One trait to look for when hiring developers for your SaaS product.

Over the years I have come to realize that there is one trait that you need to look out for when hiring developers for your product team.

It all boils down to having a solid “attention to detail”.

The developer should love to fine tune, nurture and optimize code. If something is not right, they should feel uncomfortable and fix it before it adds to the technical debt of the software. Bottom-line, they should deeply care for the code.

In fact, I ask a few questions in the interview to gauge their attention to detail. You can even do a quick back and forth via email. The way they write their email and answer your questions tells you a lot about who they are and if they care about the minute details.

95% of the people I interview don’t fit working in a product environment. It is tough to find the 5% (cause these are really good developers) but when you do, these people will count for nearly 3–5 average developers. And, you rather have a team with a few really good developers than many many mediocre ones.

Building a business at the cost of…

Inc. has got a great article on Box founder Aaron Levie — Don’t Bet Against Aaron Levie.

He has built Box into a great business. However, I was a bit stumped on the personal front:

Levie’s routine over the past several years has been stringent. He wakes at around 10. He showers quickly, and arrives at the office by 11 a.m. He downs two coffees, sometimes holding two cups at once. He rarely eats breakfast or, for that matter, lunch. He spends 90 percent of his daylight hours in meetings or interviews, to which he walks very quickly or even runs. He is almost never at his desk. At around 7:30 p.m., he takes a nap for about an hour, and when he wakes up, he gets really, really productive. Each night, he probably sends a couple of hundred emails, and by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., he’s finally done. Levie does not take weekends off, and, in the last handful of years, he has taken one vacation, a three-day trip to Mexico with his girlfriend.

Rarely eats breakfast & lunch!

No sports!

Working through the evenings!

No vacations!

I am guessing that work is life then. Great for some people but personally, I wouldn’t trade my freedom for even a million dollars. To me, success is something very different.

What are your thoughts?

Getting Feedback for your SaaS App

We all want to know what people using our web apps are thinking. We sometimes wish we could tap into their brains while they are going through each of those features. Unfortunately, we end up not getting much feedback early on. Imagine if every person in your trial funnel tells you why he/she liked or did not like your web app. Now, that would be awesome. Sadly, this rarely happens.

I am currently in the midst of growing Brightpod. Getting feedback early on is super important and this is what I am learning.

If people love your software, they will respond to you as if they are a part of your team. If they genuinely love your app and it solves their problem then either you will hear from them or they will bring out their credit card and upgrade. There is a correlation between positive feedback and a high probability to upgrade.

It is ok if everyone does not open or respond your emails. I have witnessed an open rate anywhere from 20% to 30% and a response rate of 5%-10%. Lets look at human psychology: As SaaS vendors we feel our web app is the most important thing in the world. We are emotionally tied to our business and product. Does someone who has just signed up or is on the trial period think the same way? No. Maybe they are also trying other apps. Or, they are doing a million other things and trying the app is just one of their sub-tasks. Think about it. How many emails have you got and how many times have you responded?

I have seen customers who use Brightpod for 2 days, disappear for the remainder of the trial and then come back on the last day to upgrade. Completely strange and it boggles my mind. So, do not fret if your emails aren’t answered. Assume people are busy. Tap them a few times and let it go.

Feedback apps (chat, in-app windows) are good when people have a problem, report a bug or have a general suggestion. They don’t help when you want real feedback e.g. how is my app helping you solve your problem or why would my app not work for your company etc. The best way to get real feedback is to ask — drop a personal email and ask for feedback.

Use email for feedback. Emails are not urgent and it shows that you respect the other person’s time.

Setting up Skype calls can get frustrating if you have to go back and forth to setup a mutually agreeable time.

What I am trying lately is to do some research on the people who are in trial and match certain criteria. I then drop them a highly personalised email. This is a lot of work and maybe counter-intuitive to running an automated, low-touch SaaS business. But, in our highly-automated world, who would not like a customised email just for them. It shows you care.

Thanks for reading. Are there any different ways that you get feedback for your web app?

Learn to change and don’t program everything yet

I came across a really good startup article on my Twitter feed today and I thought I’d share it with you’ll — From a Mailchimp email and Wufoo form to $25k in 3 months.

While we are currently growing Brightpod, I like reading articles (mostly experience pieces) on how other startups have ramped up growth. It is like asking yourself — “are you doing enough”.

A few points this post makes caught my attention and are almost like golden rules to follow when building a product:

1. Don’t be afraid to change.

Although we had over 15,000 app developers signed on, what we were building wasn’t the solution to the real problem in app discovery.

After the meeting, my co-founders and I sat in our office thinking, “so what the hell do we do next? Do we keep going down a rabbit hole knowing that there probably won’t be a light at the end of the tunnel?”

We ended up spending the next week re-thinking everything we thought was true, resulting in one of the most stressful times in our company’s life.

After peeling back the layers of our company, we realized that no amount of marketing can save a poorly constructed app.

To solve this, we needed to find a way to help people create better quality mobile products, increasing their chances for success.

Teams should spend time thinking about what they are doing, what is working and what is not. If something is not working then switch gears and try something new, There is nothing wrong with that. Out here in India, I always see people resistance to change. The thought goes “oh, we have spent so much time doing this, how can we let it go and do something else”. Focus on what is working and the results. Less on what you have done.

2. Start manually. Don’t wait to program everything.

Everything behind the scenes was still mostly manual, but we started to replace the most pressing issues with technology.

Developer run startups have this urge to automate and program everything and only when everything is finished then release it to the world. A few people I spoke to last week had a good product but had not even started marketing it. Why? Because they were still putting the finishing touches to the app. What a bummer!

Sometimes when you think up an idea you immediately picture a vision of what the final product will look like — there’s going to be a wall, chat, portfolios, and more.

This can sometimes paralyze you from starting because the task seems so daunting, you begin to think that you’ll need to hire more people or raise funding to get this done.

Instead, my advice is to start. Don’t wait for everything to be perfectly figured out. If you start, you’re already 90 percent ahead of the game and you’d be surprised how far you can get.

How Brightpod got featured on TheNextWeb and GigaOM Pro?

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Technology writers are the new PR rockstars. They hold a lot of clout and can make or break your SaaS business. Every SaaS company should have a Blogger Outreach strategy (call it whatever). Seriously, if you are not reaching out to tech writers then you probably need to be fired. If I had to work on three things while growing Brightpod then reaching out to writers would be one of them. Here are some things that I follow. I hope they work for you too.

Warning: You are in the wrong place if you are looking for a magic formula or secret for getting featured on top technology blogs. For others, read on.

We are in the age of social proof. People trust and then buy your service because others have said (and are saying) good things about it. Even if people come across your site on Google, they are going to dig a little more and see what others think about your product. Here is where getting featured on top technology blogs help. They have thousands of readers (mostly early adopters) and their pages normally rank high on Google. Not to mention that a good review can increase your credibility and boost visitors to your site.

First, identify the writers that you want to connect with. Read their articles. Comment on them. Follow them on Twitter. Don’t stalk. Don’t pester them with requests on featuring your startup. Just work on building a relationship.

Prep time: What do you need to do before you get in touch with tech writers?

  • Prepare a simple email that talks about your product that may interest the tech writer. Respect their time. These people get a ton of email so be brief and to the point. Here is one variation of what I have sent out.

Hey _____,

Brightpod.com is in private beta and wanted to see if you’ll would be interested in reviewing it. Happy to provide free accounts for your readers with a special code.

Brightpod is a marketing collaboration software built for marketing teams in mind. Most of them currently use a general purpose collaboration tool. We want to help them grow their business by making it easy to plan, organize & track all their digital marketing projects in one place. Clients are spending more and more money on digital marketing. Marketing firms have more work that they can handle. This is where Brightpod comes in.

You can signup on www.brightpod.com and use the code “founders”. Have a great weekend.

Cheers,

Sahil

  • Make sure your website is updated and has more information on your app — features, pricing and a clear value proposition.
  • Writers normally will include a screenshot if they feature your app. Make it easy for them to grab your product images from your site. Ours is here.
  • Your app signup process and on-boarding should work smooth.
  • Be sure to read up on what the writer writes about. Don’t contact an enterprise software blogger about your consumer app.
  • Don’t be desperate to get your app reviewed. These guys are super busy. Send them the email and wait. Give them some time. You are not their first (or even fifth) priority.
  • A writer might respond to you with a thank you. This does not mean you are going to get featured. This is an acknowledgement that they have received your email. Hold on to your excitement.
  • Writers will also decline your offer. Don’t lose faith. Keep building the relationship. A Techcrunch contributor signed up for Brightpod but instantly told me that this is not something he is interested in currently. That is ok. Move on.
  • If they report a bug, fix it immediately and let them know that you have fixed it. This shows you care about your product and are quick to communicate. When Stowe from GigaOm Pro started using Brightpod he encountered a few bugs that broke his user experience. We felt shitty about it and took it as a first priority to fix it. He was happy that we were proactive.This always helps.

Reviewed! Now what?

  • Watch your signups :)
  • Be nice. Thank the writer via email and Twitter.
  • Keep them updated with new product updates. Who knows, they might feature your app again cause they love your latest feature release.
  • Send them a small gift :)

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I hope this article was helpful. Good luck with your app!

Here are the Brightpod reviews on GigaOm Pro and TheNextWeb.

Building Gracious Software

What I love about software is summed up in this one line:

“If you can think it, you can code it”

My love for software started in 1998 (at UNC) — first designing websites and then progressed into web development. When I came back to India in 2005 I started a SaaS company to show the world that India is not just an outsourcing destination and can come up with global products. I saw my work as a natural progression, and when I look back I can connect the dots. Although, over the last few years I have stopped coding (I felt marketing was much important than coding if you are leading a startup/team). Today, software is not just for the techies. It is for everyone and is going to become ubiquitous. Mark Andreeseen fantastically pointed this out in one of my favorite articles: “Why Software is Eating the World”.

Gracious Software

As software becomes “everywhere” there is a certain responsibility that we have when designing and developing software. Here, is my list of points or checklist to make sure we always come up with superior, well designed software to seamlessly integrate technology into people’s lives.

  1. Pleasant
  2. Gracious software is zen-like and should make you feel at ease, calm and good when using it. Spending time with Gracious software should be like taking a quiet walk in the garden.
  3. Kind
  4. Gracious software exhibits kindness. Messages (error, alerts) should be friendly, polite and NEVER overwhelming or threatening.
  5. Easy to Use
  6. Gracious software is “grandma-proof”. If your grandma can’t navigate between pages then you need to go back to the drawing board.
  7. Friendly
  8. Gracious software should show me the way and guide me to places I have never been before (only when I am ready for them).
  9. Not Intimidating
  10. A blank page with no data and a page with a lot of data are intimidating. Gracious software should make me feel right at home by designing pages that have just the right information for me to take the next step.
  11. Fast, Smooth and Swift
  12. Gracious software is not sluggish. It is swift. It respects your time and is fast.
  13. Smart
  14. Gracious software doesn’t make you think. It can calculate stuff. It will tell you when you are late or going to be late. It should be able to predict and foresee problems.
  15. Good Looking
  16. Gracious software looks clean, uncluttered and well designed. It is a pleasure to use gracious software every day.

Enjoy a recurring revenue business

Today, coincidentally, two startup entrepreneurs asked me the same question. Should we run a service business or slowly transition into a product business? Having run both, a service business (for 5 years) and a product business (4 years) my answer was straightforward — try to get the product business as soon as possible.

You can enjoy superb recurring revenues with a scalable product. Service businesses are too dependent on people. For example, I am currently in talks with a couple of digital marketing companies, and one of them still hasn’t gotten back to me after our last discussion 2 weeks back (hello! we are not in the 1980’s!). The reason — the dude who was working on my brief is out sick. I am not saying that all service businesses are like this, but the point is that they are heavily dependent on people doing the end work. You want to grow revenue. Get some more project. Oh, damn, we need more people to run this project….and the chicken & egg situation goes on.

We phased out our service business quite some years back. Today, we enjoy decent recurring income from our SaaS business. We don’t need to hire more people for more customers who use our app. The beauty is that it allows us a balanced lifestyle with almost zero sales meetings and sucking up to clients.

So, IMHO, strive to get to a product business as soon as possible — provided that you have the capability/inclination to run a product business and are currently “stuck” in the service rut. It’s a magical feeling when you wake up every day and see more and more people pay for your product.

What I want to build

Yesterday, on the way home my wife I spoke about a successful friend we know. He did not have big ambitions but is extremely wealthy and lives a very comfortable life. We concluded that the reason he could achieve this is because he knew what he wanted. He was clear and focused on what was important to him and what he wanted from his business and personal life.

I started thinking…

Do I want to build a big company with $50-$100M in revenue, lots of employees and take it public?

OR

Do I want to build an insanely profitable, small business ($5-$10M), have fewer people and have an amazing work-life balance? Note: $5-$10M might seem like a small number if you are in the US/UK but is a very very good target for an Indian company (operating fully from India) in the SaaS space.

Somehow I feel I am leaning towards the latter. Small, intimate businesses excite me. I prefer to concentrate on a few things. I am hands-on. I love product design and user-experience. I rather have fewer customers paying more than a lot of customers paying little. You don’t need a whole lot of capital, but what you require is an insanely awesome product(s). I am up for that challenge. I don’t believe in push-sales so doing away with a sales team is fine. They key is to generate traffic through inbound marketing and have a touch-free sales process. I envision a team that manages and teaches clients but never sells to them.

Big exits and payouts are hot in the tech world, but it’s something the whole world is chasing. I am happy if my business remains small, hugely profitable, popular and it gives me the time and flexibility to explore my other goals & passions.

My measure of a successful person is whether or not he has TIME.

Time to spend time with the family. 
Time to go on a holiday.
Time to not work on a given day. 
Time to meet friends.
Time to work from anywhere. 
Time to read a book in the middle of the day. 
You know what I mean.

Life is short so you better know what you are up to. What say?