I’m Joining Maptia

A little personal news… I’m joining the team behind Maptia. Actually, I’ve been working with them for a bit over six months but I suppose I’ve convinced them to keep me around at this point. This post is mostly about the why part of the story and it’s fairly personal. If you mostly want to hear the more concrete stuff about what we’ll be doing and when it’ll be over on Maptia where I’ll be writing a lot more often shortly (you can subscribe here).

So taking a step back; about a year and a half ago I started to realize that Storemapper, the SaaS business I had bootstrapped, was on its way to some degree of success. I’d just crossed $100,000 in annual revenue, so running the business by myself would yield a healthy income with all the perks of a location independent, recurring revenue, lifestyle business. I started thinking then about what I wanted to do next. Did I want to stay a one-person business? Try to grow Storemapper into a really big company? Start another software business and manage a portfolio of products? Or did I want to change course entirely?

I found the process of building a useful software product for happy customers to be a rewarding one. But it wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to be my life’s work 1. I didn’t want to be the King of Store Locators or run an e-commerce app empire. I have always wanted to devote my energy to humanity’s most pressing problems and for much of my career that has been fighting climate change and accelerating the transition to clean energy. I knew I wanted to refocus on that.

As Storemapper continued to grow, I built an awesome small team who manage much of the day to day work, giving me more and more free time. So I spent most that year traveling and looking for something that was a uniquely good fit for me. Uniquely is the operative word. Kevin Kelly has this amazing quote in an interview where he talks about how there is another layer on top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There’s work that is valuable that people pay you for. There’s work that gives you meaning and fulfillment (the usual top of the pyramid). But there is the final layer, which is work that literally only you are uniquely able to do. It’s a ridiculously high bar but it’s what I set out looking for. Something to work on that would be valuable, meaningful, fulfilling, and at least potentially ( because you never really know) something I was uniquely the right person to tackle. It sounds pretty arrogant when I say it out loud. Of course, there’s never going to be one that you and only you can accomplish. But it’s a goal to strive for that leads you in different directions than just looking for meaningful work.

Many friends were very indulgent with me as I plied them with idea after idea. I carved out hours to compose long emails to old friends and people I’d never met, looking for something to really resonate. With a fairly passive income, for the first time in my life, I had an excess of time and the capacity to be very patient in looking for opportunities. I leaned into that, not jumping at the first idea, actively turning down opportunities that looked pretty decent but didn’t clear the high hurdle.

I had discovered Maptia the year before and instantly loved everything about it. The site was gorgeous. The stories were compelling and meaningful. The photography and contributors were world-class. It felt like something on a mission to do far more than accumulate page views.

I sent them a cold email in December of 2014 asking if there was anything I could do pro bono to help. I didn’t get a reply (sorry to throw you under the bus guys, it’s all love). Six weeks later I got a tweet apologizing for not getting back to me, and that was basically the end. Like so many other in that situation, the founders were working overtime just to keep up with their own work and constantly had to triage offers to volunteer, work together, grab a coffee, etc. I’m not surprised an out of the blue email was mostly ignored. In fact, I probably would have encouraged them to do just that.

All the while I kept thinking and looking for what was next.

I kept coming back to a central idea. I wanted to find a way to make an impact on climate change. My last big effort had been SolarList, a software startup aiming to make it much easier to sign up online for solar energy in your home. This was basically attacking the really horrible user experience for switching to solar. It was a good idea, but not one that I was uniquely, or maybe even particularly, equipped to build. We (my co-founder and I) did a great job building the product, launching it on a shoestring budget and getting excellent participation data. But the economics of the idea mandated we raise millions in venture capital and it turns out I was either not very good at pitching VCs or very unlucky. Probably the former. Either way, it was an instructive experience.

Rather than think about what was the way to have the biggest possible impact on climate change, I started working backward from things that would have an impact but also other people would not likely be already trying to do. I often arrived at the idea that we already had a lot of smart people working on the hard tech side of clean energy. We already had very capable people working on the policy side of things. The big obstacle that remained was obvious, public opinion was still far from united that climate change was both real and a thing that we should make our top priority. We had already seen the most epic attempt at conveying scientific certainty — a huge global multinational convention of scientists had all agreed by a huge margin that climate change was happening and would have very real consequences — fail to meaningfully convince a large portion of people. More scientific certainty wasn’t likely to change hearts and minds that weren’t already convinced.

The most insightful piece of commentary I have ever read on climate change comes from David Roberts, then at Grist and now at Vox.

We evolved to prioritize risks with faces and fangs, but climate change confronts us with error bars and probability distributions.

It’s true. It’s just hard for a certain kind of person to care about climate change when it’s all so probabilistic and science-y. What was missing was storytelling at the human scale. Stories of climates and habitats that are rapidly changing. Stories of migration and water issues as the harbinger of what could be our future on a far greater scale. Stories with faces and photos of those faces shot from eye level.

Three months, six months, nine months of spending most of my time reflecting on what was the most important thing I could work on and this was definitely it. I spent hundreds of hours reflecting, reading, learning, prototyping and pitching ideas. Should I build a way to fund journalists to tell these kinds of stories? Should I build an off-grid and edge-of-grid consultancy that would travel to areas where clean technology was already working and improving lives without any subsidies or government assistance? Should I just launch my own publication?

Meanwhile, Maptia kept publishing fantastic human-scale stories on clean energy like this one on rural solar electrification in Romania and this story of sustainable energy self-reliance in Scotland and this dispatch from Kiribati, an island nation that is almost guaranteed to be one of the first swallowed up by rising seas. I kept thinking “That! That is exactly what we need more of. Lots more of exactly that kind of thing.”

Just as I was getting ready to really move forward on one or more of my own ideas, the universe grabbed me by the shoulders, spun me around, and pointed me in a slightly different direction.

My girlfriend was on a year sabbatical and we were taking the year to travel. At the outset, she wanted to do a yoga teacher training somewhere and we settled on Ubud, Bali. We had been there before and I knew I could work from Hubud, an awesome co-working space that I’d spent a month working from the previous year. Six months later as we were heading to Bali I saw on Twitter that the entire Maptia team had also decamped to Bali. They were in Ubud, working from Hubud.

I introduced myself again. This time I wasn’t just a random cold email. We talked. Had a few dinners. Discussed the challenges they were facing. The site was amazing, the stories continue to amaze, but there were challenges.

After initially running through two startup accelerators (Startup Chile and Tech Stars) they decided that raising venture capital just wasn’t aligned with their goals. They didn’t want to sell ads or native ads or put stories behind a paywall. So they had no funding and no revenue and a huge workload. Nobody was getting paid. Everybody was freelancing on the side and living cheaply to pay their own costs and for the site’s servers. They wanted to build a team and to publish more stories. They wanted to actually pay decent rates to the photographers and writers who contributed stories. But everything required money that they did not have. They felt almost all the typical revenue models for a site like theirs would force them to either sacrifice the reader experience, betray the mission or just end up creating the kind of company they didn’t want to work in.

But holy hell were they talented. They had built from nothing — in a way that is still totally inexplicable to me — a roster of world-class photographers and storytellers who contributed stories to the site. They had taught themselves web design and built one of the most gorgeous sites on the web… one worthy of the photos and stories it contained. They’d taught themselves to code and built a powerful, scalable web platform. I was, and continue to be, blown away with what they had accomplished already and couldn’t ignore the obvious potential.

Doing my best to advise and help them met all of my criteria. I genuinely thought it had the potential to meaningfully make the world better by growing and telling more of their brand of stories to a wider audience. But I could also do so with zero financial motive. There wasn’t any prospect of getting paid or making some investment that would one day return 1,000x. That meant there likely wouldn’t be many folks with experience willing to genuinely dig into their challenges and give them honest unbiased advice. By that time my software business was earning far more than I was spending and I’d been able to pay off the last of the debt from my own startup fiasco. I was quite happy to just help, with zero financial incentive. So we had some productive discussions in Bali and got to know one another a bit. It wasn’t clear that there was a need for me to do much more than offer advice so I didn’t push for it. We parted ways in Bali and kept only briefly in touch over the next few months.

I continued to look at building something with a more specific focus on climate myself but every time concluded that Maptia was already a phenomenal version of what I could only hope to build after a few years of work.

In May of last year the interlocking web of catch-22s and challenges, and the grind of working like crazy for no money for four years, started pulling Maptia at the seams. Jonny, one of the founders, posted a heartfelt piece announcing he was moving on. Dean and Dorothy were still trying to freelance to pay the bills, take on the full workload of keeping Maptia running and find some sustainable way forward. I didn’t think I could “save” Maptia, but I did feel like if I wanted to work with them it might be now or never. We were wrapping up our year of travel and moving back to DC. A short stop in London and then we had our flight home. Dean and Dorothy were living in Bath, about an hour and a half from London. I booked a train ticket to Bath and emailed them to get lunch (yes, in that order). I made my pitch. I wanted to really work with them on the day to day stuff, not just give advice. I wanted to help them hack through the big challenges and forge a way to a sustainable business that could help them grow Maptia, grow the team and work slightly saner hours. No, I still didn’t need money or even the prospect of money.

They agreed. I mean really at that point what choice did they have 🙂

From August to December of last year we worked on strategy. Paring back the ongoing workload to the essentials and exploring ways to make Maptia financially sustainable without completely selling out. It’s a big challenge almost no publisher, or publishing platform, or thing in between, has figured out a good way to reliably pay employees without raising capital. There was almost no successful organization we could point at and say we’d like to do roughly that but with our own twist on it. Even worse there was quite a graveyard of companies that had tried vaguely similar things and flamed out spectacularly or were currently a hot mess. If we were going to make this a growing, vibrant company we would need to blaze a new trail.

As we started working together I felt more and more confident that I had found a place where my individual experience and skills might be best put to use. The team behind Maptia are exceptional. They are practically drowning in opportunities and great ideas and have the skills to execute on all of them if given the time and space. I’m not like that. I’ve only ever learned enough to be dangerous in most of the skills I’ve worked on. But if I have anything that I’m truly great at, it’s hacking through innumerable opportunities, organizing them, prioritizing and editing them and finding the areas of focus that unlock the option to pursue the other ones. In a team of three, on an ambitious project, everybody wears all the hats at least some of the time. But working just this short time at Maptia has allowed me to do what I think I’m actually very good at: removing the obstacles for really talented folks to do their best work.

We made a lot of progress over those six months but eventually realized that we needed to take a complete break over the holidays; to stop all work and re-assess everything from the ground up. We’ve had to take a break from the grand vision to focus on the nuts and bolts of making the company sustainable, getting into a comfortable rhythm of putting out new stories and shipping new features and products. We just finished a week in Washington DC together laying out the plans for this year and I couldn’t be more excited for what’s coming next. We’re going to tackle some big challenges and we’ve got a good strategy.

I arrived here thinking about things through the lens of telling climate change stories, but clearly, the issue is much broader. There are a number of important topics where the scale, distance or nature of things makes it hard to grasp by just reading some statistics. Human scale, first person storytelling can make a huge impact in ocean and wildlife conservation, human migration and water access issues. It can also be a tool for generally widening our cultural perspective. Our goal with Maptia is to tell more of those stories to a bigger and bigger audience, to enable storytellers to focus on their craft and do more of what they love, to drive real world action from those stories and to keep Maptia as an organization completely aligned with the goals of our readers and contributors.

It’s a huge challenge. The broader media and “content” industry is going through immense turmoil. Business models are being upended, stalwarts are flailing. Authors and photographers are often barely scraping a living from their craft. We know we’re stepping into a minefield. Publishing things on the internet fields like a war zone right now. Everyone from old media, to startups to solo bloggers are battling and very few are thriving. But, I think we can succeed because there are a few things we are doing very differently.

  • First, Maptia is not VC funded. After a small initial accelerator investment (long since spent) Maptia has been completely bootstrapped by Dorothy, Dean, and Jonny. The site, the quality of the content and the audience are all much further ahead than you would expect from a bootstrapped project. This means there is a ton more we can do and a huge amount of leverage from just a little revenue.
  • We are not aspiring for growth, revenue, scale at all costs. All of us frankly have easier ways to make money. Because we’re not here for the money, we can make choices that media companies who have raised a lot of capital or are just generally controlled by investors, can’t make.
  • We’re building a calm company, not a soul-crushing content sweat shop. So much of publishing online has become ultra high volume, low paying work. As we start to bring in revenue for Maptia, our goal is to focus on making Maptia a materially better place to work and publish.
  • We’re building something we just believe needs to exist in the world. This isn’t a business plan responding to market conditions but a vision of something that is simply needed. We may have to feel around in the dark a bit to figure out how to make it exist and grow and thrive, but the core purpose is different from most everything else you’ll see on the internet.

So that’s the story. If you’d like to follow along for what comes next, the best way is to subscribe to email updates here.


  1. I also don’t want to denigrate people who do find this a rewarding life’s work. It’s just not for me.

Chapter 5. Getting Your First Customers

<< Back to Chapter 4: From Idea to Building a Minimum Viable Product

Getting your first customers can be really challenging. I’ve spoken to a lot of entrepreneurs who thought of and built a first version of a SaaS product that seemed like a great solution for a certain niche, but they just couldn’t get that initial traction with customers.

From my research I have found a few common strategies that have worked. Most fall into the category of things that don’t scale. Some require that you do many months of preparatory work before you build the app.

In Chapter 2 I point out that knowing how will you find your first 25 customers is part of finding a good business idea. If you truly have no idea, you probably shouldn’t build the product. However you may also find it makes sense to work backwards from a group of customers to a business idea.

For example you might find that roofing companies are extremely easy to find: they advertise their contact info in business directories and you could easily meet 10 roofers per day just by hanging out in the right section of a hardware store. Now you know that if you had a SaaS product for them, it would be very easy to find the first 25 customers and beyond.

Keep working from both directions to refine or reject ideas, both working backwards from target markets of customers and working to find customers for certain ideas that otherwise seem valid.

In my experience, successful Micro-SaaS businesses consistently use one of the following strategies for acquiring their first customers.

Become a consultant

Storemapper’s first five customers came from a single email blast. Over nine months of freelancing for e-commerce clients I kept a spreadsheet of every client email, even for gigs that I didn’t end up winning. On launch day I emailed the list of about 30-40 targeted people and within two days there were five paying customers.

Consulting for e-commerce businesses was a fantastic way to learn about exactly what kind of products they needed, their willingness to pay for solutions and where the pain points where strongest. The real upside that you are getting paid the whole time. If you find yourself getting hired repeatedly for a similar job, you may be able to just “refactor” that job into a SaaS app that can scale.

Consulting-first also necessarily forces you to focus on a lucrative target market. If the businesses aren’t hiring consultants or freelancers to solve problems, odds are they will be tough customers for SaaS.

Forums and IRL conferences

Consulting in e-commerce gave me a big advantage in generating business ideas but it didn’t prove that many actual customers.

The immediate next phase for Storemapper was to find places where e-commerce merchants were looking for answers to stuff. Most of the big e-commerce platforms like Shopify, Bigcommerce, Volusion and WooCommerce have forums. So I searched the forums and tried to be helpful. Of course I jumped to the few topics specifically around store locators, but I also looked for popular threads on topics with lots of activity from merchants just setting up a new site (or migrating from another platform) — prime timing to choose a store locator app — and just added helpful comments. I would let my forum “signature” with a link to Storemapper do the marketing.

The generalized tactic is to find where your target market clusters and be there. This could be online in forums or the comments sections of an industry blog or in real life at meetups or conferences.

Aggregator sites and blogs

Hopefully your target market congregates somewhere online. If it’s software for developers, then you’re looking at Hackers News, Product Hunt and Reddit. Maybe there are niche blogs that cover the topic. Become a member, be helpful and without spamming folks, politely point them towards your app when it’s a relevant solution. If you’re knowledgeable on the broader topic, it can be helpful to invest some time answering questions not directly tied to your app to build credibility and not come off as a spammer.

Several successful Micro-SaaS businesses have been started by “blowing up” on certain popular sites. But it wasn’t just pure luck that they hit number one on hackernews or reddit. They had often spent years being helpful and cultivating the respect of the community that then responded when they finally launched a product.

Business directories (or hit the streets)

It will be easier to find customers in certain B2B markets than others. If you sell to plumbers, real estate agents, or attorneys you can just search any online business directory and put together a huge list of leads. Look through Yelp, Craigslist and Google local listings for local businesses. Give them a call and ask if that have any pain points in their business and politely introduce your software product.

A variation of this is if you can find your customer type by just walking around. Build an app for ice cream parlors, bodegas or drug stores and you can find customers by just strolling around your city and chatting with the owner. Bring a laptop, sign them up for a free trail and walk them through the setup process on the spot.

If your target customer business doesn’t have a storefront, a little bit of research will still almost always turn up a directory website.

Steal business from jobs boards and freelancer sites

If your Micro-SaaS replaces a job that your customers would typically hire a freelancer or consultant for — great fodder for business ideas — then jobs boards can be a fantastic place to find new customers. Setup a regular process to search for job postings on every site you can find and tell job posters they can “hire” your app instead.

I knew several of my freelance clients had been interested in hiring me to build a store locator so I figured that was probably happening elsewhere. I had previously used just one or two sites like oDesk and Elance (both of which are now Upwork.com), but now I created accounts on every one I could find. I would trawl the sites for jobs that included a store locator in the requirements, “apply” for the job and pitch them on using Storemapper instead.

While I was freelancing I discovered that two of the major programming freelance sites let you create an RSS feed for new jobs that matched certain search terms. So I made a feed for any new jobs that contained “store locator” and used IFTTT to trigger an email to me with the link. I’d quickly confirm it made sense, then paste in a standard pitch to the effect of “I don’t want to do this job but you should use my app for this part of the gig” totaling about 30 seconds are work with a pretty high success rate of getting new customers.

Ride the wave

Sometimes you can get bigger platforms to bring your first customers to you. In Chapter 3, I mentioned that a good way to find good Micro-SaaS ideas is to look at fast growing platforms and find an unmet need. You want the need to be large enough that a decent percentage of the platform’s users want it, but not so large that the platform itself is likely to build the solution themselves. If you hit that sweet spot, you may find that the people behind the platform will refer customers to you.

Justin Jackson calls this catching the big wave. Catching the big wave is all about timing. When I launched Storemapper in the Shopify app store, it was the only store locator solution. So we’d get all the app store searches, all the recommendations from customer support and all the discussion forum searches. Shopify was really blowing up at that time and we caught the big wave. These days the Shopify app store is quite saturated and even has quite a few copy-cat store locator apps. The big wave is likely over for Shopify. Since I’d like this chapter to stay relevant for more than a few months I won’t make a suggestion for where the big wave is right now, but it is a strategy worth remembering. If you initially built your SaaS as a standalone, rather than directly integrated to a platform, it may be worth some development time to build an integration with a growing platform if you think it will help you ride the wave.

The Parallel Track: Build the audience

The best and hardest method of acquiring your first customers is to carefully cultivate an audience over time, gain their trust, learn their pain points and build product for them. When you deconstruct a successful Micro-SaaS business you often find that they got their first customers through this kind of path. The downside to this approach is fairly obvious, it takes a lot of time and energy to produce content, interact with and cultivate an audience. You have to invest all that time before launching the product and learning if people will really pay for it. The upside is that if the product is good, getting your first customers will be smooth sailing.

Essentially this is a parallel track running through all of the previous chapters on finding a good business idea, building the first product and acquiring your first customers. You can build an audience on a reasonably broad topic, find out from that community what kind of product they need, build and launch it to that audience. In this track you can spend considerably more time on the first version of the product and you can also be a little less niche since you already have a good batch of initial customers.

Most of the tactics and criteria I have laid out can be relatively mixed and matched. But this strategy can’t really be remixed. The type of business, the target market, the way you validate it and they way you build and launch it all need to be dialed in for it to work (or to be worth the time and effort).

Also, this whole workflow does not work for a large number of businesses that might otherwise be good Micro-SaaS. Nobody would have read a blog about store locators. Building an audience around the idea of making e-commerce apps would not have brought the right audience: my actual potential customers are e-commerce shop owners, not developers.

I actually don’t recommend this approach for first-time Micro-SaaS entrepreneurs. Even though it is one of the more successful ways to launch and get your first customers, if the product fails you’ve invested far more time and energy to get to this point. It’s also much more difficult to ditch a business if you have an audience following your every move. It seems to take most entrepreneurs several attempts to find a Micro-SaaS business that really works so I would recommend targeting a niche, building a quick MVP and using one of the above strategies to find your first customers.

How NOT to get your first customers

There are a number of well-known customer acquisition channels that I think are particularly bad for early stage Micro-SaaS businesses. Here are the general things you want to avoid.

Any cost per acquisition: VC-funded SaaS companies are almost always cashflow negative. The wonderful magic of big, funded SaaS is that you can spend $100 to bring on a customer who pays $20 per month, and as long as you know that customer will stay around for a year or so, you are generating value for the company. But this cashflow formula means the more customers you add and the faster you add them, the more money you lose each month. This situation can be lethal to a bootstrapped business. Unless you have easy access to capital at generous terms and/or are very experienced with paid acquisition I would avoid any channel that has a discrete cost per acquired customer.

Compete with funded startups: I would avoid entirely almost any channel that involves bidding against or any degree of competition with funded startups. This is just not a fight you can win as a bootstrapper.

Heavy time investment: At the beginning of this chapter I argued for doing things that don’t scale. You shouldn’t be too stingy with your time in the early stages of acquiring customers. I strongly advocate channels where you can invest a little bit of time, get a new customer, and repeat. However I really recommend avoiding channels that have a big investment of time up front to get up and running. Do not underestimate the amount of upfront time it takes to negotiate an affiliate deal or set up a retargeting campaign. These kinds of things can turn into huge de-motivating black holes of time that end up distracting you from your real goals.

Un-vetted signups: In general you should be able to confirm that the type of customers coming in through a channel are in fact a good sample of people who should be interested in your product. This is why certain forums and directories are great sources. Channels that bring in a random slice of people on the internet should be avoided. You don’t want to flood your app (and support queue) with unqualified customers who are just poking around who will waste your time and then not sign up for a paid plan.

Some specific comments on a few common channels to avoid:

Adwords, Facebook ads, etc

For all the reasons above this is probably the worst possible way to get your first customers. It costs per customer. You are competing directly with every single company in the space, most of which probably have much larger budgets than you and vastly more experience bidding. There is also a pretty substantial overhead cost of time or money to get even a half-decent campaign up and running.

SEO tricks

I am not a big fan of SEO as a customer acquisition strategy. Partly this is because I just don’t fully understand it and I don’t feel like my bullshit radar is very well calibrated when dealing with SEO tips, tricks and consultants. If you are already an experience SEO ninja, great, ignore me. If you would be reliant on how-to articles or consultants to boost your SEO ranking I really advise against it as a way to get your first customers. First it’s a black box and an extremely vulnerable position if Google changes their algorithm. Second, it’s just so passive that you have no idea what kind of traffic you are driving to your site. You may boost your ranking for certain search terms but you really don’t have any idea who the people are that are searching and clicking to your site. I much rather cold call people I know are potential customers than sit there and try to divine whether or not this traffic is at all relevant to my product from Google Analytics.

Affiliate deals and partnerships

These can really seem like a great deal at first pass but I would strongly encourage you to avoid them. First, don’t fall for the survivorship bias. You may hear from a fellow entrepreneur about the amazingly successful AppSumo deal they ran last month. But nobody (except I guess me) is going to shout from the rooftops about all the affiliate deals they spent dozens of hours emailing, calling, negotiating that turned out to be a total waste of time. On top of the massive time overhead to set most of these things in motion, they are not repeatable and can also flood you with support requests.

Further Reading

If you’re looking for more tactics for acquiring customers, Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of Duck Duck Go, has put together an epic manual in Traction. Keep in mind that the book is aimed a little more at the funded startup scene, but there is a mountain of actionable advice in there.

Adii Pienaar, one of the founders of WooThemes and now Receiptful, has a great ebook and podcast aptly named Your First Customers, also a great resource.

Chapter 4: From Idea to Minimum Viable Product

<< Back to Chapter 3: Finding Micro-SaaS Business Ideas

In June 2011, I was doing freelance work for several e-commerce companies and a few of my clients asked me to build them a store locator for their site. I ran the idea of turning that into a Micro-SaaS through the meat grinder and determined it had potential. Once you get an idea that looks worth doing, you should carve out time to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as soon as possible. Getting hung up on an idea that you never execute is worse than having no idea at all.

About three weeks later, I had a flight from San Francisco to Buenos Aires. Somehow I was able to book a first class flight with frequent flyer miles by adding a stopover in New York, so I was looking at 30+ hours in a comfy first class seat or an airport lounge. I decided to build the entire first version of the product on that flight. So the moment I got on the flight, I put on headphones and fired up the text editor. Thirty hours later I landed in Buenos Aires. The first thing I did was go straight to my hotel and pass out for ten hours because I had about a dozen glasses of free champagne and eight cups of terrible airline coffee.

But as soon as I woke up I deployed the site and my Micro-SaaS was live.

I emailed all of my previous e-commerce clients and within 48 hours we had five customers paying five dollars a month. Storemapper went from a sketch of an idea to paying subscribers in less than 72 hours.

This is a classic testament to Parkinson’s Law: that work will expand or contract to fill the time allotted to it. If you give yourself an unlimited time horizon to launch a product you’ll likely never finish it. Setting a defined period of time, and drastically cutting whatever you need from the scope to make it happen, is the best way to launch a small product.

Shipping a Minimum Viable Product

This chapter is going to focus primarily on the concepts of shipping a Micro-SaaS MVP. I frequently get more tactical questions looking for specific resources on how to learn to code, or which frameworks to learn, and so on. I learned to code almost five years ago now and the software world moves quickly. Many of the resources that I learned from are now stale or defunct. I’m not an avid programmer. I think of myself as an entrepreneur who codes or someone who likes to quickly hack together something that works and is valuable. I don’t stay that up to date on the actual programming community and I’m just not the best person to answer specific questions on what resources to use to learn to code at this point.

Build first or Pre-launch?

I want add my opinion to a common debate in the world of minimum viable products. Should you pre-launch or build a working product first? Pre-launching usually means some kind of effort to build a launch email list by blogging about the topic, reaching out directly to potential customers, doing consulting and case studies or basically anything else besides writing code. The goal is to build trust and a list of potential customers so that you can have a big launch and quickly get to a decent level of recurring revenue. The big benefit from this, aside from having your first customers ready on day one, is that you can refine the idea with your target market and get closer to product-market fit without having to write code.

I think that products that are pre-launched are more likely to succeed, BUT I believe that pre-launching is not the right strategy for most people.

The main reason is that pre-launching is a long game. It requires patience and commitment and you don’t know if this is a viable business idea yet. Yes, a well pre-launched product will probably do better all things being equal, but all things are not equal. It’s a huge time investment to pre-launch a product. Your primary mission at this point in the game is not orchestrating a splashy product launch. Rather you want to get to paying customers, and thus real feedback, as fast as possible. Pre-launching just delays this.

Another common reason not to bother with a pre-launch is that the target market for most good Micro-SaaS ideas is just not interesting enough to pre-launch with a blog or podcast. We still don’t really have a blog for Storemapper because there just aren’t that many interesting aspects to store locators. It does a job, simply and cost-effectively, which is the best kind of Micro-SaaS. There is probably a correlation between ideas that are too boring to blog about and good Micro-SaaS ideas.

My recommendation for most entrepreneurs is to follow the tips in the rest of this chapter to massively pare down the scope of the MVP and just launch it fast.

What I mean by “MVP”

The idea of what counts as an MVP has been the subject of considerable debate since Eric Ries popularized the term in the Lean Startup. A full discussion could be (and probably is somewhere on the internet) its own ebook series. But my opinion is that for Micro-SaaS an MVP should actually do the job it purports to do.

The publication of the Lean Startup has lead to a rash of tactics that supposedly allow you to learn whether customers would buy your product without the hassle of actually building a working product. The most common variation is simply building a landing page with a demo video explaining how the product works and asking people to input their email to “sign up” – then after they submit their email, surprise, you tell them the product is not quite ready yet, or they are on the waitlist, and you’ll notify them when the product is ready. You use that data on email signups to decide if you have “validated” the idea.

The Lean Startup introduced these ideas as an alternative to the dominant methodology for venture-backed startups prior to the book’s publication in 2011. Startups at the time would raise millions of dollars on an idea, spend a year or more building a perfectly working version of the software and then run a huge product launch campaign. Most of the time it was only then, after a year or more and millions of dollars spent, that they would discover nobody actually wanted the product. Lean tactics are a compelling alternative to that VC startup approach, but Micro-SaaS products are not even remotely in the same category.

I think the data you get from an email opt-in experiment is mostly garbage. In SaaS the only thing you ultimately care about are customers that will pay you money month after month. You can’t learn anything about whether you have a product that customers will pay for on a recurring basis until you start charging them and you really can’t start charging them until you are giving them some form of value.

So I firmly believe even the MVP for Micro-SaaS should actually do what it says on the label so you can start providing value and charging customers right from the beginning. Note that this does not mean that I think everything must be solved with code, see the section below on making features by doing manual work by hand behind the scenes.

What if you can’t code?

I’m going to be honest, I have not met many people who have successfully bootstrapped a SaaS business that were not themselves developers. You don’t have to be a wizard ninja coder – I had only been writing code for nine months when I built the first version of Storemapper – but your odds will be substantially better if you are able to build and launch the business yourself.

But, if your plan is to hire a developer, the rest of this chapter will help you really refine the scope of the first version so you can minimize your upfront cost and start getting paying customers earlier in the process.

Building an MVP: Don’ts

The first version of Storemapper was hilariously bad. It lacked many features that anyone designing a SaaS app would deem essential.

You can download screenshots of the original app by dropping your name and email in the form here. These 5 images represent almost the entire app at the time of launch.

You've already subscribed (thanks!) so go ahead and download them here.

Mature SaaS apps are complicated beasts but lots of what they do is not part of the core value, not part of the job the customer is hiring the app to do, but ancillary features. If you use a lot of SaaS products it’s easy to accidentally include these in the first scope because of course you need them right? Wrong, most can be left out for the launch. Here are a few broad categories that you can aggressively trim in order to ship quickly.

Only build for new users

Do not build features that only current customers would need after months of using the product. Focus only on delivering value to new users because that’s all you will have at first.

You can comfortably skip the following features for an initial launch:

  • Change billing method. One valid credit card is all you need at the beginning.
  • Change subscription level. Hopefully you only have one plan, but otherwise you can change plans manually for customers on request.
  • Update account info, reset password, change login details. Again, do this manually when needed
  • View past invoices. Customers will request this feature when it’s necessary (tax season) wait until then.
  • Leave out a button to cancel their account. Just put an email link so customers can request to close their account. The main benefit here is it gives you the opportunity to ask follow-up questions about why they are canceling.

Go very light on branding

Good branding is important for a software business but it is most valuable when potential customers’ first impression of your business is visiting your website without any prior contact. Early on you will be acquiring your customers manually so you can build trust and explain that the app is under development. All you want to to do with launch branding is reassure people that this is not a scam and it’s safe to enter their credit card details.

More specifically:

  • Do not hire someone to make you a logo. Use plain text and a free webfont, unless you are a designer and can crank out a logo in minutes.
  • Do not build a fancy landing page with slider images, testimonials (because you don’t have any yet), pricing tables and gorgeous full-page stock images. Grab a cheap SaaS landing page theme and tweak it if you must.
  • Do not spend hours in CSS building a custom UI framework. Use something off the shelf like Twitter Bootstrap. Tweak the color scheme if you absolutely must but I did even bother.
  • Do not hire someone to make you a hand-crafted narrated “explainer video”.

Other common features that you can skip

Below are a few larger features that can be skipped. This is not an exhaustive list. The broader point is that almost every aspect of SaaS besides the core job to be done can probably be cut for the MVP.

  • Multiple plans and pricing options. Almost all SaaS products have multiple plans with a nice table laying out the features at each plan level. This is a great strategy for segmenting your customers and maximizing your revenue. But it is not something you should include in the MVP because the code required to segment certain features and allow users to upgrade/downgrade plans is substantial. Whatever features would be in the top tier plan should be the only plan.
  • A free tier (or freemium). This is so important I’m going to have a whole section on it below.
  • Multiple payment options. Pick one (I suggest Stripe) and ask for a credit card upfront. If customers like your product but want to pay you by check or Paypal, tell them sorry, it is really not worth the hassle.
  • Multiple users per account. In mature SaaS you will come across valid situations where the billing receipts need to go to accounting, the main email notifications go to the manager but a three people on the product team will be using the product day to day. There is value in adding clear support for this as the product matures but in the early days just tell them all to use the same login.

It’s impossible for me to predict every single SaaS feature that won’t be necessary for an MVP but try to generalize the principle as much as possible, reducing any bit of SaaS trappings that do not directly add to the core superpower you are trying to give your customers.

Leave out everything that you can do manually.

An MVP should be a lot like the Wizard of Oz. It looks like a big monolithic entity but behind the curtain is a person pulling the strings and levers to make it all work. It’s increasingly possible to launch “software businesses” without writing any code at all. You can string together some services like Unbounce, Typeform and Zapier and customers can sign up and pay through your site but behind the scenes you just have humans doing the work that appears to be software. With SaaS it’s generally not possible to completely avoid building an app but if a certain feature can be done manually and customers would be fine with a 24-hour turnaround, do it manually.

For example, there were tons of edge cases and bugs in the process for uploading a CSV file in Storemapper. All I did was recover from any error with a note along the lines of, “Sorry something went wrong! Please email this file to [email protected] and we will upload it for you ASAP.” I would re-format the file, make bug ticket, and upload it manually. It took months of coding, little bug fix by bug fix, to finally get that feature where it would work most of the time but most customers were perfectly satisfied with early manual process.

Avoid the faux professionalism

When you are selling to businesses there is a temptation to want to make your “organization” seem more professional than just one person hacking something together. While I’ve certainly fallen for that myself, in general I have found avoiding this kind of thing is both faster to launch and has some surprising benefits. As Storemapper grew a few competing apps surfaced that purported to be larger companies, either with highly corporate landing pages or listing a dozen people on their team page (which I can still can’t believe). But many customers explicitly told me they preferred to support an “indie developer” or solo entrepreneur and became some of my best customers. Even better, the kind of customers that would really prefer a more professional sheen to your product are likely to be the most annoying kind, asking for paper invoices and all kinds of custom work. Save time and avoid all this nonsense.

  • Don’t bother with email addresses at your custom domain if it will take you more than 30 minutes to setup. Use a gmail account.
  • Don’t use a fancy help desk app in the beginning. Just reply to the emails.
  • Do not for the love of god put your phone number on the website. Some entrepreneurs may disagree here, arguing that phone calls with customers are a valuable resource. But for me, flat out refusing to do phone calls was the only way to keep focused on building a great product for all customers.

Eventually I decided to take this process one step further and explicitly brand my app as a small business. The footer of every main screen of the app has my face and the quote below. Which may seem a bit weird but a lot of customers like it.

Building an MVP: Do’s

The biggest thing to battle in the stage of the game is scope creep: an ever expanding list of things you need to do before launching. The most important part of this chapter is the Don’ts above that will help keep that scope pared back. But here are some things that I recommend doing.

Use (and pay for) existing services

I can’t emphasize this enough. Re-inventing the wheel is the enemy of the MVP. Today in software there are so many open source or affordable building blocks out there, mostly the result of developers trying to scratch their own itches. Time is by far your most limited resource. My triage for any new feature idea/request looks like this:

  1. Don’t build it.
  2. Really, just don’t build it.
  3. Okay, fine, look for some existing service that can get you a good enough version of it.
  4. Really, there’s nothing? Go look again?
  5. Still nothing? Okay, code the simplest possible version of it from scratch.

You want to use services with the fastest time to ship, even if they are not the most scalable or most cost-effective in the long-term. I used Ruby on Rails, hosted on Heroku, with Stripe for billing and Cloudflare for SSL. Whatever their relative merits to their competitors, each one is unequivocally the fastest-to-done in their category. I still use all of these by the way.

As the product has matured, I rolled my own solutions and cut out reliance on certain paid products, but Storemapper still leverages over a dozen bolt-on services. The net cost is a few hundred dollars a month and it’s completely worth it. The full list is here on Medium.

Separate your app and your landing page

Of the many things I did wrong on my first Micro-SaaS, one of the most annoying was this to setup a separate WordPress installation for the landing page and other “content.” I recommend having your root domain (your-biz.com and www.your-biz.com) point to a WordPress site with your landing pages and your blog at your-biz.com/blog. Then have your actual application hosted at app.your-biz.com or some other sensible subdomain.

There are literally tens of thousands of great SaaS landing page WordPress themes for very cheap that you can drop in but not nearly as many good landing page themes for Rails/Angular/Meteor. Later on if you want to have a designer work on the landing page, you will find almost all of them can get in and directly edit a WordPress site themselves but many will not be able to work on or deploy a Rails application.

It will also be much easier later on to add additional landing pages or a blog. This is all the kind of content you want at your root domain and indexed by Google for optimal SEO. I did not do this at the beginning and it is both a big pain to go back and change later. I recommend setting this up from the start.

Do ask for credit cards upfront.

Do not allow people to sign up without a credit card. There is a lot of debate in the SaaS world about whether requiring a credit card upfront or after the end of a free trial is the more optimal approach. But this debate is irrelevant when it comes to an MVP.

You will see a lot more signups without requiring a card upfront, but a huge chunk of them will be time-wasters and not serious buyers. The onboarding process will be very manual and support tickets per customer very high at first. If you let in the time-wasters you’ll be doing 10x the support work for a few percentage points more long-term paying customers.

Once the product is more mature and the onboarding flow more automated, it may make sense to test whether asking for a card upfront generates more long-term revenue, but in the MVP stage it is a nightmare and should be avoided.

Lastly, it is also a huge hassle to code a workflow to bother customers to add their card after their free trial expires, freeze their account if they don’t, and so on. Skip all that and ask for the card right at signup, set it up to automatically assign them to a plan after the free trial end unless they cancel.

In a similar vein I really recommend against a free plan. This the same reasoning behind requiring a card upfront. At this stage you are still maximizing for information and feedback. You want to know for sure that the product adds value to every single customer you bring on and the only way to judge that is people continuing to pay.

One of the big benefits of the no-freemium, card-upfront structure is that you can always keep your costs under control preventing any explosions in free trials or free plan usage. If you’re still not convinced, read about freemium almost caused Baremetrics to implode.

If you look at your product and you are convinced that freemium is the way to go, you might want to consider whether this idea is in fact a good fit for Micro-SaaS. The cost structure of freemium is risky, do you have deep enough pockets to actually lose money on your business in the short term if free users grows too rapidly? If people need to use your free product for months before they consider upgrading, I would question whether the product provides enough immediate value to be a Micro-SaaS business, though it may be a good fit for a funded startup.

Use a single price point.

Every successful SaaS business you’ve ever seen has a fancy pricing table showing all the different plans. But I would strongly recommend against this at the MVP stage. One monthly plan is plenty.

The business logic behind offering multiple subscription levels, prompting people to move between them and limiting access to certain features is immensely time-consuming to build. In the beginning you are just throwing darts at the wall on pricing. Your pricing will be wrong and you’ll need to change it dramatically as you go, so I don’t think you gain much by segmenting your first customers by different totally random price points.

Storemapper started with a single price point, $5/month. In retrospect this was ludicrously low as our average revenue per user in recent cohorts is around five times that. But I still think it was a pretty good move. You can always raise prices and find ways to upsell customers later. In hindsight I would have started with something between $9-15/month and raised it as the features were ironed out. More on adjusting pricing later.

Admin Login: The one bit of code your app must have

This is one feature you might be tempted to cut in your quest for a truly minimal product launch. But you must give yourself superpowers to swoop in and use the app on behalf of your customers. Your answer to almost every question from early customers should be to just login as them do it for them. Then send them screenshots or a screencast of how you did it so they learn next time. You need an admin screen that let’s you view all your users and then login as them.

It’s literally five lines of code in Rails with Devise and it can make or break your onboarding process early on.

It’s becoming more common in some SaaS apps, but you cannot imagine how magic it seems to customers who email support asking “How do I do X” and you respond with, “Here’s how you do it, also I already did it for you.”

Conclusion

Shipping a first version of the product is the biggest hurdle in the entire journey to a profitable software business. When I talk about my SaaS business I constantly meet people who have one pretty decent app idea that they go years without bothering to make a specific scope and carve out the time to build and launch something. Having one idea that you constantly talk about, but never execute on, is the biggest trap in entrepreneurship. Use this chapter to pare back an idea to it’s essence, schedule the time and ship it. I’ll leave you with some awesome Hemingway on Coding quotes that always get me in the mood to get to work.

Next Chapter 5: Getting Your First Customers >>

I’m killing my book project and moving it to the blog

More than a year ago I decided I would write an ebook on building Micro-SaaS businesses. I was really enjoying the experiment in radical transparency, sharing the metrics and details behind building my own small software company on blog. Readers were enjoying the long form blog posts and I felt I had enough material that was genuinely new and interesting to put together a longer writing project. On top of that I saw several folks having some real success with ebooks, and having just read Nathan Barry’s Authority ebook about selling ebooks, I also thought it would be cool to try out a new business/revenue stream.

After a ton of thought and feedback from friends and readers, I’m killing the ebook project and moving the content over to my blog, where it will be available for free. You can start reading the first three chapters now here.

Because I like to over-share. Here are the main reasons why I decided to kill the project despite really not wanting to give up on it.

The Process

A big part of what I preach in my ebook is the concept of shipping fast and iterating. It’s also what I’m actually pretty good at. Writing a book is the opposite of that. You sit there and write and write and edit and re-write endlessly perfecting the entire product and hope for a splashy launch. It works well for some people but I hated it.

I began to dread opening up my text editor. I procrastinated interminably. My blog posts dried up almost completely because I felt it was too indulgent to spend two hours on a blog post when I was so far behind on my book. So in the end nothing would get written for months at a time.

The Economics

Since I decided to write an ebook I’ve talked to, or found blog post or podcasts by, several ebook authors. Anecdotally it seems like, if you really crush it with an ebook, putting in nearly a year’s work of writing a great book, pre-marketing it, building an email list, doing guest posts on other blogs and in general doing a ton of non-sleazy self-promotion, you can earn $100,000/year for 1-3 years with an ebook project. This also seems to be outrageously rare. Most people with a medium-sized audience and a decent ebook can expect $5,000 – $20,000 unless it’s a total dud.

The email launch list, built only from my blog/Medium/Twitter is just over 1,000 people at this point. I don’t love doing some of the things that successful ebook marketers say, probably correctly, that you have to do to really sell a ton of ebooks. My honest assessment was that this ebook project would be a big success if I did $15k – $20k in sales in the first six months. Frankly compared to almost any other way I could spend my time that money just didn’t move the needle for me.

So the financial success of wrapping these ideas up in a package and putting a price tag on it just didn’t get me that excited. But more importantly, I just really did not like the idea of selling a book about how to make money on the internet. This is just the scammiest genre on the web and I was constantly re-writing sections of the book to strike a balance between having a strong confident opinion on something and not coming off as the 12-step sure fire plan for internet financial freedom.

I may find a way to make some money off this through speaking fees or transparent co-marketing or something, at the very to try to break-even on the 100s of hours I’ve spent writing about Micro-SaaS, but it just feels great to not be selling a book on it.

The Scope

Some day I would like to write a book-length something. Just as a personal goal if anything. But I made a big mistake in choosing the scope of this ebook. A lot of good books have already been written about the various components of building software businesses: launching, marketing, building fast, supporting customers, hiring and so on. My value-add is in writing about my particular take on a business like mine. So the sensible format for the book was to go through almost every major topic in building a Micro-SaaS business, synthesize the information I found most useful, and provide my own caveats, deviations and strategies that specifically applied to a small, bootstrapped, profitable SaaS company.

This turns out to be an enormous scope! The latest draft in my text editor was over 45,000 words. On top of that, I’m still working on this business, learning new things quickly and evolving my thinking on many of these topics. I found myself reviewing early chapters (initially written a year ago) and having to completely re-write major sections because my thinking had changed so substantially. This is just not the kind of scope that lends itself to the static, crystalized structure of a book. I never felt like the project was getting any closer to done, the more I learned in real life the more I felt I needed to change, edit or add to the ebook. And all this action is happening in the track changes section rather than in public where it would actually be useful to people.

But I’m really excited now

The decision has been made and it feels great. Having the book free and online feels like a much more natural fit for this content. I’m energized to get back in the flow of publishing content, getting feedback, being as helpful as I can.

I’m also going to take advantage of the format. Rather than just giving you the digitized version of dead trees, I’m looking to build more interactive tools.

The first one is an email mini-series on the process of actually generating a Micro-SaaS idea. By far the most common feedback when I sent out the initial draft to 400 readers was to go beyond the principles of what makes a good Micro-SaaS idea. So I’ve put together five days of exercises that I think will be helpful to build a list of SaaS business ideas. From there you can use Chapter 2 of the ebook to help refine them and figure which ones are worth testing and validating. If you put your email in this form below (even if you already subscribe to my newsletter) you’ll start the mini-series, or mini-course, I’m not sure what to call it.

Micro-SaaS Idea Generation Mini-Course

Get 5 days of exercises in your inbox to help you come up with your own profitable Micro-SaaS business idea. Even if you've already subscribed to the newsletter drop your email in here to start the course.

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Most of the content for each chapter is already written so hopefully I’ll be able to polish and publish them quickly from here on. If you want to get each chapter as they go live you should definitely put your email in one of the various forms on this blog. Thanks for reading and looking forward to getting this stuff out the door and in your inbox.

Chapter 3: Finding Micro-SaaS Business Ideas

<< Back to Chapter 2: What Makes a Good Micro-SaaS Idea?

As I mentioned before, the most important part of ending up with a good Micro-SaaS idea is throwing out a lot of them. But there are a few good ways to prime the pump and look for new ideas. Here are a few methodologies that I’ve developed or generalized from other Micro-SaaS entrepreneurs.

Micro-SaaS Idea Generation Mini-Course

Get 5 days of exercises in your inbox to help you come up with your own profitable Micro-SaaS business idea. Even if you've already subscribed to the newsletter drop your email in here to start the course.

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Scratch your own itch

Eat your own dog food as they say. This is the classic example of how to build a product company and it does work. The most commonly cited example is of course 37signals, a design firm that built a project management tool, Basecamp, for their own internal needs. They realized other firms might need a similar tool and started selling it as SaaS. The software business quickly eclipsed the design business and now they can hardly be called “Micro” with millions of customers. Here is the origin story.

Another great example is Josh Pigford, the founder of Baremetrics. Josh was running another Micro-SaaS business and was struggling to get some basic financial metrics like Monthly Recurring Revenue out of his payment processor.he hacked together a minimal product that anybody, but first and foremost his own business, could use to instantly get SaaS metrics from their payment processor. Realizing lots of other business owners would have a similar problem, he opened it up as a product and shot up to $8,000/month in six months.

This is a well tested strategy but it has two big problems at this point in time. First the idea of scratching your own itch has been around and popular for a while and second the type of people who build software businesses tend to be somewhat similar in their needs. There are only so many itches to scratch for a software entrepreneur and at this point a lot of them have been sufficiently scratched. Slightly paradoxically, this is in fact part of the reason why now is such a good time to build a Micro-SaaS business. Scratch your own itch has been around so long, that for almost everything someone trying to build a software business needs, there are 15 other software businesses selling pretty great solutions for it. Once you hit on an original idea, you can often use those other itch-scratchers’ off the shelf solutions rather than having to build your own internal tools.

Pieter Levels, the creator of Nomad List, has a good solution to the over-saturation of scratch your own itch. In his book MAKE he suggests that if you live an interesting or unique life, you will generate new and unique itches to scratch. In his case he was living a digital nomad lifestyle, traveling around the world in a backpack while building a new startup every month. He needed to figure out the next best place to live each month comparing data like cost of living and internet speed for cities all over the world. So he scratched his own itch, crowd-sourcing a basic dataset and built a site to help other digital nomads connect and solve the problem.

If something about your life is really unique, then you can use scratch your own itch in that area. If you are a freelance graphic designer in San Francisco who likes yoga and green juice, you’re going to need a different strategy.

Niche versions of existing SaaS

A lot of big funded SaaS startups have built generalized software that many different types of businesses are using for their own specific needs. These SaaS businesses have to target a wide audience because of the shear volume of sales their company size and valuations require. Looking at generalized products like Salesforce, Quickbooks, Basecamp, Freshbooks, Shopify and WordPress can be a good source of ideas for niche SaaS products.

A great example is Mindbody, which is custom SaaS for yoga studios. Everything about the app is customized specifically for this niche: online class schedules, tracking teachers, accepting payments and subscriptions. A yoga studio could probably cobble together all of those features from a few existing big SaaS products but when there is a single product that works for them out of the box it easily clears the 5x better hurdle. And I think you would be surprised at how low the bar is here. Even something as simple a building a simple CRM with data fields and workflows pre-built for a particular industry could be enough of a UX improvement to sell well.

Haven’t seen any great examples yet for this, but I think there is a big opportunity in just building a simple CRM for specific industries. Even if it’s less powerful that Salesforce, a simple contact and pipeline tool with workflows and a data model (even just having the right words and terminology built in) could sell well enough to be a healthy Micro-SaaS. Salesforce for wedding photographers. Freshbooks for dentists. Play around with combinations until something passes the Meat Grinder.

Repeatable freelance and consulting work

SaaS, and software more generally, has been stealing work from freelancers since the beginning. Nobody wants to be in the business of reinventing wheels, so if you see a specific type of job that businesses are paying contractors to do over and over again from scratch, there may be an opportunity to build a SaaS solution. This was the method that generated the idea for Storemapper. There was no good plug-and-play solution for a store locator app on the market and several of my own clients asked me to build them one. I could have made something from scratch and sent them a bill for $1,000 – $2,000 each but it was a broad enough need to warrant investigation as a Micro-SaaS. Another thing to look for is a big change in complexity. I did some research into other store locators and found that companies with a store locator would have a relatively simple site, something easily built without a developer on Squarespace, WordPress or Shopify, but the store locator would be a big step change in complexity. So I reasoned that you might have a lot of customers who could launch their entire site without a developer, except for the store locator. Great opportunity.

The best way to sniff out these kinds of opportunities is to actually become a consultant in a particular field and really learn what customers need.

Automate manual tasks

Sometimes you can use the sections from Chapter 2 on what makes a great Micro-SaaS idea, to generate new ideas. One of the best attributes of a Micro-SaaS business is automation. So you can start from there and look around for things that could be automated, and then test to see if they would be good overall businesses.

A great example is Stunning  which is an app that handles dunning, an odd term for the painful process of following up with customers whose credit card on file has expired and getting them to update it. Without Stunning you are forced manually check this each customer, setup an alert if their regular monthly payment fails, and hound them until they update their payment info. With Storemapper I did this by hand for the first year. It was awful and I was not very good at keeping up with it until one day I realized fully 20% of my “paying” customers were not actually paying me due to some kind of billing issue. Stunning plugs directly into Stripe and automatically starts sending follow-up emails and in-app messages to customers until they update their account. It’s a great business model.

Build upon growing platforms

Like automating manual tasks, this source of ideas works hand in hand with what makes a good business model. A majority of the successful Micro-SaaS businesses I have encountered are plugged in to or enhance a rapidly growing platform. Baremetrics and Stunning built on Stripe a massively popular new payment processor. Mailparser, a Micro-SaaS for parsing data out of emails, got many of its early clients through Zapier a growing business automation tool.

We’ll discuss this platform strategy in more detail in a following chapter on acquiring customers but again you can work backwards for a source of ideas. Keep a look out for rapidly growing platforms, check their forums and Twitter mentions to see if there is one big feature or use case that many users are clamoring for but the company doesn’t seem likely to build themselves.

The best version of this is a platform bolt-on that can use that integration as a beachhead, but isn’t too tightly interwoven with that one platform. If you can also add value as a standalone product and integrate with other competing platforms, you have an even better idea.

Next Chapter 4: From Idea to Minimum Viable Product >>