Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
Hey! I'm Franck from Snipcart.
Before falling down the rabbit hole of SaaS startups, I was on my way to become a traditional ad agency type of guy — Don Draper really made an impression on younger me. However, after improvised internships and a bit of luck, I discovered there was more to marketing than clever slogans. Especially when it came to the web!
So I pivoted my career and started working in web shops (project management, copywriting, social media, basic SEO, analytics, AdWords, etc.).
The second shop I landed at asked me to grow their new, "in-house" product: Snipcart, an HTML/JS e-commerce solution for developers. Big freaking challenge for me! I had never touched SaaS marketing, never operated solely in English, barely touched a code editor… and TBH, I didn't even understand how Snipcart worked. :P
Long story short, I went full on Leeroy Jenkins and quickly leaped from total n00b to partner on the founder team and marketing lead.
Our product is a developer-first shopping cart platform you can integrate on any site or web app. You add two lines of JS, define products directly in your HTML, and get a neat dashboard to manage operations. The tip of our product's iceberg is a customizable cart system (CSS/JS), but we offer a whole set of APIs and webhooks to push integration further, be it through external systems or dedicated e-commerce plugins for a CMS.
I'd say devs like to use it because it doesn't mess with their favorite (or imposed) workflow. We've essentially decoupled e-commerce from site building, making it easy to run a shop on top of any stack, as opposed to being locked in a closed ecosystem. And since it's just a JS injection, it's a perfect fit for the JAMstack, a popular front-end-centric paradigm.
We launched in late 2013 and are currently making ~$33k/month. It took us a good two years to fully split from our mother agency, and three years to reach profitability!
What motivated you to get started with Snipcart?
As mentioned earlier, Snipcart was initially bootstrapped inside a Québec City web shop (Spektrum). Back in 2013, one of the shop's first clients asked us to add e-commerce to his old website. He didn't have much budget; migration or custom e-commerce was out of the question. And Charles, our lead dev, didn't want to start playing in the messy codebase.
So he and our PM Georges came up with a hacky, client-side solution to bypass a painful refactoring project. That was Snipcart's official MVP! That meager client budget basically bootstrapped our product.
The pain spotted back then was: try to quickly and cheaply enable e-commerce on existing sites. Our developers sure felt it, and we assumed others did too. The decision to push it as a dev-first product wasn't the result of a market trend analysis or deep insights. (Side note: we discuss Snipcart's inception and the JAMstack in this podcast episode if you're interested.)
Being mostly developers ourselves, we just thought it would be easier and involve less bullshitting to create and sell something to people like us, people we understood. Eat your own dog food as they say!
As far as validation goes, we started locally, pitching Snipcart to Spektrum customers and nearby web shops. Got a little traction — nothing too exciting. That's when I came in with the guys, lucky enough to be on salary from Spektrum out of the gate. They had previously tried to launch products without steady, strategic marketing efforts, and didn't want to go down that road again.
At first, I needed to 1) understand technical features and translate them into benefits, 2) get to know our dev audience, and 3) find an effective way to market the product. I was finishing up University in Colorado at that time, so I dove headfirst into the tech startup scene there. I pitched at many events, had meetings with lots of local dev shops, and collected an insane amount of feedback on our product:
- Shops with ingrained workflows (e.g., "We love WooCommerce") were super hesitant to try new stacks.
- We were better off targeting existing communities and individual devs around tools where e-commerce sucked.
- Developers loved our value prop; non-techies didn't get it. Messaging needed vulgarization.
- Traditional biz dev, with its low ROI in our case, was way too tedious to sustain growth. We'd have to try marketing where our audience really was — online!
What went into building the initial product?
As I mentioned, Snipcart's alpha version was built for our mother agency's client. That was late 2012. They funded a tailored MVP of our product, which cost them around $55k. We promised them lifelong direct support, feature prioritization, and free usage. That money allowed Charles to work a good full-time stretch on the MVP/client project.
Lots of iterations on that initial codebase happened before we could package it into a decent SaaS. In early 2013, Charles partnered with Spektrum and earned his shares by investing personal dev time. He crunched code nights and weekends, and worked for clients on weekdays. Spektrum also chipped in heavily with crucial resources: branding, website, and front-end dev. We bundled that into a "pay later" debt that Snipcart would eventually refund (around $200k).
As a sidenote, Courtland: I caught you on this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us recently. You mentioned founders unburdening themselves from hardcore bootstrap launches by partnering with employers. Well, that's pretty much what Charles did with that initial "intrapreneurship" set up!
Our initial stack wasn't — and still isn't — sexy. Charles already had a good eight years of back-end dev experience then. He had shipped many client projects into production with .NET.
So he stuck to what he knew to get something to market ASAP. Front end was vanilla JS and Backbone; we're progressively migrating to Vue.js now.
Now that I think about it, Snipcart's v1.0 was rather heavy! It's kind of been a full e-commerce platform from the start. We thought we couldn't go to market in the e-commerce space without a minimal feature set. You know, stuff like: orders/customers listing, merchant back-office, payment gateway(s) integration, shipping methods, discounts, taxes… These were all available in the v1.0.
Still, some features were purposely left out from the v1.0: inventory management, subscriptions, multi-currency, digital goods (gosh, did we get complaints about that one), abandoned carts, email templates… refunds even! These all came wayyy later.
How have you attracted users and grown Snipcart?
Here we go, my favorite part. :P
We soft-launched Snipcart in July 2013, thinking our new site would be a ghost town. In August, someone at Spektrum submitted it to Awwwards and we won a Site of the Day! Tens of thousands of web designers flooded our site, our newsletter subscriptions ramped up, and hundreds of accounts were opened.
It literally took me three years to rise above that traffic level. -_-
We got our first clients by pitching to local dev shops and leveraging Spektrum's existing client base. Our PM, Georges, was doing most of the "biz dev" work back then. When I arrived, I immediately started blogging, with no strategy whatsoever, just because every other startup was doing it. In parallel, I experimented (and failed) with different traction channels:
- Couple hundred bucks on Google AdWords: didn't drive many results and made me realize we were up against mammoth budgets in a hyper-competitive space.
- ~$1.5k on Carbon Ads, a dev-centric ad network: mitigated results; ROI hard to measure due to long sales cycle and no relevant LTV at the time.
- Couple hundred cold emails to dev shops with a super lightweight CRM set up: response rate was extremely low, and audio/video demos and follow-ups took me way too much time. Converted maybe one shop that way.
- Couple dozens PR emails outreach: either no answer or "your product isn't world-changing enough."
- Dozens of international startup events: boosted our ego more than anything else, didn't generate measurable results. Eventually made a full stop on that one.
In time, we realized our shaky, well-intentioned blogging was driving more and more organic traffic and even a few direct conversions. Especially our platform-specific e-commerce tutorials.
So we decided to really own that channel. I started getting way more serious about SEO and creating top-notch content. Long story short, we experimented with different content angles and ended up drawing a now pretty effective editorial line — JAMstack tuts, dev-focused op-ed pieces, technical insights into our story, traditional CMS e-commerce tutorials, in-depth comparisons with competing products, etc.
Our content strategy injects touch points on all steps of our conversion funnel. I'm especially glad we now get to make truly TOFU (top of the funnel) content that has nothing to do with e-commerce or Snipcart, and which just aims at helping out our potential users (example).
We now re-publish performing or underperforming content on key platforms like Medium and dev.to. We sometimes syndicate content on authoritative site, and try to guest post on a regular basis too. Content still is our #1 growth engine at Snipcart. We nurture our earned audience through social media and Mailchimp weekly newsletters.
Oh, and back in 2016, I crunched a few weeks of SEO technical analysis for site-wide optimization, too. That helped! Used this awesome audit template to do so.
Other than that, we've had the chance to have third parties create platform-specific plugins for Snipcart. We fostered that kind of effort by trying as much as possible to offer killer support, stay close to our dev users, and heavily promote community efforts on our blog and site. Integrations account for ~5-10% of our monthly signups.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
We charge 2% of monthly sales.
This doesn't scale well with high-volume merchants (>$25k/mo), so we offer two fixed monthly fees: Pro plan for $400/mo, and Corporate plan for $800/mo with priority email/phone support and feature prioritization.
In 2015, our PM crunched some numbers and realized the massive weight our non-paying users (~$0 sales/mo) had on our business and support. He convinced us to add a minimal $10 to our 2%, which meant you couldn't use Snipcart for less than $10/mo. This pricing change rocked our customer support boat and cut our active user base in half. No paying users left, as they weren't affected.
Soon after, our monthly revenues tripled. I did a full-length analysis of this story on Baremetrics' blog. Soon, we're going to be experimenting with a "power features pack" available at a fixed monthly price, on top of standard pricing.
At $33.5k, our last month was our biggest yet in revenue. Two factors had a noticeable impact on revenue growth: 1) the 2015 pricing change, and 2) sustained, compounding returns on content marketing and SEO. Our margins are still thinner than we'd like them to be (5-10% profits). These augment slowly but surely as we expand marketing efforts and our team.
Monthly revenue timestamps from Stripe dashboard:
I got into lengths about how we grew Snipcart in this Indie Hackers post, and I'd like to quote some insights from its outro:
You don't need to obliterate the incumbents in your market to make it. By solving a problem slightly differently, you can offer intrinsic value.
You don't have to copy “proven” models to make it. By leveraging your constraints and your strengths, you can build an authentic growth model.
You don't need tons of funding and a frantic growth rate to make it. You can build a sustainable business slowly, by growing at an organic rate.
What are your goals for the future?
Offering e-commerce on Mars. (Elon, hit me up!)
Bad jokes aside: nothing fancy! We want Snipcart to allow us to maintain our smooth, motivating lifestyle. I like our tight-knit, familial vibe, and I want it to stay that way for as long as possible. And we don't want to sell. Unless, I dunno, say, Stripe makes an offer. ;)
A few of the personal goals I have with Snipcart:
- Ramp up and streamline video content in our overall strategy — recently hired a junior marketer with solid video editing skills to do that and give me a hand with content.
- Increase organic traffic to 50k sessions/mo and overall traffic to 100k/mo — will get there by maintaining and improving content strategy, and getting more serious about backlinking campaigns.
- Review and optimize our homepage for SEO — I've done this for almost all feature pages and blog content, but I need to invest some time in the home too.
- Master lower-level funnel steps like activation and retention — we do well as far as broad acquisition go, but our conversion rate and onboarding flow could really be improved. Starting to work on this with our new front-end guy (A/B, web performance, user flow analysis, etc.).
- Experiment with a new "power feature package" pricing as mentioned above. Will hopefully have positive impact on revenue expansion.
- Ship our cart v3.0, which will be 1) way sexier 2) way more flexible for both noobs and experts.
- Ship a developer portal to give devs with multiple clients a cool "mission control" feel to their different account management tasks. Will also help put our partnership program front and center.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?
Jeez, this interview really takes me down memory lane. Forces introspection, too. I like it!
My first challenge was overcoming my lack of programming and SaaS knowledge. I discuss this at length in this original Inbound.org post.
In the beginning, trying to market to developers AND merchants simultaneously was quite the challenge. The latter were way too exposed to big competitors' marketing (think Shopify) to be easily converted to something like Snipcart.
Dropping our focus on merchants altogether really helped our marketing take shape. While we're not in a textbook "two-sided market," the general advice regarding these applied to us 100%: focus on one side first.
Let's see… what else? Early on, we struggled with over-worrying about competition, a lot. I remember when Shopify launched their embeddable buy button. Except for our PM, we were all convinced our startup days were over and we'd all go back to client work.
But months passed and metrics kept going up. That's when we realized our unique dev-first approach (including content, dev-to-dev support, WoM, ambassadors) was hard to reproduce and was paying off in the form of fidelity and "brand equity," I guess? Also taught me that big players in a space != space is impossible to target.
Dealing with customer backlash following our pricing change was a tough one, especially for me and Charles, who were on the front lines of support back then. I was convinced we'd made a terrible mistake, lost users' trust, and would have to rollback the change. We replied to so many angry emails…
But eventually we saw the numbers and realized no real harm had been done. Quite the contrary. Taught me a good lesson about signal vs. noise.
Support is still a difficult one. We tried chatbotting our way out of it, which kinda helped. Other than that, we now rotate support cycles of one week between our three main devs, which helps too. But even with our switch to Intercom and chatbot, it still eats a big chunk of our dev time.
On a more personal level, I struggled — still do — with impostor syndrome and performance anxiety. I mean, at first, I wasn't even willing to publish a post without having it thoroughly proofread by my native English-speaking buddy. I often felt like a total failure when my content didn't land on Google's 1st page.
I know today Snipcart has grown to be a reasonably successful business, and I've been published on cool platforms like Baremetrics, Inbound, The Startup, Chatbot Magazine, and Wishpond, etc. But I still often feel like that young francophone guy who has no clue what he's doing. And compared to folks like Rand Fishkin, Gregory Ciotti, Alex Turnbull, Belle B. Cooper, Joel Gascoigne — just to name a few — I'm still in the minor leagues, you know!
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The single best decision we took was to market to developers. It was an underserved market then, and one we intuitively understood. On top of that, I'd say serendipity played a big role in Snipcart's popularity: the timely rise of front-end tooling, browser maturity, and the JAMstack all contributed to making our product a key tool for modern web devs.
I guess my writing and storytelling skills, while not out of this world, naturally pushed us towards content marketing. It turned out to be a good avenue for our slow, sustained, organic growth.
One important thing I learned to do was to start trusting my peers. I've always struggled with that, but once I learned to trust their expertise and intentions (they'd proven time and time again they cared about the business and me as an individual), my faith in our business itself soared.
Other than that, both personally and professionally, I learned that aiming for satisfaction vs. perfection can make a world of difference. I was more of the type to over-plan and hesitate; our PM and the lean method helped me switch to a "get out there quickly" mindset that helped my own and Snipcart's growth.
To manage anxiety and step away from work/stress, I now meditate once a day. I've been using Headspace for 125 days in a row now, and it helps heaps. Breathing is underrated! I also try to spend more time with friends and family at night and during weekends. Got a bit overworked these last few years, and while I love my job, I also want to love my life as a whole.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
I feel a bit like an impostor giving advice when there are podcasts like Startups for the Rest of Us out there, haha!
But, hmm, let me fire a few quick ones:
- If possible, eat your own dogfood.
- When starting out, talk about your project to real people, in real life, as much as possible.
- If you've got the time and skills, produce and promote content as soon as possible to gather early product and marketing feedback.
- Don't sneer at SEO.
- Don't quit everything to "launch" your startup. Find ways to do it through current employment or on the side, even if growth is slower.
- Shoot for profit and lifestyle, not TechCrunch-y VC rounds.
- If you're looking into blockchain-related projects, don't scam people with shitty ICOs, please.
- Buy Bitcoin. :)
Some "startup" resources that helped me in the beginning:
- The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
- Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares
- Trust Me, I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday
- Beginner's Guide to SEO by Moz
- Moz Whiteboard Fridays by Rand Fishkin
- Agile development fundamentals (taught by our PM)
- Support from a SEO mentor
- GrooveHQ's Startup Journey blog
- Buffer's blog
- Baremetrics' blog
- The Startups for the Rest of Us podcast
Where can we go to learn more?
I'd be more than happy to answer questions and discuss anything you want in the comments! :)
Thanks, Courtland. It's been a blast, really.
Cheers from the whole team here in Québec!