5 Lessons Learned from Launching my first SaaS

Today, CoderNotes has officially launched! I'm keeping my hopes very modest for the launch - I don't have the large network effects to control where it will end up today.

Instead, I figured I'd share with you the 5 most important things I've learned while going from concept, to launch, to first paying customer in the past five months:

1. Treat positive opinions as red flags, not validation!

[Compliments] are warning signs. If you catch yourself or your teammates saying something like this, try to get specific. Why did that person like the idea? How much money would it save him? How would it fit into his life? What else has he tried? If you don't know, then you've got a compliment instead of real data.

Rule of thumb: Compliments are the fool's gold of customer learning: shiny, distracting, and worthless.

  • Rob Fitzpatrick, The Mom Test

A good motto is this: When doing idea validation, the other person shouldn't know your idea.

When I was doing validation, I shouldn't have asked, "Do you like the idea of having your programming notes easily searchable?"

I should have asked, "How do you currently keep track of programming bugs, errors, and new syntax?" and kept going from there. That way, there's no ego involved, and no false positives. Just facts.

2. Be wary of email signups

In beta, I had around 80 people on my email list and a consistent 30+% open rate on my updates. People were hooked!

When the beta invites went out, I even saw almost a 70% open rate!

I thought I was killing it.

I figured that it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect 25% of them to sign up, maybe even 50%.

On beta day, a total of three people joined. Only two ever activated.

Be careful about treating email signups like cash.

3. "Scratch your own itch" is misleading

There's so much debate around whether or not it is a good idea to scratch your own itch. CoderNotes.io is definitely my itch. It's the product I wanted to see in the world.

However, as business advice, I think that we need to look deeper.

In reality, "scratch your own itch" has two different definitions, and they are heavily confused:

  1. Build something you want to exist (mistake!)

  2. Build something you've experienced as a legitimate gap in the market.

I was listening to the sales for founders podcast episode with Frank Breckner, who took a product from zero to $XX,XXX in only five months!

In the episode, Frank talks about how he saw that his company needed software like the one he wanted, he spoke to people in his network who were also having the same struggles around the problem, and went ahead and built it.

That's very a different (and much better) version of "scratching your own itch".

If you're thinking of making a "scratch your own itch" product, consider which of the two versions it is before making the decision to move forward.

4. The product is 1/3rd of the product

For my first product, I thought that the main thing I was building was... well... the product!

Turns out, the actual product that you build is only a piece of the puzzle.

A business isn't just a product. It's a system.

  • A business includes a set of inbound and outbound channels that help drive customers to the product.
  • A business includes positioning that defines what market it is a part of, and why it is better for a subset of customers than the main player.
  • A business is the pricing, payment, and customer service model it follows throughout the customer life-cycle.
  • And finally, a business includes a product.

I've learned that, instead of thinking of a business as a legal entity that collects money for a product, it's better to think of a business as a set of puzzle pieces, all of which need to function for the whole thing to work.

Conceptually, I think you can break this up into three pieces:

  1. The business has a defined market where customers already exist
  2. A business has reliable channels to reach customers in the above market
  3. A business has a product that serves customers in that market

In other words, a product is only 1/3rd of the final "product".

5. Businesses that have to explain to users why they are valuable CAN be successful... but YOU shouldn't make one.

Imagine you are hungry, and decide that you are hungry for an apple. You know that you like apples, you've had apples before, and in particular you're a fan of crisp, red apples. Suddenly, someone comes up to you and offers you a banana.
"Thanks," you say, "but I'm looking for an apple."
"Actually," they respond, "a banana is much better for you! You'll be more full after eating this banana, my bananas taste better than apples, and in fact there are no other bananas quite like mine!"

The banana salesman has spent time and energy into convincing you into the sale. But for all his effort, he was trying to pitch you a solution to your problem that didn't fit the solution you had in mind.

When you have a product that customers don't already know, you will spend a lot of time selling it to them. Instead, if you can compete in a market where a customer is already solution-aware ("I want a red apple!") you simply need to compete by being the best in one specific category they care about (in this case, the crispness of the apple).

Is it possible that the banana company will be successful? Yes, but they need to spend time convincing the apple-lovers that bananas are the way to go. That's going to take a lot of marketing, and they are relying on a change in consumer behavior to get that result. For a bootstrapped company, fighting that battle doesn't make sense.

Many startups compete in established market categories and do so successfully by first breaking up the market into smaller pieces and focusing on one piece they can win.

The goal of [this strategy] is to carve off a piece of the market where the rules are a little bit different - just enough to give your product an edge over the category leader.

  • April Dunford, Obviously Awesome*

I hope you can take away some lessons learned from my first launch, so that you don't make the same mistakes I did!

Shameless plugs:

If you'd like to support CoderNotes.io's launch day, you could check out the ProductHunt here: https://www.producthunt.com/posts/codernotes

Thanks for reading!

  1. 6

    Great write-up. Point 4, "The product is 1/3rd of the product" really spoke to me. As a developer, the coding is the easy part. I also learned that code is not a product - it's a tool. The product is what makes your code valuable - eg, lets the user do something faster/better .

    1. 3

      Definitely! I think us devs have a double-edged sword when it comes to being an IHer. We are used to “working” being 100% building, which then makes it tough to switch gears and learn that only 20% of our time should be building when we have our own projects.

      1. 2

        Yep... learning this one now.

  2. 5

    Bonus tip #6 from a few hours into the launch:

    If you are offering your email list a discount using a special link, make sure you send them the right link, and make sure that the coupon code actually works!

    smacks forehead

  3. 2

    Great lessons! I really empathize with the one about being wary of email signups, since I had the same experience :)

    In the end, the only thing that matters is people actually paying for your product.

    1. 2

      Yea, that lesson was the most painful to learn. Emails are a great opportunity to start conversations and learn more, but treating them as validating the idea was a big mistake

  4. 2

    Congrats on the launch. This sounds like something I would use. Gonna check it out now.

    1. 1

      Thanks! Always happy to have another IHer on board!

  5. 1

    Recently discovered your stuff and absolutely loving it!

  6. 1

    This is the great and detailed article on Launching the saas product. I'm using the website to promote my product. You can visit here https://ultimateknifekit.com/

  7. 1

    Hi Kevin,

    Nice product has legs. Keep up the good work !

    1. 1

      It's still unclear, at the end of the day ProductHunt doesn't tell you much. The task for CoderNotes is now to hone in on which audience really wants this app, and discover the channels needed to reach them.

      It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem, since talking to free users could be a mistake, and there aren't enough paid users to deeply understand a trend yet.

      I'm sure I'll be posting about this a bunch to IndieHackers once I learn more, and I'll definitely be talking about it on the podcast as I go through it.

      1. 1

        scratches a very real itch - probably more so in other languages / domains (presuming you are concentrating on js at mo ?). Love the video apologies for the request - what tool did you use to record ...

        1. 1

          Nope, CoderNotes supports something like 180 languages. We do run a language server underneath for javascript (and I think some other languages) that provides live compiler warnings/errors, but by no means is it js specific. Can I ask what gave you that impression?

          Sure, the video was custom work done on fiverr for around $500. Happy to refer if you're interested

          1. 1

            Thanks - just looking at sample app - seem mostly js based questions. The 180 languages is a selling point - missed this on the site. As a .java developer I could just subconsciously put in the "front-end" stuff bucket - even though i can logically see it can be used for any language. Hadnt thought of fiverr $500 is competitive for the work delivered.

            1. 1

              Yep, in hindsight it would have made sense to use non-javascript examples in the video too. Maybe I’ll reach back out to my editor eventually... good insight!

              Hadnt thought of fiverr $500 is competitive for the work delivered.

              It’s semi-custom work, and videos are expensive. I looked at some cheaper options but didn’t find any I was happy with

  8. 1

    Could you tell me which tech stack you used to build CoderNotes?

    1. 2

      Sure, it’s a pretty bespoke stack though.

      Svelte / Sapper for Frontend JavaScript framework
      TailwindCss / TailwindUI for styling
      Elixir/Phoenix for backend API
      Hasura.io for database and RBAC

  9. 1

    Really insightful post, thanks for sharing! Point 2 & 4 specifically made me reconsider some things I'm working on at the moment. Congratulations on the launch!

    1. 1

      Really glad you found useful / actionable advice from it. And thanks!

  10. 1

    This is great! One of the better write ups I've ever read on "SaaS lessons learned". CoderNotes looks pretty cool. 👍 Best of luck with it.

    1. 1

      Thanks! Glad you liked the tips, they are five months of hard lessons learned for me :)

  11. 1

    Not every project has to be something side-business worthy. Otherwise the world would miss out on a lot of cool stuff. That said, if you want it to be a business or a foundation of one having a business case is much much more important than any product feasibility.

    Great job for the 6 tips. Best wishes from here.

    1. 1

      Thanks! At the end of the day, CoderNotes.io scratches my own itch (in the bad way), which means something exists in the world that I wanted to see and I get to use every day. That in itself is probably a worthwhile goal, even if it isn’t the goal I originally set out to achieve!

      That being said, it’s still early days for it, and I hope/expect it to grow over time. It’s not exactly a home run, but not a strike either. It feels like a foul ball, perhaps.

      1. 1

        Well really the launch is just a launch. It's not going to be a significant factor for most projects down the line, especially revenue. Does for market validation somewhat. Only knows down the line anyways. Best.

  12. 1

    This is interesting and good to see. One thought and not to cannibalize on your product. What if you offered a freemium version with the ability to mark public notes as private...and by doing so capture the groundswell of developers willing to help and share which is what a lot of them do naturally. You could create a nice databank of notes.

    I also think your scratch you own itch points are spot on.

    1. 1

      The current version offers unlimited public notes for free! Private notes require a subscription.

      So I think I already offer what you are suggesting?

  13. 1

    Well written post. All points are valid struggles of IHers.

  14. 1

    Kevin, the design and the language is awesome. I think there is certainly a huge market for this. All our students are using GitLab wiki and GitHub gists.

    Suggestion: Having no private notes on the Free tier might put people off (given the fact even GitHub now offers many features for free).

    Last, we document all the tools that we use and validate here. We accept PR's. https://github.com/HorizonTechnologies/awesome-resources

    1. 2

      Thanks! I’ll submit it if you think it could be accepted!

      I understand that private notes would be nice on the free tier, but I have to draw the line somewhere. Having a faceted search engine + cloud storage of notes means that the product can’t be free for everyone. Since public notes become valuable google rankings for the site, it makes sense for them to be free (plus I like the idea that developers get to help other developers for free).

      1. 1

        It Makes sense totally.

      2. 1

        This comment was deleted 2 years ago.

    2. 1

      Finally got around to submitting this, thanks!

  15. 1

    Your experiences/tips look solid. I especially appreciate #4 - the idea that a business is a system or a machine, with inputs and outputs, not just the tool itself.

    Congrats on launching!

    1. 1

      Thanks Blake! That’s a big one that’s been a lesson for me. In the future I plan not only to validate the product, but spend time proving that the channels I think will work are viable as well.

  16. 1

    Congrats on the launch, Kevin!

  17. 1

    Great stuff, I agree with #1—all feedback and ideas are good inspiration for iterating and finding improvements.

    1. 1

      Thanks! Feedback is huge, but it pays to be aware of our egos while we're getting it. Early on, I think it's better to leave your ego out of the process altogether.

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