May 21, 2019 by Kam

Marketing For Early Stage SaaS


I’ve built products and sold them online for the last 4 years. This guide walks you through what I’ve learned about marketing and how to apply to your SaaS.

I have never raised professional financing and this guide will operate under similar parameters.

  • Self Funded/Bootstrapped - no expensive marketing stunts or hiring sprees
  • Self Service/Minimal Touch Sale - no sales team or very few touch-points along the sales process
  • Minimal Costs - your business can operate at a great margin soon (no $500,000 in fixed costs from day 1)

I’m operating under these constraints so that the rest of this guide can be most relevant to the community. And because that is the type of businesses I know something about.

If you prefer enterprise sales, more power to you. I don’t and this is my blog 😂😂😂.

Table of Contents

Why Market?

We’re going to assume you’ve done all of the necessary customer research, development and whatever else it took to validate your saas idea.

If you have not yet done that, I’d strongly recommend you read The Mom Test. The Mom Test teaches you how to validate assumptions and determine what is important.

It’s the best book I’ve read on the subject and I owe Ben Orenstein for the recommendation.

Moving on, assuming you have done all of the validation necessary, why should you market? It is common for Indiehackers to feel spammy when thinking about marketing. I personally struggled with this in some of my previous projects.

Raise your hand 🖐🖐🖐 if you’ve ever been scared to market so you just wrote more features. I have.

Being scared to market usually is a signal you have not completed the customer development phase. If you are not convinced what you’re building has value, it will be tough to market. If you have completed that phase, marketing is the next best thing for you to do!

If you have something that is actually valuable, and helpful to people around the world, it should be your mission to help as many of them as possible.

My favorite product right now is my Macbook Pro. From August 2011-August 2018 I had the same Pro. Around September I upgraded to the latest version (without the touch bar!). Aside from 1 incident with a stuck key I absolutely love the thing and take it with me every where I go (traveling wise, I don’t take the computer to bars, restaurants or the grocery store!)

I spent a good amount of money on the computer. How did Apple market to me, to make that happen?

Apple did a few things. First they have created a premium brand. If you are someone who writes a lot of code + uses your computer all day, every day, you will pay more for what you perceive to be the premium product.

Notice the perceive to be statement. I am an Apple fan boy to my core but I am sure there is a better computer out there. Doesn’t matter. When it came time to buy a new one, there was 1 place I looked, and Apple has their marketing department to thank for that.

This quote taken directly from Apple’s website beautifully show the intention behind their brand.

More Power. More Performance. More Pro

You honestly have no idea what “More Pro” means. But you want it.

Next, Apple has done an incredible job with product marketing to highlight how easy it is to use the Macbook Pro with my other devices (Ipad, Iphone, Apple Watch, AirPods). Each one of them work very well together.

If you navigate to the AirPods product page you see the 3rd feature is:

Easy Set Up For All Your Apple Devices

Apple is doing its best to get you into their world, and then make it as easy as possible to add 1 more product, and 1 more, until you have them all. That is not a coincidence!

They know their products are valuable, and that once a customer uses one, they are likely to be hooked. So Apple’s goal is to get in front of as many people as they can.

You need to do the same. You might not have the entire world as your target market like Apple, but you have a niche somewhere to target.

If you are making a real estate SaaS, maybe you target the local Keller Williams office.

If you have a dental SaaS maybe you target the graduating residents at the school closest to you.

If you have a dog SaaS maybe you target bars around the area and offer the software for free to end users (I love dogs.)

If any of these are you, marketing is going to be how you drive top of the funnel awareness for your new products. You’ve probably heard about YCombinator companies having epic word of mouth growth and net negative churn and a ton more buzz words. Don’t strive for that at this stage.

If you can get it, great. Most companies never do, and a lot end up just fine. You don’t have to be on the rocket-ship growth trajectory to use this guide.

Marketing is going to drive the clicks, brand awareness and overall ability for your little business to grow. Right now, your business is most likely a tiny little infant. You might have a few customers and be on the way to learning how to walk, but not quite ready to run.

Terms You Should Know

Part of the reason marketing is so hard to get started in revolves around the ever growing number of terms one must know! This section will act as a glossary of terms I’ve run into in the last 4 years. If you have any suggestions to add, please let me know!

  • Funnel:

    • A funnel is a separate mini website tailored to very specific audiences. You might have a funnel specifically for females who own boxer dogs with very specific wording, pictures, videos, etc on it.
    • You might have a different version of the funnel for males who own boxer dogs.
    • The idea being, a funnel is an online sales person. The more specific the more effective.
    • You could in theory have 1000’s of funnels, although 1-2 are a great start.
    • Most popular tools to build these are: Clickfunnels and Unbounce.
  • Email Automation:

    • A way of automatically sending email, often based on certain behaviors your audience takes. The more specific, once again, the more effective (usually)
    • You might have an abandon sign up automation, where someone created a free trial but didn’t put their credit card in, and over the course of the next 14 days you send a few emails to try to get them to complete that flow.
    • These can also spiral out of control quickly. Start with 1 automation based on someone signing up for your mailing list. At the beginning you can manually do everything else.
    • Most popular tools to build these are: InfusionSoft, ActiveCampaign, Drip and ConvertKit.
  • Live Chat:

    • These have blown up in recent years but the main selling point is instead of having the visitors of your website email you a question they can click the pop up and talk to you right away.
    • These also have a ton of automation options that you won’t need for a long time. Just put the most basic version on your site and move on.
    • Based on what others have shared you won’t get overwhelmed with chats until you’re in the 15k/MRR range. (not scientifically proven to be true, but a problem you should worry about 6-12 months from now, not today).
    • Most popular tools are: Intercom and Drift.
  • Acquisition:

    • This is roughly how you get customers. So no, I’m not talking about your startup being bought for $1 billion dollars and you partying with Jeff Bezos. Maybe that happens. Maybe it doesn’t. This is an all encompassing term that breaks down where your customers are coming from.
    • You might say your acquisition channels are: Content Marketing, Facebook Ads and Affiliate Partnerships.
    • These can be described in different ways but mainly are broken down into: Paid and Unpaid
      • Paid - things like Facebook Ads, Google Ads, Affiliate Partnerships (think marginal cost per customer)
      • Unpaid - Content Marketing, Podcasts, Public Speaking (think fixed cost but possibly $0 marginal)
    • Sometimes people lump sales into this as well. You might say you’re #1 acquisition channel is direct sales. But, going along with our working assumptions this one is not relevant to us.
  • Analytics:

    • Everyone knows they should track metrics in their products, websites and blogs but hardly anyone knows what that actually means.
    • You want to track analytics so you have some baseline for the future when you want to optimize. Your website might have a 90% abandonment rate (aka only 10% of the visitors stick around for > 4 seconds).
    • Without analytics you wouldn’t know that, and would be clueless about how to improve.
    • To start, I’d suggest Google Analytics (website) and Mixpanel (product). HotJar is also great and is a good way to hedge your bets against Google Analytics (some say its not the most accurate).
    • After a few months you will start to notice the customers who stick around the most use Feature #1, Feature #4 and Feature #8. Congrats, now you have some idea as to how to either: raise retention or charge more.
    • Main point here: Get tracking set up early and revisit later. You’ll thank me later.
  • Opt-In:

    • Someone who chooses to get updates from you on your progress, new features, releases, etc
    • You want to enable this as early as possible. From Day 1 if you can.
    • Some percentage of people who visit your website will want updates. If you don’t have an opt-in area/pop-up they will be gone forever.
    • You should be building this list way ahead of building your actual product. Use names from this list as a way to do customer research.
    • A few hundred opt-ins are a great way to launch your new venture.
    • Lots of tools can do this. Most of the time it is built into the funnel software above, or email automation software.
    • If you are not using those, you can wire something up yourself using javascript on the front end of your website.
      • Create a form with an email field.
      • Listen for a click on the submit button
      • Send the data from the form to your backend
      • Save this data somewhere it can’t be lost
  • Algorithms:

    • The magic behind the curtain for social media sites. Since there are millions of people posting at the same time, they use a math equation (very complex one) to determine what you should see.
    • Everyone is always concerned about hacking the algorithm for Facebook, Pinterest, Google, Instagram, whatever is the popular site of the day. This hardly ever matters.
    • If you make valuable content it will get views. End of story.
    • Hacking an algorithm is a short term fix that moves the goal posts for your long term goal.
    • You want to be an authority on the subject your SaaS focuses on. To become one, you must put out incredibly valuable information and get people to view it.
    • Focus on putting out more valuable stuff and the rest will take care of itself.
  • PPC:

    • Pay per click - this is the amount that a website will charge you per click on your ad. Depending on your niche this can be less than a dollar to > $50.
    • You probably should not be advertising to start. In my experience getting this to work is incredibly hard, and often a time waster.
    • If you are an advertising expert you can throw this advice out the window. Otherwise, learn the term and move on.
    • Facebook and Google Ads are the most common for PPC.
  • CTR:

    • Click through rate - this is the percent of people who view your ad, click on it.
    • You will also find this buried deep in your Google Analytics/Mixpanel dashboard based on different buttons/links on your site.
    • Again, you probably shouldn’t be advertising yet, but this is one term to know before you do.
    • Facebook and Google Ads are the most common for CTR.
  • Web-hooks:

    • You probably already know what web-hooks are, but in the marketing context, they are most often used to send notifications to you about an action taken on your website or app.
    • You might have one set up for each time you get a new trial you send a web-hook to slack to let you know.
    • I’d suggest getting these set up as early as possible. A few are best. Trial, purchase, cancellation, new lead are probably the most important to start with.
    • As soon as your slack goes off, try to reach out to that customer and learn more.
    • At this stage learning is the #1 goal and that customer will be able to help you understand why he/she signed up, canceled, bought, etc.

What Marketing Should You Do

This is hard to say with 100% accuracy but we can talk about a few models that work and you can deduct which you should use.

I recently got an email from Nathan Latka about the dead zone of saas. Based on his research there are very few (if any) $100 million dollar companies charging between $500 and $5,0000 a year.

  • Note - I don’t think Indiehackers should strive for a $100 million dollar business because a blog post tells us too. Just adding Nathans data as a reference point.

This matches with research from Christopher Janz, who explains what it takes to build a web company with $100 million in revenue.

  • 1,000 enterprise customers paying you $100,000 a year
  • 10,000 medium sized companies paying you $10,000 a year
  • 100,000 small businesses paying you $1,000 a year
  • 1 million “pro-sumers” who pay you $100 a year
  • 10 million active consumers who pay you $10 a year through selling ads

Following our constraints mentioned above we’re going to eliminate enterprise, medium sized companies and active consumers (definitely not interested in selling ads).

So, to make the math work we must target somewhere in the range $100-1,000 a year per customer. Hence, why marketing is incredibly important.

At that deal size you can’t afford to have a true inside or outside sales force. You can’t really afford to have ads and need to build an inbound marketing machine.

  • Note - an inbound marketing machine can include things like affiliates and referral partners. It doesn’t have to be all blogs, videos, etc. But if that is where your head was at, good. You need to get good at it.

So, we’re going to need a blog. Hopefully you know how to make one of those.

Make sure to include your integrations as mentioned above (Facebook Pixel, Google Analytics Conversion) so you can track analytics of your posts.

Your singular goal should be to write the most helpful stuff you can. When I was learning a lot of this SEO, content marketing, organic, inbound, etc it was overwhelming and I didn’t know what to do.

If you focus solely on writing stuff that helps your target audience you will likely be ok.

You can diversify here and add a podcast (if you do, I’d suggest using Transistor to host it) but be careful. It is easy to spread yourself too thin and not deliver any content that is super valuable.

I have done this myself many times over and wasted years of hard work. Pick something you’re good at and focus.

Some people like to spend an hour before each blog researching keywords and thinking about what search terms will cause the blog to be found.

I always get bogged down in this phase and my production suffers. For others who can focus and nail this phase you will probably make even better content than me.

What Tools Should You Use

There are a ton of different tools you can use in your marketing stack. There are so many that I couldn’t possibility list them all.

I will break portion of this guide into sections for each genre of tool. I am only recommending tools I have used. So, don’t get angry if I don’t list your favorite 😜😜😜

How To Know If It Is Working

This is probably the most important section of this guide.

Hopefully you installed the analytics from Day 1 like mentioned above. If you did not, go back and do that now. Come back in 90 days after doing so.

If you haven’t heard of the slow ramp of death in saas, you should learn about it. Growing a saas is tough and a slow slog over many months.

Since you most likely are not rich yet (I am not), then you’re going to have to determine if it is working through other methods.

Ideally, you have growing revenue and your customers love your product and keep referring others to it. If that is the case, you don’t need this guide.

If you have indifferent revenue growth this might help. Hopefully you have not been building new features 24/7 and have actually written content and tried as mentioned above.

If you have, you should see steady growth in visitors to your site. In a proxy of revenue you might see traffic continuing to go up and either conversations started (through live chat) or inbound demo requests (if you have an email form instead) going up.

If this is the case it will seem slow but that is good. You should be talking to each and every one of these people and trying to figure out:

  • How they heard about you
  • Why they cared enough to check your site out
  • Why they reached out via chat/email
  • What PROBLEM they have
  • What they are looking for

As you’re getting started you should be learning all the time. Put off the focus on sales at this stage. Just talk and ask questions and learn. You’ll start to connect some dots that will make your future content more successful.

If you notice every person who comes to your site is confused about the difference between your product and a competitors, you might want to write about that.

If you notice every person who comes to your site is looking for an entirely different company that might warrant an evaluation of your brand.

Through out this journey your audience should be constantly growing. And each week you should continue to put out more helpful material that people in that audience value.

Over time, a percentage of those people should convert into customers. If you feel panicked because your percentage is low, change nothing and wait for a month. Re-evaluate then.

  • Note - Around the holidays is horribly slow for the US. November-December sales wise on inbound marketing models can suck. Just an FYI if your existential crisis comes during that period.

Red Flags To Be Aware Of

Getting all of your marketing stack set up and tracking the way you want is a beast of a task. If you haven’t felt this yet, you will soon. You probably will default to Google Analytics, and maybe Mixpanel if you followed from above.

There are a red flags to be aware of when reviewing your data, and things to think about.

First Google analytics is hard to navigate. This might just be me, but I click around in the app and am constantly lost about what data is where. If you’ve graduated from this confusion good for you. I haven’t 😂😂😂.

Google Analytics also comes with next to 0 configuration out of the box. This is great for a sophisticated marketer who knows how to set up campaigns and event trackers but a pain in the a** for IndieHackers who just want to know:

  • Do people view my site?
  • Where do they come from?
  • What pages do they visit?
  • What could I do to improve?

You see all of the tabs on the left, most of which make no sense and are not relevant to your basic set up. If you didn’t set up conversions from the start, congrats you have 0 conversons on your website!

Even if you got 100 opt ins from your blog in the last month!

So, be very wary of what you see in the Google Analytics console. I’ve read reports about things being inaccurate and out of date. Have no proof of that, but generally try to cross reference with another tool to confirm.

Mixpanel does a better job out of the box but you still need to make sure you mark events like Log In or Sign Up.

What happens when you want to integrate live chat?

Drift and Intercom are the top products for this. They integrate just like Google Analytics and Mixpanel. Add a line of javascript and you’re mostly good to go.

But what happens when you only want to show someone who has visited your site >2 times the live chat? What happens when you want to prevent live chat from popping up in your local development environment? You can do this through Drift/Intercom but its just another setting to manually set, then confirm it works, and hope nothing else you do breaks it.

So, now you’ve got analytics set up, live chat, but now you want to add email automations.

Ok, so first you need a form, so you get a SumoMe account and send that email address to Drip so you can send fancy automations, and you probably want to keep a copy of it yourself somewhere for backup as well.

That took an hour. Moving on.

Next you want to include a Facebook Pixel and Google Conversion Tags. Ok, add another two javascript integrations, once again hoping it works out of the box.

But then you need to go and exclude your dev domain from those trackers, make sure localhost doesn’t skew your data, etc.

All of this was the main reason I built Grand. You shouldn’t need to know all of these intricacies to understand what is going on in your business. Grand removes all of that headache.

If you don’t want to use Grand, then you can follow a few other guides to get this set up:

Thanks for reading. If you have suggestions on how to improve this guide don’t hesitate to reach out :)