Starting in 2014 I began building what would become the first SaaS product I publicly released and attempted to make money on. Through countless other failed apps and ideas, I finally landed on writing a book on how to build a SaaS application in Ruby on Rails in February, which has already surpassed Stripe revenues earned from SaaS apps in 18 months.
In this article I am going to recount my experiences and go into painful details about:
- Building SaaS products (and how to suck at it)
- Saying “screw it” and doing something different
- How passion leads to revenue
What got me building SaaS products (and how to suck at it)
As a software developer, most of us will have an itch to make our own thing. You know, that one thing you can call your own without having to take direction from “the man”.
StandupTime started as an unnamed side project. I'd planned on messing around with different front-end techniques and frameworks. Through discussions with friends and colleagues, I was told an online Daily Standup tool with real-time updates would be awesome! “That’s validation,” I thought. Boy, was I wrong. But more on that later.
I spent over ten months building, rebuilding, and barely marketing a beta version of StandupTime. Without any following on Twitter, Medium, or other platforms, I submitted StandupTime to a few beta sites. Over the summer of 2015, I ended up with one beta customer. (This should have alarmed even the most naive maker, but I was oblivious.)
Eventually, in September, I somehow orchestrated to show up on ProductHunt and LifeHacker on the same day (read about it here). I ended up after the week was up with about 500 new accounts created and a handful of them ready to pay!
Fast forwarding to the beginning of 2016, accounts were churning and monthly revenue was dwindling. I decided to start talking to the users that were still around. It turns out that a Daily Standup app, no matter how well it functioned, needed to fit better into their workflow.
A sane person would have made that happen. I’m not a sane person. I decided to rewrite the entire application and use a different stack that I have been professionally using for years: Ruby on Rails. I spent about six months rewriting the application, changing its branding (twice) and changing its approach to status (twice). The result was OverVue (spoiler alert: this app is End Of Life as of March 30th, 2017).
This time, after getting a solid base of an application I set up to market better this time. I submitted to a few more beta sites this time around and promised I wouldn’t do much programming until I had some users ready to go. I thought I was hitting the mark with over 100 beta signups. WRONG AGAIN!
I’m sure there is a magic number of beta signups to a successful product launch. But I don’t know what that number is and I didn’t have enough users!
With another venture on its way out, it was on to the next one. This time I may have made the worst cardinal sin of bootstrapping. I decided to get zero feedback from any single person outside of my close circle of friends. I built an app in stealth.
I’m an idiot.
I built GetRoadmaps (with the general idea of StatusPage.io for public roadmaps) through the fall of 2016 completing the bulk of the application within in a few weeks. At this point, having built about 4 or 5 SaaS apps in total (some never released), it was getting pretty easy to get the standard part of the app completed.
After about four months of nights and weekends, I released GetRoadmaps without much fanfare. I awoke one morning in late December, on a sick day, of course, to find once again an app I created was on ProductHunt. This surprise only accounted for about ten signups.
See… I told you I am an idiot. Here are the revenue numbers to prove it:
Abysmal would be a compliment
While I had some small app ideas floating around I just didn’t have it in me to create yet another failed product. I noticed I had a general purpose path to quickly build SaaS apps in Ruby on Rails and liked helping people.
Should I… write?
Saying “screw it” and do something different
I decided, what the hell. I have deployed a few apps through Elastic Beanstalk on AWS. Maybe I should write a quick tutorial about my experiences and see if it helps anyone. Well, it sure did. It gained a few thousand visits, posted in one of Ruby’s most viewed newsletters and got over 50 recommends. This response was the best response to anything I had written to date.
After talking with a friend who had recently gone through a code boot camp. He felt as though if he had built an actual product instead of a mock idea they would have gotten more real-world experience.
Lightbulb. My experiences, a new passion, and a possible market converged. Build A SaaS App in Ruby on Rails 5 was born.
One problem…who exactly was going to buy this?
I decided to do what was working for me and to help others write better Rails applications through tutorials and technical posts. I would only link to my landing page and see what happens.
You may ask, “How is it working?”.
While it started off slow, by the current time I have a rolling 30 day total of about 23,000 mediums views. Roughly 3–5% of those visit the Build A SaaS App landing page. I’m a bad creator and didn’t have Google Analytics on my landing page from the start. So, piecing together information in Mixpanel it appears I have under 1000 total visits so far.
Once a user lands on the landing page (good name, eh?), about 7% of them take some action on the landing page. The activities tracked are “Requesting a Sample Chapter” or “Clicking the presale” button.
Still, you persist, “Seriously, how is it working?”
How passion leads to revenue
It’s going well! So far, in short of two calendar months from the landing page going live with no following. I have amassed 50 presale customers who believe in a product I am creating.
I started noticing writing would flow easier. I felt connected to the articles I was writing on Medium. The chapters in the book were flying out of my brain. Excited for each chance I had to write another paragraph that could help another person in this world. I was no longer worrying about how to generate revenue or market myself.
Plus, the feedback has been great! Most are often scared to share their writing or creations even though I may not be the most prolific Ruby on Rails developer. I have not received anything worse than a mild criticism of a particular approach or a suggestion to fix a typo here and there.
In fact, the majority of the feedback has been praise and thanks. This kind of feedback is the stuff that keeps people going. I would say when you find passion the revenue will come.
The most important thing I can share is not to give up. Not only is it tough to create and share, but it may take the time to find your passion.
Another tip would be to write. Write for yourself. Write to help others. Write to remember that one weird trick to get that stubborn error to go away.
I hope this can motivate you to find and/or do something you feel passionate about.