Why DeskAway Chucked the Rolodex

This article originally appeared on StartupCentral.in

In the second half of 2007, I would wake up every morning and immediately check our DeskAway dashboard to see if anyone had signed up. People were signing up in a trickle. We were getting a measly 3-5 sign-ups a week, probably because we had added the the site to directories or maybe a friend told a friend who told a friend. None of these were converting to customers.

This happened for the first five months. It was frustrating and emotionally draining, especially since we had zero cash flow (the services part of our business had been phased out earlier that year).

I had contacted the CEOs and founders of popular advertising agencies in Mumbai and spoken to them about how DeskAway could add value to their teams and business. They liked the idea but they didn’t get why they should be ‘subscribing’ to an online software and storing their project data online. Others told me that they were happy using email and didn’t want to adopt a new tool even if it made them more efficient and system-driven. They would call me for a demo, then yet another demo (because some manager didn’t make it to the first demo) and then another meeting to negotiate cost.

I thought to myself – “this is not the way SaaS (software-as-a-service) is sold, especially since our price points were low. The sales process needs to be online and completely frictionless. We wouldn’t be able to scale if we did this for thousands of businesses and ramping up would be a slow process. Going door to door is just not going to cut it.” I ignored my Rolodex of decision makers and moved on to the anonymous users on the web. This business was is not about who you know but how many people know you. I learnt that in order to sell online software I needed to be there when companies were looking to find me. Selling SaaS offline and especially in India (at that time) was futile and a complete waste of my time.

We were burning cash (from our service business) faster than we thought. Salaries were increasing and finding developers to work on a product with zero customers was a challenge in itself. I had to paint a picture of how the future would look and hope they understood. In hindsight, this was a good filter to have. Most importantly, my family agreed with my thoughts and were very supportive of me which is a huge help when you are steering on your own.

I also experienced a new low in my entrepreneurial career. We had a product, a team but no customers. Fortunately, this was when I got to know myself better because I felt many things that I never felt before. Deep down I knew that I needed to continue building the product. I kept telling myself that if we do the right things then things will eventually fall into place. I was living on hope. Abandoning ship was never an option but I had to prove it to myself, my team and people who never believed in us to succeed. I wanted to show the pessimists that we could build a global SaaS business from India. I wanted to prove that we could do this without taking external capital. I think these emotions and feelings led me to stretch out of my comfort zone. Probably, because I wanted to build a web business that could run on its own and didn’t need an army of people.

We continued adding new features, adding a payment gateway (even though we never saw a paid subscriber for months), hiring our third developer and just creating a better project collaboration tool. We stuck to building a better product and emailed bloggers to take a look at our creation. We started building our email subscriber list. We became much more personal (and less templatized) in our communication. We set up a blog to discuss what we thought. We read up on stuff that makes a true SaaS company – Bessemer’s Top 10 Laws for Being SaaSy (Bessemer’s Byron Deeter is the same guy I interviewed for my book The SaaS Edge last year.) I didn’t want to go back to running a service business and stuck to the hope that this business would take shape someday (sooner than later). People across the world needed to know that we (Indians) are capable of providing more than just low-cost services.

Looking back, I knew that SaaS/Cloud was a new industry and the going would be tough. I prepared myself to wait it out as there would be a time when businesses would readily subscribe to software, rather than hosting it on their own servers. I was biding my time.

On 31st December 2007 we got our first paid signup from our website. We celebrated till the wee hours of the morning. 2008 was a different story with many many many more signups, upgrades, reviews and most importantly, getting known and respected globally.