A couple years ago, Rob Walling was working hard running HitTail, an SEO tool he built to help small software companies created by people like him do a smarter job identifying and targeting the most profitable long-tail keywords in their niche.

Like any good SaaS entrepreneur worth his salt, he wanted to find some effective ways to improve his conversions. He knew from looking as his analytics that most new visitors left HitTail’s site without signing up, and that a lot of the people who did eventually sign up did so after more than one visit.

Instead of rewriting and redesigining his website, Rob decided to turn to an eductional drip email course to build trust with HitTail’s niche and convert more site visitors into paying customers in the process. He had used drips lots of times in the past to great effect.

The problem: HitTail had been operating for a few years, and had amassed a pretty big website, with dozens of unique pages. Some of these pages had opt-in forms. Most did not.

Sure, Rob could have added pop-ups to his whole site and integrated them with a general-purpose email marketing tool like AWeber, Constant Contact, or MailChimp, but he felt that overlay pop-ups were overly intrusive and knew that existing email marketing tools hadn’t been precision-built to match the needs of small SaaS companies like his.

Like many a solo SaaS entrepreneur of his stripe, Rob decided to build a solution to his own problems.

The first one? Making it easy to opt-in from anywhere on the site.

“I asked myself how I could get people to sign up for the email course without embedding new forms everywhere.”

Rob came up with an toaster-style notification, where a small pop up slides up from the lower right or left corner of the browser. You know the kind if you’ve ever been to a site that uses Olark chat or Qualaroo.

With that simple toaster-style notification, coupled with an offer for a six-part email course on the basics of long-tail SEO, suddenly, 6-7% of HitTail’s new unique visitors were opting in.

“With not a lot of effort, I was suddenly building my list by several hundred extra people every month.”

The next problem was managing the drip emails.

“At first we had hacked it together, with a bunch of hard-coded logic,” Rob says. “But that was too inflexible.”

He solved his own problems again, and built a simple interface for managing HitTail’s drip campaign and tracking whether or not it was effective.

And effective it was: with the email course in place, HitTail’s signup conversions increased by over 30%.

Suddenly, Rob had the beginnings of a marketable product on his hands—an MVP, to use the parlance of our times.

The product that became known as Drip was taking shape.

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From MVP to $7,000+ MRR in 30 days: slow and steady does the job

Thanks to Rob’s work with HitTail and the 12-15 other products he’s built and run at various phases of his career, he was able to amass a precisely-targeted launch list of about 3500 emails, many of them micro-SaaS entrepreneurs like himself.

With a few quick blasts to that list over the course of a month, Drip had $7K of monthly-recurring revenue worth of customers champing at the bit.

But Rob has been around the SaaS block a few times. He understood that unless his product was rock solid, any of that $7K could churn in an instant, and that he didn’t really know what would keep his new customers around.

“I knew Drip served my needs,” he says. “But at that stage, I didn’t know what would be worth $50/month for everybody.”

Instead of rolling out his new product to everyone that signed up, Rob took his time.

He had a short-list of 15-20 people that had committed early to buying, people he knew would be patient with bugs and give him meaningful feedback every step of the way.

“We had no on-boarding flow in the app, no signup drip email campaign running,” Rob says. “I on-boarded every single one of our early users myself, one-at-a-time, on Skype.”

Those Skype sessions were not just for demoing features and showing people around. Rob took each opportunity to deeply understand Drip’s target customers: Why did they need something like Drip in the first place? What were their biggest objections and roadblocks to paying for it?

Among other things, Rob learned that many of his target customers were already using MailChimp or AWeber to send email newlsetters. Most of them weren’t ready to jump all the way over to Drip for everything, so he built a way to feed contacts from Drip to Mailchimp and AWeber.

One-by-one, he on-boarded customers, asking them insightful questions, listening intently to their needs and concerns, and steadily building new features until all the major objections had been addressed.

After the most important early feature requests were baked into Drip, Rob opened the gates a bit wider. He started letting in early signups in batches of 300 people at a time.

With Drip’s slow launch, revenue-killing problems revealed themselves early on.

As the first small groups of customers started coming in, Rob quickly noticed a major problem: despite their apparent initial enthusiasm for the idea, a concerning number of Drip’s early customers were canceling their subscriptions and walking away.

Some quick digging revealed why:

“To get started with Drip,” he says, “you have to install some Javascript on your site and configure the pop-up correctly. For most of our early users, that wasn’t a problem. Their problem was the content.”

Rob discovered that the vast majority of the customers who abandoned Drip did so without ever launching a single campaign. After talking to a number of them, he learned that most of them felt they didn’t have the time or expertise to do a drip email right.

Drip’s entire value proposition hinges on having a drip campaign to send to the potential customers who sign up for your list. Without one of those, the product is a waste of $50/month. If new Drip customers weren’t ready, willing, and able to execute a campaign, of course they would churn.

$7K/month and beyond: Drip gets the gospel of customer success

The insights Rob gleaned from launching slowly and talking to his churning customers led him straight to a simple customer success program:

If new users didn’t have the time or chops they needed to get a drip campaign up and and running…well, Rob would get one up and running for them!

Drip began to offer two options to everyone who signed up:

  1. Repurpose your blog content: With the help of an assistant, Rob will dig through your existing blog content and use it to put together a 6-part email course. He charges nothing for this.
  2. A custom drip campaign: Rob will find someone to write a basic drip campaign for you from scratch. Though Rob charges for this service, he doesn’t profit from it.

The results of this customer success program have been stellar:

“Before I started the ‘concierge’ service to help get people on-boarded,” Rob says, “my activation rate was about 20%. Once I started helping new customers produce their drip emails, that rate tripled.”

You read that right: With the help of some simple hand-holding for new signups, Rob increased Drip’s activations from 20% of new signups to 60%(!!)

Conclusion

By taking his time with Drip’s launch and talking to his prospects and customers every step of the way, Rob Walling was able to bring Drip—a brand new SaaS product—to thousands of dollars in MRR in around seven months.

By slow-launching Drip, he successfully:

  • Built exactly the right product for his target market.
  • Identified holes in his funnel in short order.
  • Developed a simple customer success program that brought his activation rate to 60%.

Many of the SaaS startups I know would kill for an activation rate of 60%, but most of them haven’t put in the time, consideration, or deliberate effort necessary to get there.

If you think you can automate your way to success, or that a light-touch sales model for your SaaS is the way to go, remember the example of Drip, where a solo entrepreur applied methodical customer development, a slow-and-steady hand, and a high-touch customer success program and got outstanding results.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Dan,

    Love the piece. Though I would have to contend that “slow and steady” had little to do with it. The actual results were in helping solve his prospects problems. Onboarding is a constant struggle for SaaS startups … we are no different. We have also adopted a similar onboarding approach. One key, I think, is consistent and persistent education. Education of the what, why and how.

    Thanks,
    Greg

    • Hey Greg,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the piece! Totally agree that on-boarding hurdles are among the major challenges for any SaaS startup, and that effective education is one of the best ways to overcome them.

      Meanwhile, I’d be curious to know more about why you think slow-and-steady wasn’t that important in Rob’s story. My take was that by being deliberate and slow with his launch, Rob was able to understand his prospect’s problems in a deep way, while building precisely the right features.

      Given that Rob is a solo entrepreneur with intensely limited resources, the slow-and-steady approach he took helped him succeed.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      • Dan,

        As a solo entrepreneur no doubt it is a necessity. Perhaps I am being a bit too literal in my reading of how he solved his problems. While I understand the staged approach to test his assumptions — which may have indeed enable him to change his onboarding process by adding services — I do no see that slow was necessary to solve the problem itself. Limited resources seems to be the driver of the slow, but not the cause of his success or solving the conversion problems.

        In this “lean driven MVP” world, we are bombarded with fast. I am neither convinced that “fast” or “slow” is better. But fast tends to cost less for most of us. And hanging on long enough to be able to solve the problem is a big driver also.

        Greg

  2. Rob is a badass. I had come across his website a long time ago, but hadn’t given much thought about it since. Then recently I fell in love with Podcasts and his (along with Mike) on Startups for the Rest of Us is my favorite. Love his approach to business (and SaaS in general).

    Great breakdown Dan!

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