited to support the ProductNation.
[Update 6-Apr] New April Session Dates – Symposium RT is being scheduled on Saturdays for Bangalore & Chennai (21st & 28th April).
Playbooks for Electrifying SaaS and more.
This is what we call the fourth industrial revolution…And companies are really transforming and bringing all these new technologies to connect with their customers in new ways.
– Dreamforce 2017 Keynotes, Marc Benioff.
There is no doubt that Artificial Intelligence (AI), is one of the recent “tectonic” market shifts, creating a change in landscape, market, and opportunity. AI and Machine Learning (ML), now in its eternal spring, has a deep impact on SaaS evolution. While the incumbent companies like Salesforce, Zendesk, Workday, have all invested heavily in AI, also global challengers across many verticals from Sales, BPM, CRM… to Security are focused on building higher order efficiencies and automation through AI/ML.
Over the last few years, our Indian SaaS entrepreneurs trumped the global SaaS growth by leveraging mobile first as there was no baggage of desktop, reduced sales & onboarding cost by perfecting the art of Inside Sales & Inbound Marketing, and efficient after sales support & service byleveraging remote success representatives. Our SaaS Mavens helped disseminate these leverages by sharing the best practices & modeling internal flywheels & experimentations. Many SaaS entrepreneurs successfully assimilated and got a significant boost in their growth journey. These levers are now basic table stakes for most SaaS startups.
AI has no breakthrough success stories, but it is helping create a level playing field – especially for our Indian entrepreneurs – to compete with global players and incumbents alike. Startups willing to make the jump, adapt AI into their products & business models to create meaningful differentiation, will experience a strong wind in their sails to leapfrog over the players who don’t.
Our entrepreneurs have a rare opportunity to be early adopters & global trailblazers.
To take advantage of this our entrepreneurs ask very valid questions.
Q. Why & How should we entrepreneurs navigate this AI market shift?
Q. How should we, given that we are untrained in AI, grapple with the 360° impact of AI on product, business, and technology?
Q. What AI leverage can we develop without requiring expensive investments for constrained resources?
How do we enable our companies to create new AI playgrounds to analyze, surface, validate and develop higher order customer values & efficiencies?
Since adapting to the AI “tectonic” shift requires a new paradigm of thinking, we have launched a multi-step playbooks track focused on Playing with AI/ML for Indian entrepreneurs. In line with iSPIRT’s mission, our playbooks purpose is to help market players navigate market shifts. The goal is to bring the practitioner knowledge from AI Mavens –AI-first entrepreneurs who are further ahead in their AI journey – to the AI-hungry startups and help them perfect the model of working with AI, get traction towards a meaningful AI-enhanced value, and become trailblazers for the community. If you are an AI-hungry startup who has either taken the plunge with AI/ML but early in your journey, or are actively looking to leverage AI/ML for your current products, then following the stepped approach below may help:
Step 1 – Attend an AI/ML Symposium RT – Getting prepared with Why AI and How AI. In our first kickoff session on 10-Mar, we had great discussions on AI data maturity, what can drive your AI approach, and more with our AI Mavens and ten startups (read more).
Step 2 – A cohort of startups from step 1 will be taken through multiple AI/ML Playbook RT for How AI – deep dives on topics to help with structuring an internal AI playground, competency with data product management, product positioning & branding, business model shifts, and more. • These playbook RTs will help the startups carve out a lean playground for rapid experimentation and analysis, with a 3-4 person team of a data PM, & engineers. The team, actively lead by the founder, runs regular sprints (business/product/engineering sprints) of experimentation and validation, and have review touchpoints at intervals with AI-Mavens and the cohort as a running group. • There is also an optional Tech Training Lab to build internal ML competency with a multi-day workshop with Julia experts.
We are working to set up the 5th version of our marquee SaaSx to engage with the larger SaaS startup community. We will definitely focus on the impact of AI/ML on SaaS and have workshops based on our momentum of the playbooks track on various topics above. Date & details to be announced shortly.
The AI+SaaS game has just begun and it is the right time for our hungry entrepreneurs to Aspire for the Gold, on a reasonable level playing field.
* All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely, to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.
Featured image modified from source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jedimentat/7557276684
The third edition of the popular India SaaS survey is here.
As always there are 2 parts, Form A, a 100% anonymous survey, and Form B, a distinct & separate form capturing company details for us to share the final report. Please note that forms A & B are kept distinct to protect your privacy. Both together take about 10 minutes to complete. Scroll down to read more about the survey.
Every burgeoning ecosystem requires a robust set of benchmarks to compare itself against and reach better levels of performance. Signal Hill and iSPIRT Foundation have been at the forefront of addressing this need for the Indian SaaS ecosystem. The survey aims to anonymously benchmark Indian SaaS companies to better understand the unique challenges they face and the unique advantages they leverage, creating a single reference point updated annually.
If you found the results of the 2016 SaaS survey valuable, please help us make the third version of this survey the most meaningful and relevant. It is a marker of the maturity of our Indian SaaS ecosystem.
What sets this survey apart from the previous two editions is the addition of two new sections to better understand, (a) how SaaS product companies achieve Product-Market Fit and (b) the effective metrics behind successful Inside Sales engines. With the addition of these 2 sections, the survey is poised to provide a complete analysis of the India SaaS advantage covering the product, market, sales & customer support.
2015: Horizontal applications dominated vertical specific ones 2016: Vertical focussed SaaS players occupy majority share of the scaled and funded respondent pie.
2015: 84% of respondents reported looking overseas for growth, ranking North America as their #1 target geography 2016: Unchanged, the US is the most favoured destination for Indian SaaS startups. With that said, whilst companies are building for global markets, the first market for companies to get traction in is typically India.
2015 & 2016: The median CAC payback period (for >$1Mn ARR) is 6-12 months.
Staying Focused And Achieving The Product-Market Fit Are Key To Managing CAC.
It takes 10 minutes to fill the Survey
To participate in the 2017 survey, respondents will need to fill in two simple forms:
Form A, a 100% anonymous survey, 100% multiple choice, and
Form B, a distinct & separate form capturing company details for us to share the final report.
Please note that forms A & B are kept distinct to protect your privacy. Your 10-minute contribution to this effort will be hugely useful in helping the Indian SaaS ecosystem benchmark itself.
An anticipated increase in global spending on information technology over the course of this year will be a big driver for SaaS companies, even after factoring in changes in political climate such as Brexit and churns in global markets.
The growth in SMEs and their increased cloud adoption and government initiatives such as Digital India are also expected to drive the SaaS market. Increasingly mobile workforces are also pushing the adoption of SaaS with startups and companies providing mobile-first applications.
Attracting potential customers on your website is always challenging. While you somehow manage to figure that out by SEO, Adwords and Social Media Marketing, the second challenge comes up – how to get those potential customers to pay. Getting customers to website is the tip of the iceberg, getting them to pay is the real challenge. We found ourselves in the same position a few months ago. Our challenge seemed only more humongous because:
We are a SaaS & services company: The conversions happen on the basis of a potential customer’s experience on our website. We do not see or talk in-person with our customer. If the website is convincing enough, customer buys our solution otherwise just moves on. It’s not a shirt which comes with cash-on-delivery option or a contract which can be discussed in a starbucks. Imagine you have a huge rock which you are supposed to break with just a small sledgehammer. That’s how we felt about getting conversions with the limited budgets and resources we had.
We provide website security: Our solution Astra is a website security suite providing plug-n-play firewall with the power of security researcher community making security insanely easy for website owners. While we knew that an average website gets fifty odd attacks every day, but that’s not what website owners believe until they see for themselves. Small and medium businesses have a tendency of not considering security until hacked, making our job only harder. The classic Steve Jobs quote ‘Customers do not know what they want’ somewhat applied in our case. As after sign-up we haven’t seen a single customer leaving our product. But then, these were the same people who were saying they never get attacked.
While we were getting a couple of hundred hits a day on our website, none was converting. With the above two challenges, the task of getting potential customers to pay seemed only more difficult. We realized that website is THE place where we need to focus our energies on. A customer bases his complete decision on what your website makes him feel and what you want your customer to feel is completely in your hands. The next few months were exciting for us as we tried a number of different things. It was interesting to see some strategies work and some fail badly. I’m sure you could use some of them in your e-commerce shop, ticketing website or a SaaS business. A few simple strategies that worked for us and made customers click on that Sign-up button:
Colors Matter: It’s 2017 and your website needs to look from this generation. I see businesses using websites which look so old that they could be put in museum. The design, user experience and most importantly color scheme plays a huge rule in what customer perceives when he lands on your website.
92.6 percent customers have said that they put most importance on visual factors when purchasing products – source
A few decisions (with rationale behind them) which we took while deciding color scheme for Astra’s website:
Main theme would be blue: Simply because blue symbolizes trust. In our domain, that is website security trust plays a huge role. Customers trust us with critical data of their website. More so, customers of our customers trust them with their sensitive data. Blue is used by brands like Dell, AT&T, JP Morgan etc. Clearly, majority of businesses where trust makes a huge difference use blue. You can have a look at this infograph and see how colors and directly proportional to branding.
Contrasting color would be green: While having a primary color is important, it’s equally important to have a complementary color. The complementary color should go well with the primary color. The reason we chose green was because it went will with blue and signified growth and safety.
Customers Should Feel at Home: When a potential customer enters your website, they should not feel like they’ve landed on an alien planet. It’s important to show them the things they can relate to (something I read under environmental psychology). A huge growth hack for facebook was to translate their website into local languages so that people can use it easily, cutting down a huge barrier to entry. For small businesses, translation isn’t a viable option and it wasn’t for us too. Especially when you are in SaaS business like us and selling globally. Instead, here’s what we did:Yes, you guessed it right! Different home pages for different users. We saw the top countries from where we were getting traffic and the top countries where our potential customers were. Depending on the user location, we load our website with a specific home-page. The home-page has an image which a customer can relate to. Our central theme was ‘great geographical places’ of a specific country/continent where the user belongs to. If you are opening our website from India you see the beautiful marine drive and if you open from France you see the legendary Eiffel Tower. If a customer is not from the top list of country/continent from where we were getting traffic then he see’s a general image of a girl browsing through Astra’s dashboard (showing them subtly what’s coming their way). Something like this can be applied to an e-commerce business too.
An example: Show products that sell the most in a specific city on your home slider if a visitor is coming from that city. Let’s say a certain set of shoes are selling the most in Mumbai for Yute (a friend’s startup) then his home page slider can show those shoes first to a visitor coming from Mumbai. Similarly, for different cities based on the data collected.
People Love to Talk: If someone has visited your website, then for sure something in your offering attracted them. If a customer has stayed on your website for more that 20-seconds, then he is interested in what you are offering. A good strategy is to engage customers who have spent more that 20-seconds on your website via website chat widget. People love to talk! Initially, you should not try and use bots for this but do it yourself. So, we experimented with various online chat services (we were aiming free ones) ranging from mylivechat, freshchat, resend etc. to finally settle with this amazing one called ‘Tawk.to’. We found it feature rich, open-source, continuously getting enhanced, mobile friendly and ofcourse free. Adding the chat feature was just the start, in addition here’s what we did:
A Chat They Use Everyday: What are the two mediums that you use to chat every day? I bet the top answers would be Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger. These are two chat services which people use without blinking an eye to communicate on daily (read hourly) basis with people they love. You don’t think twice before shooting up Whatsapp or Messenger apps and that’s exactly the way we wanted our potential customers to feel. So, we made the UI of our chat system similar to Facebook messenger. They were way less hesitant before clicking that familiar looking chat button unlike before. We saw a huge rate of people asking questions about Astra via chat!
People Love People: A chat widget that just says ‘We are here to chat’ or ‘Hi, ask us your questions’ just won’t cut it. Your potentials customers should know that they are talking to a real person. This is where putting a picture becomes important. We added a picture of our team member on chat widget and it made the widget look much more welcoming.
Triggers: Sometimes customers don’t start the chat on their own. An important feature which all good chat systems have is ‘triggers’. This is where, depending on the page a customer is you can ask them if they want anything. The trick here is not to throw out a boring ‘if you need anything, ask me’ kinda automatic trigger. But go for open ended interesting questions which are conversational and should feel that a real person is asking them. So, instead of saying asking a customer who is visiting our Magento security page ‘Hi, if you have question about Astra for Magento feel free to ask’ we first ask him ‘Hey, do you use Magento’. Now since he has landed on Magento page, I am 75% sure he uses Magento. But this open ended question gets him in a conversation better!
Words Make or Break: Just like important design, UI, UX and color the choice of words play a huge role. Once a customer feels home on your website, the second thing he does is read what he has to say. Good UI/UX buys you additional ten seconds of a customers attention span and in those ten seconds a customers reads what you have to say. I’ve seen people having top-notch products and spoiling it all by throwing in so much technical jargon on the website that customer gets turned off. My note specifically to my engineer turned entrepreneurs (I’m one too):
You use AI in your product? Customers don’t care
You use machine learning? Customers don’t care
You doing NLP?That’s amazing but still: Customers don’t care!My point being, ‘solve a problem, don’t sell a solution’. I used to do the same, telling them the tech we use and the features Astra has and the list continued. Until one fine day when a potential customer asked ‘that’s fine if you use marcov chains in your machine learning algo, but how does it help me?’. This is exactly what should come across on your website too. Tell your potential leads the headache your pill is going to take away from them, not the ingredients of that pill.Here’s how Astra’s homepage looks like:We simply tell the customer ‘We assure security while you do business’. In one line the customer knows what we will do for him. The line below is followed by a few technical terms once which a lead only reads once they’ve learned the problem being solved for them. The website content should be written in a way that an end user think as if you are holding their hand and giving them a personal walk-through of your offerings. Using the ‘You’ throughout surely helps. You can read more here.
Make Them Think: You can make your leads think what you want them to think, just by improving your website flow. I’ll give you an example of our pricing page where we tried to give only that information which helps the user making the decision and eliminating any other jargon:
Show Them What’s on the Offer: If they’re reached the pricing page, it mans they like what they see. It’s good to show them the product. In e-commerce, you shop them the pictures of phone or the shirt they chose. In our case, we show them picture of the intuitive dashboard they’ll get.
Get to the Point: Now that they know what could be their, it’s time to show the pricing. I believe there should not be a delay or too many elements above the pricing area because that confuses people. They’ve clicked the pricing button which means they want to know the prices quickly, so that’s how it should be.
Social Proof: Before clicking that final Buy Now or Sign-up button, it’s good to assure leads that it’s the best decision they’ll take. The best way to do it? Testimonials and logos of customers you have already worked with. This assures them that if other businesses like theirs trust you, they can too. For e-commerce businesses, customer reviews always help.You see, using the right words and placing the right sections one after the other help customer think what you them to think. Placing random sections at random places only confuses customers. Say less, but say right.
Engaging visitors and converting them into customers is a science. And just like science, it requires a lot of experimentation. These experiments when work and when not should not be quantified by gut or intuition. Rather, proper tools should be used to see the effect of every change you make in your path to get more customers. A quick recommendation would be:
Google Analytics: Just don’t put the tracking code and forget, use it. It’s a very feature rich tool which sometime does require a learning curve but it’s worth it.
Mixpanel: If you want to profile your users, nothing beats mixpanel here.
Hotjar: Helps you understand how users interact with your website by recording their actions, tracking their mouse moments and clicks.
Mautic: This is one beast which can help you run email campaigns, manage drips and email lists. Quite power open-source tool but does require a learning curve.
Every second google gets more that 40,000 searches which makes it 3.5 billion searches/day. Getting visitors to your website is relatively easy, true art lies in converting those visitors into users. Right mix of creativity and science with an amazing offering is all you need. Keep hustling!
I shared our top learnings with you, would love to hear your feedback. If it’s bad I’ll write better, if it’s good I’ll write more. You can contact me on facebook or follow on twitter.
Whether you’re an early stage, late stage or VC funded startup (pun intended). There is one thing all of us struggle with always and that is ‘Growth’. So, how to keep this repeatable in constantly changing market dynamics?
Acommunity is a great place to learn, unlearn and grow at the pace you never imagined. For SaaS startups in India(bravery award goes to you), SaaSx is a community built by thought leaders for other builders to nail this process in and out. #SaaSx4 was a tech event that provided SaaS founders the opportunity to network and share product insights with other SaaS founders.
How we got into #SaaSx4 Product Teardown..
Widely is an early stage SaaS startup, we’re right now hustling, learning and trying to respond to the amazing traction we’re receiving. While all this was happening, we got a call from Prasanna K to attend SaaSx, that was the first time we heard about Product Teardown and horror stories around it. Imagine your product being grilled down to levels in front of the whole community.
It did seem scary, but we said YES!
Because very often when something scares you, it’s the very thing worth doing.
This was my first SaaSx & by the end of the day, I was left amused and happy to become part of the SaaSx community. It is by SaaS founders for SaaS founders, hence, the learning becomes easier & straight cut out for us.
UnConference, Product teardown & Fireside chats, also in between meeting Investors (trust me that was not the driving force for anyone joining in there), the energy was to learn and grasp as much as possible. When you hear guys like Girish, Sudhir, & Avlesh talking about their mistakes, you feel confident within.
There comes the Scary Product Teardown
So, how it began?
I was called on the stage, Bharath, Avlesh and Shekhar ready with their inputs. The hall was full of awesome SaaS founders, including those of India’s best SaaS companies, interacting constantly over the good and bad parts of products(Imagine receiving suggestions from the experienced).
Introduction: I went up and gave some context to the audience
Widely helps online businesses to acquire new mobile users, increase conversions and grow user retention with nothing but their existing website by upgrading it into a progressive web app in minutes. Introducing native mobile app features into a website, the plug and play setup with the analytics based dashboard to trigger and customize a Progressive Web App (Mobile Web App).
Product teardown segments & Widely’s State
Product teardown was segmented into three sections primarily, Finding Customers, Keeping Customers & What is my market.
Widely’s primary traction channels are SEM and SEO,
Also, our customer segment is a marketer or a product manager.
For us to convert a website visitor into a customer is a simple 2 step process, a signup and then 15 minutes plug & play integration into their website.
These details were used in teardown, and so teardown was designed in a way to be helpful for others struggling in the similar space.
The Teardown began
As an early stage startup with a goal to reach the global audience, we’ve identified search and ads as great ways to go ahead. So, exactly this was the first step, Widely’s SEM at one side works great, SEO is where our keywords don’t match. That was eye opening to me as sometimes while building and selling the product we tend to forget most basic things.
Then came product landing, with few ifs and buts, here we saw our moments of wows & learning, in the form of better representation.
Bharath pointed out key areas we need to improve upon during Sign up too, although this is something we’re constantly working upon and rigorously followed making website our best marketing person, but exactly the point, improvements to become sticky for the set of next 100 customers should be the focus.
The final step to Setup!
So, out of all signups we get every day there are many who don’t integrate (A huge loss to our marketing efforts), there could be many reasons, we’re constantly using visualizations and website conversion optimization tools to see where our funnel breaks and fix those parts immediately. For us to come at something which we saw next would have taken some next 100 signups we believe,
The next step of teardown focused on our claim of no coding required, though that is not required but looking at the setup it feels a coder is required, and for us targeting product managers this doesn’t look related at all.
Suggestions by Bharath for the setup screen
The designs in themselves speak louder than words and hence, something we loved instantly, apart from great design and user experience inputs. We got great insights from,
Girish — Website landing page heading should initially focus on technicalities, then functionalities and later on the larger message when the brand is big enough.
Ex: Coca-Cola — open happiness.
Ex: We say ‘Upgrade into a Progressive Web App’, this is good for us initially as an early stage startup, segmented only for the crowd who knows.
Shekhar — Asking telephone numbers from our initial customers is a great way to increase conversions rapidly, our signup should have that one field.
The last but not the least,Product Positioning and Market
As there is this increasing need of brands to be accessible by all mobile users, we get queries from enterprises, brands, services/agencies related to our solution, we’ve been on and off on where to focus and what we should leave. This also made us change our pricing many times.
The last part of teardown was a relief when the founders sitting there, Shekhar & Avlesh made us believe you don’t need to stay at one, until you get where the best market is. All this made sense, as then we could generate higher revenue by understanding our value add to the users.
At the same time, we received Girish’s point of view on growing freemium way and onboard as many users as we can,
So here is the beauty of SaaSx, you get everything, now it is going to be a tough fight within the team to choose a way.
An enthralling experience in Widely’s product journey, SaaSx, and product teardown happened to be extremely helpful. In my opinion, teardown is a great way to eliminate blockers and move faster against competition and changing market.
I’d like to end by a note I sent out to Avlesh, Shekhar, Bharat & Avinash.
Definitely I’m in awe and I’d like to mention Product Teardown of Omnify & Product Teardown of 99Tests, these were our fellow product teardown startups, they have explained the process extensively to explore further. Hope it helps more SaaS startups growing and hustling.
#SaaSx4 is a leading tech event that provides Saas founders the opportunity to network and share product insights. Product Teardown session was one of the key highlights of this year’s event held in Chennai on 17th March, 2017. The goal was to help SaaS entrepreneurs gain actionable product insights. Entries were invited from innovative SaaS products from all over the country.
When we, at 99tests got the first email invite for the Product Teardown from iSPIRT, our first thought was that, this was about UX and we might not be a good fit for the event. We then had a conversation with Prasanna who explained to us that product tear down is about Business Discovery of our Product and retention of customers. Basically, a session that will enable to understand your product from a customer’s perspective. This piqued our interest in the #SaaSx4
A panel of established SaaS founders and mentors that included Avlesh Singh, CEO, WebEngage, Bharath Balasubramanian, Director of Design, Freshdesk, and Shekhar Kirani, Accel Partners, were assigned the task of selecting the final products for the event. The first screening call with the panel was very interesting. It was a 30 minute call where we got the chance to showcase what 99tests does, and how it works. We answered questions about revenue, SaaS model, our core value proposition, and how we delivered our services.
With only three slots left, the pressure was on us as we waited for the results. After a few days, we finally got the message that 99tests was selected in the SaaSx4 Product Teardown. We were pretty excited and looking forward to all feedback on our product from eminent members of the Indian startup ecosystem. We admit that we were also a little nervous that our mistakes would be out in the open!
Key Takeaways From The Event
Software products chosen for the product tear down session were critically analysed by a team of expert SaaS mentors and SaaS founders. The aim was to understand the customer onboarding process, retention and discovery of business opportunities for the products. These insights helps entrepreneurs in answering key market questions like:
Who is my customer?
Who could have been my customer?
What characteristics of my customer makes them like my product?
If I am successful, who will come after me?
Our Experience At The Product Teardown
In the next call that we had a call with Bharath, Director of design, Freshdesk, we explained how 99tests actually works. The key questions were around customer on-boarding, understanding how much of our service was self-serve and how much was fully managed.
On D-day, we were a little nervous, wondering what aspect of our product would be showcased to a room full of SaaS founders. The first teardown by the first team did give us a hint into what would come next.
What We Learnt About Our Product
The first part of the teardown was about seeing how the search keywords map to our target personas. It was good to see one of the teardown companies having website that perfectly matched the keywords that they were targeting. In our case, we learnt that on our page, the content did not contain enough matching keywords that a customer would type in. This makes it difficult for them to find us.
The next feedback was on our homepage. We found that it was using too much of testing concepts. Moreover the Home page did not clearly highlight the functional message of Automation Testing by Crowd, our USP.
The last set of feedback was on customer on boarding. Here, we learned that our product asked too many questions that assumed that our customers would know a lot about testing. This is causing a lower sign up to the demo page. It was also great to learn that we needed focus in terms of countries, based on how customers would perceive our product. The most useful feedback that we got, is that product owners were not clear on how much time they needed to spend with 99tests on a daily and weekly basis. although they could get started in only 30 minutes.
Overall, we got the feedback, that we do have a fantastic product, but the messaging was not yet sophisticated enough for an international audience and could be improved. 99tests is very thankful to iSpirit, Bharath from Freshdesk, Avlesh from WebEngage and Shekar from Accel for the opportunity to be a part of the Product Teardown at SaaSx4. The feedback and insights we gained from the SaaSx4 Product Teardown was very helpful in identifying areas that needed improvement and also in gaining new ideas to make our products great.
A week or so before #SaaSx4, I woke up with an early morning call from Prasanna (SaaSx Volunteer) to tell me that they have nominated Omnify for the Product Teardown. Honestly, I jumped out of bed and my first reaction was like Ohh sh*t.. Not the Teardown!!
But then he said that they will select three companies out of the few nominated. So I agreed for a Hangout call hoping that we will not be selected.
So, Why did we do it?
I think, as a startup it’s good to go through “Make & Break” cycles which helps building a stronger product. Incidentally, that week we were sort of doing an internal teardown of our product and our conversion funnel. After the first hangout call with Avlesh, Shekhar and Bharath, I realised that it is indeed a great opportunity to get external feedback as we will be making a lot of effort this year on Product Design and Marketing.
Also, best part about the SaaSx community is the positive environment where no one is judging others and it’s all about learning from each others mistakes. Guys like Girish, Avlesh and Sudhir openly talk about the mistakes and learnings so others can benefit.
So, in the same SaaSx spirit we decided to participate in the Teardown for the benefit of us and anyone who can learn from our mistakes.
About Omnify (to give some context)
Omnify helps small businesses to Sell and Schedule their services online through One, Simple Platform. We have built comprehensive scheduling for Group Classes, Appointments, Events, Camps, etc. which can be easily sold as Packages and Subscriptions through Omnify.
Goal of the Teardown
I had multiple calls with Avlesh, Shekhar and Bharath before the teardown. The purpose of the calls were to have better understanding about Omnify and see how they can help.
After some discussion, we decided to find gaps in our conversion funnel; right from discovery, signup, onboarding to setup.
Our major channel for getting customers is Search. Hence this part was focussed on our SEO. Interestingly, we got a thumbs up for this part as we have already put some work into our SEO. There is so much more to do and scaling our Top of the funnel is currently our Top Priority as pointed out by both Shekhar & Avlesh.
The best part about Search is that it shows “Intent” which has a direct impact on your conversion. For SaaS startups (especially at early stages and targeting global market) this should be the most important channel for customer acquisition. Hence, my advice for anyone who has not yet worked on their SEO is to atleast get the basic On-Page optimisation, Major Keywords and URL structuring right. It is a time consuming project but it will be worth your time and effort.
In case you have no clue where to start, just hire an SEO expert from UpWork for a $100 project to do an SEO Audit of your website.
Action Plan: We are now spending a lot of time on Keyword optimization, Improving on page optimization and figuring out ways to churn good quality content at scale. Will share our learnings with some data once we can.
Bharath did a great job pointing out few key issues in our website that may be affecting our conversion and also did a comparative analysis with our competitor’s website who has probably spent millions of $$ to optimise it for the target audience.
Although we had spent quite a lot of effort on our website as it the most important part of our company and our doorway to customers across the world.
Although, there is a lot of room for improvement but here are a few things that we already worked on.
Good Design breeds trust.
Simple things like SSL certificate (https) improves trust in your website.
Transparency — About us page with photos and social profiles of the team.
A big chunk of the website visitors are probably coming through mobile, so it’s super important that the website looks and works great on any mobile device.
Today, everyone has very little patience. So if it takes more than a few seconds to load a page we might lose potential customers. Simple things like image compression, lazy loading, etc can be very effective to improve speed drastically.
People scroll through the pages in seconds, it’s super important to have enough visual content like images and videos to grab their attention.
Our messaging on the landing page should be more targeted and simple to understand.
Improve Trust on our website through customer review, case studies, etc.
Learn from our competitors on targeting.
Content language should be optimised for the biggest market (US in our case).
We should have country specific landing pages for at least our major markets.
Action Plan: We are doing a sprint soon to optimize our landing pages with more targeted content and adding customer reviews + case studies.
We are also going to try Zarget (https://zarget.com) to experiment and improve our website conversions. Thanks for the dinner Arvind! 🍺
This is where we already knew our funnel is broken and although we have already been working on it, we got good critical feedback and suggestions from Bharath.
Interestingly, this is one of the most ignored pages for most startups (including us).
Even small things here can increase drop-off or conversion.
In our case, I think we got away with small ux issues as Omnify is a business product and the value of a Free trial outweighs the effort of the signup. But, needless to say we are making it simpler.
Onboarding & Setup
To give more context, our current onboarding process is a wizard that appears on Home page of the Dashboard for new users and stays there until completed. One major issue with this is that once you navigate away from Home there is very little hand-holding.
This is how it works currently:
Setup Business: Basic information and contact details.
Setup Services: Comprehensive and a little time consuming.
Website: Auto-created but valuable only after a few services are setup.
Attach Payment Gateway: Connect Stripe or Paypal.
Bharath suggested a simple 2 step onboarding process for Omnify.
Our Onboarding needs more customer hand holding.
Setup needs to be simpler or create Website with Sample Services for Instant Gratification.
Auto-fill wherever we can.
We believe in fast iteration and are already redesigning our onboarding and setup. I will share a detailed post on our Onboarding redesign later but for now, here is a Sneak peak on what we are upto (Still iterating):
Market and Positioning
Last part of the Teardown was about understanding the target market and our positioning.
There were 3 points that were discussed.
Understanding our Target Customer
Omnify can be used by anyone who provide services and scheduling is an important part of their business. Most prominent segments are fitness, wellness, sports, kids activities and recreation.
Horizontal or Vertical SaaS
This was one of the hot topics at SaaSx and I am hoping for more content on this from the community.
In case of Omnify, we started as a vertical SaaS product but went through a customer discovery process thanks to Inbound Marketing and pivoted to Horizontal SaaS.
Since we didn’t have control over who was signing up, we thought we might as well turn it into an experiment to understand demand and gaps in the market. After working with hundreds of customers across different categories and 50+ countries, we learnt that we are solving a core problem for a wide set of customers who behave very similarly.
Hence, our view of the market changed to horizontal.
While it’s extremely important to choose the right geography if outbound is the core channel for customer acquisition, businesses like ours who run on Inbound Marketing have an advantage of understanding different geographys at due to lower cost. Saying that, we are currently picking up few key geographies with better volume and conversion rates to put our efforts on.
Leveraging existing market segments is easier than creating new segments.
Overall, product teardown was a great experience and we would recommend other startups to do both, internal and external teardown of your products regularly. It’s a great tool to find gaps in the product so we can iterate fast and grow faster.
Big shout to Avinash, Avlesh, Bharath, and Shekhar for putting so much effort into the Product Teardown.. taking calls at 8am on a Sunday, spending time going through our product demos, etc. Thanks guys, it was super helpful.
Also, it is truly a pleasure being part of such an amazing community of Entrepreneurs and I would like to thank everyone who worked hard for making SaaSx possible. Already looking forward to the next one.
The SaaSx conference took place in Chennai on March 17th. Most top companies from the Indian SaaS space were part of the conference. I had made some notes for myself which I think might be useful for other startups as well. Many of these thoughts are not my own and may not express my views.
– Tailor your marketing material based on your audience. For example, if you are targeting product managers, then using a term like “White-labelled Mobile Apps” is too technical. You can use something like “Tailored Mobile Apps”.
– Trust is everything
— Showing trust is extremely important. Use testimonials (with name, company name, designation, domain) to build trust.
— Having a local number increases trust among companies. Everyone prefers a company which is present locally. It’s fine if it redirects to your local number to begin with.
— Adding names & photos of your real support team helps build credibility.
– Use a keyword planner to see what kind of traffic your website is attracting. If the keywords are incorrect, then you need to tweak your copy as the traffic you are receiving is not relevant (read: will not convert).
– On your landing page, you can have three kinds of copy: Emotional, Functional, Technical. Established brands like Coca Cola can use an emotional copy like “Taste The Feeling”. For everyone else, a functional copy (i.e. talking about the benefits) along with a little technical information is the way to go. An example would be “Enable your users to collaborate with each other” or “Increase your user engagement” would be the functional copy and “Add voice, video and text chat to your site/app” or “Add chat using our simple APIs” would be the technical copy.
– If you want to target a country like USA, then your UI/UX must be absolutely perfect. If you are unable to achieve that, then targeting a country like India is easier, where UI/UX is not priority.
— For example, in a signup form, you cannot have “Create your account” as the title of the form and “Create my account” as the signup button. When a company is spending hundreds of dollars on your product, they look consistency.
– In order to be effective for enterprise sales, your complete pricing should not be available on your website. In other words, you need to have a logical separation. For example, you can have a plan which says “Enterprise” and add a “Contact Us For Pricing”. The features of this “Enterprise” plan can be those which are infrequently asked for by SMBs.
– Look at avenues like trade shows and sponsoring events. They may not provide direct leads but help in building brand value.
– Focus on a single country instead of multiple countries. You may continue to receive sales from different countries but your marketing (copy, ads, campaigns etc.) should ideally target a single country in order to be effective.
– Using media friendly terms in copy is essential. For example, Salesforce did a press release saying they launched “Lightening UI” instead of “New UI”.
– If your marketing is designed for product managers, then your on-boarding should be for product managers as well. For example, you cannot ask for API keys during signup to a product manager. Instead you can show a “Send this information to your developer” link so that a dev can input any additional information required.
– How many of us are riding a wave? Are you in a good or hard market? Tweak your product to ride the wave. It’s easier. For example, if AI/NLP is in, tweak your product so that it is in line with the latest trends.
– B2B categories are very difficult to establish. Marketing automation and communication & collaboration are a new wave in B2B. Creating a new category altogether is extremely tough. It’s easier to target an existing budget.
– Even breadcrumbs are worth millions in certain categories. For example, if you build a product similar to Salesforce, then the market is big enough such that the customers that don’t end up using Salesforce will still be significant.
– The customer should be asking why they should buy your specific product versus why buy any product at all. For example, they should ask why buy a Panasonic washing machine versus why buy a washing machine. Educating customer about a whole new category is hard. It’s easier to just compete at a “mine vs yours” level.
– Customers only care for features (including price) while media cares for difference. If you have a similar product to the competitor, you can easily sell it as long as you have a better price. Media cares only if your product is different from your competitors.
– To decide what feature to add next, think if the feature will bring 2X the amount of sales. Adding customer requests is also important as you do not want to disregard your existing audience’s requests. However, do not let customers drive the road map; it is important that you stay true to your vision.
– If you plan to build an Indian sales team, it is advisable to make sure that your marketing does all the heavy lifting. Consultative selling over the phone from India is very tough. The sales team should effectively assist and not consult.
– It is easier to have local partners for non-English speaking countries. If you plan to sell to non-English speaking countries, your website/product should also be multi-lingual.
– For enterprise sales, it is better to have a separate deals team.
– A pre-sales team can be used for giving demos and technical information.
– A separate reseller team can be built if required.
– Building a customer happiness team is essential. If you are not invested in your customer’s success, you will not grow, if they do not grow.
– Hire people who look up to their role. Do not hire people who think of it as a favour to join. Invest in freshers if you cannot afford great talent.
– For sales, it is better to hire engineers. Many fresh engineering graduates are not interested in programming and would prefer an allied job. But that gives them enough technical knowledge so it’s easy for them to handle technical products.
– For customer support, it’s easy to hire from BPOs. Most do not like BPOs due to timings and they already have the required training and empathy to speak to customers.
– If you hire a great designer to build landing pages, he will leave. You need to give employees the work they deserve. If you cannot keep them interested, they will not stay for long.
– Each team member should have a “key to respect”. In other words, every member must have a reason why his peers should respect him.
– Scale your engineering team before your scale your sales team. Otherwise, your engineering team will not be able to handle the load.
On doing business (and everything else)
– It’s very important to have a closed feedback loop between sales, marketing & product. The product team should have the capability to say no to sales & marketing (e.g. for adding X feature for a client).
– The focus of marketing should be to increase leads, the focus of sales should be to increase sales.
– If a feature request fits the overall roadmap of the product, only then undertake it. Avoid any customization which do not help the product grow. In the short term these deals may be tempting, but in the long run, they will have a negative factor on the growth of your product. You may lose business because of this, but that’s part of building a product company.
– Prioritization is a key role of product manager. He is bombarded by customer requests, investor requests etc. He needs to be able to take a call as to what fits in the product and what doesn’t.
– Celebrate each and every team. For example, your design team cannot celebrate sales/revenue. You should find something that they can celebrate, say UI. Celebrate craftsmanship in every department.
– Managers have a responsibility to understand business goals and then encourage activities which are aligned with the business goals.
– Squads give you agility and tribes give you wisdom. Squad works on a single goal. Tribe consists of members who have specialised knowledge. For example, QA, design & SEM are tribes. Putting a design team member in a development team is of no value. He should be together with other designers. A squad can move fast. A tribe is a shared resource. If product knowledge is not so important, then the member should be part of tribe. But dedicated people should be part of a tribe if the product is big. Tribe has no priority w.r.t. products. As much as possible put people in squads. Tribal members in squad can go for weekly knowledge sharing sessions.
– It’s important to focus on the problem. People in your organization will constantly have issues (with each other). It’s important that you solve the problem instead of taking sides.
On the Indian landscape
– Check out the Indian SaaS survey by iSpirt to see how your business is doing in comparison to others.
– There are approximately 750 SaaS startups in India.
– It typically takes 2–4 years for $1 million in ARR