Early-Stage Founder 25: Brian Casel on How to Validate and Pre-Sell Your SaaS Idea
For the next 3 weeks, I’ll be releasing an episode on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to gear up for MicroConf on April 9th. These episodes will be focused on self-funded, often solo-founders. Some are on the smaller side, while others have ARRs over 7-figures, but they all have valuable lessons to share for any founder.
Today, on the Early-Stage Founder Show, I’m talking with Brian Casel, the founder of Audience Ops, a startup that makes content marketing easier for busy founders, by offering done-for-you services as well as software tools.
Most people assume that running a service business means you’re selling your time for money and that it is impossible to scale with healthy margins, but Brian has proven that doesn’t have to be the case.
While we get into the ins and outs of how he has productized his services to allow him to grow, where we really dive in during this chat is the process he followed to validate and launch the software component of his business, the Ops Calendar.
I’m sure you’ve heard countless experts preach about the importance of validating your software idea by pre-selling it before building it, but rarely do they get into the details. Luckily for us, Brian gives us the step-by-step process he followed to do just that.
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00:38 Brian lets us know what Audience Ops is all about, and the content marketing services it offers to its clients.
01:26 Introduces the Calendar Ops software.
02:03 Brian discusses the lessons he learned from his first SaaS venture, Restaurant Engine.
03:06 The biggest take-away from building Restaurant Engine.
03:47 The differences that allowed Audience Ops to grow much faster.
04:35 Discussion of Audience Ops as a productized service.
05:00 Upcoming plans for a training program.
05:46 Further detailing the description of Audience Ops and it's services.
08:06 What led to the development of the Audience Ops Express service.
09:35 How starting with an in-demand service allows you to build your company faster.
10:39 The pre-selling and validation process Brian used before building Ops Calendar.
12:13 First step: Putting together the initial concept.
13:42 Second step: Looking for feedback from competent and knowledgeable software founders.
14:14 Third step: Additional feedback via surveys.
15:00 Follow up procedure.
16:39 Brian speaks on the hesitations and challenges in asking for money up front.
18:19 Discusses the Inner Circle of Customers Group.
19:18 The numbers of customers involved in each stage of development.
20:19 Brian speaks to the success of the validation process.
20:27 Brian qualifies what he means by validation.
22:03 The role social media played in the process.
23:15 Whether social media was instrumental or not.
24:35 The changes that Audience Ops went through during development from idea to product, and how Brian came to focus on Calendar software.
25:20 Features that changed or were removed.
28:22 How Brian prioritized tasks during the beta stages.
29:36 Questions asked of the beta testing group.
32:08 Details on the launch of Audience Ops.
33:23 Marketing strategy for growing Audience Ops post-launch.
34:00 Cross promotion.
34:34 Video production.
35:17 Are social media channels worth pursuing when launching and marketing a productized service?
36:59 How to find the people relevant to your project.
40:19 Finding success with social media channels is trial and error.
42:31 What do you spend too much time doing?
43:19 What do you not spend enough time doing?
44:13 What are you hoping to accomplish in the next three months with Audience Ops and the Ops Calendar?
44:46 What do you see as the biggest obstacle that could prevent a successful roll out of those products?
Where to learn more:
Head on over to AudienceOps.com for more information on Brian's business and to OpsCalendar.com for his new calendar software. You can also find him at his personal website CasJam.com, and can catch his podcast, "Bootstrapped Web" at BootstrappedWeb.com
Andy: Brian, thanks for coming on the show today.
Brian: Hey Andy. Thanks for having me back on.
Andy: Yeah, I'm excited about the software side of things. You've been on Agency Advantage a couple times, where we dug into the processes of launching a productized service business, but you're working on a new project. I think that it's going to be really exciting to hear a bit about that and how you've led up to that.
So for my listeners who aren't as familiar with you and what you've been up to, first what is Audience Ops, and where did that idea come from?
Brian: So Audience Ops is a content marketing company, and it began — well, I started it back in 2015 and since then, its basically been a content service. Or a productized service, if you will, where we've been handling all the content — creating blog content, along with email and social media to help promote that. That's what we've been doing for our clients.
And we've been doing that for about the last two years, and we continue to do that. That side of the business is still growing, and we actually have an Express Version of that service. That's a little bit more scaled down, and is just rolling out now as well.
So, we continue to do the content service, but now this year we're starting to expand into software. We're launching what's called OpsCalendar.com, which is a content calendar software, and that's been in beta — we've been building it for about five or six months now, and we've had beta customers in it for about two months. Here in this recording, in early March, we're just getting ready to start rolling it out to public customers.
Andy: And so this is your second venture into the SaaS world. The first time around was with Restaurant Engine. What did you learn from the first foray into the SasS world?
Brian: That's a good question. I mean, I just learned so much, in so many different things. I've been applying these lessons to Audience Ops since I made that transition. I sold Restaurant Engine in 2015 and started Audience Ops around that same time.
I think number one, the overarching lesson from Restaurant Engine, which was a SaaS — it had a service component as well — it's just that it takes so long. I mean, I was working on that for years. I think a good four years before I exited that business. Basically, it took that long — two or three years of that I was still balancing consulting work with bootstrapping that business. It wasn't really until the third or fourth year that I was really able to grow it to a viable, sustainable level that can actually replace my consulting income.
Yeah, so just the slow, just the long, slow climb that I'm sure most SaaS founders will tell you about. But if you're new to it, you don't quite see how long and slow and tough that climb is. I think with Audience Ops, that was a big reason why I decided to start it as a productized service. Number one, because that can launch so quickly and launch it to paying customers so quickly.
We got our first clients within the first 30 days, and as a service, we're able to charge more for it, so you're able to really grow revenue much faster. That is what has allowed Audience Ops to grow so fast and to have the resources — still fully self-funded bootstrapped business, but to put these resources in place. Not only in the self-funding and growing the revenue — being able to invest that into new products, but also putting the team in place, and learning so much about this space.
Learning so much about our customers, that's ultimately what led to the idea and the ability to even launch something like Ops Calendar. We started working on that, maybe 15 months into it, and now here we are.
Andy: And so, from the beginning of Audience Ops, was the plan to build a productized service to help you bootstrap a more traditional SaaS product? Or did that just come about by happenstance?
Brian: Yeah so, from the very beginning, I didn't necessarily know that we would eventually go into a software as a service. But I did know that we would grow into something — grow in many different directions. And that's actually what we're doing now. We're continuing to do the service, we're not shutting that down by any means. Now we're adding software.
We also have some plans to add a training program. A content marketing training program. If you want to take our systems and our playbook and put them into action. So that's coming together as well.
At the end of the day, we're still a content marketing company, but we deliver that solution in a few different forms depending on where your needs are at. So that's what it's kind of grown into, but early on, it was just the productized service. But as that was the fastest most viable way to launch a business, get it off the ground, do it profitably. And that should keep it growing and self-sustaining as we grow into other things. That was my mentality back then.
Andy: And so for listeners who aren't familiar with productized services, what it basically is, Audience Ops, as Brian says, is a content marketing company. They're going to be releasing a calendar that helps manage your own content marketing, helps schedule everything, keep your team on track, build processes that are easy to follow, that sort of thing, but as a content marketing company, he's trying to approach it from multiple different angles, because not everyone is going to want to build out the team that's going to be doing this in-house, they just want the content marketing problem solved.
And so productized consulting, productized services are when you package up the service, the done for you service. In this case, with Brian and Audience Ops, it's basically — how would you describe what the service actually is?
Brian It's interesting, because even that side of it is starting to go through a few changes right now. We're continuing to do the content service, which is a productized service where we've basically done what we believe is the best solution if you just want to outsource your content and get it all done for you.
If you're a company and you know that you need to have the blocking routine and you need to develop lead magnets, and you want to grow organic traffic, the easiest way to delegate that and outsource that is to develop blog content on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
And so, our team of writers does the research, the topic generation, writing, drafting, proof reading, setting up publishing your articles on a weekly basis, and then we also write and sell email newsletters for those articles, we write and send social media post for those articles.
So we basically manage that whole process for you from start to finish. And we've packaged it up with very easy monthly pricing and we've got, as we said, a really nailed down process. And that includes everything from the way that we research and understand your business, to the way that we produce, publish and edit articles. It's just a really streamlined, efficient process. Essentially, we're doing one thing, and one thing only. That article content writing process.
It's interesting, because right now we're going through some changes where we've had some requests, actually several requests, for customers who already do their own content. Whether they're founders writing their own stuff, or they've hired a freelance writer, but all that extra work that I'd talked about: the proofreading, creating featured images, and setting it up and scheduling, and writing social media posts and sending an email. Or even if you're doing other stuff, like podcasting. Finishing a podcast, doing show notes, videos. Anything like that, there's all that busy work.
So now we're releasing a second version of this service called Audience Ops Express, where we basically provide all that stuff except for the writing itself. So you can just send us your almost finished draft and then it just goes through our system, and we proofread it, polish it, get it ready to publish. So the idea that that is a lower monthly cost, you can send unlimited content requests through that, and so that's what we're rolling out with Audience Ops Express Service.
It's interesting, because we learn so much from — the more that you work in a particular space, for us it's content marketing, you start to really understand your customers better and better, and then you hear those requests and that's how you uncover those pain points and the opportunities to grow the product line.
Andy: Yeah, I think when you talk about growing the product line, and you also talked about how — Audience Ops Express, just by the name of it, it's positioned towards a different type of customer than the full service. And for listeners, when you start with a done-for-you service, when you literally solve a problem for a customer, you're able to charge more for that, which helps bring in the cash flow, but let's you really build out this product line that you're talking about.
Whereas, if you started with the software, there are going to be people that want to pay you do it for them, but that's not your focus, you're going to be all consumed with building up the software product, and you're not getting enough money in to really build up the team, and to do that all at the same time.
So it seems like it's a smart way of starting at the top of the product ladder and working your way down, because if you flip it around and start at the bottom with the people who want to do it themselves, it's just harder to get that traction, both in cash flow and just in the processes and your team. So, I think the way you did that was really smart.
But what I really want to focus on today is how you went about actually launching — or getting ready to launch the Ops Calendar. Because you did some pre-selling and validation of it before even starting to build it. So, can you talk to that process at all?
Brian: Sure. And this is actually another big lesson that I took from Restaurant Engine, and also five or six other failed startup attempts over the years. This time around, launching a new SaaS product —
A having known how long it takes to just build it, and then even how long it takes to grow the customer base. I knew this was going to be a very time intensive and resource heavy endeavour. I knew that no matter what this thing becomes, I know that I'm going to have invest a lot of money and a lot of time to make it happen.
And so, having known that going in, I knew I needed to do as much as I possibly can to validate that this not only a pain that we have, because we certainly our going to be using Ops Calendar in our service, and that's great, it solves our own pain, but that's not enough to invest all this time and money.
I need to know that other people have this pain as well, and that other people are willing to pay for it. And so I needed that reassurance before I started investing thousands of dollars a month to hire developers and to revamp our whole marketing and all this stuff.
So, the first step that I took was to — I kind of put together wire frames for the initial concept of what eventually became Ops Calendar. Very rough, it actually looks very different from what it looks like today, but just something to get these ideas out of my head, and the ideas in my head were basically based off of our process for running content for ourselves and our clients.
And looking at all the tools that we've been using and seeing how disjointed that process was, and seeing these pain points, whether it's the checklist in Trello can't really match up with what our actual production checklists look like, or Google Analytics does a really poor job of tracking traffic on an individual article by article basis and so we're building analytics into it. Or scheduling social media. This is a huge pain. When we're using Buffer and then we reschedule an article and if we reschedule an article, then we Buffer something out and it's too early so we're posting a broken link. We've run into that so many times — basically bringing all these elements of our process into a single calendar and a single workflow makes it so much easier.
So we knew these pain points pretty well, and I put together some wire frames to outline what this might look like, and I think my very first step was to send that out to a few friends. Twenty other software founders who may or may not have the need to use a tool like this, but they know software products pretty well and I trust their judgement, so I just wanted to get their initial reactions. And that was kind of mixed. I got some constructive criticism there.
Then my next step, if I remember correctly, I think I sent it out to my personal list of people on my email list. I created a video of me walking through those wire frames and I wanted to get feedback from that, so I sent them to a survey on my site, and they answered a couple of questions about — I forget exactly what I put in that survey, but it was — I was asking them, "What do you do? What I just showed you in this video, what makes sense? What doesn't make sense? What are your top questions? Which features look to be the most interesting for you or the most useful?" And a couple other questions.
I also put in some rough pricing ideas. What it might cost and what's your feedback on these price points. Out of the people who filled out that survey, I then went back to them and I think I sent some sort of second survey where I asked them a few more follow up questions and at this point, it's one on one email conversations
I think I had a few Skype calls as well, and I asked them, "If you're interested in this, I'd like to invite you to a presentation. One on one, where I'm just going to show you a quick slide-deck of what it's looking like, and I'm going to ask you to pre-purchase a spot in our beta program if you think that it's a fit for you. So, I invited them to this session and I did this with maybe twenty people. My goal was to get ten people to purchase. Essentially pay $200 up front and that gives them access to our beta period where at first we're just building it from scratch, so nothing is ready yet, and I laid out — "Here's the timeline, if you pay today, by December, which is three months down the road, that's when we expect to have a MVP, minimal viable product ready for you to start using. By around March of 2017 that's when we're going to start rolling it out to the public.
Andy: Did you have any hesitations about asking for money up front like that?
Brian: Yeah, it was tough. I've never really done the pre-selling thing before, but again, I just really wanted to be sure that this is something that people are willing to pay for. But I set that expectation several times. I glossed over the story a little bit here, but I think in the survey I said something — there was a checkbox: Would you like to be invited to the inner circle customer's program, as I called it. Where I'll ask you to pre-pay for access.
Andy: You weren't springing it on them.
Brian: Right. I made it clear in the survey and then if they clicked yes, then I personally emailed them and I invited them to a call with me and in that email, "During this call I'm going to ask you to pre-purchase if it's a fit for you."
And then I did a whole presentation. A personalized, one-on-one presentation with 20 different people, where I showed them the designs that I had in place. Like the wire frames, which were coming along at this point. That timeline: Here's what you can expect, now I can't make any guarantees, obviously, because development can be slower, but here's the expectation and by pre-purchasing, the benefit for them is, number one, they get to use the product through many months just for the pre-purchase, and then after that they lock in a lifetime discount, which we're not going to issue to basically anyone except for this early group.
So there's that, but also, they get to literally be a part of the development, and it's not — Basically, I put together what I call the Inner Circle of Customers Group. I put a Slack chat together, where they're all in contact, we've done some group calls together, I do some one-on-one calls with them, but especially the Slack group has been really valuable, because I can get their feedback on every little feature as we build it.
And putting them together as a community has been really great too, because they can play off of each other. We're showing the social media features and one person says, "Yeah, that works, but I really need it to work this way." And then two other people are like, "Oh yes, me too. What he said." And then you can really start to build consensus around, "This is what everybody is pointing towards" and that has been really, really, valuable in terms of designing it and developing it and setting a priority for the roadmap and that sort of stuff.
Andy: And so you've launched the Inner Circle Group, and they first started getting a hint on the software in December. Is that right?
Andy: And then at that point, how many people were in this group?
Brian: 14 people joined the group and pre-purchased.
Andy: How many people did you estimate you needed to demo to, to get those 14?
Brian: I think just about everyone. I think there were only two or three people who didn't do it. So I think I spoke to 16 or 17 people. Again, by the time I get on the call with them, they're already in the mindset of "ok." So there's that. I think before that I probably sent an email to 20 or 22 people. And then I ended up with 16 or 17 calls, and then 14 people bought.
Andy: Why do you think it was so successful? Do you think that speaks to the need for a product like this, or was there more to it than that?
Brian: I think a few things. And by the way, I want to be careful of using the word validation. I don't necessarily think that just because I got these 14 people to pre-pay that the product is necessarily fully validated and proven and is going to be a sure-fire success. I'm just as nervous right now — we're rolling it out to more customers now — then I was with any product.
Andy: But the goal is to try to limit the risk.
Andy: You're not going to know for sure that this is going to be a runaway success, but you want to at least have an idea and know if anyone cares and are they willing to pay.
Brian: Yeah. So I think a few things. Number one, I think it clearly is a pain point. And there are probably several pain points that this tool solves, especially if you're working with content quite a bit for your business, or for your clients, or you're a marketer, or you're just publishing a lot of content. Or you've tried to launch your content strategy and you could see how disjointed and hard to manage it is. So there's that pain point.
I do want to be clear that these were all people who were on my personal email list, so they already have a level of trust with me going into it. And so there's that, and that's probably what puts that fear into me of how difficult will this be to sell to the general public?
And actually, on that note, what I also did around this time was — I'd already gotten it in front of my audience, my email list, I knew I wanted to get out in front of complete strangers. So I went onto social media. I went on to Twitter and Facebook groups, and I think I searched for Quora questions, and I just looked for people asking for advice on content calendars, or editorial calendars, or software for planning content.
And I found quite a few people who were actively asking for that advice. Out on Twitter as well as in many niche Facebook groups. Like marketing groups and business groups and that sort of stuff. And so I would just literally be like a creepy stalker. I would send them a message on Facebook or Twitter and say, "Hey you asked about content calendars in the past. We're developing something along those lines, I'd love to show it to you and get your feedback." Now again, these are complete strangers. I think I found something like 20 or 30 people across the different networks who'd been asking about that sometime in the past 6-12 months.
Andy: How did it all go?
Brian: So I sent those messages, and I think I got into about seven or eight conversations with different people. And of those conversations, probably four or five of them became email exchanges or calls that just went on and on.
One guy was sending me back emails that were like five paragraphs long. All the tools he's been using and here's what's so frustrating about it and all this stuff. Again, these are strangers who don't know me. So that was a good sign.
And I think that showed me number one, that there is this frustration out there with a certain type of user and number two, that these people are relatively easy to reach. They're active online, they're tech-web savvy. Business owners or marketers, so they're not that difficult to reach, and I've had that challenge in the past with Restaurant Engine where trying to reach restaurant owners was much more difficult than reaching the founder of a SaaS company. So yeah, that also gave me — again, it's just kind of notching down that degree of risk as you go into this thing.
Andy: What would you have done if you'd had a hard time getting through to people that you didn't know?
Brian: I probably would have looked at — I would just kind of change things. And even early on, it's called Ops Calendar today, but in the very, very beginning when I started to show it to friends and a few different people, I wasn't calling it Calendar, I was calling it Audience Ops Platform or something like that. And it was actually much bigger than it is today. It did a lot more things. And the feedback that I heard back there was mostly confusion and, "This is too big, it does too many things. I'm not sure what I would use it for."
Andy: What were some of the things that you removed from it?
Brian: Trying to remember. I mean, some things are still in it, but they're just taken on a different form. There was a lot around idea generation, and what we have in it is the ability to save ideas for new content to eventually enter into your content calendar. I was looking at doing some helping you generate new ideas by pulling research out of Quora and Twitter and stuff like that.
That may be something we explore down the road, but for right now, it's not in there. Some SEO optimization stuff as well. It was just really broad. Basically, the thing that I learned was — really, once I went out to social media to try to find strangers who are interested in this, I started to think, "Who would be searching for this thing, or what would they be typing, what would they be asking questions about."
And that's when it occurred to me that they'd probably be asking about calendar tools. And then that's when it kind of clicked. "Oh, this should really all be focused around the calendar." And that's really the most useful part of it anyways. So that's what led me to position it as a calendar product and put calendar in the name and design it all around the calendar. I mean, it is much more than just a calendar. It's not just a replacement for Google Calendar, there are more powerful features, especially around automation, and analytics tracking, and your process for doing content. But again, it's all built around the calendar concept and that's what really helped the whole thing click and resonate with people.
Andy: And so, I think — the story is really cool, because hearing about how you've started the validation process, how you've gotten feedback, and how you've adjusted is hugely important, because I know that's something that so many first-time founders don't do enough of. They think they have this great idea, they hole up, they spend months and months building it, and then they release and find no one really wants it.
So I see the clear value of that. "I'm not just testing the waters, but actually seeing if people are ready to pay for it." But I know a lot of other founder's struggles that in those early days when you have a smaller number of customers, and you're really hands-on with them, how are you deciding to prioritize what they ask for?
Because one of the other guests I had on the show, Colin Davis, he was talking about that. He has a platform for car dealerships and he started out with five car dealerships as a beta test. He was saying that it was really hard to figure out what actually mattered and what didn't.
So how did you decide how to prioritize what was being requested during this beta period?
Brian: That's a great question. Again, going into it, I have a very clear idea for what I want the tool to be, and all the features that I want to see in it. But that's not necessarily the same set of features, or the priority of features that everyone else wants to see.
And so, there's a few big core features that we just had to build out of the gate. The ability to navigate the calendar, and the core kind of stuff. But then after that, we needed to — I have changed the priority order of different features, just because certain features get asked about again, and again, and again, and it's like, "Ok, clearly we need to prioritize that. It was maybe tenth on the list, now let's move it up to third on the list."
So that happens, just hearing requests, but the other thing that happens, again, I'm doing these regular phone calls with the people in the beta group, and so in the past month, like right now as we're gearing up to release it to the public, where the public will be taking a 30-day free trial, and then evaluating the pricing plans, so what I'm asking the beta group is, "Ok if you were a new customer today, and you were just evaluating this tool and looking at the price points, A) would it be worth the price tag as it stands today and B) if not, what is the feature that is just missing that you can't really make use of this or you can't really justify the expense until this feature is in." Like what would be that feature?
And so I've had a couple of those conversations, and a few different answers to that and that helps inform where we need to make sure that we're covered to convince enough trial users to purchase. And I think going forward, it's really about getting feedback from new customers and hearing what those top objections will be.
I imagine that it will be, because I've seen this with other products in the past, right off the bat you start to hear, "Oh this is great, but it's missing this and I can't really convert because it's missing this feature." Or you start to get cancellations and obviously, you want to find out why people cancel, and you start to see patterns. It's missing this feature or comparing it to this other tool, and the reason it's better is because it has this feature.
So you know, obviously you want to be careful about not bending to the whims of every single request and building a bloated feature set, so I'm very careful of that, but once you start to hear the same request, three, four, six, seven times then it starts to be, "Ok, you need to focus on that."
Andy: I think you hit it right on the head, because it's that pattern. It's looking for where you consistently see the pain, where you consistently see someone saying, "We really need this because…" and it's just such a central reason — it's a central feature to get to the value that they're trying to get out of the software. It's easy as a founder when you're dealing with a small number of customers, just to try to make them all happy, but that can spread yourself so thin, especially if you are self-funded, especially if you don't have a big team.
You have to prioritize what you're going to work on, because you can't just do everything that the customers ask. So, I think looking for those patterns is hugely important.
But once you do launch, once you have — well I guess the first thing is, when is the rough launch expected?
Brian: So that's kind of happening right now. And the approach that I'm taking is — so I've been building this early access list since the very beginning, and through the website, you can just enter your email to get on that list.
And so, we've been building that and so now that it's been in development for the last six months, the most important features, I think, are in, so now what I'm doing is I'm going to start inviting small batches of people from that early access list to come on in, you can start your free trial, start using it, and then once your trial expires, you can purchase a paid plan.
I'm not going with this large, splashy launch, just opening the doors and everybody come on in. I'm going to take five or ten people at a time, and get their feedback as we go as well.
Andy: And so, obviously this is going to be a little ways down the road, because you are opening the doors slowly. Kind of keeping a line outside to make sure you have things in place, to make sure that your team is prepared for everything, and to make sure that your product is ready, but once you do work through this pre-launch list, what is the strategy you have to grow?
Brian: Yeah, so I think a number of things. We've been doing content since the beginning, obviously since we're a content marketing company. We do our own content marketing, I've been putting together some recorded webinars, so that is something that I've started to experiment with.
So we have a recorded educational webinar that I teach that then leads into an offer to buy the product. Really, it's like a discount on the annual plan. So there's that. There's also some cross promotion. So if you were a client of Audience Ops or if — well clients of Audience Ops get the software built into the service, but if you were a lead who never converted for that service, you can look at the software. So having different products in the line helps with that sort of thing.
I'm kind of experimenting with a few different things. Again, like content. Running paid ad funnels, to webinars and different lead magnets and that sort of stuff. One thing I want to do very soon, is create very short videos, like two minutes or less each, just highlighting one very specific pain point and the specific feature in the software that solves that pain point.
And maybe make a serious of five or six of these, or more, and just really use those in different ways. Whether it's putting it out on social media in response to people asking about that pain point, or lining them up in email campaigns to nurture new leads, or to start the free trial. I'm looking at a few different ideas there.
Andy: For the last idea, for the responding to people on social who are asking about these types of pain points, how to solve them, is there enough volume there of people searching for these types of things publicly or on social media to make it worth pursuing that channel as a strategy?
Brian: Well, I mean yeah. Definitely early on I think that it's crucial to keep doing that kind of outreach. Really, no matter how small or large your market is — obviously, if it's so small you're in the wrong product or the wrong market, but yeah, it's all about — I don't really care about doing things don't scale, you should be seeking out people who have that pain point and you want to get in touch with them and get into conversations with them.
But you know, developing video assets like that, those are things I can use in multiple places. I'm not going to create a custom video for one person, but I'll make a two-minute video about how we streamline the whole process of automating your social posting weeks in advance for content, and again, I can use that on social media, I can use that in ads, I can use that in emails, I can use it in on-boarding stuff. Anything.
Andy: Yeah, I mean it makes total sense to try to reach out to as many people who are experiencing the pain as you can, even if long term it doesn't seem like something that is going to hockey stick the company's growth. But in these early stages, anything like this where you're talking to more people is important.
This is just a question out of curiosity for me. As someone who isn't the most skilled Twitter or Facebook user, how are you finding people looking for these solutions? Are those the platforms that you're using or is it more like Quora? Where are you even going to try and find someone who is experiencing this problem?
Brian: Well, I think first of all, you don't have to be the most advanced user. I'm certainly not. But you have to be hungry to learn. If you think people are in Facebook groups that are talking about stuff that is related to your product, you should be willing to take the time to figure out how do I get myself into Facebook groups and search them. And that's exactly what I did.
I'm personally — I am not active on Facebook at all when it comes to business. I've got my family and kids pictures on Facebook, and political rants, and all that. I'm not as active as many people that I know in business related Facebook groups.
Same would go for Slack groups or even Quora for that matter. There are plenty of networks where I just don't really invest that much time socially, but when it comes to researching and learning about customers, and trying to get into those conversations, I'll spend whatever it takes to familiarize myself with that world and get in front of them.
I think that if people know me in the real world, you probably know that I'm actually pretty introverted. Kind of shy, I'm not the guy at the party who just goes up and talks to people, but I think when it comes to business, you start to break yourself out of it, because you have to.
And it gives you so much more confidence in the things that you're building if you know that you've received feedback from people. Even if it was critical feedback, at least that gives you some information to act on, rather than just your own gut instincts that you don't know whether or not you should trust those. At least you have real data in the form of stories or conversations from people and that's what really keeps the ball going forward.
Andy: You said it perfectly by talking about how you have to — if you want to make this work, you have to push your comfort zones, and it's not as though you are a social media savant in your private life, but this is where your users are so you are going to do what it takes to find them.
But to get on a more practical level, because I'm sure some listeners don't even know where to begin, and while they could hunt these things down and figure it out — just as a starting point, I wouldn't have even thought of Facebook groups, and I know LinkedIn has some, but they can be hit or miss, or is a lot of it just finding these types of groups on the different platforms and just diving in and familiarizing yourself with it, or are there other pieces of advice that you have to share on that.
Brian: You know what, a lot of it is trial and error, a lot of it is just hearing from what's worked with other people. Like the Facebook group things, I was talking with a friend of mine, a business advisor friend, who had a lot of success in Facebook groups, in terms of reaching his customer base, which was a completely different product, different industry and everything, and I was like — then I spent a couple hours figuring out what are the top Facebook groups and how can I get myself into them. I think it's that sort of thing.
You've just got to hack away at it a little bit. I don't know that Facebook groups may or may not be the right fit for whatever you're working on, whatever product it is that the listeners are working on, but another good one that I've had success with in the past, is conferences. Or even just local meet ups. That's another great place to just get in front of people, to get in conversations, and you never really know where those things can lead, or the types of introductions that those can lead to.
But again, it's all about finding that data, and you know, you want to use some educated guesses. I'm trying to reach people who are actively doing content marketing for their online business, or they're focused on online marketing, they're in marketing forums, it's kind of an obvious connection to look for the online marketing groups.
Andy: And usually I ask for some parting advice for founders who are looking to apply some of these lessons, but you've basically just spelled it out and listed it out. You said what worked for you, what you found works, but really the bigger message is trial and error. See what works for you. Because it might not all — but you need to be hungry, you need to get out there and try to go where your users and your potential users are so you can learn from them. So I really appreciate that. Before we wrap up, I like to ask all my guests a few rapid fire questions. So I'll go through the questions quickly, but your answers don't need to be short.
The first one is, what do you spend too much time doing?
Brian: Ah yeah, let's see. Too much time. I think — that's a tough one actually. Because I do a lot, and I think I probably get too hung up on the design details, although I think that's important.
Andy: You have a design background don't you?
Brian: Yeah, so in Ops Calendar, I've been doing all the designs and the front-end user experience, and again, I think it is important. Especially these days, for software products to have a really strong visual and user experience. But I can spend hours fixing one pixel when I should probably be working on an email campaign.
Andy: What do you not spend enough time doing?
Brian: I think, you know what, I think one of my challenges is I don't give things long enough. Like marketing initiatives. So I might test something for like two days, and then if I don't see results, I tend to pull the plug on it and try something else.
But maybe in reality, if I ran it for a week or two weeks, or stuck with the strategy, then I could probably make it work.
So, I think a weird way to answer that question is I can be too impatient and I move a little bit too quickly and then I don't give things enough time to materialize. So I'm trying to get better at that.
Andy: What are you hoping to accomplish in the next three months with Audience Ops and the Ops Calendar?
Brian So the next three months, definitely rolling it out to more customers and starting to learn really what the — I know that I'm going to learn a lot from the first customers, I just don't know what that is going to be yet. And so that's going to be a big focus for the next three months, and then the other piece is that Audience Ops Express Service, that's also just getting rolled out now. So, I'm looking to see traction with both of those.
Andy: What do you see as the biggest obstacle that could prevent a successful roll out of those products?
Brian: Probably lack of focus. I know that I'm doing a lot of things at the same time, and in some ways they're interconnected, and I do have a really great team around me, so I'm not personally doing everything myself, but I am managing it all. And so, too much jumping around from project to project is tough, but it's also something that I deal with, so that's probably the biggest obstacle or challenge to it all.
Andy: Awesome. Well Brian, as always it's been a lot of fun chatting with you. You shared a ton of great insights into building and bootstrapping a start up, so I want to say thank you so much for coming on my show and if listeners want to follow your journey, if they want to check out some of your offerings, where are some of the best places for them to go?
Brian: Yeah, so AudienceOps.com, that's the main company website. OpsCalendar.com is where the calendar software is. My personal site is CasJam.com, that's where I have a blog and a personal newsletter. And I co-host another podcast with my friend Jordan Gall, we publish almost every week. Behind the scenes updates of what we're working on, so that's always fun. That's called BootstrappedWeb.
Andy: Awesome, I'll make sure to get that all linked up, and for anyone listening, the website is CasJam.com for Brian's personal site. Again, thank you so much for chatting, it was a lot of fun.
Brian: Thanks Andy, thanks for having me on.