Just about a year ago, I wrote that Freckle had hit the Plateau of Doom. We were dead in the water at $28,000 a month. We’d grow a little…then shrink a little, grow a little, shrink a little… or months at a time.
Growth (new accounts) is pretty much linear, a reliable and absolute number — not geometric, not proportional to our current customer base.
Meanwhile, churn is both those things. The more accounts we have, absolute, the more churn out.
The magically horrible place where the linear growth and % negative growth intersect is a pit of despair, or Plateau of Doom. Fuck you, algebra. Ahem.
So, a year ago, I laid out a rough list of some of the things we were going to do to escape the gravitational pull of the PoD.
The strategy was to…
- Earn more per customer (charge more).
- Keep more customers (retain more).
- Get more customers (convert more; attract more).
And we used various tactics (below) to implement these strategies.
One year later, we’re at $44,400+/mo, including amortization of a large surge in yearly prepayments.
Epic growth? No. But nearly 60% year-over-year for a mature product is not bad at all. Especially after spending 6 months becalmed.
So what did we end up doing?
- Rewrote the sales page to focus more on pains, & on our more ideal customers (teams, not individuals). More here.
- Reworked our unique-and-different pricing grid to be a traditional 3-box.
- “Hid” our lowest plan (for our least desirable customers).
- Put the pricing grid on the new sales page, rather than requiring a second step.
- Raised prices across the board…for new accounts.
- Implemented a 7-part lifecycle onboarding email sequence. (Thanks to patio11’s lifecycle email course for making it clear what to do.)
- Started emailing automatic reports to account holders every week.
- Developed interactive onboarding to get folks to enter their first time entry…
- …and, later, added “invite your team” as an integral step in the onboarding, and also made setting up projects & pre-filling tags part of it, too.
- Heavily promoted yearly prepayment near the end of 2013’s tax year (we had neglected to do it at all the year before).
Everything we did sucked.
The lifecycle emails were identical for every customer — whether you were a solo freelancer or huge team, whether you logged in and used Freckle every day or never even entered your first time entry. You got the same emails. With the same timing. BAM. (And they’re not our best copywriting work.)
The landing page isn’t designed as such.
And the copy on the landing page neglected to even mention features, features our would-be customers might be comparison shopping for.
We haven’t split-tested much.
We didn’t work balls to the wall on any of it. We live a relaxed life, we have a tiny team — who we’re mentoring & who are learning on the job. It’s hard to implement anything to the nth degree.
But guess what? The sucking doesn’t matter. The key is that we did things.
And these kinda crappy incremental improvements helped us grow our revenue by 60%. Booo-yah, algebra!
But, hey, I looked at our stats again recently and realized we’ve spent a few months in the same monthly revenue bracket again… we are once again up against that verdammt PoD.
Goddamn, we’re stuck again!
Our monthly recurring is hovering around $41,000 ( not including amortized yearly prepayments, which brings us to the $44,400 mark).
But this time we caught it sooner, and we knew where to start… and we started a few months ago, before we even knew it was happening.
What we’re doing this time around: A leveling up.
Moar Facts & Data. I hired my friend Lauren Ancona, the biggest stats & analytics nerd I’ve ever met, to help us figure out wtf is actually happening? Which is really hard to do, even with the plethora of stats tools out there. (If you’ve got a SaaS biz with content marketing then you know what I’m talking about!) She’s spent weeks whipping our analytics pipeline into tip top shape.
Soon we will know everything, and we’ll be able to use hard data to make decisions instead of gut instinct.
Gut instinct has brought us this far, but I don’t think it’s going to get us much further.
Systematizing & leveling up our marketing & sales cycle. We also hired our former student, Brennan Dunn, to spend a week helping us systematize our marketing machine:
- tuning our admin backend to help us “profile” given accounts’ likelihood of becoming great customers, so we can reach out to them personally
- list building tactics (including turning our content into an email course), to capture leads who are not yet ready to convert
- landing pages for retargeting ads, tailored to offer valuable freebies instead of the main sales page which offers signup-or-nothing
- lifecycle emails that are tailored to specific account levels & activity.
(These are all things we could do ourselves, but hiring somebody to make decisions and implement them is worth every penny. And Brennan is fantastically strategic.)
Increasing “stickiness” to retain customers. Thomas has been working on making Freckle’s timer more universal, since the more people use Freckle the more likely they will stick around. He shipped a massively improved mobile web version first, then an iPhone wrapper app, and most recently a Mac menu bar app.
Improving the design, making way for new features. I pushed to wrap up & ship our first redesign work in nearly 6 years, in order to make the app more modern…and able to fit in the sticky new features in our roadmap.
Split-testing. We’re starting to split-test more things in our sales page and signup process, and I’m going to start improving the copy.
Talking with our customers. Inspired by the talks at BaconBizConf, we’re going to try some live channels of communication. First step: Our teammate Devon has started doing more live onboarding tours with new customers, to both sell them on Freckle and to gather insight into their needs, questions, problems, and hopes. Second step: chatting with folks on our landing page, at least once a week, to see what they’re thinking & doing or not doing.
Sales…? And, in the post-BaconBizConf retreat, I posed the following question to my fellow speakers:
All of the things we’re doing, and can do, will be incremental. I know they’ll work. They’re already working. I can do more of them, harder faster better. But is there something different we should do to make a great leap forward?
Patrick McKenzie (the famous patio11) told me a little story in response: A friend of his grew his B2B SaaS from $20k/mo to $50k/mo in short order, using active sales outreach. Yes, sales calls. I’m obviously a huge fan of inbound, low-touch content marketing… and it works, really well. But it’s slow and I think we can do better.
I truly believe that Freckle Time Tracking can & should be a $1-2 million/year business, if we can do most (but not all) things right. I’m not willing to work long hours or ride herd on my team to do it, though. I know we can do it our way.
We aren’t in the position (time- or energy-wise) to hire a salesperson… nor would that make sense as our next full-time hire. But we can do the occasional live onboarding and start emailing new customers who look like they’re likely to convert, if they just need a little extra push.
And, felicitously, we’re starting to talk with a brilliant friend of ours about trying sales on a freelance basis.
We’re going to keep growing. And we’re going to do it our way.
We’re going to suck & we’re gonna mess shit up.
I don’t agree the startup ethos of “move fast and break things” — because the things that get broken are usually other people. If success means sacrificing happiness, mine or others, I don’t want it.
But perfection is impossible. And 80% is better than 0%. That’s what I write about all the time: Running a business means learning to be comfortable with being 80%, all of the time.
An imperfect landing page and imperfect lifecycle email sequence probably cost us sales in an absolute sense, but they didn’t lose us anything other than potential. And they added a lot more than they lost.
We increased our monthly revenue by 60%, over 12 months, with imperfection.
I’m sure we’ll continue to mess up, miss things, lose sales we might have had…but in the mean time we’ll still be earning more per customer, retaining more customers, and attracting more new customers than we would have before.
And that’s the heart of why I’m writing this longass email to you:
Whatever you’re doing, you could do it better.
You don’t have to quit and drop everything and re-tool.
You don’t have to be an expert.
You don’t have to sacrifice sleep or happiness.
You can make an incremental improvement.
You can then make another incremental improvement.
Your improvements can “suck” in an objective sense and still be better than what you had before. The gap between what could be and what is will always be there, but you can get closer.
We’ve grown Freckle on a very part-time and haphazard marketing effort for 5 years; we’ve grown it to $500,000 a year in revenue that way. We’ve made mistakes, we’ve failed to execute, we’ve dropped endeavors that were working, we’ve been understaffed…
And yet here we are.
And 12 months from now, I’ll be writing you with another list of imperfect efforts and false starts, and with a much higher revenue, yet again.
Don’t have a business you can grow?
All the techniques I’ve written about only work reliably when you deliver real value to customers who are willing to pay.