SaaS series: Two sheets to the wind and no customers in sight

The period of time between launching an MVP and getting your first paying customers is a period of horrible uncertainty and plaguing self doubt for founders. But it’s not a nothing-to-do scenario. Navigating the “wilderness period” is all about reacting, iterating, and brutal self reflection.

You’ve decided to found a company. So your nerves are probably stronger than most.

But how will they hold up in that unchartered territory: the gap between MVP launch and first paying customer? 

Here, there are no guarantees. No preparation or market research or early testing can save you from the reality of customer response. And alongside the danger of failing to find market fit or running out of runway is – as time stretches on – the danger of losing heart.

If you like metaphors, you might call it the wilderness period, two sheets to the wind, the furthest point from the shore, the dark before the dawn, etc.

But this is not a time for staring out to sea or twiddling your thumbs. It’s a time to be reactive to your customers’ response – or lack thereof.

Rather than thinking of the lag between launch and buy-in as a wilderness period, which implies directionless hacking through a dense jungle, think of it as an exploration, guided by your product and the pain points you built it to solve. 

Leading with product

Unless you tailor made a product for a specific niche or company, your SaaS is likely to be product-first. In the wilderness period, you’re not hunting for customers in an aggressive sense. You’re trying to find your product a home. 

It’s a much more gentle approach – no cold calling, no hard pushing. It’s about listening more than you speak.

You should already have a clear picture of:

The problem you solve 

What immediate pain or nuisance have you identified on behalf of your potential customers? And who is this pain hurting the most? 

Who has the problem?

If you know what pain your product is solving, you can figure out the kind of person your product will appeal to. 

You’ll also need to check whether the end-user of your product is actually a buyer. You might have developed a life changing solution for a salesperson that an IT manager or accountant will never get, and so never approve purchase of. 

You are always selling to the decision maker. If the benefit to the user can’t be communicated, you’ll never get out of the woods. Naturally, this is the job of your sales materials – pitch, presentation, demo, sales follow up. 

If you have the perfect product and a willing decision maker, what barriers are likely to kill the sale? In selling to medium and large enterprises especially, there can be numberless ways to lose a sale, whether through difficulty of implementation, loss of momentum across multiple decision-making layers, or inertia of higher-ups.  

Dealing with points of contact under the thumb of these constraints is a great way to stay out in the wild. This is why product-led SaaS is often best marketed to smaller enterprises in the early stages. 

Finally and crucially, where are these decision makers hiding? Where are you discovering them? Can they discover you? Are you on all the right channels, deploying the right content, or prioritising the right customer acquisition strategies?  

Are you the problem?

If you’ve been wandering in the wilderness, it’s likely you haven’t seen your own reflection in a while.

If phones are not ringing, screens are not lighting up, and the silence is becoming deafening, there is an urgent problem with your product that you must have the courage to face. 

This might mean relinquishing the original vision you had for a) your product or b) your target audience. Your product might be stellar but poorly positioned. Your positioning might be spot on but you might be falling short of your competitors’ offerings. 

There will always be the counterfactual. The results you might’ve got if you’d tried X; the things you couldn’t see until after they’d happened.

But if you can make peace with this, it’s okay to spend 6 months looping between your customers and your development team, making the changes that will drive you to profitability.

It’s normal (if nerve-wracking) not to make a cent during this time. If what you’re doing is really complex, it could be 12 months (and that’s why we plan and raise our runways strategically). 

The trick is knowing when to hold on, and knowing when to pivot.

Job description unavailable: hiring for undefined positions

Job description unavailable: hiring for undefined positions

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Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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