When Privacy and Customer Value Clash

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This week, I want to talk about a critical decision in the life of my new SaaS project PermanentLink. I’ve been doing some research on competitors and competitive alternatives. I looked into link forwarders, link shorteners, link branding services, pretty much anything that could technically compete with my core product, which boils down to branded link forwarding.

At the same time, I had several conversations with other founders on Twitter and through other channels. I heard two suggestions multiple times: adding a free tier and adding up-sells and advertisement through delayed forwarding. I also found both of these features with my competitive alternatives.

And I didn’t know how to feel about it.

Today, I want to share with you my approach to figuring out if I want to do this or not.

Here is a quick rundown of both features and how they intersect.

For the free tier, I imagine the following limitations: one project, a hundred links, but instead of directly forwarding PermanentLinks to their targets, I’d show a page for ten seconds and then automatically redirect them after. I would put a link and some text on that intermediate page, a “powered by PermanentLink” message. That way, people who use the service for free would expose it to more potential customers. Free tier customers would need to upgrade to get non-branded immediate redirection.

The up-sell advertisement feature would work similarly. Instead of showing a message about PermanentLink, my customers could design their own messages, with text, links, images, and maybe even videos. Imagine this workflow: you click a link to an article that the author referenced in an eBook, a browser opens and displays, “You’ll be redirected to this article in 10 seconds. If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, here is another book of mine I recommend.” The reader would both see a message from the author and eventually get redirected to the link.

Both features would introduce a new mechanic to my service. Right now, I redirect using HTTP redirection status codes. When a browser requests a permanent link, they get back a tiny reply with a location header and a 301 or a 302 code. That would change once I implement delayed redirection. I would need to start hosting the intermediary pages and maybe even serve additional resources such as images and videos. Not much for the free tier, as I control the content there, but it could mean a lot of trouble with customer-created content. Beyond that, this would add some complexity to the project’s configuration and the links, as customers might want to create per-project messages and maybe even per-link messages. This would be something that I didn’t anticipate when I first envisioned PermanentLink as a solution to my problem of dealing with link rot.

And that’s the part I struggle with the most. Nothing about this has to do with solving the core problem. A delay in link forwarding is the opposite of what I set out to build. I wanted a solution that instantly forwards a reader to the content that an author wanted them to see. Link rot means that links stop working after a while. PermanentLink is supposed to make sure that they work as intended, even when the original link is gone. That’s the core functionality that I had in mind. I consider adding a delay to this process to surprise the reader—and not necessarily in a good way.

But of course, allowing authors more control over how they engage with their readers can directly benefit them. At this point, authors have no control over this process unless they build complicated solutions for themselves. Having the choice of directly forwarding the link to customers or showing them a message would be a net gain in any case. If “serving my audience” is at the core of my business as it should be, then “allowing them to build better relationships and making more money” is a part of that. My original vision of a purely technical product might have been too narrow.

Still, I have a feeling of dread. Introducing this feature would require me to reposition my product from an infrastructure product to a marketing product. In a way, this makes it much clearer to authors, I would assume, as they can see actual sales coming from those forwarding pages. This is a more straightforward value proposition than “links that work forever,” as it directly affects their income, not just their books’ long-term quality.

The only real problem that keeps me from immediately jumping at this is that I have heard many people mentioning the possibility of introducing reader tracking to the software. I want this to be a privacy-first product, so I am shying away from tracking individual sessions. In fact, as a reader myself, I would not want books to contain links that know who I am. I don’t want the author to know about my reading progress without my consent. They shouldn’t know how slow or fast I am reading. Tracking a reader throughout a book (maybe even multiple books) would allow for a lot of author insight at the expense of reader privacy. I’m scared of even touching the subject of conversion tracking or retargeting with tracking pixels. This feels wrong for me—it goes too far for a privacy-first product.

I had a chat with Danielle about this last night, and I shared my discomfort. She suggested to take it slow. This pivot might be a bit too early. I haven’t explored PermanentLink fully yet beyond the few initial pilot projects that I am looking at. The allure of a new feature should not prevent me from validating the offer I already have. I still have to update my book Zero to Sold with PermanentLinks, which I wanted to be the first book to be powered by the service.

Here is my biggest entrepreneurial problem: I am surrounded by a lot of encouragement and people who openly share their ideas and suggestions. Taking it in without acting on it is hard. I had several founders who I admire suggest amazing things, and I have to actively suppress the itch to go right ahead and build it.

My business is mine to figure out, and I shouldn’t be derailed by suggestions, no matter how well-intentioned they are. The only person who can understand the full vision of my SaaS is me. I learned from this exercise that my vision is not set in stone, but it has to make sense. New information and new opportunities need to be taken into account but shouldn’t tempt me to rush and change the product immediately. But they certainly can cause my internal roadmap to be adjusted.

When I look at the free tier and up-sell redirection through that lens, I see a path ahead of me. The free tier is the easiest thing to build, as it doesn’t involve complicated storage and editing logic required for custom content. It will also allow me to get more eyes on the software and talk to customers. Since the free tier will be severely limited, I won’t incur too much additional cost. The only problem I see here will be customer service. Free tier customers usually cause customer service tools like Intercom to quickly become quite expensive, so I’ll need to look into that. But hey, I can always turn it off if it becomes problematic. It certainly would be worth learning more about it.

The up-sell delayed forwarding feature will be something I can build later down the road. Functionally, it won’t be that much different from the free tier, and I can work with my customers to find a solution that actually works for them and their workflow. I can even A/B-test different formats of my “powered by PermanentLink” message to see what kind of advertisements might perform better. I know that at this point, I don’t have enough data or insight to build this feature fully.

I will keep an eye on what I can provide to increase my customer’s value without decreasing their customers’ value. Features related to advertising are walking the line between these two things, and I want to be careful not to build anything that will ultimately hurt my business.

After all, PermanentLink is supposed to be something… permanent. I will take it slow and validate as much as I can along the way.

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