Key lessons on scaling from leading SaaS CEOs

If you’re a founder, you know that scaling your SaaS start-up isn’t easy. Building and growing a business in today’s highly competitive marketplace is full of challenges, so it’s great when you can learn from others who have been in your shoes. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of insights from some of North America’s top SaaS CEOs who attended the recent Traction Conf in Vancouver. The two-day event featured curated summits and sessions full of content geared toward helping founders supercharge their growth. 

Every founder has experienced their fair share of obstacles on their way to achieving impressive growth. From product to team, we’ve captured some tactical advice to keep in mind when scaling your start-up, summarized into a few quick highlights below. 

On product

As a SaaS company, developing, launching, and improving your product is as important as it is challenging. Thankfully, Todd Olson, Founder and CEO of Pendo, provided some tips for getting your product right.

1. Focus on pain

When building and selling your product, focus on the why. Emphasize the pain that your product will alleviate. If you’ve experienced that pain yourself, it builds even more credibility with your customers. 

2. Make your product 10x better than your competitors’

This doesn’t always mean additional features. Get feedback from your customers and design your product to address what your customers want vs. going too broad with adding features.

3. Measure and iterate

Get your product to market as quickly as possible and be hands-on in the early days. The more you can communicate directly with your customers to get feedback for product improvement the better. Ask questions around product and feature usage to develop use cases. 

Overall, communication with your customers at all stages is important. Todd suggests making those calls yourself while your customer base is small. Customers are more likely to answer if it’s the founder or CEO reaching out. No one cares more about your business than you, and this passion will help strengthen relationships with your customers.

On customer acquisition and success

Acquiring and retaining customers can be difficult with competitors offering similar products at aggressive price points. That’s why your marketing efforts need to stand up and ramp up as you scale. 

Jason Lemkin, Founder and CEO of SaaStr, Co-founder of NanoGram Devices and Founder of EchoSign (acquired by Adobe), suggests building an outbound team as soon as possible. In his experience, there isn’t one ultimate marketing strategy, but many. This is especially true once you’ve scaled to over $2 million in revenues. Various inbound and outbound activities from white papers and webinars to social posts can be successful lead generation sources. The bottom line is to trust your marketing team, track your performance, and stick with a variety of activities that generate good leads. Even if each initiative only generates a few good leads, it’s worth it.

A positive experience, end-to-end 

Providing customers with a positive end-to-end experience is essential. Jason recommends creating a customer friendly purchasing process by offering things like downgrades if customers aren’t using the product as much as they thought they would. Pilots can allow buyers to get familiar with your product and incorporating their feedback will pay off. As a rule of thumb, buying should be easier than deploying. Avoid playing pricing games and close deals as fast as possible to keep your customers satisfied.

Marketing should continue after a deal has closed. Jason suggests allocating 30 percent of your marketing budget to activities, such as events, geared toward current customers. This will encourage your customers to buy more from you and refer more to you. 

Derek Anderson, Co-Founder and CEO of Bevy and Startup Grind, offered consistent advice. In his session, Derek highlighted that the future of marketing is customer to customer interactions. After your product is in market, gaining what he calls superfans can build credibility and act as a strong lead source for other customers. When it comes to building and engaging superfans, Derek suggests creating a positive customer experience process by designing a mission and values that inspire, adopting an education-based approach to selling, and keeping the personal touch. Once you’ve identified your product’s superfans, do everything you can to help them. 

Measuring success

Establishing quarterly goals around key metrics can help you measure your performance at every stage. Jason recommends Net Promoter Score, or NPS. Asking customers how likely they are to recommend your product to a friend or colleague is a simple enough question that can provide incredible insights. Overall, a higher NPS score results in lower churn, much easier upsell, higher positive word of mouth, and lower marketing costs. Be sure to personally reach out as a founder to yield higher response rates when possible.

On scaling your growing team

As you scale, your team will grow and it’s important to maintain the culture that you’ve worked so hard to achieve. When recruiting team members, Todd suggests personally interviewing as many candidates as possible. Make sure that your culture and vision resonate to ensure a good fit now and as you grow. This goes for your board too. Vet and interview your investors and board for cultural fit. Perform reference checks with their best and worst performing portfolio companies to see how they behave in various scenarios.

Todd maintains that the key ingredient of culture is people. A great culture can not only help retain your team, but improve customer experience. If employees love the company, it will be reflected in how they treat customers so hire those that are passionate about your product and will facilitate a positive customer experience.

Navigating the road to success

As a founder, you’ll face numerous hurdles when scaling your startup. But you’re not alone. Looking toward strategies from successful founders in the space can help provide guidance. 

From discussions at the recent Traction Conf, there’s no doubt that the old sentiment “Customer is King” still rings true. Customers are, of course, the foundation of your business’s success. But some founders may not realize that investing in customer success can provide benefits beyond retention, like product improvement and lead generation. So whether it comes to designing and launching your product or growing your team, be mindful of how your decisions affect customer experience.