I’ve been building SaaS products for more than 15 years, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there is no blueprint for success.
My first SaaS grew out of a client project. A few years after graduating from college, I was running my own web development company. At the time, there wasn’t an easy way to send mass email campaigns, so I created something for a client that eventually turned into JangoMail. I sold the product to a private equity firm in 2013.
For the last three years, I’ve been working on GMass, which is a Chrome extension for Gmail. With the help of a small, remote team, I’ve grown it steadily to about $140,000 MRR.
I shared my story with Courtland Allen on the Indie Hackers podcast. Based on that discussion, I’ve outlined how following my gut and bucking the conventional rules helped me along the way.
Getting Clear on What’s Important
Before I launched GMass, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to create, but I was very clear on what was important to me: I knew I wanted to create something that would have a positive impact on the software world, and I knew that I wanted to do so with the independence that comes with running my own business.
After I sold my first SaaS company JangoMail in 2013, I relaxed for a while. But I got bored of it — I was yearning to create something again, and I was fueled by this desire to leave a legacy. I also knew that I wanted the freedom and flexibility that came from owning my own company. I recognize that I have a lot of freedom and independence and a lack of accountability in areas where some of my other tech CEO friends don’t — they’ve raised $10 million, $20 million, and now they’re accountable to these stakeholders in their company and they don’t have the freedom to just run the company they want to.
There’s a trade-off there, because if there’s a big payday for me at the end where GMass gets acquired, it probably won’t be as sizable as someone who has taken on money to fuel hyper growth. But that’s probably never an option I’m going to pursue just because of the sacrifice in independence and the time and resources that it takes to get a deal done.
I want to grow at my own pace and in my own way, while I’m still in control. So in the end, my independence and my creative freedom probably trumps the desire to have a legacy, which is why I continue to operate the company the way I do know.
Playing to My Strengths — And Not Thinking Twice
While building a bootstrapped SaaS business, I’ve had a keen sense of where I shine and where I fall down. My companies have all been very Ajay Goel-centric, solo operations. My personality is infused in all aspects of how GMass operates. I’ve optimized the business model and hires to play to my strengths.
As a software developer, my strengths are in back-end code, databases, and servers. My weaknesses are everything on the client side: the user interface, user experience, and the design of the product. Taking all of this into account, I built GMass with no interface. Gmail is the interface for GMass — there’s no external UI because I hate building UIs. I hate filling out forms, and I wanted the sign up for GMass to be as seamless as possible. There’s a very low barrier to start using the product,: it’s literally a series of clicks to link it with your Gmail account and send your first test campaign. You don’t fill out any forms.
In a broader business sense, sales and marketing has always been where I’ve been the weakest, and it’s why all of my software-as-a-service operations have been salesperson-less models. They’ve been based on inbound lead generation and optimizing conversion rates.
I think about customer service differently. The conventional wisdom is to build a great product and provide absolutely fantastic support to your customers — but we actually don’t do that at GMass. Instead, I’ve systematically created content and added tips throughout the GMass application. The questions are anticipated before you need to send a support email.
Hiring (a Little Late in the Game) for Weaknesses
That said, even while trying to optimize to focus on my strengths, there are always some aspects of business that need a little extra attention. When those don’t fit my strengths, my approach is to hire from outside to cover my bases.
GMass’ first hire took place in September 2016, about a year after launch. I needed to bring some organization into the company, and I needed someone who was highly trainable that I could teach to do a lot of things to get them off my plate. I’ll likely hire someone in sales and marketing in the future as well, since neither is my strong suit.
There’s likely a better way to be strategic about hiring — typically I hire someone when there’s an urgency. A better approach would probably be to always be looking out for talent — not hiring only when it’s like a fire drill to get someone on board to alleviate the workload.
Staying Organized From the Get–Go (Especially If You Want to Sell)
After going through the process of trying to sell my first company, one of the most frustrating things about the entire process was not knowing what was involved in due diligence. I wish I would have taken the time to get my books, paperwork, and customer lists well-organized much sooner.
One of the things — from a buyer’s perspective — that can make a deal go south is if there’s a sense of chaos or disorganization in the company, which was definitely true for JangoMail. When I first started trying to sell the company, I wasn’t aware of everything that would be asked of me, so I just wasn’t prepared from a documentation perspective.
With GMass, I’m making sure I have agreements in place with key vendors and contractors from the get-go. While working on JangoMail, I operated with a lot of handshake agreements so when it came time to sell, I had to draw up agreements and then get them signed — a lot of last minute scrambling.
My accounting software (I use Xero) is a lot better this time around. So if a future buyer has a question, I can locate the transaction and explain it in seconds.
Ignoring the Advice That Doesn’t Apply
Overall, I think one of the things that has allowed me to be successful is to not follow the patterns that everyone else writes about. There’s tons and tons of content out there about how to grow your business, how to rank for a keyword, and how to run a digital marketing campaign. But in the end, I think what’s allowed any company to be successful is to carve their own path and to figure out their own unique moves and strategies to get their product in front of users.
If there are a million articles that teach you how to do something, then learning that skill probably isn’t that important to your business. Figure out the things you can do that are different from what everyone else is doing.