When you’re starting a software business from scratch, there are a ton of options for how to build it, and as with anything else, there are trends that come and go, and lots of “experts” who claim one platform or language is superior to all others (although none of them seem to agree). This makes it easy to find yourself stuck in analysis paralysis, get sucked into the excitement of learning something new, or over build too early. Acquiring and running more than 30 online businesses, we’ve learned a lot about what to do and what not to do when it comes to your SaaS tech stack.
Pick the platforms you know (or that a lot of other people do).
If you’re a developer, pick tools you’re comfortable with. As co-founder and CTO of Feedback Panda, Arvid Kahl, told us in a recent interview, “Many people use side projects to learn new technology, and that’s a great use for learning. But those projects aren’t businesses, they’re learning projects.”
I’ve done this myself, and there are many ideas on my shelf because I wanted to learn something new by building a product. When I’ve built using a toolset I’m comfortable with, it’s always been much easier (and much more likely to actually launch).
If you’re not a developer, finding one isn’t hard (although finding one who’s also a great teammate is trickier, and we’ll get to that in just a minute), just be sure to pick tools that have the largest communities, like PHP or Ruby on Rails.
When it comes to hosting, you can’t go wrong with AWS, Heroku, or Google. Sticking with the big players in the game makes migration easier down the road, and they have built-in toolsets that developers can use to help expedite deployments.
Just like picking a code platform, you want to use something that has a great community, so when you need more help there are a lot of wonderful people ready to step in.
Hire developers who fit the culture you’re trying to build.
A developer who prefers to work solo and burn the midnight oil is great, as long as that works with your culture. If you want someone collaborative who works the same hours you do, not so much. So make sure you check for culture fit, not just technical skill, when you interview.
When it comes to the great teammate part, hiring a developer really isn’t different than hiring for any another position — you want someone who fits the culture you’re trying to build. If a developer is eager to learn, fits your culture, and is a great communicator, it’s all gravy from there. On the flip side, don’t be afraid to fire someone if it comes to it. If it’s not working, move fast, and figure out how you can learn from it so you hire better next time.
Iterate, iterate, iterate — in the beginning testing your market fit is much more important than perfecting your tech stack.
Start simple and don’t worry about things breaking. Just accept that they will break and that that’s when learning happens.
In startup scenarios, you should think about building fast and iterating instead of going through lengthy prototyping processes, because working this way gets features in front of potential customers who can give you valuable feedback faster.
If you have a feature that clients or customers are clamoring for, build the minimal viable version of it and iterate. In the early stages of a business, it’s all about speed to launch so you can get through the “survival” phase of the startup and start generating some revenue. Click to Tweet.
Don’t worry about scaling to millions of users, or building extra features you don’t have customers for yet. Just make sure you’ve thought about authorization, and payment (we like Stripe), and your most important feature and get it to market. Most modern technical stacks can scale fairly quickly, either by larger instance sizes or distributed nodes across the cloud. Concentrate on keeping your customers happy, building what they need to do their job.
Never tie your front end to your back end.
Keep your app on a subdomain, and separate from your marketing website, and consider moving marketing to simple CMS like WordPress so it’s easy to hire someone else to manage it later on.
To put it simply, run your app on a subdomain. Your marketing website and application should always be kept separate. That way if you ever want to take your custom-built homepage and put it into a CMS, you don’t have to hack apart your app to make it work. You can drop it in something like WordPress and move on.
This also makes hiring for different tasks later on much easier. If you’re dependent on yourself, or a developer to get a blog post published, or change a call-to-action on the homepage to increase conversions, it’ll never happen because there will always be more important development work to do.
And even if you’re handling all of your own content right now, if your business scales the way you want it to, you’ll probably hire marketing help later on. The chances of finding a great marketer who can also dig into your PHP site are slim, but the chances of finding one who’s familiar with WordPress are great.
Don’t reinvent existing SaaS services.
Sure, running up hill is fun (if you’re into that sort of thing), but when you’re trying to start a business, there’s no need to add extra challenges to your to-do list. You’ll be busy enough, trust us.
When building your SaaS, don’t reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of great products with wonderful API’s that you can use to handle payments (we already mentioned Stripe), handle support (Help Scout), handle logging (loggly), and handle your exceptions (bugsnag).
Building these yourself may sound like a lot of fun, but in the end it’s much easier to have a helping hand so you can focus on your core business and its core features. Trust us, that will be enough to keep you busy, and you don’t need an extra hat to wear in those early years.
Build to sell (even if you don’t plan on selling).
A lot of founders wind up selling for a lot of different reasons. But not only does building your business in a way that’s easy to sell help with a potential sales process down the road, it also typically makes it easier to run your business. That’s because “building to sell” is just another way of saying you have your shit together.
When we acquire a company, I find the most important thing is having a great developer to help with the transition. And the easiest transitions are always the ones where the dev is truly passionate about the product, the customers, and the code. They want to work with our Tech team to make the process as easy as possible, and if they want to transition out of the business after the exit, they help find a technical replacement.
The hardest acquisitions we see are the ones where there may have been a great idea at the center of the business, but the tech stack was chosen as a learning project. This leads to a lot of messy refactoring in the code as the developers learn.
Keep it simple.
Simplicity is the sweet spot when it comes to the tech stack (and pretty much everything else) for your SaaS business.
You might notice a recurring theme here in all of our advice. Our CEO, Kevin, likes to say that “All software tastes like chicken.” Robert Smith said it first, but the point is that you don’t need to overcomplicate the process, the stack, or the architecture. That pretty much always leads to a very messy situation down the road.
And to your customers, what you offer them is features, and hopefully something that makes their lives easier or better. They don’t see (or typically care about) your tech stack. They just see that your product works reliably and provides value (or doesn’t). And you don’t need to set out to revolutionize the software industry to do that.
We have founders who helped save teachers a couple hours a day by improving how they manage feedback and reports. We have another who built a better lead-generation system for SEO agencies. And yet another who thought the spirits industry could offer customers more than walking into a liquor store and picking a bottle off the shelf.
On the surface, these things might not sound transformative, but for their customers, they are. And it’s that value that made those businesses a success. So keep your tech stack simple, and spend your time listening to your customers and really understanding their problems. Find one you can solve, and you’re in business.
Spoiler alert: There’s no “recipe” for a great startup founder. And anyone who tells you that you just need 7 habits, or 10 qualities, or any other magic number of things is probably more concerned with selling ad space than mentoring founders. Great leaders come in many different forms, with different backgrounds, strengths, and areas of expertise. But some patterns do start to emerge when you look at a big sample of successful founders — especially in the bootstrapped business model. Being in the acquisition business we’ve had the distinct advantage of purchasing more than 30 companies and reviewing hundreds more from behind the scenes. These are a few things we’ve noticed along the way.
Great founders understand the technical and product management side of the business, even if they’re not developers.
You don’t have to be an expert-level developer to found a successful SaaS startup, but you do need to take the time to understand development and product management.
While a development background is super common in the SaaS startup world, it’s not the rule, or the only way to succeed. We’ve acquired high-performing businesses from marketers and subject matter experts, too.
But while the businesses we’ve acquired haven’t all had technical founders, we’ve noticed that the best ones have had founders who had the curiosity and persistence to learn about development and product management.
Those founders have also had one other critical skill: Recognizing when a lack of technical knowledge was causing their business to hit a growth ceiling. When Marvin Russell ran into scaling issues with his SEO lead generation startup, MySiteAuditor, he brought in a technical co-founder and it helped him grow to $40k MRR.
We’re not alone in noticing that hard skills are not the only predictor of success. A Harvard Business Review study earlier this year found that experience alone was not enough to make startup teams thrive.
Great founders are hungry and humble.
The best founders understand the importance of feedback both in the early days, and as they grow.
Starting a business takes motivation and drive. That’s no surprise. The thing a lot of people won’t tell you is that it also requires a good dose of humility.
Building a business with humility starts with making something because it fills a need in your customers’ lives, not an impressive title on your LinkedIn profile. Click to Tweet.
The best founders are willing to jump on the phone, chat, or email with a client, even one that is not paying them money. They understand the importance of feedback both in the early days, and as the product matures.
In those early days, they’ll respond to inquiries on their help desk pretty much any time, day or night. And they’ll happily take on sales and customer support work, too. They don’t consider any task below their pay grade, but they also recognize when it’s time to hire, and when they’ve hit the limit of their knowledge and skills.
As the business grows, they keep asking questions, and they’re still constantly checking in with their customers, team, and peers to validate ideas because they know they’ll never know it all.
Great founders understand the difference between honesty and transparency.
Great founders inherently understand the difference between honesty and transparency.
Honesty and transparency are often used interchangeably, but when it comes to business they can look a lot different. For example, an honest founder might break the news to their team that they didn’t meet their annual goals, and they have to lay people off or reduce hours. A transparent founder lets their team know the business is struggling and what goals need to be met to keep things running and keep everyone gainfully employed.
When it comes to communicating with customers, an honest founder is straightforward and fesses up if any billing or security issues come up. A transparent founder is open about their security practices, and any third-party services they use.
Great founders care about their customers as much as (or more than) their revenue.
The best startup founders go to great lengths to keep their customers happy.
As a founder, you have to be focused on revenue and profit. This is especially true if you’re bootstrapping, because you’re typically self-funded, and you need your business to pay the bills.
A great founder understands that their product has value and they can charge for it, but they never lose sight of their customers. Because of this they’re sensitive about pricing, and always looking to add more value to their product to keep customers happy and loving their service.
Great founders are great communicators — and they know that ultimately means being a great listener.
Being a great startup founder is often more about listening — to your customers, your peers, and your team — than talking.
With customers, they’re humble, and curious, always ensuring an amazing level of service and trying to learn how to improve their product. They probably have a handful of customers they know on a first-name basis they can call if they’re thinking about a new feature.
In a room of colleagues, they’re likely the one that is sitting back, occasionally talking, but always listening and visualizing a conceptual fit for what they’re hearing and their product.
Great founders build great remote teams. They lead by example, even if they’ve never managed anyone before. They’re responsive, thoughtful, and enthusiastic, and they tend to ask for feedback as often as they give it.
They know when a quick Slack message or email is fine, and when it’s better to hop on the phone or get on a video chat to talk things through. They don’t shy away from difficult conversations, and they handle giving constructive criticism as gracefully as praise.
Great founders are born builders.
You won’t find a great bootstrapped founder in quarterly meetings or week-long product roadmap sessions.
If a great idea for a new feature, or new integration comes up, they’re excited to build it and motivated to offer it to their customers. In the early days it’s likely banged out in a very short window of time, because it’s valuable and fun.
They don’t need quarterly meetings, massive roadmap discussions, or to wait for bloated valuations and massive infusions of cash from VC funds to accomplish their goals. They make a decision, figure out how to get it done with the money they have, and go for it.
And because they’re building with their own time and money, they’re not forced to meet deadlines that could compromise the integrity of the product. They build something that solves a problem and really nail it. Then they add on again and again to make it a well-built, thoughtfully constructed product with exceptional value.
And maybe most importantly, great bootstrapped founders are experts at knowing when to build and when to buy.
Because they know that it’s a waste of time to recreate the wheel, but if every component of their product is someone else’s, they’re in for trouble. Click to Tweet.
Great bootstrapped founders are inherently curious and might have started their company as a side project, but now that their side project is making money, they probably have multiple side projects for their side project.
Great founders care what happens to their business after they exit.
For a great founder, what happens to their product, their team, and their customers after they exit is just as important as negotiating a sales price for their business.
Sure, they care about what they’re going to make when they sell their business, too. But not more than they care about who buys it. Why? Because the really good bootstrapped founders care about their customers and their team. You know you have a great founder when they have multiple offers, and they select you because you’re in the best position to service their customers and take care of their team.
Great founders come in many forms.
This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, and as we continue to look at and acquire new businesses, there will likely be 10, 50, or even 100 things we could add to it. But these are a few things we’ve seen that can set a business and its founder apart, and help answer that impossible question: What makes some businesses succeed, and others fail? It’s not a formula, a checklist, or a recipe you can follow. But it’s something we can all aspire to as we lead our businesses and our teams. And it’s what we’ll be on the lookout for as we continue to evaluate the next hundred businesses we look at.
There are a lot of great businesses out there that can benefit thousands of potential future employees and customers that need some help getting off the ground. But the typical funding paths and assistance available to startups don’t work for the vast majority of founders. The majority of venture capital funds and accelerators create one successful business in 20. Sure, small business loans are available — but banks don’t offer any support or advice when it comes to running or scaling your business. That’s exactly why Earnest Capital was created: To offer a new model of startup business funding and accelerator guidance specifically for bootstrappers.
The Problem with the Venture Capital Startup Funding Model
How a Twitter conversation launched a crazy idea for new startup business funding model.
About a year ago, I was having a Twitter conversation with Tyler Tringas. Tyler is a fellow entrepreneur, and we’ve remained friends since he sold his SaaS store locator app, Storemapper, to SureSwift back in 2017.
At the time, I was frustrated that almost all the media, tech, and startup discussions for launching a new business revolved around how to raise venture capital funding, because the VC funding model kills a lot of great companies.
Yes, VC means an infusion of cash into your business. But it also means pressure to spend that cash quickly, which can create over-inflated hiring and wasteful spending on paid advertising that often prevents your founding team from ever finding a sustainable business model.
Then, since your company is spending more each month than you’re earning, you’re forced to raise the ‘next’ round.
And if you aren’t growing fast enough? You won’t be able to raise that next round, or (almost worse) you get a valuation that’s the same or less than the prior round (the dreaded “down round”) and your business looks like a total failure.
The likely end point from here is to close up shop, fire everyone, tell your customers to find an alternative, and move on to something else. Now your company is in the Deadpool, when it may have been a promising idea.
So What about Accelerators?
With startup accelerators, the typical idea is that a group of talented people who want to help new and/or aspiring founders pull together a cohort of founders at a similar (usually early) stage of launching their companies.
The “help” provided usually comes in the form of advice and guidance on things like branding, business model, pricing, product development, hiring, legal issues, marketing, and yes… fundraising. Usually, the point of an accelerator is to help companies get their first or ‘next’ round of funding. So the typical accelerator is on the same VC track that ends in failure for 19 out of 20 companies. A one in 20 chance isn’t great.
Only 1/20 VC funded businesses succeed. Your overall odds of winning a Powerball prize are 1/24, so getting on the VC train is basically like playing the lottery with your business. Click to Tweet.
The other problem with many traditional accelerators is that they’re location based. When you apply to be a part of one of these cohorts, you’re committing to either being in a place or moving to that place for 3-4 months during the program.
This immediately limits the pool to either people who live in that city, or people who are able and willing to move to that city. That’s fine if you’re in your 20s with few ties, but what if you have a family, or a house, or any number of reasons why you can’t pick up and move?
The location-based nature of these accelerators means the older you are, and the more practical experience you have, the less likely you’ll be able to participate. This is unfortunate because recent data show that people in their 40s actually have a much higher chance of success in starting a new company than people in their 20s or 30s.
Recent data shows that people in their 40s have a higher chance of success in starting a new company. So why are so many startup accelerators location based (i.e. excluding most people over 30)? Click to Tweet.
So VC forces the failure of most of the businesses it funds, and accelerators typically exclude the business owners most likely to succeed. This brings us back to that Twitter conversation with Tyler.
A New Startup Funding and Accelerator Model for Bootstrappers
What emerged from that conversation was the idea for a better, alternative kind of startup business funding and accelerator model.
We imagined an accelerator that gives you a little bit of money to help you make that first hire, or go full-time on your business. But not so much that you’re throwing money at paid ads just to spend it, while further lining the pockets of Facebook and Google, who get 40 cents of every dollar of VC funding according to Social Capital.
We imagined an accelerator that would draw founders from around the world, because we both believe talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.
We imagined an accelerator that would provide mentorship from talented founders who bootstrapped businesses to great success without fundraising — showing new founders that there is a path to success that doesn’t involve outside investors or VC money. You can have a business that provides amazing returns for you, as well as a more sane and sustainable lifestyle.
How the Conversation Became a Reality
Both Tyler and I were excited about the idea, and we didn’t know of anything that looked like quite like it. We considered launching it from within SureSwift. We knew we could fund it, hire a program manager, and pull together mentors from our portfolio. But our mission at SureSwift is to acquire and grow successful online companies, and the risk was that the accelerator could be a distraction from that mission.
So, I wanted this thing to exist, and I was willing to commit capital to it because it aligns with our investment model and our core values, but I didn’t think we were the right people to run it.
Fortunately, Tyler grabbed the idea by the scruff of the neck and ran with it.
The next six months were really fun. (As in fun for me because I got to observe and discuss while Tyler did all of the work.)
He took a transparent approach to launching the idea. A blog post to open the discussion. Open term sheets to get feedback from founders and investors. A few pivots along the way based on these discussions. Some welcome inspiration from Indie VC and SparkToro.
Tyler’s continued the trend of those early conversations and he’s keeping things like Shared Earnings Agreements and term sheets clear and transparent by involving the bootstrapper community at every step.
Meeting (in person and via phone) with hundreds of investors, advisors, founders, and other fund managers to refine this new idea where there was no playbook.
How the Earnest Capital Fund Works
Along the way, this transparent approach and deep thinking about the best way for this new accelerator to function led to some differentiating concepts.
Namely, when Earnest Capital invests in your company, it’s via a Shared Earnings Agreement which works differently than traditional startup investing. As your company starts to generate “Founder Earnings” (basically profit + founder compensation) Earnest will receive a percentage of that until it cumulatively receives a multiple of the initial investment. From there founders are free to run the business profitably forever without paying investors another dollar. If at any point you decide to sell the business or raise a big round of equity, the whole investment easily converts to a predefined percentage of equity or the sale.
This makes the return expectations crystal clear. It also puts the founder in the driver’s seat. If you want to raise more money…cool. But we won’t push you to do that. If you way to pay us off once you have a healthy and profitable business…also cool, and everyone understands the terms that allow that to happen.
If you’d rather pay a percentage of profits…also cool. That’s how the fund expects to pay back investors: Cash flow from great businesses coming in over time.
Another major decision I love is that Mentors are Investors and vice versa.
When the same people advising founders are quite literally invested in their success, it ensures that the mentoring relationship will be squarely based on the founder’s success and it will endure. Click to Tweet.
Early Days and Early Investments
So here we are. We have an all-star group of mentors. We’ve had 1000+ founders express some sort of interest in Earnest Capital, which tells me we’re onto something. Hundreds of those interested submitted formal applications, and we’re starting to make investments. I love it when a plan comes together.
To be clear: SureSwift is not a “Fund of Funds.” We’ve never done this before and we don’t intend to do it again. But we wanted Earnest Capital to exist, and we believed we needed to help it to exist because it aligns perfectly with our mission: To invest in profitable digital businesses that help customers and employee people around the world.
Hiring your first employee is an exciting, and potentially stressful time for any business. Expanding your team beyond the founders means your company is bringing in enough money to grow, and having help means you can work less in the business and focus more on the business from a strategic level. But if you’ve never hired or managed anyone before, how do you find the right people for your team? We’ve got all the details for you including where to post your jobs, how to filter applications, interview questions, and more.
When Hiring Your First Employee (and All of Your Employees), Go Remote
Step away from the expensive office space… and commuting time, unnecessary meetings, and overhead. Build a virtual team and hire your first employee (and every one after that) remote.
First off, if you haven’t already committed to going remote, you should. Most SaaS businesses don’t need or benefit from having a traditional office, and expanding your job search to “everywhere” will give you access to a bigger talent pool with more competitive rates. Hiring remote from your first employee on also means you’ll get all the benefits of remote work, with none of the headaches of trying to integrate an in-person team with a remote team later on.
Plus, managing a virtual team is easy with the right tools and practices. In fact, SureSwift is a fully-remote company with 80 employees working in 14 different time zones, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
But however you decide to structure your business, there are certain qualities that make for a great team member. Small teams and startups don’t have the time or capital for ineffective employees. You need proactive, resilient self-starters who have experience managing their time effectively, and you need to not spend months and months finding them.
How to Write Your Job Description
All of your channels come in handy when you’re hiring your first employee. Use your website, social media accounts, and even your email list if you have one.You don’t need to reinvent the job description. There’s a reason the format is pretty standard. But you should make sure it’s appealing to the best candidates. Here are a few tips:
- Include a bit about your business. What does your company do, and how do you help your customers or make their lives better?
- Include an overview of the job duties along with a brief, bulleted list that includes specific skills, requirements, etc.
- If the job is remote, or has flexible hours, include that in the job title. For example: “Remote Customer Support Position” or “Remote Web Developer: Flexible Hours.” (Read up on crafting your posts to attract remote workers).
- Keep it simple, but include some instructions on how to apply for the position. Things like a specific subject line, a few questions to answer as part of a cover letter, or including a link to a resume on Google Docs will all help you do a first quick filter of your applications. Attention to detail is important to any job, and this is a great way to help you filter applications (more on that below).
- If you have a salary or an hourly range in mind, you may want to include it in your job description. Or, you can ask applicants to include their desired rate in their email.
Where to Post Your Job
All of your channels come in handy when you’re hiring your first employee. Use your website, social media accounts, and even your email list if you have one.
- Even if you’re just starting out you should put the full job posting on your website, and promote via your company’s social media accounts. If the job is remote or has flexible hours, be sure to include that in the title.
- Let your professional network know you’re hiring, and ask them to share the posting as well. We’ve had great success with referrals from the SureSwift team.
- Share the job post with your email list. If people like your product, they might want to work with you to help grow it.
- FlexJobs and WeWorkRemotely are two job posting sites dedicated specifically to remote work.
- PowertoFly is a job board aimed specifically at female candidates, with a remote-specific search. With 56% of women leaving the workforce mid-career, and a good chunk of that churn due to a lack of flexibility, there are some seriously talented candidates out there being left in the job pool by your brick-and-mortar peers.
- UpWork is a good place to look for entry-level freelancers. If you’re looking for a long-term relationship or more experience, you might be better off creating a freelance job posting using one of the sites above.
How to Narrow Down Your Candidates
Where you post your job and the type of employee you’re looking for will determine how many applicants you get. Sometimes you may just get a few and other times you may have an overwhelming number.
Here are a few ways to help narrow your list of candidates:
- Look for personal referrals and if they meet the job qualifications, put them at the top of your list. Networking is one of the best ways to find good talent.
- Eliminate anyone who didn’t follow directions. If you asked for three specific things and they only provided two, it’s likely they’ll do the same thing on the job.
- Look for people who go above and beyond. Maybe you ask for a writing sample and they mock up an article that could be used on your website. If they’re willing to go the extra mile for the interview, it’s a good sign they’ll do the same when they’re working for you as well.
- Exclude any candidates that fall completely outside the salary or hourly range you have in mind.
Hiring Your First Employee: What to ask in your interviews
Video chat is a great tool for interviews. You’ll learn a lot more from your candidate’s body language and whether they took time to set things up to look professional than you can from a phone call or an email.
In addition to questions that get to your candidates’ experience for the specific role you’re hiring for, here are a few examples of questions that will help you determine if someone is a good fit for your role.
If you’re hiring for a remote position, here a few basic questions you should ask:
Tell me about your most recent experience working with a remote team. What tools did you use to communicate?
- Look for honest answers about communicating across time zones, keeping people on the same page, and whether they seem knowledgeable about some of the web-based communication tools you use.
Let’s pretend you’re in this position. You’re on an important call, and your internet signal starts having issues. What would you do?
- In addition to how they answer this question, take note of how their signal and setup is for your interview. Did they make sure to have fast enough internet? Did they take care with how they dressed (at least from the waist up)?
No matter what kind of role you’re hiring for, here are a few questions to help you spot the gems in your candidate pool and uncover issues before you make an offer:
Tell me about your most stressful day at work. What happened, and how did you deal with it?
- Look for candidates who are skillful at dealing with stress in healthy ways and then moving on. Note the tone of their answer, too. Do they sound bitter and irritated, or are they able to inject positivity or humor into a bad past experience?
Tell me about a big project you worked on. What was your role, how did you approach it, and how did you organize your time? Did you hit any roadblocks along the way, and how did you deal with those?
- The key skills you’re looking for here are the ability to break big projects down into smaller tasks, creating systems to manage time and keep track of tasks, and letting managers or co-workers know about barriers.
Can you give me an example of a time you had to have a difficult conversation with your boss/co-worker/customer? How did you communicate with them, and what was the outcome?
- Difficult or nuanced conversations are best held in person, or on the phone, or via video call if you’re working remote. If someone discusses a conflict that happened over email, text, or other electronic communications that they didn’t move to a more personal channel, it’s a good sign you should pass.
Making the Offer and Preparing for Day One
You’ve made it through interviews and you’ve got your top pick for hiring your first employee. Now what?
Here are the steps you should take to make an offer, and get yourself (and your new hire) set up for a successful start:
- When you reach out to your top candidate with a job offer, you’ll want to let them know how much you’re going to pay them and when you would like them to start. Be prepared to negotiate both items.
- When your top candidate accepts, it’s a good time (and common courtesy) to contact the rest of the people you interviewed and let them know you moved forward with someone else.
- If you had other candidates you were really interested in, send them a personal note, and let them know you’d like to stay in touch so you’re on their radar if/when you expand your team again.
- Take down your job posting so people don’t continue to apply.
- Start documenting all of the things you’ll want your new hire to do. You can use tools like Loom to make videos of day-to-day tasks that may be difficult to explain over the phone or email.
- Use a project management tool like Trello to help keep track of daily, weekly or monthly tasks and to keep communication around them in one, central location.
Take a deep breath and celebrate! You’ve reached a huge milestone and hiring your first employee should help you focus on other things. While it’s tempting to put off hiring, or think you can do it all, building lean teams has helped a lot of our founders scale their businesses. Lilia Tovbin hired a small team of long-term freelancers to help her moderate user-generated content when managing the queue was taking her attention away from business strategy. And bringing on a technical partner helped MySiteAuditor founder, Marvin Russell, scale the company to $40,000 in MRR.
We came up with this list of 15 of the best books for bootstrapping entrepreneurs by asking our own team of founders for their personal favorites. These are the titles that came up over and over because they’re like playbooks for running your business better. From classics to new releases (and even a little inspiration outside of the business section) we’ve got something for every entrepreneur’s reading list. Eyes blurry from staring at your screen? Relax, we have links to the audiobook versions, too.
The Best Business Books for Bootstrapping Entrepreneurs
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
A book dedicated to helping you avoid the pitfalls that lead most startups to fail, this one’s packed full of advice to help you do more with less, adjust faster, and figure out what your customers really want.
Amazon | Audible
One of the best book for entrepreneurs going solo, you’ll find tons of counterintuitive advice for going into business on your own without outside investors, getting more exposure without spending a small fortune, and being more productive. Fellow business author, Seth Godin says in his review, “This book is short, fast, sharp and ready to make a difference.” Founder of HelpTeaching.com, Lilia Tovbin is also a fan.
Amazon | Audible
Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy
If you’ve ever left an important pitch or sales call feeling like your performance was less than stellar, this book needs to be on your radar. In June 2012, social psychologist and author Amy Cuddy gave one of the most popular TED talks of all time. Her insights into how body language might impact not only how others see us, but also how we see ourselves has been viewed and shared more than 50 million times. In her book, Presence, she expands on this idea with passion, research, and real-life examples.
Amazon | Audible
Lost and Founder by Rand Fishkin
Fishkin’s 2018 memoir reads like a conversation with a good friend over a couple beers. While he could easily talk up his many business successes, instead he takes you on an honest, funny, and overarchingly human ride through all the ups and downs that are life as a startup founder.
Amazon | Audible
The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank
A new classic with practical advice on everything from rapid iteration and customer feedback to testing your assumptions.
Amazon | (not available as audio)
“A grandiose title for a very good book!”
–Mack McConnell, Founder of Taster’s Club
The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki
If business is more art than science, then Kawasaki is one of the masters. Updated in 2015, this easy-to-follow guide will lead you through everything from innovating, recruiting, fundraising, branding, and social media.
Amazon | Audible
INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan
One of the best books for entrepreneurs new to product management, Cagan’s straightforward, master-class like volume is a must-read to help you develop your product management cycle, scale and staff your team, and uncover new features your customers will love (and pay for).
Amazon | Audible
Tools of the Titans by Tim Ferriss
It’s hard to think of an impressive business list that Tim Ferriss hasn’t topped since the success of The 4-Hour Work Week launched him to worldwide fame. He’s one of Fast Company‘s “Most Innovative Business People,” one of Forbes‘s “Names You Need to Know,” and one of Fortune‘s “40 under 40.” Oh yeah, and he’s been an early-stage investor/advisor in companies like Uber, Facebook, Shopify, Duolingo, Alibaba, and more than 50 others. It’s the understatement of the year to say he knows the startup world, and safe to say if he’s got a book out, it should be on your nightstand.
Amazon | Audible
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
Author and spirit-animal/soulmate to Oprah, Brené Brown is read and beloved by millions who have used her wisdom to get past the emotions and habits holding them back in life, business, and relationships. If you struggle with relating to your team, or find that you talk yourself out of opportunities, any one of her books may offer insight into getting past these patterns and making progress.
Amazon | Audible
15 of the best books for entrepreneurs from classics to new releases (and even a little inspiration outside of the business section). Click to Tweet.
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard
Hear in his own words how the legendary Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard went from a young rock climber seeking the next thrill to running one of the most successful and recognizable outdoor brands. With a laser-focus on doing right by both people and the planet that’s made him beloved by customers and employees alike, Chouinard is a model for the 21st-century CEO.
Amazon | Audible
“A great, behind-the-scenes look at the unique way that one of America’s greatest brands was built.”
– Kevin McArdle, Co-Founder & CEO of SureSwift Capital
Hustle: The Power to Charge Your Life with Money, Meaning, and Momentum by Neil Patel, Patrick Vlaskovits, Jonas Koffler
A great book for the newbie or aspiring entrepreneur, consider Hustle your personal coach. This book is packed with inspiration for quitting your day job, starting your own business, and taking leaps in your life.
Amazon | Audible
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
Duckworth has good news for bootstrappers: It’s grit, not genius that turns out to be the biggest predictor of success. If you started a business solo, that usually means there will be areas that are outside your wheelhouse. Maybe you’re a great programmer, but the marketing side’s a bit of a mystery to you, or vice versa. Or maybe your business is going great, but the next stage means management, which you’ve never done. Grit will teach you to meet challenges in business and life with passion and persistence.
Amazon | Audible
The Best Books for Bootstrapping Entrepreneurs: Finding Inspiration Outside of the Business Section
Sometimes the best books to help entrepreneurs to find inspiration are a little less obvious. Just like Archimedes in the bathtub, here a few more out-of-the-way places you might find your own “Eureka!” moment.
Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court by John Wooden & Steve Jamison
A great read if you’re getting ready to scale your business with new hires. A lot of things that work for managing a team on the court apply to life off the court as well.
Amazon | Audible
“John Wooden! The winningest coach in NCAA history. But he never talked about winning to his team. He believed that if you focused on perfecting the small things, then winning would take care of itself.”
– Marvin Russell, Founder of The Ocean Agency, MySiteAuditor, and Checkli, and Growth Advisor for SureSwift Capital
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
There’s a reason this book has been a favorite of savvy entrepreneurs since before the days of Mad Men, and is still wildly popular in Silicon Valley today. Consider it a metaphor for running your business, and put it in your cart now if you’re launching in a competitive space. Snap Chat founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy famously bought it for every one of their six employees when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was digging for information on their business plans after they rejected his offer to buy their company.
Amazon | Audible
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
It’s hard to describe this one without giving spoilers, so we’ll leave it up to our VP of Product, Tom Kincheloe, who re-reads it every couple months.
Amazon | Audible
“I pretty much never read ‘business’ books unless it’s required reading, but I’ve read the Alchemist every one to two months for over six years now. This is my favorite business/entrepreneur book by a mile, even though almost no one would classify it as such. It’s a book about life and living in the now. Two lines I love from it are, ‘People are capable at any time in their lives of doing what they dream of,’ and ‘If you improve on the present, what comes later is better.’ Business shouldn’t be that different from life.”
– Tom Kincheloe, VP of Product for SureSwift Capital
A lot of SaaS startups have a blog as part of their marketing strategy. On most blogs, a few posts will outperform the rest of your content combined. Instead of spending time, energy, and money refreshing outdated and poor performing articles, learn how to identify your top-performing content, and maximize the heck out of the results.
Your New Go-to SaaS Marketing Strategy: Content Maximizing
A simple way to make sure you maximize the results from your top performing content is what I like to call “content maximizing.” Basically, this means optimizing existing blog content that’s performing well, redirecting content that isn’t, and creating new content with a laser focus on driving trials.
Let’s start by talking about why your SaaS business has a blog in the first place. When I ask people this question, here are a few of the answers I typically get:
- “I’m not sure.”
- “To feed Google.”
- “To create content.”
- “Because it came with the theme.”
- “To get traffic.” (my favorite)
Saying you have a blog to drive traffic is like saying you got a car to drive it. That’s not why you got a car. You got a car to drive your kids to school, to get to work, or to take road trips — not to drive it around aimlessly. Click to Tweet.
The answer you should be coming up with? To get new trials (or leads, or member signups — whatever your particular goal is).
To get your blog to a place where it’s getting you new trials you’ll need to do three things:
- Maximize top performing blog content.
- Purge poor performing blog content.
- Create laser-focused new content.
Let’s walk through each of these steps in detail.
Part 1: Maximize your top performing blog content
Focus and get the most out of your star players
When it comes to your SaaS marketing strategy, it doesn’t really matter how many blog posts you have. You could have 10 or 100. If they’re not driving trials, they’re not performing well.
Think of your blog as your own personal sports team, and the individual posts as your players. The first thing we need to do is find your MVPs — the players who consistently score the most points for you — and then we’re going to give them more play time. (Hey, sports analogies happen when you’re writing a post during the NBA finals).
Step 1: Identify Your Top Performing Blog Content in Google Analytics
Log into your Google Analytics account. If you don’t have one set up, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go straight to Google and set up your account today, this instant. Without analytics, you really can’t manage a website or a blog properly.
Google Analytics is key to your SaaS marketing strategy. If you don’t have an account, sign up for one today.
Go to the “Acquisition” tab, click “Search Console,” then “Landing Pages.” Sort your data by goals and dig in. Again, if you don’t have goals set up, do this immediately. It’s crucial to identifying your top performing content. Looking at impressions alone won’t tell you enough. Just because a post is popular doesn’t mean it’s doing its job.
Step 2: Do Keyword Research in Google Analytics and Google Search Console
You’ll probably notice right away that there are some pages and blog posts that convert much better than others.
Click into these posts to see which keywords are driving traffic to them, and how your post ranks in Google search for those terms.
Ideally you’d be ranking #1 for all of these keywords in order to bring in the maximum amount of organic search traffic to your top performing posts.
It can take some time to get there, but posts that aren’t ranking high yet just mean you have an opportunity to optimize them to get more search traffic and drive more conversions.
Need more help on this step? Watch a video on digging into your data.
Step 3: Perform SEO Updates
Before you update the SEO for your top-performing posts, it’s a good idea to check out what your competitors are doing. To continue with the sports analogy, this is kind of like watching game footage of the team you’re about to play against. You want to figure out what they’re doing well, and then do it better.
Go to MySiteAuditor and run competitor audits on higher ranking competitor pages. Now look at those competitor page audits. How many optimized images do they have? How many backlinks? What’s the word count?
Maximizing content as part of your new SaaS marketing strategy will mean dedicating some time to going back into your top-performing blog posts and making SEO updates.
Go back to your post and maximize it by adding more optimized images, adding a new section to up your word count, spending some time on promotion to get more backlinks, or doing all three.
You should also go back to your list of related keywords and work them into your post in a natural way. But avoid content stuffing. Your ultimate goal should always be to create content that’s valuable to your audience that also performs really well for your business. Just throwing a bunch of keywords into a blog post won’t help your customers, and it won’t get you more trials.
It should go without saying, but you’ll also want to double check SEO basics like image alt tags, file names, etc. Check out this super simple SEO checklist to make sure you’re covering them all.
Now think about what other posts on your site should have internal links to this post, and add them in. Building backlinks can be time consuming, and there are no guarantees that someone else will link to you. But building internal links is a no brainer: It takes almost no time, and it’ll improve your search ranking.
Step 4: Optimize Conversion Points
Use a tool like hotjar to help you figure out how your customers are using your site, and their screen reading patterns. That way you can make sure CTA’s are in the best spots.
It’s no use having a bunch of targeted, amazing blog content if your conversion funnel is broken. Install hotjar on your top performing posts so you can see a heat map of where people are clicking and their screen-reading patterns on your site.
Here are a few quick, and pretty universal ways you can optimize your SaaS marketing conversion funnel:
- Add a sticky header with a button for your free trial (or member signup, etc). You want people to be able to read a blog post, but always have a conversion button in their line of sight.
- Add a promotion button to the bottom of your posts. The bottom left corner is a great spot for these.
- Give away something free behind your signup wall. For example, on MySiteAuditor, we give away a free SEO contract. People who want that are the perfect target audience for the tool, so we can help them, while driving signups.
Step 5: Repeat
Go back to Google Analytics, and pick the next top-performing post on your list, and repeat these steps. Keep checking back regularly (every 90 days at the very least, and monthly is better) to see how posts are performing and ranking, and if there are additional opportunities to optimize.
Part 2: Purging poor performing content from your blog
What to do with old posts with no traffic or impressions
The next step in maximizing your SaaS marketing strategy? Redirecting content that’s not converting to content that is.
Once you’ve maximized your star players, you want to look for the ones who aren’t contributing much and get them to pass the ball to better players. Doing this is pretty simple and just takes a few steps.
Head back into your Google Analytics account, and look for blog posts with zero traffic and/or zero impressions. Then set up 301 redirects from those posts to new, optimized content, or to related posts you’ve already optimized.
- Send 301 redirects to the homepage
- Simply delete old posts
- Change your URLs
You never want to just straight up delete a post, or set up all of your 301 redirects to go to your home page — you’ll confuse Google, and lose any link juice you had for that content. Instead, you want to create a new, better performing post and send any future traffic going to the old post over there.
Part 3: Create Laser-Focused New Blog Content
How to create super, insanely targeted content.
Now that you’ve got your team in great shape, it’s time to draft some new players, but you’re only looking for the best of the best.
To put it simply, millions of new blog posts go live every single day. If you’re not insanely focused, you won’t stand out against all of that competition for your potential customers’ attention.
Step 1: Create a Mission for your Blog and Write to It
Having a clearly stated missions for your blog will not only help your audience decide right away if your content (and thereby your product) is right for them, it will help you create high-performing content for your blog.
Groove, a customer support tool for SaaS businesses, is a great example of a company whose blog has a crystal clear mission.
Take a look at Groove’s blog mission in the image above. Only startups and SaaS businesses would care about this. They’re not going to be accidentally talking to car salesmen or chefs, and it’s super clear what the benefit to their audience is right from the start.
Once you have a mission, it’s much easier to do your keyword research and start coming up with topics that will speak to your audience and drive conversions.
You don’t need to be an SEO expert to improve your SaaS marketing strategy. Google Suggest is an easy, free way to come up with topic ideas for your blog.
There are a lot of keyword research articles and tools out there. Without going deep into those or getting really technical here, a great, free tool is Google Suggest. Just start typing into Google and see what questions/topics come up in the search bar. It will practically write your blog post titles for you.
Based on your keyword research, start coming up with a topic list. Store it in a tool like Checkli, Trello, or Google Sheets. Whatever tool you use, keep a running list for your copywriter (even if that’s you).
Never just wake up and start writing. When it’s time to work on a post, you want to already know what you’re going to write about so you can focus on optimizing your post for keywords you’ve already selected.
Step 2: Define Conversion Points for Every Post
The same methods you used to define conversion points when you were optimizing top performers can be used for new content.
- Install hotjar
- Make sure new posts have a sticky header with your free trial (signup, etc.) button
- Add in-post Call-to-Action buttons. Try out both text and graphic CTA’s in the body of your posts, as well as at the end.
- Whenever you create new content think about what content upgrades can go with it that you can use to drive trials (here’s that example from MySiteAuditor again).
Step 3: Create Content That Markets Itself
Do yourself a favor and build your marketing plan right into every single post your write with these quick tips:
- Follow SEO empire-builder, Rand Fishkin’s advice and ask, “who would amplify this and why?”
- Add ego bait by finding real-life people or adjacent startups to mention, and they just might re-share your post (I love this example).
- Make sure people can easily market the post for you with share buttons, click-to-tweet links, “Pin it” images, etc.
- Include a featured image and use an OpenGraph plug-in to have it easily shared with your content. Rich content is twice as likely to be shared.
- Create featured snippets that come up automatically when people share a link to your post (use a tool like Yoast)
- Aim to spend 3 times as much time marketing your post as you did creating it. If it takes you 6 hours to write a high-quality, optimized post, you should be spending about 18 hours marketing it. That includes creating social posts that can be scheduled throughout the year, reaching out to others who might amplify it, putting it in your email marketing, etc.
All of this work will probably mean you create content less often (once or twice a month vs. multiple times a week), and spend more time marketing it. That’s okay because one super-focused, top-performing post is going to do a lot more for you than 10 mediocre posts. So change your SaaS marketing mindset, use these tips, do the work, and bask in the new trials that will roll in as a result.