Learning the Ropes and Building My Own SaaS Business

What are you working on?

I have a few projects out there at the moment, but the main one that I'm spending time on and promoting right now is HR Partner. It's basically an HR management system designed for small-to-medium sized businesses.

HR Partner allows businesses to store their employee data in the cloud, in one convenient and secure place that they can access using a variety of devices.

How did you get started?

I've been a software developer for about 30 years now. I'm mainly self-taught. I've run my own business for the same amount of time, and I've been developing business apps for various small businesses around Australia. I also used to be an agent for various enterprise-grade accounting systems, and used to assist companies to implement accounting or ERP solutions.

I love working with other driven, motivated business people, and using software to improve their bottom line and productivity.

Now that I'm pushing 50, I'm getting a bit worn down with direct one-on-one consulting, so I decided to try and build a SaaS product which would give me an income stream while I can semi-retire.

Years ago, we wrote an HR System for Windows that linked into a particular payroll system that was moderately successful, and so I decided to re-write that system as a standalone web-based app that could link to many other systems.

Where did you find the time and funding to work?

All my app building was done as a sideline along my normal consulting work. I still do bespoke development for my clients, and that pays for me to spend time in the evenings building my web app(s).

I am not as productive as I was as a younger programmer, nor do I have the same endurance, which is a challenge, but I figure it's never too late to keep learning and pushing yourself.

How did you grow? What did you do for marketing?

We're still in a fairly early stage as yet, and marketing is a real eye opener for a hardcore developer like me. I am discovering that finding clients is a challenge that requires unique skills, so I think that will be the next stage of my learning.

I have been trying to get more active on channels such as Hacker News and Reddit so that I can improve my marketing know-how and spend my marketing dollars a lot more wisely.

How did you deal with incorporating and other legal issues?

This hasn't been a biggie for me, as I've already had an incorporated company for decades, and was comfortable with that when starting HR Partner. As for legal documents etc, I am finding that online resources have been great.

How are you planning to monetize HR Partner?

I am trying out a monthly subscription model. I tried several variations of that to experiment with user reactions, such as "once-off" payments, special discounts to non-profits, and periodic special pricing. I haven't found the "magic formula" yet, but I'm still working on it.

Revenues are still at $0, as we have around 150 users that are still on the free tier (10 or less employees). As of yet, no one has opted for the paid tier, mainly because we haven't marketed HR Partner to larger businesses.

What have been your biggest challenges, fears, and mistakes so far?

The biggest challenge would be thinking that the marketing would be way easier than the technical aspect of developing the app in the first place. The reverse is probably true.

Also, another mistake was haphazard marketing — trying a "shotgun approach" and not really measuring returns, or staying with a non-working channel for way too long.

Trying to do everything myself is also a bit of a burden as well as a blessing sometimes. I often think of having a co-founder, but having been burnt twice with business partnerships, I am a little reluctant to revisit that at this stage.

What resources and skills have been useful to you?

In order to build a web app, I basically had to throw out everything I knew about Windows desktop development and start afresh.

I've enjoyed this process though, so it was not really a big challenge for me. I am enjoying coding a lot more in the web space, and will probably focus on doing this a lot more moving forward.

As mentioned before, I am completely self-taught, and have relied on online courses and blogs, forums, etc to learn new techniques and languages.

What's your advice for hackers setting out to be their own boss?

I would tell them to take a full inventory of their skillsets, and be honest about their shortcomings. Then put a plan in place to address those shortcomings, whether it is to work on knowledge and skills to overcome them, or else find someone else who can do that work and then delegate.

I would also stress to them to work out what their key performance indicators are, and then never to take their eye off those.

Lastly, I would stress to them that making a decision quickly is also an important factor. Never let anything go on too long because you couldn't make a decision, or were afraid of the outcome of that decision.

What's your tech stack for HR Partner?

Currently I'm using Ruby, Sinatra, and MySQL on Amazon's AWS infrastructure.

Where can readers learn more about you?

Check out my personal blog or find me on Twitter: @dsabar.

You can also leave a comment below, and I'll try to get back to you!

Devan Sabaratnam

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