How to validate and bring SaaS ideas to $1k MRR with Shane White

Product Stories
How to validate and bring SaaS ideas to $1k MRR with Shane White
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Summary

How can you validate a SaaS quickly? What’s a good approach to find new SaaS ideas in various niches? Why do some people think too much about SaaS when trying to build a SaaS? Shane White is a developer who runs an entire portfolio of businesses with various cofounders and walks us through his system of validation, prototyping, and getting first customers. He also touches on his experience with building No-Code MVPs.

Episode

Victor: [00:08]

Welcome to Product Stories, where we explore how founders build successful software products. This is a podcast about product management, development, remote work and anything else non-technical as well as technical founders need to know to launch and scale software products.

Today’s guest is Shane White, a developer who’s running multiple SaaS businesses. He’ll share with us his approach to identify new niches and build a portfolio of SaaS products from scratch.

Shane, welcome to the show.

Shane: [00:35]

Hey, Victor, thanks for having me.

Victor: [00:37]

Yes, 100%. Why don’t you tell people a little bit about yourself as a founder and your background, who are interested to know how you got into this?

Shane: [00:46]

Sure thing. Yes, so I’ve been in the game for about eight years now. I started working on SaaS, basically, as soon as I got out of college, been working on my SaaS called Memory Share for eight years now, it started off called Midwest Streams. We help funeral directors webcast their funerals, and it’s obviously gotten really big here since 2020.

Victor: [01:11]

Well, yes, I can imagine, sadly. But you founded multiple businesses, is that correct? Even before that?

Shane: [01:22]

Yes, I’ve always kind of pictured myself as an entrepreneur. When I was a kid, I had my own lawn mowing business. Then through college, I started a wedding DJ company, that was actually my first successful exit, albeit a small one, but it was still—was able to sell my first business there. And then along the way, I started a photography company with my friend, Nick, called the Match Artist. We’ve been doing incredibly well lately.

And then my girlfriend and I started the Agent Nest, which is a SaaS for real estate agents. And I’ve had my fair share of SaaS that never even took off the ground other than those two.

Victor: [02:01]

Don’t we all. We have a graveyard of those ourselves, I guess. You already mentioned that you’re kind of starting these with others. So one with your girlfriend, the other one with your best friend, is that something that you normally do with all these businesses?

Shane: [02:20]

Yes, I think so. Having a good co-founder is what really separates, you know, the—in my opinion, it’s really tough to build a company on your own. So if I ever I’m starting something, I always look for someone that can help me out, so it’s not so hard.

Victor: [02:37]

Do you look for complementary skills? Or is it more like, “Hey, I think I can trust this person, let’s run with it” What’s the mix here? Because it seems these people are fairly close to you also, personally.

Shane: [02:53]

Yes, I always, you know, trust is a big thing in companies and you’ve got to make sure that you and your co-founder are on the same page. So that’s why I’ve always stuck with people really close in my life.

Victor: [03:05]

That’s awesome. And so if you didn’t have a co-founder in a business, what would demotivate you mostly? Because there’s a lot of solopreneurs out there who love it and who wouldn’t change it for anything else. But clearly, I guess there’s a lot of people who say, “No, I really do need someone to run this with.”

Shane: [03:25]

Yes, I won’t really say demotivation is the correct word. But man, there’s just work to be done in a startup, that if you’re doing on your own, you’re going to have to work twice as hard.

Victor: [03:38]

Oh yes, that’s definitely true. So would you say that’s also why you’re able to run so many of these at the same time?

Shane: [03:46]

Yes, all of my co-founders right now are completely full-time on their one thing and then I kind of bounce between the three.

Victor: [03:57]

And are you the developer within those or do you take on more roles? Shane: [04:03] Yes, I always start off as the developer and then we were able to kind of hire that other way eventually.

Victor: [04:12]

That’s cool. That’s very good. I mean, we’ve talked upfront, and you just mentioned it, you have so many niches that you’re involved in; photography, funeral streaming, photography—what was the third one? Real estate, that’s right. Real estate.

Shane: [04:34]

Real estate.

Victor: [04:36]

How do you pick your niches? How do you do that? Do you have any background in those?

Shane: [04:45]

Yes, good question. I mean, each one, there was kind of always, you know, something there. Like for the photography company, it was actually my friend, we had no intentions of starting this business, he just took my online dating pictures and that was a complete game changer for me. So we were like, “We have to make this a business.” And that’s kind of almost, like, right now it’s a really challenging time for me because running three or four companies is just not sustainable. It’s not realistic.

But the reason that kind of happened is because, you know, when Nick and I started the matches, we never really intended it to grow this big. We were just, you know, doing some photo shoots on the weekend. And then it got huge.

Victor: [05:31]

That is super interesting. But you also said that your funeral streaming service started with weddings. So is pivoting in that way at first hunch and then developing it further, pivoting? Is that a normal thing that happens? Is it more about perseverance and trying?

Shane: [05:50]

Yes, in the Startup Grind, you have to have perseverance. I see way too many founders, they start something and then three months later, they don’t have any customers, so they quit. And you really have to keep—I mean, I wouldn’t give up on something for at least a year.

And along that time, you can pivot, you can do what you need to do, but you really need to be working on the same thing for at least a year to give it a fair shake.

Victor: [06:20]

That makes sense. How would you go about finding a new niche today if you had to start something else today? Would you look for your own experiences, scratch your own itch or do you have a system that you would want to try these days?

Shane: [06:39]

If I were to start brand new today, I would look for, what I think is really interesting is I would find a niche or a market where you see all these big, big players, but they’re only servicing enterprises. And you can’t get this tool, you can’t get this thing for smaller businesses without the budget. So like an example, so free idea for anyone listening.

Imagine that, like, we were just, for Memory Share, we were trying to implement some sort of analytic service. And if you Google that, you’ll find Tableau, you’ll find Power BI, you’ll find all of these things that are, you know, four or five grand a month, if not more and they’re huge, and they’re all those things. I really think there’s a ton of businesses out there that are kind of the same thing, where the big enterprise are being served, but the smaller guys aren’t. That’s where I will stick today.

Victor: [07:44]

And I guess these big solutions are also overfeatured, overpowered [Inaudible]. If you niche down onto something small, onto a concrete target customer provide 20% of the features for 80% of the—80/20 classic, is that what you’re saying?

Shane: [08:03]

Yes, and that should be easier to use because you have less features. That is exactly what I would try to do today.

Victor: [08:08]

Huh. Also one question about what you said, “You should take at least a year.” What for you is product market fit? What would you need to or maybe even earlier, what needs to happen that you say, “Hey, I think there’s something there, let’s keep going further”?

Shane: [08:32]

Product Market Fit, that is an interesting one. You can actually, in my opinion, you can, with enough pavement pounding, you can make your own product market fit, which might not be the easiest solution. Because once you hit product market fit, that’s when the magic happens. But until then, if you don’t have that luxury, if you keep calling, trying to find a specific 100 or so people that you can laser-target and make your solution work for them, I think that is the way to basically pound the pavement until you achieve product market fit.

Victor: [09:13]

That makes sense. And now let’s move on to MVP creation, right? You have an idea, you analyze the market a little bit. Let’s run with your enterprise software, for example of BI tools. How would you create an MVP yet? If you’re a developer, so obviously, first thing you would fire up code editor. What’s your stack? What do you use?

Shane: [09:46]

Oh, man, I love .NET and just start getting into view.

Victor: [09:51]

Oh, nice. That makes sense. Okay, that’s a great stack. Would you say there is an ideal SaaS stack or is it more, “Hey, I use that. I’m good at this,” or is there anything you’ve heard from friends also, “Hey, starting a SaaS, business and MVP is really good and a certain tech stack”?

Shane: [10:11]

Well, Victor, we’re developers here, of course, we’re going to tell you that .NET is the best stack and everyone who doesn’t use it, isn’t that developer. So that is the answer.

Victor: [10:29]

Yes, I think that’s what it is. Otherwise, we’re going to get into flame war very quickly. Very nice. You’ve already voiced your opinion about my tech stack on our discovery call. So I think that’s a fair piting. Anyway, jokes aside, have you ever tried using NoCode?

Shane: [10:54]

Yes, a love/hate relationship with it. It’s, you know, if you maybe this is your first business and you want to get something started, I think it’s a great thing. I am looking into NoCode solutions for the Match Artist, you know, just adding some cool tech stuff into photography, because, you know, the Match Artist is a photography company is, you know, it’s all SaaS. So we can offer some really cool things. That’s kind of techie by doing some NoCode solutions.

But as a SaaS owner, I mean, that’s your core business, is writing software. So to kind of cheap out and not go with pen to paper writing that code is going to really bite you. And I have experience with this because we started the Agent Nest as a NoCode platform. And we made it all the way up to probably about 1000 MRR before we just hit a wall, like, it just got to be too much.

So then my next jump from NoCode was just no backend. It was just frontend only. And it still is like that. And now here we are around that 810 Ks, we’re hitting that, okay, we really need the backend type of a wall.

Victor: [12:17]

But would you consider that approach again? Quickly iterate, throw it away later, but just get moving ahead while you’re validating even if that effort or that feature set is what people need?

Shane: [12:33]

For me, personally, no, because I feel like my next ideas we’ve probably well researched before we even get to that point. But if I was a first time entrepreneur, yes, I would for sure use the NoCode platform.

Victor: [12:50]

But even the no backend approach where you say, “Okay, now that the NoCode fell apart at 1K MRR and then, you know, no backend is falling apart at 10K.” Would you now, still say, “Hey, we’re going to build a full fully-fledged backend even earlier,” or was that a good decision in hindsight?

Shane: [13:12]

Yes, I think waiting until we’re out now on the backend was a great decision. You can get a lot of stuff done with just the front. It’s called the Jamstack. I’m sure, everyone knows about that here. I really, really like the Jamstack. But like I said, it kind of falls apart once you get to a couple 100 customers.

Victor: [13:33]

Mm-hmm. That makes perfect sense. I think this is a great, great tip. Even if you write in .NET, do you use any third-party services for authentication, there are a few things like that; speed-up development or custom code, I keep it custom, that’s easiest.

Shane: [13:56]

No, I love other third-party tools. I love supporting others in the industry. Auth0, that was my favorite authentication provider. For the Agent Nest, I like Jamstack.

Shane: [14:37]

I’ve heard some people talk about, you know, hearing that they use the Jamstack. And for them, it’s like, “Well, yes, I’m using my own API.” But when I said Jamstack, I’m usually talking about frontend only, the API’s I use are third party. And for that, there’s some really cool stuff out there. We just started using a tool called ButterCMS at the Agent Nest, because they provide all the content. And we are able to get all the content from this third-party backend and display it on our frontend. And then we’re able to lock all that up with Auth0.

Victor: [15:21]

And there’s also a few others that I’ve heard of recently, that are very popular. And I think that would be a very nice research to do as well because these things are definitely growing in popularity. But most importantly, when you say that you work until the point where you can hopefully replace yourself, hire someone in your place, how would you do that usually? Do you hire people in-house? Do you hire people remotely? How does that work?

Shane: [16:00]

We’ve done a lot of Upwork freelance hiring because that’s a lot easier to get your toes wet, hire someone, you know, for a few hours. Unfortunately, Upwork, something has happened there, the quality has just really tanked over the past year or two. So I’m not—Because of that we’ve kind of went more to the traditional Indeed, hiring locally or at least in the United States. I really wish that Upwork didn’t take a turn for the worst because that was working really well.

Victor: [16:37]

Oh, then you should definitely give us a try. But that’s as a side note. But other than that, I do understand that the market is pretty crazy and heated as of the past year. The same thing that, you know, increase your streaming business has also poured a lot of cash into software development, so it’s definitely interesting out there.

But what I also wanted to ask you is, with your initial customer developments, you have your MVP now, you’ve validated a bit, first you’ve done some research, you’ve built your MVP or even a prototype.

How do you now bring that to the first K in MRR? Well, it depends, of course, who your target audience is, but you said specifically not enterprise for your product. So I assume that’s not one customer, it’s probably something like 10, 12, 15, something like that. How would you go about getting these first customers?

Shane: [17:43]

The first 10 customers. I mean, I think what we did eight years ago would still work today. You know, selling streaming services of funeral homes, we pounded the pavement. But what we do is we gave each funeral home around us something of value. So we went and filmed a promotional video for them, we’re like, “Hey, here you go. Put this on.” “Here’s this video we filmed for you. Put this on your website.” And they really liked that. Most of them still didn’t buy after doing that. But some of them did. And that is how we ended up acquiring our customers and I’d still do the same thing today.

Victor: [18:24]

That’s awesome. So I take that you’re more of the sales-lead approach over product-lead, where you let your product do everything for you. The sales market, we’ve had a great episode just released, I think yesterday about product-lead growth, which is very interesting. I’m also a bit more on the sales-led side BA in sales myself, I guess that’s kind of the bias of what you know, just as with the code stack. Have you ever tried product-led growth?

Shane: [19:02]

Yes, I’m not sure. I 100% know it would never work in our industry because when we’re talking with a funeral home and we make the sale, we don’t even show them the product. We’re just talking to them about how we can solve their problem of helping the families attend the service.

Victor: [19:29]

Yes.

Shane: [19:29]

If you were in a competitive space where there is—you’re doing like a CRM, where you’re talking to people who know that they want CRM, they’re just not sure which CRM is right for them, I feel like you have to go with product. But if your niche down so intense, that there’s not a lot of customers and your more—your conversations you’re having are geared more on “why should I do this” versus “why should I use you over a competitor,” you have to focus on sales.

Victor: [20:01]

This is a very interesting point, I like it. Because what’s super interesting is you’re selling the product without even showing it, which for most SaaS people, you know, book a demo, here’s every single button that we have. That’s kind of, you know, when you love your SaaS too much, right? It’s like, “This is my baby, my product, it has to sell itself, it’s so amazing.” But you sometimes even forget that there’s a need that people want solved if you just—I don’t want to say that promising that you solve, it is always going to be enough to close a deal.

But that’s what it is about the value proposition, about the actual need behind it, about the aspirin versus vitamin, what is this product if you have meaning vitamin is something that enhances something that people might not be interested to buy at all, because it’s not top of mind versus aspirin is for an actual pain they have right now and they need to solve right now is that you can get people way more interested. So that I read like that, that thinking to get back down on earth and ask yourself, what does the customer want?

Shane: [21:21]

Yes, I think that was one of my biggest mistakes early on, is I just—I followed everyone in the SaaS community I loved, I got really deep in. But you have to realize that not all SaaS-es are the same. Yes, like, you can’t listen to what someone else is doing and copy it. And we tried so hard, we did kind of the product thing. And once we kind of broaden and be like, “Okay, we’re going to run this thing like a business, not like a SaaS,” it really changed everything for us.

Because I’m not thinking about churn and—of course shops. That’s a horrible thing. Of course, we’re thinking about that. But we’re coming at it from a mindset of how can we serve our customers? How can we get more customers? And I’m not painting myself into all of the same SaaS tactics that everyone else is using. I’m just getting more inspiration from other businesses that are either in the same industry as us and serving the same type of customers as us.

Victor: [22:30]

I think that’s very smart. I think that’s smart. Not building a SaaS for SaaS sake, but, you know, you’re serving customers, you’re solving their problem the best way possible. Love it.

On that note, how can people learn more about your businesses and yourself? Where can they find you?

Shane: [22:51]

I’m pretty active on Indie Hackers. If you go to Indie Hackers and search for Shane from Fargo, that’s probably the best place. Otherwise, you can check out each website, https://www.thematchartist.com/, https://www.memoryshare.com/ and https://www.theagentnest.com/.

Victor: [23:06]

Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Shane: [23:10]

Yes, thanks, Victor. I appreciate the invite.

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