July 14, 2022

Building Your SaaS for the Right Persona with Sujan Patel of Mailshake

Building Your SaaS for the Right Persona with Sujan Patel of Mailshake

The best SaaS businesses starts with trying to solve a problem for a specific customer persona. Though your product might be good, it might not fit the the ideal customer persona right. So what can you do about it?
Listen to this episode of course…


The best SaaS businesses starts with trying to solve a problem for a specific customer persona. Though your product might be good, it might not fit the the ideal customer persona right. So what can you do about it?

Listen to this episode of course…

Sujan Patel, Co-Founder of Mailshake, joins the conversation to discuss his experience and mistakes building and growing Mailshake and how to identify product market fit.

Sujan is a data-driven content marketer and entrepreneur. He is also the Managing Director at Ramp Ventures, a part-time Board Member of the Entrepreneurs'​ Organization, and the GM and Co-Founder of Web Profits.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How to find the right customer
  • Building and growing Mailshake
  • How Mailshake helps sales reps?
  • How Sujan learns from his mistakes

Sujan Patel: 7,500 People were telling us all of these things they wanted but that they weren't the customer we're building the product for. Fast forward, that was 2017, '18, '19, '20, 4 years, 5 years of people continuing to tell us stuff who we're not building a product for. We ended up having to build stuff not necessary wasting time but in 2018 if we said no, we're only building for sales reps, we would have taken a big hit on revenue but we would have built a very focused business faster.
Speaker: Welcome to SaaS Origin Stories. Tune in to hear authentic conversations with founders as they share stories from the earlier days of their SaaS startups. We'll cover painful challenges, early wins, and actionable takeaways. You'll hear firsthand the do's and don'ts of building and growing a SaaS as well as inspirational stories to fuel you on your own SaaS journey. Here's your host, Phil Alves.
Phil: Today I have Sujan Patel from Mailshake and he's going to be telling us a little bit about how it was to start that business. Sujan, welcome to the show. Thank you very much for being here.
Sujan: Hey, thank you for having me. I'm super, super excited to share the story and just help pave the way forward for future entrepreneurs and software founders.
Phil: Thank you. We appreciate your time. The first question that I like to ask founders when they come to the show is, just tell me a little bit about Mailshake and what problem were you trying to solve when you started the product.
Sujan: When I started Mailshake, this is 2015, my goal was to start a SaaS business and I didn't care what was the problem to solve. I was trying to find an idea to start with to get experience on how to run a software business. I was like, let me just practice on an idea, a problem I know that is facing myself and people I know which was really like, when we started, we were trying to solve this problem for marketers, and specifically, content marketers doing all sorts of outreach, whether it's to build partnerships, co-marketing opportunities, link building, SEO related, recruit people for a podcast. Many reasons why someone would reach out to folks like how you got connected to me.
You reached out, I said yes. Well, we talked back and forth and we were doing this. That was the problem at the time. There was not a lot of great tools out there. In fact, they all suck. I've used all of them, they all had an issue or another and that's where the idea came from.
Phil: I really like it because you say, first it looks like you have no pressure upon yourself. You're like, "Let me go try to figure out something and you found a problem that you were very familiar with, and that you knew the competition, that they suck. You knew that you could go and do better but you understood the problem well enough. That's even how I have done with my own SaaS. It's a problem to understand well.
Sujan: That's the intro. Well, here's what happened. It was not the problem we ended up solving, we pivoted. Turns out, well, long story short, we built the product for marketing people but we didn't limit it just to marketing people. We got sales people using the product. They loved it too and they're like, "Well, if you had this, that, the other," it was slightly different use case. If you added the ability to have a team instead of just one user per account, and just basic stuff, we would love this too, it'd work for us too.
That customer was even better because when we're selling to marketers, I know this. I've been doing marketing for 20-plus years, they're picky. They have high demands, they want every feature or functionality. If it doesn't work perfectly, they're pissed. Even if it does work perfectly, they're pissed at something else. They're very picky hard audiences to satisfy. Sales reps were like, "I don't get any software ever. No one builds software for me really. I'm used to using Salesforce and these clunky things.
If I use this and I make money from this." Back up a step. Mailshake is an outreach platform started off as email outreach and now we do all things sales engagement. Long story short, marketer was getting access to build a relationship with somebody, sales reps were closing deals and generating revenue, and then telling their friends. People just started making money with our product and that was like, "Oh, why are we targeting marketers when salespeople love it?"
The reason they loved it was there was no training involved. It was really simple and easy to get set up and get started. Not just set up, but get your first campaign out the door and that was our aha moment. It just came 18 months after we built the company.
Phil: That's nice. Basically, it looks what you're telling me, the salespeople have a bigger pain. Their pain were bigger, their outcomes were better for them because they're making sales and they become a better customer for the product. It took you a little bit to figure that out but one thing when you say about people being very picky, I always say if the pain's big enough, people are going to be more patient with products.
As you keep improving your product, when there's bigger pain, there's a little bit more patience. Would you agree with that statement? Do you think that's why it worked well for that target?
Sujan: I think so. Absolutely. I think at the marketing front, there wasn't that big of a pain because there was other tools out there. People did it manually. There are many other ways to move forward where the sales reps, they really wanted to make more money. They're hungry at whatever can give them a leg up to make close more deals, their willingness to do it was just far greater to try and test and whatever. I think that was a big wild moment.
Again, I didn't really think much of it because I was looking at this as this is my side project. In fact, the way I look at this was my wife at the time was getting her MBA. I'm like, I had a successful exit at Silver Marketing Agency. I was like I will get my MBA too but I hate school, I can't sit there and learn. I learn by doing, so they all do this. This is my MBA, I devoted $100,000 of my own money to go spend in doing this. Then 50,000 users later, we're still at it, growing.
Phil: I love that advice. So many times we go and try to just start a business. Even if we fail, many times is actually cheaper than the MBA or the same price of MBA and you learn so much more. That looks like that was your approach to this whole thing. Instead of going to MBA, I'll put $100,000 here and I'm going to learn.
Sujan: I also piggybacked on my wife's classmates and access to her MBA program. I was like, "Hey, professor of my wife's class, can I pick your brain on something?" I definitely got a little free ride there too.
Phil: That's awesome. Why do you think you're the right founder to build Mailshake?
Sujan: Well, I think it comes down to tenacity. I had an itch. I had ambition and tenacity. When I say ambition, it's I wanted to start a software company. I was open to the idea. Because of my background, I came from working with the consulting business and working at an agency where I was working in many different business models and businesses, I wasn't attached to any one idea. I like traffic going up, I like conversions going up, I like revenue going up.
Those charts and the outcomes from all my marketing efforts are what excites me. It could be I've done working for nail polish, shoes, ERP software, stack software, some of the most boring stuff. I find everything is exciting. I wasn't really attached to the business idea. I was attached to doing a business, and then I say tenacity or grit is probably a better way to look at this. At that time in my life, I had no kids. I had savings. I had a full-time job.
My wife was in school, so maybe that was the negative thing with single income for a family. Ultimately, I had 100k and a year to lose. I was willing to spend the time. It was a good timing. A lot of times I think people mistake, let's say they hear this and they go try to do that. Well, what if it's not the right time? Not everybody has to start a business at any time. Any time is not the best time. I usually find downturns, all of my businesses, and my most success have happened when the economy is shit. The reason that is the case is that that's when I'm like, "Fuck it, I have nothing else to lose. Let's go." In 2008 is when I started my marketing agency. Because I started when getting business was really hard, when the economy, when things were better, I was like, "This is really easy. How hard can it be? Why is it this so easy?"
Obviously, things are really pretty bad in the world right now in terms of the economy for a lot of reasons. The economy specifically, this is a great time to build that grit.
Phil: That's amazing. Basically, just to reiterate, you feel you're the right founder because of the time. It was the right timing for you personally, was the time that you had the time, you had the desire to go. I love what you say about the downturn being the best moment to start a business. I had people come to me and ask, "I have about 100 employees." People are worried because of the recession that's coming. I'm like, "Guys, after each recession, there's a boom. I'm excited. We just have to pass through this, and after this, it's going to be amazing.
After the dip, there's the biggest going up. Like you say, you get stronger in those times. I think that's very timely for us to talk a little bit about that too. Maybe if you're in the right place, personally, mentally, with your personal life, the downturn doesn't matter. It may even make you stronger to start a business right now.
Sujan: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Phil: My next question, how did you build the first version of the product? How did you fund it, the first version?
Sujan: The way I started, I had the idea. I'm not a developer. I've gotten better at product and I practiced that craft prior to starting Mailshake, and actually during. I found a technical co-founder that can build what I wanted, and I convinced him to join me take a risk on this endeavor, and I told them upfront the cost, up to $100,000. How much should I end up spending? Probably close to 250 and/making no money for two, three years, three and a half years. Quite a bit more.
How we built it was with a technical co-founder, but it took us 18 months. We went through all that money, and then we had a Hail Mary because we found salespeople love this. I was like, "Okay, I'm willing to go a little deeper in the red to see if this thing can have legs before we give up." That's when things took off. Actually, things took off at the beginning, because we did a really good pre-launch marketing and we had a really good launch off the gate, but then we had activation problems, churn problems, product market fit.
Then when we got the sales customer, it just took off by no marketing at all.
Phil: I want to talk a little bit about the first customers, but first, let's go back. You brought a technical founder, but you were paying the person a little bit of a salary too. Where was that money going, that money that you were investing?
Sujan: It was going into hosting costs, design, marketing. It was mostly infrastructure costs, mostly hosting bills, software costs, Intercom we use and stuff like that. Then my partner had a runway as well. When that ran out, I was like, "I'll front whatever your minimum living cost you need is." Then it was some salary stuff, but that wasn't until probably a year in.
Phil: Got it. It's interesting how this really took a long time, and you coming from a service business, service businesses are originally very profitable there. You don't lose money in a service business, and now you're losing money for two and a half years. How did that play for you mentally? How did you work through that?
Sujan: I didn't care. I didn't care. I had limits on, okay, I'm going to go to the first 100k. Then after 100k, we decided let's give this another six months and let's target the sales customer, and it's probably going to cost us another 50k or so to do that. Let's see what we got. Then that 50k, it worked. I still continue to burn more money because we didn't become profitable and there's still more hosting costs and development costs. We hired another developer, so we fueled back the revenue to get that person and some cash to get them earlier.
I didn't care because it was working, but I also went in saying, "I'm going to go in this 100k, and I don't care if I lose it. It's a lesson." Had Mailshake failed in the first two years, I would say that's the best 100k, best education I got for 100k.
Phil: That's a great mentality and way to go through. I think, it also goes back to last year got into angel investing, and the advice they give you, don't invest money you're not willing to lose. That looks like what you were doing, but you were getting a lot more return because you were in, you were learning, and of course, the product grew and become something pretty big.
Sujan: Yes.
Phil: Let's talk about the first customers, and I would like to do twice because you have the first few customers in the marketing and then you have the first few customers where you actually found your product-market fit, where people stop churning. Could you tell us how it was with the first and how to deal again the second time? How was the process?
Sujan: The first 100, probably first 250 customers or so were all from pre-launch marketing. Here's the timeline, February 2015, January, we had the idea, February, I recruited Colin, my co-founder, started developing it, and started marketing. From February to July, in July, we launched, and on July 10, or 15th, we got 200 customers, it was really fast. That wasn't fast by accident, it was fast because from when we had the idea, we started doing marketing, it's called pre-launch marketing.
I was like, "Hey, I'm targeting marketers, I've got this big, bold vision. We're going to make content marketing, outreach, or marketing outreach easier. We're going to revolutionize it. We just made bold statements, and then we had content on a blog, and I would just be doing podcasting, wherever I can get, even if it's a stage of two people. Again, I want to get the idea off the ground. When we launched, every week we would email our list with content and the progress, recruited beta testers.
We got about 4,000 or 5,000 people over the few years, and I used my personal blog, sujanpatel.com, to talk about this as well. I'd say, "Hey, I'm building Mailshake, come check it out." Then that's how we got 5,000 or so subscribers, and then that turned into 250 or so customers. What sucked from there was 250 turned into 150 and then the next 12 months after we got that 250 was where we didn't have product market fit or again, retention issues and whatnot.
Phil: Got it. Then you found product market fit. Did you do it again? Another pre-launch like what you've done now? Firstly, how did you find product market fit? You really touched on a little bit, but if you could go a little bit deeper on how you found product market fit? What changed the marketing after?
Sujan: Dumb luck. Straight-up dumb luck. We had the product out there. We didn't talk about how much we were struggling, on the backend, we were freaking dying. Our hosting cost was the biggest because we wanted to get things out the door, it was inefficient. Our burn rate was just so high because of our hosting and how we were doing things on the backend, and we got that cost down a year later, but to get the product out fast, we just went fast and took shortcuts.
Long story short, through that year of slogging away getting customers, I would be writing and guest blogging and doing podcast interviews. Sometimes I would be targeting agencies. Then an agency, a marketing agency, they have salespeople, some agency bought it, and they gave it to their salesperson and that guy loved it. He told some friends, and it was just spreading from there. I was like, "Hey, what do you love about it? Let me interview you?" I don't even know this persona. Dumb luck/talking to customers.
What happened behind the scenes was that when anyone who's signed up, because we knew during these 12 months, we knew we had a retention and activation problem. People weren't successful using this, let's try to figure out what we can do in the product or outside of the product to help them to solve this problem. I was doing concierge onboarding. I would offer a call with every new customer that signed up. I'm just like, "Hey, I'm going to help with the strategy. Let me help you with like this that." I tried different messaging.
Essentially, because I was putting myself out there trying to solve this problem, I literally accidentally got the customer that was a sales rep, salesperson, I talked to them, and I was like, "Why do you like this product?" He's like, "It's so freaking easy. I did this, this, this, this go, and then I gave it to three of my reps and like, didn't have to teach them anything and they went to town. I told my friends, because this is an awesome product. It's super cheap, blah, blah, blah."
I doubled down on the awesomeness. We then said, okay. This particular person gave us feedback. He said, "I wish it had this, adding more users to a team, I can create multiple campaigns." Four or five little things that took us like six months to do maybe like four or five months to do. Then we were like, "Oh, well, that makes more sense. Let's keep this product going. Let's reduce our costs. We shut up all of our marketing and all that stuff. Let's go build all these functionality and rebrand."
At that time, actually, it wasn't called Mailshake, it was called contentmarketer.io because we're targeting content marketers. First of all, contentmarketer.io is probably the worst name for a sales tool. I think it was probably a few weeks before we launched version one of Mailshake that we find the name Mailshake. We had all these ideas and names. We got a trademark issue with a name we didn't want to go with because Microsoft owned the trademark.
I was like, "Oh, yes, we're going to get sued day one, we're going to be out of business again." Came with this name, Mailshake. One week before we launched, I changed everything up and went to town. Again, now the messaging was salespeople. How do we get our first 100 sales customers? Well, we had an advocate, also pre-launch marketing. While we were building this new one with all the [unintelligible 00:22:37] with the four or five features this person wanted, I also reviewed all of the tools in the sales space.
At the time, there was Outreach, there was Yesware, there was Street, ToutApp. There was 5 or 10 people. The customer here is telling me one customer at a time was telling me, it's so easy to use, it doesn't require any training, and get a campaign out the door. We got more of those customers, as I mentioned, people, he was telling some of their friends and whatever. That turned into 5 customers, 10 customers on the old product.
Meanwhile, I would look at all our competitors. The common theme was, they're way too expensive and they're way too complicated to use. Aha, clearly, there's something there in no training, easy to use, get a campaign out the door quickly, take a site up and start making money as quickly as possible without any training or headaches. We doubled down in that. Instead of saying what do we need to build, we started asking the question, what can we do to make this simple, and drive people to just doing the right things?
All the other functionality, sure. Put it in there but make sure it's not getting in the way of a campaign getting out the door. When we launched, we already had like 50, 60 customers that are salespeople using our other product because we said, "Hey, we're pivoting, check out this thing." We already started doing pre-launch marketing again. Then we launched. This time around, we launched again on product times. Again, more sales reps, so I had more sales reps talking about us at the time of launch.
Then about a month in we did an AppSumo a lifetime deal. We got about, I don't know, 8,000 or 9,000 users using the product. Now they were not all sales reps. They were founders, marketers, they're everything. Again, even though our ideal customer's sales rep, non-salespeople can use it as well and we didn't want to shun them away, which actually turned out to be probably a big mistake and we spent a lot of time in cloudy judgment from the not-right customer.
Long story short, that was how we got our first couple hundred users, and then 8,000 users, and then from 8,000, literally, it was just all product lead growth. People came in a spread the word more people get in the next month and everything was just going up into the right.
Phil: I love this story. I think there's a lot of insights here for founders. First, any business that's successful, if you don't say, luck, that's always involved. If you don't there's luck, you're lying. Luck is always involved. Another thing is, there's a saying, the harder I work, the luckier I get. You're working hard interviewing these people, and you found the right person. I love how you went about you. You ended a big messaging. Of course, being a marketing guy, you're all about messaging about branding.
When you figured out who your target was, you went into the big messaging thing where you change your business name, you went and change your messaging around to make sure you're talking to the right customer. Then it took that product to market, did the pre-launch again. I think that's amazing insights for people because maybe if something is not right, it may be that when you get the right insight, it might make sense for you to to do a rebrand, to change the name, and to change the messaging around.
To also understand what's important for your public, you understood that simplicity was important in any way after simplicity. It is so much nuggets here for the founder, listening to this show about how to go about it. You touched on something. I'd like to dive deeper on that. We always make mistakes. Then you touched on what you felt like was a big mistake, even though we just went through to this whole process and got very clear on who the customer was. Can you go a little deeper on that mistake about maybe going too broad and bringing the wrong customer in and how eventually you overcome that, and how long did it take? How much did it cost you? [laughs]
Sujan: That was mistake number two, actually. The first mistake I wanted to answer real quick and mentioned this is the biggest mistake we made was going too slow at everything we did. There's only two people. I could have spent the 200K and something I spent on the business in six months, I could have killed, I didn't need to wait 12 months before saying, "This isn't working," I could have waited three months. The data didn't change from 3 months to 12 months, it just continued to be shitty. I continued to spend money.
The writing was on the wall, I should have just said, boom, let's stop. Let's stop it. I should have doubled down when we got the sales straight. My co-founders said, "Oh, it's going to take me four or five months to build this," I should ask them, what is it going to take to get this done next month. In fact, as a manager now, I deal with about seven or eight direct reports. They're all manager, director, VPs, C-level, folks. My biggest question to folks when they say that's going to be X, Y, Z timeline is, "What do I need to do? How can I get stuff out of your way to make this done next week?"
It never becomes next week, but generally, the timeline gets cut by 30, 40%. Anyways. Not going fast enough was mistake number one. Because of that our competitors, more people entered this space. Our competitors got funding further along. Now we had to do stuff, our job was harder. Mistake number two that I pointed out earlier turned out to be a ticking time bomb because we got so many personas. Yes, we got a lot of revenue and a lot of customers through the door. We got 8,000 users, 8,000 paying customers.
They paid this once, but then helped us with a word of mouth, but of the 8,000, 7,500 were not salespeople, probably somewhere in there. It was an enormous amount that were not salespeople. 7,500 people were telling us all these things they wanted, but that they weren't the customer we were building the product for. Fast forward, that was 20017, late in the '17, '18, '19, '20, four years, five years of people continuing to tell us stuff who we're not doing the product for.
We ended up having to build stuff not necessarily wasting time, but in 2018 if we said, "No, we're only building for sales reps," we would have taken a big hit on revenue, but we would have built a very focused business faster. Again, it goes back to speed and focus and like, we would've built four reps and we could have not built features for not sales reps that didn't really help us along the way. What ended up happening is founders and some of these very small-- and we had a lot of very small businesses. Think about it like solopreneurs. I'd actually say it's solopreneurs and very early-stage businesses that they haven't figured out their business model yet.
Those two customers have a high churn profile and it wasn't because our product sucks and it wasn't for them, it's because they're not there yet. Their business isn't there yet. If we didn't get that revenue, which was in the last 5, 7 years, it was over 10 million, still, 10 million dollars is a lot of money, we would've been smaller but more focused and got the right features for the right customers out the door faster. In hindsight, how long did it take us to fix that mistake?
We still let people are not sales in the door. We [inaudible 00:31:15] in 2020 to say, "We're building for salespeople. Yes, you can do this but we're not building features and functionality for that," in that '18, '19 '21. In that four years, we spent millions of dollars and four freaking years building dozens of stuff, dozens of features for a customer that has a high churn profile that ultimately went away.
Phil: Makes sense. I think the biggest insight here is avoid the noise. You have too many people in and there was too much noise and take you guys a few years to like, "Okay, you're welcome to use the product but this is noise." We're going to focus on the people that are more likely to stay, that's going to churn less and that's going to allow us to keep scaling and get bigger. I think that's the biggest insight of the story.
Sujan: I think the way I look at this is like, figure out how to remove noise. First, look at how to identify noise, right? Again, look at your data. You how new customers, who is the right customer? You can clearly find it out and if there's no one, well boom, you don't have product market fit. Go find the right customer. The next thing is actually, really being smart about noise versus long-term traction.
I didn't realize that fast enough and then when we realized that we didn't do anything about it because we were worried about losing revenue, by the time we realized these founders and solopreneurs were not the right customer, we were already making over a million dollars a year from this customer segment. In hindsight, I should have said, "Not building for this customer," but think about this.
If somebody's giving you, thousands of customers are giving you a million dollars a year, it's really hard to say no to a million dollars. In hindsight, it was like a $10 million mistake and we could have been the billion-dollar space sales engagement we're in, we could have got more market share in there, which is peanuts to the million-dollar decision I had to make in 2018.
Phil: Yes. It's definitely a very hard decision to make. As a founder, here's a million dollars. Sometimes it's hard to look at the future. The reason we did this show is people can learn with founders like yourself that got there, that made a mistake but I can't understand being in your shoes, a million dollars, early days, it is a lot of money and it's a hard call to make. Eventually, you made it but maybe it was like harder to get there, right?
Sujan: Yes.
Phil: Follow-up question, now you're Mailshake, you are going in the right direction of messaging, still have those two customs, whatever but was your biggest fear when you were going the ma shake direction? What was some of your biggest fears that you have at that point?
Sujan: I don't know. I don't think I had any actual fears. I just was anxious more than anything. Anxiety, stress, will this work? How long will it take to get to work? There's all these-- I told you I wasn't, the outcome didn't fear me, good or bad. I was like, "Hey, bad is fine too." Once I accepted bad is okay, once I accepted failure is okay, my fear of failure went away. I think that's the best thing that can happen to me but yes, I think it was just the anxiety and anxiousness of like, "Oh, we're going to build this functionality. Will it do anything for the business?"
We had to take all these calculated risks or bets and now, five years down the road, I'm like, "Yes, some of them are just hunches and some of them are bad." I still don't know the good ones from the bad ones. Probably post mortem, I need to give more distance from this business to be able to do that but yes, it was just a lot of anxiousness.
Phil: How did you manage that? How did you mention your anxiousness? Did you do anything to try to like sports, whatever? What did you do to manage that? I think every founder has that.
Sujan: Exercise and connecting with other SaaS founders were the two biggest things that helped me. Exercise, just literally just running, physically actually changes you, makes you feel better, fitter, helps you physically deal with the things that are making you anxious or get away from it, whatever. Do something that makes you happy. Whatever hobby it is, if you like playing chess, do that for an hour a day or whatever amount you can to spend.
Other SaaS founders as well help me realize everyone doesn't know what. No one knows what they're freaking doing. Everyone's making these stupid mistakes. I'm like, "I guess I'm not as dumb as that guy." I learned something because that guy's a mistake. Then that girl did this thing and it worked out. It was a crazy bet. I realized we're just a bunch of cowboys doing stuff but no one really has everything figured out.
Having everything figured out is really like the path of an employee and I'm like, "Yes, that's not what I'm choosing here." I guess everyone's still winging it but having support network is supercritical. I say, "Oh, go talk to other SaaS founders." Where do you go? Go on Facebook groups, go get out there. There's EO and YPO. Once you pass a million, 2 million, 3 million in an ARR, there are groups, entrepreneurs, organization, or Young Presidents Organization, I think YPO, paid membership but there are all other entrepreneurs. Just surround yourself with entrepreneurs. It will make you more successful. You'll learn from people doing a way better job than you.
You'll hear stories and the difficulties that every entrepreneur faces will just become your normal. Being an entrepreneur is only hard if you think you're the only one. If you hear about other people's-- I heard about somebody losing a billion-dollar opportunity and going into 50 million in debt, like in bankrupt. Their whole business crumbled to shit essentially. Anyways, I was like, "Oh yes, whatever I'm doing at Mailshake is fucking easy compared to what this guy just went through. It's all relative, I guess
Phill: That's very actionable advice because like I say, everyone goes through that and being close to other people so you learn from them,I feel like every entrepreneur should follow those two things, is their sites, surround yourself with other entrepreneurs. I have done that myself too and I strongly recommend it. What is one thing that you feel SaaS founders in the early days, most of the time do wrong and they should stop doing?
Sujan: Well, I think something need to start don't, which is start talking to customers, all of them, every single one. Go learn, get qualitative information, and stop doing anything with it. Don't talk to a customer to do, and then I'm going to do X, Y, Z. Just talk to them, take notes. You take enough notes, there will be this aha moment of like, "Oh my God, we're just doing this badly."
Or like it will come to you if you're driving the direction of the product, trust me, the feedback will be so much in your face, it will come to you. Don't intentionally take one person's feedback and say, "Okay, I'm going to fix this." Just let it sit, let it sit and eventually you'll have a laundry list of things, and the right two, three things will show up and you'll fix it.
Or some maybe two, three things, the right things, and one or two bad things and you'll learn either way. Get through that practice.
Even now, we still talk to customers. I usually talk to one or two customers every month, every week and yes, it's great information. I ask them, "Hey, don't tell me how good the software is. I don't need a pat on the back. What do you want to see? What will help you personally make more money or like, get better results? What do we not doing? What do you hate about this thing?" Someone's like, "I hate this little button here. It's so freaking annoying or whatever." I'm like, "Okay, perfect." Thank you. I can change that. I can't change anything if you just tell me how awesome we're.
Phil: I like how you also say, "Talk with customers, don't stop talking to customers." Even nowadays, you're still talking to customers, but also be a little bit laid back about it. You don't always have to act fast because someone told you something. The right thing is going to circle back to you the right moment. Take time to digest the information that you are getting. Don't be overwhelmed by out information that you were getting as you keep talking to customers. I think that's amazing.
Sujan: Absolutely.
Phil: What's one piece of advice that you hear in this SaaS community that you disagree with? You're like, "No, that's not a good idea. That doesn't work for us?"
Sujan: I guess my direct answer on that is like, everybody has an opinion. Treat everything you hear as an opinion, not a fact, and decide if this works for you or you want to make this work for you because I would tell you today is successful. I just told you how to get your first hundred customers. In five years of running this business, I might find a better way and that would be stupid compared to the new way because everything changes.
I remember a lot of folks were talking, when they read stuff on TechCrunch or you read things out there, you read someone's blog, they're just sharing their journey. They're not done yet. When they're done, they might learn and go back and say, "That was a bad idea." A good example of this, not a good example, but an example of this is transparency. I remember Buffer started this trend or was it leading this trend of transparency inside of a company where they were sharing salaries and all these things.
That's fantastic, but fast forward like five, six years they've been doing this, did it actually work out for them? What did it do for them? Was it a marketing stunt? Was it retention?
I don't know. I actually don't know. Was that successful? Are you going to follow that trend based off of someone just getting a lot of marketing value on it? Look at the guys at 37 Signals or BaseCamp.
They have been a super advocate of bucking the trend, beating up on Apple for their policies, and then they made a change of getting rid of a benefit and all these employees quick. Long story short, don't assume what you hear is the right thing. Assume it's an opinion or an idea and is an idea worth exploring. You got to ask yourself that later.
Phil: Yes. That's for sure. So many times, like I say, and then you see things, for example, if you go back to 37 Signals, I read their books. I love everything that they're doing, but then you see they're just experimenting. They make a mistake and if things crash, so like everyone is experimenting and you have to learn with their experience, but make your own shots, and again, what's good today might not be good tomorrow. I love it. This interview, I think you brought a lot of actionable insights for our listeners.
I would like to finish with like two questions. Basically, what book are you reading right now, they recommend for founders to read, and why are you excited about it? by?
Sujan: Yes. I'll answer the last question. What I'm excited about is just the laser focus we've got around the customer we're going after, we've identified and that every single person at the company has talked to customers, that right customer and knows most of their pain points, at least now knows from a customer support person to a developer, to a sales rep, my CFO, everybody knows, what we're building and why and who we're building for, why we're building it, and then what we're actually building. It's like who we're building it for is like ingrained in their head.
What was the-- sorry, you said one more question. What book am reading? I read a lot. I read a book. I do a lot of audiobooks. I usually read one book every two weeks, three weeks. At the moment, I'm rereading this book called No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings. It's about Netflix's culture and then how they empower their employees. It's a really good insightful book. It's really just about letting go and setting the culture and then letting the people in the business define how it goes from here.
Phil: Yes, I love that book. I read it and I remember reading two time ago and some of the hair advisors I'll be like, "Oh my gosh, this is crazy." Then time goes by and I was like, "Oh, she was right. I was the crazy one." [laughs] Again, you see books and everything is an opinion. Again, thank you very much for coming. I think this was a great show, and congrats on your success and getting here with Mailshake and even your other ventures too. I appreciate it very much.
Sujan: Yes, thanks for having me. Hope this helps future entrepreneurs, founders, make less mistakes or at least make different ones.
Phil: [laughter] For sure. That's how we're doing this.
Sujan: Awesome. All right, see you.
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