My criteria for a tiny SaaS

I have too many ideas. If these ideas were all great, this would be OK. Unfortunately, they aren’t. Many are bad ideas. The rest tend to be unsuitable for our team of only two people.

After 20 years in business, we’ve learned who we are and what we want. We are not interested in building a big company or disrupting an industry. We like small products that we can build in a reasonable amount of time—and maintain without going bonkers.

Following is a brief (and evolving1) criteria I use for helping to evaluate whether a product idea is worth further investigation. Most times it invalidates the idea. This is great because it prevents us from building something that’s bound to fail.

Any new product we build must be:

Stupidly simple

Most things are more complicated than they first seem. So, anything we build must perform a single function2 that can be explained in one sentence.

Convenient (not necessarily better)

Our product needs to solve an explicit problem more easily than any existing alternative. Most won’t care if it’s better, or if it does all that a competing product does, so much as they’ll value it being more convenient.

Built for a narrow audience

Marketing a product is hard. It’s even harder when our audience is vague (especially since we’re small).3 By clearly identifying our audience we’re able to find them and get our product in front of them.4

Have a clear path to market

Before drawing a mock-up or writing a line of code, we must come up with a way to reach our audience5. This is easy to put off until it’s too late—at which point it can be daunting.

Available for purchase

No form of product validation is as telling as a payment. We need to collect credit card details as early as possible—and get paid. We ought to do this even if our product feels insignificant/incomplete.

And now for the bonus round:

(These considerations are less essential, but certainly relevant to our particular setup.)

Produce recurring revenue

It’s hard to maintain software that’s paid for only once. Conversely, perpetual revenue (even in small amounts) compounds over time6. This allows us to improve the product and adequately service our customers.

Impossible to hold

There are many physical objects I’d like to build. However, we have no expertise in manufacturing. We know little about warehousing, fulfillment, and returns—none-to-mention all the other things we’re too ill-informed to even recognize. For this reason, we only work on products that we can’t hold in our hands.

The above list isn’t necessarily adaptable to others. You might want to build a large company. Perhaps your idea is complex and requires venture capital to build out. Or, you could have experience producing physical products. That’s cool. None of what I present here is absolute.

Instead, this is something I make note of in part for my record-keeping purposes. Like I said earlier, I find this type of criteria useful for evaluating ideas. Posting it here will allow me to reference it again in the future.

  1. I’ve created a number of these lists over the years, but tend to lose them. I also noticed that over time certain points seemed more essential than others. So, I’ll return to this and augment it as I learn new things.

  2. It’s also wise to fight the impulse to add features.

  3. Founders often worry that a market is too small. They should be more concerned about their market being overly broad.

  4. For example, internet marketers are hard to target. Conversely, RVers in the U.S. are a defined population that’s reasonably easy to get in front of.

  5. So far my favorite go-to-market approach involves: 1. Making something that removes a problem for a small group of people. 2. Putting it on a Reddit forum for that activity. 3. Letting them tell their friends about it.

  6. This only works so long as our customers continue to get value from what we built.

June 5, 2020 checklist criteria guidelines product startup

Unfollow everyone

I like having the remote control in hand. I like being in the driver’s seat. I like my fingers on the keyboard and mouse. Given the choice, I’ll always opt for control—and choice.

Choice isn’t always easy. It requires you to review options and evaluate their merits. Plus, there’s a possibility of making a bad decision. Choice can be frightening because it involves ownership.

Although we all claim to want choice, it can be too much. This might be why my wife and I want the other to choose which take-out to order. The later in the week it is, the later in the day it is, the more fatigued we feel. When we’re tired, even simple decisions seem overwhelming.

I believe this is part of why social networks are so compelling. When you’re low on energy, you can sign in and passively consume what’s in your feed. You needn’t choose anything; you just process what’s put in front of you.

Letting someone else control which information you consume is easy—but risky. The algorithm is built to benefit its makers’ needs more than yours.

I left social media for a couple of years. Mostly, this was for the better. Although it didn’t entirely change my life, it lowered my anxiety and left me more in control. It came with downsides, too. One was in having to hunt for new information. Facebook’s algorithm does a pretty good job of giving you content to gnaw on. Once it’s gone, you need to do that work for yourself.

Worse yet, Facebook is so entrenched in today’s web that life without it is challenging. You soon find that you can’t access apps you once used Facebook to sign into. As a business, customers try to reach you through Facebook. This means you either return to their network to respond, or let the customer feel ignored.

So, you can leave Facebook, but you’ll probably return to it. I did (regretfully). That said, I believe there’s a hack. What if a Facebook account is like a phone number? Just because you might need one doesn’t force you to respond to every prompt.

All social networks offer utility. Their addictiveness is principally delivered through the newsfeed, though. Take control of this and you can tap their utility—while gaining control of the information that comes into your line of sight.

You take control of your newsfeed by unfollowing everyone. Doing so is a tedious task (and discouraged by these networks). It is also worth your effort1.

It took me nearly 2 hours to unfollow everyone on Linkedin. I also need to manually unfollow everyone who asks to connect with me, on an ongoing basis. That said, this approach allows me to use Linkedin as a way to stay in touch. It also prevents me from getting stuck scrolling through content I didn’t choose to read.

You wouldn’t fill your kitchen with junk food. You also wouldn’t let your neighbours choose what you ate and when. So, why let others fill your mind with whichever information they choose? (A lot of what’s out there is junk content.)

I won’t lie to you. Filling the void left by an empty newsfeed isn’t easy. While there’s plenty of useful information on the web, it takes effort to find. It takes even more effort to read good writing. This is in stark contrast to the bite-size nuggets you find in your newsfeed.

Conversely, a book takes effort, time, and focus. I say the associated rewards are worth the discomfort, though.

  1. I’ve done this with Twitter and Linkedin. I have yet to do so with Facebook.

June 4, 2020 clarity socialmedia socialnetworks

Be ready when the wind picks up

When you see a lot of startup activity/opportunity in one area, it’s hard to not go after it. E.g., Hey—lots of people are using video chat, during the pandemic. We should make a Zoom alternative.”

I think this is a mistake, though.

Others are working on that problem and have a big lead. Unless you have a wildly different approach, you might be too late.

Conversely, there are a whole bunch of other areas that are likely to crack open in the months/years to come. These aren’t terribly hard to find, but they’re really hard to stick to—because the demand hasn’t yet surfaced.

So, if you choose to work on one of those, you should acknowledge that you’re acting on a hunch. You also need to accept that you’ll have to keep working (with limited uptake) until the wind picks up.

By wind”, I mean an event that propels what you were already working on. For example, if you had built:

  • An RSS reader, before Google killed theirs
  • A delivery service, before the pandemic
  • A green tech company, before oil prices 10x

The probability of such an event occurring is often high—but, they’re difficult to time. So, it helps to commit a mission you believe in.

Such a thing can help during the long stretches in which you might otherwise think you’re wasting your energy on the wrong thing.

June 3, 2020 startups timing mission

Right-size your business based on your desired lifestyle

There are a lot of questions to ask when you start a business. What are our costs? How big is the market? What is our competitive advantage? Taking time with these and other common questions can help you identify risks and possibly avoid failure.

One question is often missed though. It is: What kind of life do I wish to live? I argue that this question is greater than all the others. If your lifestyle and business objectives don’t align, you’ll struggle. So, you need to first figure out what’s essential to your life, and then build upon that.

For what it’s worth, I don’t mean to imply that this question is easy to answer. In fact, you’ll likely feel different about it depending on the day. Still, asking this question early and returning to it often is a useful exercise. I’ve wavered on this question for decades, but I do feel like it becomes clearer over time.

Some want an exciting business. Others want to test how big they can make theirs. Yet others want autonomy—and some want to make something beautiful. There are other reasons for starting a business, and yours are yours. I’m not here to judge anyone’s motivations. However, I have witnessed (and participated in) the folly of trying to achieve all of these objectives at the same time.

Knowing what kind of life you want to lead can help you remove some business possibilities. This is useful because you’re more likely to get jammed up by too many options than too few. (This seems paradoxical, but I’ve found that an abundance of choice tends to be overwhelming.)

Let’s say that you (like me) don’t deal with stress all that well. Maybe you like working on your business more than asking others to do so for you. It could be that you abhor making sales calls, and reviewing HR policies. If this sounds like you, perhaps you should avoid starting an agency. Admittedly, this is an obvious conclusion. People like me made this mistake, though—because we didn’t properly reflect on what kind of life we wanted to live.

I like to compare businesses to boats. Some want to captain great ships. Others are happy in a canoe. Both are entirely viable options, but you ought to choose the one that’s right for you.

In my experience, determining what you want involves progressive reflection. For example, at some point, Shelkie and I recognized that we wanted to build our own products. That was one important decision. It took a lot longer to realize that the scope of the product we built was equally important.

Turns out that not all founder-types are suited to all SaaS products. Sure, we knew we should avoid massive enterprise products. However, we didn’t realize that the middle is also pretty tough. Certain products demand many developers, support teams, enterprise sales, and infrastructure. So, while you might technically be able to build a better Salesforce, you might not be suited to grow it as such a business must be grown.

For this reason, it’s worth starting with the question of what lifestyle suits you. With that in mind, you can explore which business types match your desires. If you want excitement and the thrill of making something big, certain business types will be more viable than others.

In doing so, try to fill in what that business might practically look like. There’s a reason why Adobe has 22,635 employees. There’s also a reason why some in-demand design studios involve only 1 or 2 partners. The question isn’t whether one of these is better than the other. It’s simply a matter of which one is most suitable for you.

June 3, 2020 business entrepreneur goals startup

Minimum viable solutions

The term MVP (minimum viable product) is commonplace in the startup space. I suspect most business people are familiar with it. We also see a number of variations on this term. Each of these pivots around the question: what’s the smallest/simplest version of x?” This is for good reason. Humans tend to complicate matters. It takes deliberate action to not do so.

Much like we complicate the products we build, we complicate our problems. You’ve probably had a not-so-complicated purchase spiral into hours, days, or weeks of research. I’ve done this with cameras, bikes, and even sleeping bags. Software purchases are even worse.

We like the idea that one solution will check all of the boxes. Some of these requirements are non-essential, though. Others are imagined. For example, You buy a travel adapter for Europe, and contemplate getting the whole set… just in case you someday visit the Cook Islands. Adding requirements obscures your situation, adds cognitive weight, and lengthens the search process.

Lately, I find myself asking myself: What’s the dumbest way we could fix this?” The word dumbest” is inaccurate, but it functions better than simplest”, which carries some baggage. Saying dumb” makes me think of stupidly simple possibilities—that might not otherwise occur to me.

During this lockdown, my kids and I are sharing a workspace. This is fine when they do schoolwork, but challenging when they play networked Minecraft with their friends. They grow enthusiastic and start cheering with and shouting at one another. I first told them to be quiet. I then tried working from elsewhere in the house. Neither worked. Later, a friend suggested I buy noise-canceling headphones. I did, and I can now work in my space while they play—and neither is interrupted.

I know: Headphones are an obvious solution to my noise problem. Viable solutions are often obvious in retrospect. This doesn’t make them any less elusive. My bet is that obvious solutions are more difficult to spot for those who work hard. They tend to conflate effort with quality of outcome, which isn’t always the case. In fact, a deliberately lazy mindset might serve us better—because it prioritizes efficiency.

For years I looked for adaptable software that’d help me with personal planning (goals, objectives, habits). Eventually, I created a text document for doing this. Every morning I email the previous day’s notes to myself and revise today’s. This makes it a living document that I regularly reflect on. Could custom software help me do this better? Probably, but everyone would have different ideas for how it should work.

I also wanted a way to track my habits. There are seemingly countless habit tracking apps, all with their own benefits and drawbacks. I tried many of them, but none seemed to stick. So, I created a simple spreadsheet for tracking my habits/metrics. Over time it evolved into something that’s quite functional for my unique needs.

Even this iteration of my blog is simplified. It’s a set of text documents in a Dropbox folder, served up by Blot. It does very little but is highly adaptable. It’s also more useful than my previous solution—because it fulfills a single purpose. It houses ideas I wanted to think through, so, I could get them out of my head.

Finding a minimum viable solution requires you to first identify the root issue. This can’t be a wishlist of possibilities. It needs to be one short sentence. Then look for the smallest (possibly cheapest) solution. Once you’ve identified it, install the product/system and see if it does what you need. If you hesitate along the way, remind yourself that the real cost of switching to another option is probably trivial.

Not every solution you test will be workable. That’s OK, though. These simple solutions are useful because they help break analysis paralysis. You could read a thousand books on how to ride a bike, but that wouldn’t be as useful as trying to ride one. The same goes for solving problems. Any solution—even a bad one—will teach you something. This gives you real data you can apply to the next test.

Think smaller.

June 2, 2020 efficiency problems productivity solutions

After the pandemic

Although it affects our income, this pandemic hasn’t hit our family hard. We’re healthy and live in an area with low infection rates. This is in part due to our government managing the crisis proactively, and residents listening to—and acting on—their recommendations.

I admit that we’re privileged and lucky. Others face a grim reality that we’ve been spared of, so far. Aside from some lost revenue, our family is only experiencing some inconveniences. I hope it remains this way for us. I want my family and friends to remain safe and healthy. I also hope that a vaccine is near—and that world leaders act in their people’s best interests.

With these points noted, I’ll move to a related but smaller topic. It’s one that could (fairly) be dismissed as self-involved. I get that. If I were in a worse spot, I’d be dealing with more serious matters. I’m not, though. Also, I believe the following speaks to a discussion we ought to have.

Over the past months, I’ve been anxious. One aspect of this relates to a cloud of uncertainty. This involves a slurry of concerns ranging from COVID-19 to fascism, economic fallout to media manipulation, monopolization by tech giants to the climate crisis… and the list goes on. I once wished my life would be more like a movie. Now that it is, I’d like to retract that wish.

The other part of my anxiety relates to the end of our pseudo-lockdown1 state. Sure, I’d love to go on a holiday, have lunch at a restaurant, or get together for a big party. That said, the past months have brought some gifts.

Our immediate family is spending more time together than ever. We eat all of our meals as one. We even worked our way through every episode of the Office, which our kids enjoyed immensely. My wife’s no longer commuting 130 km in the evening to teach. There’s no mad rush to get to soccer practice or school events.

I feel like there’s a little more time to talk, breathe, and reflect as of late. Sure, there are days when I’m working more than I should. Part of that relates to anxiety about the uncertainty of future work. I’m working on this, though, and the feeling is less common than in the first weeks of lockdown.

This pause also led us to take more care with our family spending. (Being somewhat housebound helps with this.) Despite some of our businesses not producing as they would otherwise, we’re putting money into our savings account. This is without feeling like we’re missing anything material in nature.

I’d like to see this pandemic end. When it does, though, I’d like to hold on to some experiences we’ve had. For me, these include calmness, silence, togetherness, and frugality2. If this is possible, I believe we all (as individuals, communities, and a planet) can benefit.

  1. Our province never had an actual lockdown. In B.C. the pandemic response principally involves social distancing and a voluntary closing of some businesses and public facilities. I just refer to it as lockdown because it feels like one, even if it isn’t compulsory.

  2. On a related note, this video suggests a handful of factors that affect happiness. These include reasonable working hours, sufficient (but not excessive) money, regular vacations, autonomy, work/life balance… and saunas.

June 1, 2020 balance life pandemic work