Learning: The Core of a Successful SaaS Startup

A startup is an organization in search of a sustainable business model.

I heard that definition at an event in Colorado Springs a few years ago, and it sticks with me to this day as the clearest way to identify a startup. “Startup” is not a description of the age, size, popularity, or revenue of a company. We can still justifiably label large, well-known entities like DoorDash, Airbnb, and Slack as startups. They are still learning and searching for a continually scaling, sustainable business model (and have been doing a great job of it so far!).

Today, we’re going to focus on a single element of this definition: “in search of.”

We start new companies with an idea, a passion, or a desire to cash in. We think ahead to the big exit, we dream of success, and we make plans. And let’s be clear – this is not a bad thing. Vision is important!

See you in the future. (via Giphy)

But at the core of a successful search for a sustainable business model, there needs to be learning. 

Think about it: We’re starting from zero. SaaS founders are not franchisees, handed a packaged, already proven business model to replicate. We need to define new processes in every area of business: product, design, development, sales, marketing, customer operations, finance, human resources. We need to test the waters of distribution channels, competitive landscapes, product offerings, pricing strategies, and more.

What we’ve done elsewhere will certainly inform what we try in this new context, but there are always new variables in every new startup – new markets, new team members, new users, new buyers. While I was able to transfer some best practices from my time working with the enterprise UX team at The Home Depot, running a design team within UserIQ, a customer success SaaS startup, is a vastly different environment with unique demands and considerations. The way it’s worked before is not going to be how it’s going to work this time.

So, what are we trying to learn with each of our company’s efforts? A good place to start is by taking inventory of our assumptions, then putting them to the test. Here’s some practical steps we can take to learn in our everyday operations: 

  • Generative research (surveys, user interviews, observational research) can give us insight into customer and user motivations, pain points, and behaviors. 

  • Prototypes can tell us about the usability and desirability of our product before we drop a fat wad of cash on development, and can even be used to kickstart sales conversations with customers.

  • Through an early product, we can learn about which features are actually valued, what customers request in enhancements, and how well our direction fits the market we’re targeting.

  • Our marketing campaigns are not just an end product – They can be sources of valuable information if we’re listening.

  • Running standups and regular team retrospectives in a supportive, reflective environment can move us from raw processes to well-defined collaboration in which team members can thrive and efficiency is optimized.
  • And surrounding yourself with knowledgeable people with different perspectives and emphases – employees, vendors, agencies, and strategic partners – can be a valuable learning experience to propel you forward.

Of course, learning alone is not going to propel us to success. We must have a willingness and a courage to adapt, change course, and even *gasp* say no to some of what we’ve envisioned. It’s all about humility, tenacity, and a desire to improve. That’s how we start up!

Mark Tegtmeier

Founder Mark Tegtmeier brings years of design experience to Trailmerge. He has worked with early stage startups, design and software agencies, government, and enterprise, driving them further in their product vision. A husband of one, father of four, and urban homesteader, Mark loves developing tech talent and coming alongside founders with ambitious visions for their products and companies.