I’ve recently started mentoring a few founders at different stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Many of them are in the planning stage, and I’ve seen a lot of exhaustive feature roadmaps and massive product sketches.
Not good. Not good at all.
In fact, this is very dangerous. And while I’m glad that I can point out those risks to my mentees, I fear that many founders out there might run into this genuine issue: they are building bloat and instability into their businesses from the start.
That’s why I chose to write about a few core concepts that I have found to be present in every successful project (and that are reliably missing from the projects that fail). That’s why today, I want to talk about the boring truth of successful products that survive.
Most products that you will see staying on the market have something in common: they do one thing very well. And not much else. Weber sells grills that are fantastic at grilling. The furthest they strayed into new territory so far has been by adding an app-readable thermometer. Still, that gimmick and anything else about their products is focussed on making using their grills a great barbequing experience. That’s what it is about: having a barbecue that grills.
This is the level of focus and simplicity you want in your bootstrapped SaaS business. But how can you stay simple over time? Simplicity is achieved by reducing complexity or not introducing it in the first place.
Focus on Doing One Thing Very Well
Every profession has its specialized tools. Doctors operate using specific scalpels and clamps, plumbers have their pliers and wrenches, and it’s no surprise that the best kind of cutting tools you can buy for cooking is called a Chef’s knife.
The best results in your work come from using the best tools at your disposal. Every professional tool excels at one particular job. As a bootstrapped founder, you want your product to do the same.
Being laser-focused on creating a product that solves one problem very well is not just a good idea; it’s a requirement for founders without giant heaps of money. The fact that you only have limited resources available means that you need to be very picky about how to spend them. Your money and your time should be put to creating as much value as possible. If you’re working on a professional tool that solves one particular problem and nothing else, you will always know what to work on.
The customers who buy your product also purchase many other products. Your chances of building a successful business are higher if you create something that no-one else can make instead of trying to develop a product that does everything.
Keep Your Software and Processes Simple
Simplicity can only be accomplished if every part of your operation is as simple as possible: your product, your software, your infrastructure, and even how you go about your daily business. Many of the ways to make your software product simpler can also be applied to your business processes.
- Optimize for Hot Paths. In your software, some modules or functions will be executed more often than others. If your product is an image-thumbnail-generating cloud service, the part that resizes user-uploaded files into different ready-to-be-delivered images will run all day long. If you can speed up this single process by 5%, your whole service will be 5% more efficient.
- Ignore Calls for Features. Customers will ask for things. Some of these things will make a lot of sense. But you’re still better off not turning those things into features just yet. Everything you add to your product is a source of potential confusion and friction. Until you can make sure that the vast majority of your customers benefit from a feature, don’t add it. Towards your customers, don’t defend or justify your actions. Tell them that you’ve noted their request, and you will work on making sure to solve their problem.
- Changes Should Affect as Many Customers as Possible. Whenever you consider making a change to your product, have it improve the lives of all users at the same time. If you solve ten different problems and speed up one of them by 100%, you will still leave most of your customers receiving zero benefits from that. If you do one thing only and speed up your product by 10%, all of your users will benefit from that immediately.
Make Your Product Extensible
Software products can be made extensible in two significant ways: by modularising them and by making them easy to integrate with.
For your own development comfort, modularise your software. This will make it easy to add new components later in the lifetime of the product. Modular software has a high separation of concerns, explicit dependencies, and well-defined interfaces. Every function is neatly wrapped in a package or a module that can be tested and maintained independently. This might not be important when you start, but it will become essential when you start building a team of developers later.
While modularisation is an internal attempt at making your product more extensible, it’s required for external extensibility as well. If you want others to be able to interface with your service, it will need to expose usable interfaces. Building modular software will train you to get to the point where you can interface with other services.
The concept behind external extensibility is simple: let others do the work. Build a marketplace for plugins into your product, as Intercom does. Provide an API for your service, as Stripe does. Provide easy-to-replicate integrations into your service so that users who want to embed your product into their own product have an easy time doing your work for you.
Successful products are the result of focusing on solving a single problem by providing a lean, long-term-oriented, highly extensible service that grows better for every single user with every carefully added feature.
You can read the full article called “The Boring Truth of Successful Products That Survive” on the blog. You can also listen to my podcast episode about this topic on The Bootstrapped Founder Podcast.
A Word From Our Sponsor Outseta
Grow your SaaS start-up with dramatically less software overhead
Hey, this is Geoff. My Co-founder and I previously worked together at Buildium, which we bootstrapped to $6M+ in revenue. But as we reflected on the technology decisions we made along the way, one thing became very clear—cobbling together a tech stack of 5-10 different software products comes with a lot of unnecessary technical and financial overhead. We had fractionally used technology, countless integrations, and were constantly jumping through new pricing tiers—you know the drill. So we decided to do something about it.
Outseta is a single platform that gives you all the tools you need to launch and grow a SaaS business. As start-ups around the world are slashing subscriptions in order to cut overhead, I think most of us can admit that we’d gotten a bit gluttonous with our own software consumption. Let’s get back to running truly “lean” start-ups.
Links I Found Interesting
Rand Fishkin wrote an excellent piece called Read The Room, in which he shares his opinion on how marketing efforts are perceived and should be conducted throughout the pandemic we’re currently experiencing. Everyone is concerned with the current situation and what the future may hold, so we need to avoid being tone-deaf to this sentiment when we advertise our services and products. Rand has many really insightful recommendations and examples that will teach you how to do your marketing tastefully.
The latest episode of the Indie Hackers Podcast features Amy Hoy, who has been releasing incredibly useful content on Stacking the Bricks for a decade now. She and Courtland chat about surviving a recession as an indie hacker. As a highly risk-averse founder, Amy has unique and actionable advice from her experiences of surviving both the Dot-Com-bubble and the 2008 crisis as a consultant. Absolutely worth listening to. Also, check out the 30×500 academy.
Ever since selling my business, I’ve been very active on Twitter. Being able to talk to fellow founders and helping them with their journey has been very rewarding, but was also very exhausting. I spent hours and hours on my Twitter feed, posting and retweeting content that would be helpful to my followers, until it became too much.
That’s when I found Hypefury, a SaaS that promised to help me grow my Twitter audience. And that’s precisely what they have been doing for me for the last three months. I’ve been scheduling posts, threads, and retweets through Hypefury so that they would be posted when my audience was most active. For someone who lives in Berlin but communicates mostly with founders in North America, Hypefury has been a lifesaver. You can start your free 14-day trial here — it’s absolutely worth it.
I know my links are a bit pandemic-themed this week, and I understand how this can appear overwhelming. But there is a silver lining, and Channing Allen has been expressing this eloquently on Indie Hackers: the recession might end up producing more indie hackers. In this post, Channing has collected the positive voices, the founders, investors, and leaders from the bootstrapped startup community who have shared their hopeful perspective.
Bootstrapping Success (and Failure) Stories I Noticed
Let’s start with the good news. More and more people are finding things lacking a bit in quarantine, so they are beginning to solve their problems, and turning them into entrepreneurial experiments. A great example here is Atul, who came up with an idea and shipped a working product. Even if Newstube.live doesn’t turn out to be a smashing financial success for some reason, it’s an idea turned into a real product. And that alone is amazing.
Charles-Eugene of Micro CRM has been very outspoken about the mistakes he made with his first SaaS. It’s great to see the learnings he took from this and will apply to the next business. That’s the magic of indie hacking: when you fail, you emerge from your attempt with more experience, more knowledge, and even more ambition.
In similarly disastrous news, Visa List has been experiencing a 50% drop in revenue for the first time in a year. While it’s not surprising to see growth decline for a travel-related product in the time of lockdowns due to a global pandemic, it still hurts to see a bootstrapped business get hit that much. I hope that 1HaKr finds a way to sustain the project until travel and the need for visas picks up again.
Thank you for reading this week’s edition of The Bootstrapped Founder. If you like what I wrote about, please forward the newsletter to anyone you think would enjoy it too.
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See you next week!
Warm Regards from Berlin,