The five pillars of Saas

If you are thinking to start your own Saas product you’d better understand from the beginning that what you see in other people’s product, what you perceive and what you can touch is not even half of the job. It’s way less.

Saas products are made up of thousands of features most of which an average user (the one I was untill recent years) is totally unaware of. Maybe you are a coder, a smart one, but even with good programming skills you may not immediately realize what’s the burden a Saas owner or a development team has to take to make the things move in the right direction.

A nifty text editor, live page updates, complex analytics, all the interesting and cool features, the part you look forward to start coding, well, they come after. What comes first is a planning job and the setup of the infrastructure. Here is a list of things every Saas owner should take into account before starting to give tasks to people.

1 – Checkout process

The first and most obvious thing which is often forgotten is the checkout process. It’s a pretty common mistake for founders to start giving away features for free, with processing time and storage being paid by nobody (read being paid by themselves or investors) with the idea to test how the product behaves and only then think about asking money for the provided service.

This approach is clearly wrong most of the times. The first reason this is wrong is because until you have paying customers it’s hard for you to understand how much your audience is really appreciating your service.

There may be times when it makes sense not to think about billing from the beginning though. For instance you may be putting some service online with no idea on how the architecture is going to react to actual use by your audience. Other reasons may be your business being oriented more towards advertising or other business models.

In general it’s better to start with a way to earn money in a way or another. It doesn’t have to be fully automated. You can set up a hybrid solution and be fine with that for several months. Just have a ready solution to bill your customers’ credit cards.

You may be tempted to think it’s just about the payment gateway. This does not end just by adding Stripe or Paymill to your site.
You must have clear what’s the ideal path to move moeny from your users’ pockets into yours.

2 – Customer care

If taking money from your customers is vital for your business, to provide them with a pleasant and well-organized conversation is even more important. Sooner or later you’ll start receiving messages from people for the most disparate reasons. If it doesn’t happen, it may be the sign that your product is not arousing any interest in anyone on the Internet — not a good sign.

So expect — and pursue — conversation. It’s vital to the business. How to run conversation with your customers would require an article apart. For now it’s enough to say that in the best case you’ll be 50% wrong about what people find interesting in your product.

Remember that starting a business is not like launching rockets. You have to by hyper tuned on the your customers frequency. You’ll find in their questions what they were actually looking for when they signed up for on your site. Learn from their misuse. You’ll find use cases you’d never think possible. With them will sometimes pop out a new unmet need and new business opportunities.

3 – Knowledge base

Not everybody likes to search for documentation online when they are stuck on something. Many people will just drop you an email and wait for an answer. Somebody won’t do that neither, they will just turn around and be gone forever. Other people will greatly value instead the online documentation you’ll provide. It doesn’t matter how good you help desk support.

An online knowledge base is something you must do to provide a business grade Saas, something your customer can rely on. A user may face a problem at late night, off the office hours. For how long are you going to answer tickets on Sundays?
Help desk and knowledge base are two sides of the same coin. Customers use them because either:

  • your user interface is not clear enough for them to understand how they are supposed to use it (you can work it out but you can’t make everyone happy).
  • something in your software is not working as expected (or they think so).

Your knowledge base should hold the answer to such questions. It should describe the expected outcome of a certain activity, so a user can judge if the software is working correctly or it’s just them misunderstanding. Should tell the user that what they are desperately looking for in the Analytics menu is actually located under the Your account menu. Or simply that what they are looking for is not present. They should be able to come up with an answer without having to wait help desk support time, for what long or short it will be.

Over time you’ll probably notice patterns in what is being asked on the help desk channel. As soon as you do be prepared to pack up a page for that Frequently Asked Question.

Another reason why you should invest in your knowledge base is because it’s free content which increases your footprint on the web. Be sure to have SEO optimized pages. Write a lot of them. They should talk about your product better than anyone else.

4 – Outbound communications

Here is when you reach out for your customer feedback. Some people is very extrovert. They’ll type something in an input field just because it’s there. The vast majority will instead just think the time and effort to leave a feedback is not worth. Among those is a part of your paying customer base.

Consider that anyone doing a sign-up on your website is looking for something. No one does a sign-up just because you put a form in front of them.
They’re maybe just curious to know what’s the product about, or they may be really interested in solving a problem they are struggling with. In both cases there may be something they don’t think is important to say to you. You have to strive to understand what goes on in their head from the moment they get inside your virtual door.

Ask yourself: how would you behave if you were running and hardware retail store?
A customer comes in, he starts to look around, maybe look at some price, weigh something from the shelf. What do you do? You kindly approach and ask: “May I assist you in something?”.
With Saas it’s the same, more or less. You need to find the way to interact and grab some feedback from whoever comes in. Yes — youd’s say — but how can you recreate that same feeling online?

First off, you can use pop ups to inform you are there to help. That you are present, in each page they visit, whenever they click around. Another technique, which can only be applied after sign-up, is to collect user accounts into courts and send them emails asking for a feedback.

You can start from the ones who signed up last week, and never signed in again. You have to be creative and setup whatever you think is the most kind email to let them know that you care about their opinion.
Do you feel like you’re stressing someone, feeling spammy? Well, they signed up to your service after all. Are you afraid they’ll be annoyed and unsubscribe for good? Well, maybe. What are you going to do with unsatisfied customers anyway?

5 – Analytics and internal reports

As already said, what your customers will see about your product is something like the tip of the iceberg. Take into account – and plan resources accordingly – that you have to develop logging procedures and facility to be able to answer quickly to the most disparate questions. For what concerns the user’s activity on your application, and what concerns the system performances. The following is just a quick list of questions you may need an answer for:

  • how many people logged in today? yesterday? During the last week? (this is easy)
  • how many people I can consider active users? (what is an active user by the way?)
  • is people doing everything I expect them to do in my app, or they just sign-up and quit?
  • is feature X really appreciated? How many people is actually using it?

Just an example. Other questions may focus on the system itself:

  • is my application perceived as “fast”?
  • is anyone receiving errors?
  • what’s the growth rate of my database? How much time I have before a migration to a larger hosting is required?
  • what’s the slowest part of my app?
  • who would the system react to double of the current load?

and so on and so on. The interesting part is that you’ll need to mix up those two separate domains to come up with important decisions. For instance:

  • is my application perceived fast by paying users?
  • is there any user who is experiencing more errors from my app?
  • is feature X really appreciated by user Z?
  • does the Bronze plan take too much of my storage space?
  • who would the system react if I’m to improve the trial period by three weeks?

Too many founders either don’t ask for such questions or guess about it, simply because the time required to code the infrastructure for that is non trivial, and they are absorbed the interesting part which is to prove the Internet they are right.
What I understood lately is that the cool part of the coding job is this. Being able to answer such questions. Business changes, features come and go. Analytics will be extremely valuable for one person at least. You.

Summing up

Whatever Saas product you are thinking about, whatever technology are you going to use, what’s listed above you can’t miss or leave at the case. You’ll find plenty of providers offering such services as B2B Saas. In the next articles I’ll try to provide a list of what we at News@me are using right now and why, what the benefits are, what experiences we had in the past and what we learned.

It doesn’t matter if you are going to start by relying on third-party providers from the beginning or you’ll arrange something with free online tools, or even develop your homegrown solution.

Those are the pillars, they have to be there from the beginning and you’ll have to master all five. After that, you can still do wrong. But at least not everything will be lost. The pillars won’t let you crumble.

Did you find this article useful? Drop me a line in the comments or reach out on twitter.

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