How to get your SaaS business its first 100 customers? (InformationWeek)

I’ll take you back to 2007. We spent almost a year developing our Software As A Service (SaaS) project collaboration product, DeskAway. It was ready to go live but the uphill climb of getting our first 100 customers had just begun. We wanted to be profitable while bootstrapping.

Luckily, I realized early on (after being burnt a few times trying to do offline sales for an online product) that SaaS vendors should utilize low-cost marketing techniques to gain market traction and increase user adoption in markets that were evolved (like the US). While old-school software had marketing budgets of millions of dollars and sold by downloads or via CDs, selling SaaS requires an understanding of the Web, user behavior and implementing online techniques and methods.

As I look back today, the following strategies were instrumental in getting us to our golden 100 customer mark - the mantra being (for any online business) to get as many qualified leads to our website, convert them into trial users and then into paid customers.

Tap into the known

Before DeskAway, we built websites for small businesses. We used an in-house application (which later became DeskAway) to organize, manage and track their projects. When we launched, these were the first people we approached to power their businesses with DeskAway.

Free
When starting out, I spoke to a very successful SaaS entrepreneur in the U.S. and he advised me to give out 50 free accounts of DeskAway to business friends and acquaintances. While I am a believer in people actually paying for a product (then they begin to really value it and give you candid feedback), this free strategy helped us spread the word initially.

Conference/ Events
In January 2008, I applied for a spot at the prestigious start-up event called Proto run by Vijay Anand. A week later I got a call from him saying that we were chosen to present DeskAway in Chennai. We pitched DeskAway to an audience full of entrepreneurs, small business owners, bloggers and VCs. This event helped us build initial credibility and gain traction with early adopters in India.

Self-promotion
My team scrounged the Web for blogs that discussed/reviewed small business SaaS tools, project management, collaboration, working virtually etc. We used a combination of Google Alerts and RSS Feeds. We shared our views and followed up with comments saying that, “This is DeskAway and here is why people should use us.”  Our analytics showed that people actually clicked on our comments and came to the site to sign up for the app.

Build virality
Email marketing companies always amaze me. People use their software and send mail to thousands of their subscribers. Each mail going out has the email marketing software company’s name and logo. I liked this model and built it into DeskAway so any personal email reminders going out to an agency’s clients will be “powered by DeskAway”. A link will take them to our site where they can try out the software for their own business.

Be your own PR company
We contacted top bloggers in our industry (in India as well as abroad) and wrote them a quick pitch on why they should review our product. Back in 2007/2008 we were one of the first SaaS providers in India and convincing them to review us was relatively easy. Web Worker Daily liked our pitch and reviewed DeskAway in May 2008 which led to thousands of visitors to our site and sign-ups every minute for the first few days.

Writing
I started writing for online publications and blogs early on. My first article was featured on ThinkVitamin in mid-2008 and spoke about the 7 hats an entrepreneur should wear when starting out. When people appreciate what you write, they will quickly look up who you are and see what you do. Hundreds of people came to the site to try out our product after the article was published live. Till date, I write a lot, not to mention my book ‘The SaaS Edge’ that was published early this year. Who would have thought that writing plays a key role in growing a software business?

Finally, we hit the 100 customer mark in September 2008.

None of the above would have worked had we not started with a simple product and evolved it over the last few years. It was important that DeskAway solved a problem that the the customer cared about. Working hard to get noticed would bring in the curious Jims, but a solid product would convert them into happy-to-be-paying Jennys.