Your customers help you build your product.
AKA, starting SaaS product development the right way.
For a SaaS founder, product development is always about executing fast, releasing faster, and learning even faster than that. And then it is “rinse and repeat” — over and over again.
When you come across that idea that you see solving a huge pain-point for a particular segment of customers, it is easy to get carried away and toil away at getting that perfect product out at the earliest possible. Often, that definition of earliest gets extended into months of endless, tiresome development. And this is where the mistake gets made. Product development while staying cooped up is often driven by intuitions and can get disentangled from reality real fast. Even when you started the product development after having met with a lot of potential consumers and long market research/surveys.
FOUNDER NEEDS TO BE ONE DOING PRODUCT, SALES, MARKETING
While it is a good rule to follow in any startup, it becomes extremely critical in a b2b SaaS business. At least in the early days, the founder needs to be doing all of it, irrespective of whether he/she has the means to hire the right resources.
For an unreleased, pre-revenue product, the team is busy making an MVP, which often is a culmination of the entrepreneurs’ imagination and creativity into how to solve the consumers’ pain-points, but without consumers’ feedback, it can all turn sour quickly.
MVP development without constant user feedback is a recipe for a lot of rework.
When you create an MVP based on your understanding of what the customers actually want from you, you will find yourself having made choices on their behalf that were wrong. And once you realize that, you go back to the drawing board to fix those mistakes and wrong assumptions, and sometimes, the process goes on for a few iterations.
THE PROBLEM WITH MVPs AND USER FEEDBACK
User feedback has been known to cause its own fair share of troubles for SaaS entrepreneurs. If you ask your consumers what is the solution that they need, you will quickly come to understand that different segments of people are asking for different features in the product, a different workflow altogether, and have a different set of expectations. And the more features you decide to incorporate in your MVP, the bulkier the system will get, and it goes against the very fibre of what a minimum viable product is supposed to be. Then comes the issue of time. Each feature and each workflow you decide to incorporate in your product, the farther you push away the public release of your system. And the longer you wait, the more of rework you will need to do.
But is that a problem with the feedback you are receiving from your users, or the way you are collecting these feedback?
SO WHAT SHOULD YOUR MVP DEVELOPMENT LOOK LIKE?
First rule. Let’s keep it as simple as possible. And in that spirit, let us simplify the steps as well:
- Identify your anchor. No matter which industry you are building a solution for, there will always be one use-case that looks most promising than anything else. One feature that is hitting the nail on the head. That one mini solution that could be the answer to a problem most in your target audience are facing. Identify that and isolate everything else out. Treat everything else as noise and just focus on the anchor to minimize your go-to-market time for the MVP.
- Keep on collecting user feedback. But, don’t ask them what would they like to have. That is just inviting differing opinions. If you make your question so open-ended, everyone will come up with their own set of suggestions and feature requests. Collecting feedback here means arriving at an in-depth understanding of their day-to-day business processes. What are the different things that they do, what are the bottlenecks in those, what is the criticality of those individual items to the business and to their roles and KPIs. The more you understand what their day and work looks like, the better you will get at pinpointing areas where you can drive the maximum noticeable impact with the minimum effort. That is your MVP strategy.
- Roll out your first dirty MVP to your first ‘invite only’ or alpha set of customers. The benefit of making an MVP for a small group of people is that they won’t feel let down when they come across a product that doesn’t come across as a neat and polished version. They understand it is in development and will take time to get to a stage where it can be rolled out to the public. Most of the times, this control group will completely overlook the aesthetics of the product and analyze it from a functional standpoint. And that is precisely what you need at this stage.
- Gather more feedback — both implicit and explicit. Now that your customers have used the product, they will tell you of what they liked and disliked about the product. By shedding all the fat and jazz, you were able to save yourself a bunch of time working over a feature or an interface that you may need to completely redo or discard altogether. But even before your control group shares their experience of using the MVP with you, you should be having a lot of data. You must measure and analyze which parts of the system are they most engaging with, and which parts are getting completely left out. This will pave the way for the development of your actual product. (Ideally, you should let them use the MVP for a while so that the data takes time to settle down and mature after the initial phase of just checking out the product in its totality.)
- Sit down with your control group and try to validate your hypotheses on the product model, the marketing strategy, the sales plan etc.: Was the product intuitive to use or was there a need to hold hands and guide them through it? Which aspects of the product and/or guidethrough presents the possibility of maximum user adoption? Was there more adoption when there were guided tours of the product, and if so, how substantial was the difference? All of these questions matter, and the answers to these will determine the direction in which you would be taking your business ahead.
Remember, in the first stage of user feedback, the focus is on innovation — coming up with smart, creative ways of solving the problem at hand. On the other hand, in the second leg of feedback, the focus is on iteration. Making small changes to the product. Innovation is risky, and the potential rewards can be astronomical, but the process overall is quite unpredictable. In contrast, iteration is often measurable, incremental, and doesn’t have much downside. But iteration is often what drives your user adoption and retention.
Innovation is crucial to carving a niche for yourself, iteration is crucial to keep your users from churning out. Iteration is what will make your LTV leap forward.
This could be a much longer topic, but as far as starting your SaaS business is concerned, let these be your guidelines:
- Treat your first customers as if they were a part of your business. They help you shape the product and give direction to the business.
- The founders need to be the ones doing the product research, gather customer feedback, market the product and make the first sales. This helps them understand how their innovation and creative solution crosses over with the expectations of the market, the current dynamics in the target base’s daily workflow processes, identify the marketable pointers and devise the sales approach and methodology.
- Don’t ask your customers what they want. See how they use a product. Identify what they are struggling with. Then figure out how you can add value to their lives.
And as always, have fun doing it. :-)