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How to design a SaaS product your customer can’t live without

Stewart Hillhouse
Posted by Stewart Hillhouse|Published on August 24, 2022
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What do the most loved SaaS products have in common? Is it a list of features and functionality that sets them apart? Maybe it’s the look and feel of the product that makes customers fall in love. Or maybe it’s the brand that surrounds the product itself that makes the user feel special. 

Each of these components play a role, but they don’t take into account the decisions that were made to get the product to a finished state. To design a SaaS product that your customers truly can’t live without, we need to go a step further back in time in the product life cycle. 

There are 3 key decisions all founders and early product leaders need to focus on when taking their product from zero to one:

The market: who are we going to serve The product: what are we going to build The team: who’s going to build it

In this post, Mutiny CEO and co-founder Jaleh Rezaei and Brex’s co-CEO and co-founder Henrique Dubugras sit down on stage at SaaStr Annual to share what they’ve learned about early stage product development and building something customers can’t live without.

Their full conversation from the stage at SaaStr 2021 can be viewed here.

Decision #1: The Market Pick your customers, pick your life

All early-stage founders are on the hunt for the elusive product-market-fit (PMF); when you finally feel the current change and customers begin to come to you. 

But in the search for PMF, a dangerous trap founders can fall into is building a product first, then looking for a market to sell to. This thinking ignores one of the most important decisions the founder will make for themselves and the company: what market do we want to serve?

Portrait of Henrique Dubugras, co-CEO of Brex

Finding founder-market fit

Brex originally started as an idea for a virtual reality company. But a few weeks into Y Combinator, Henrique Dubugras and his co-founder Pedro Franceschi realized that they knew absolutely nothing about the VR space or the problems that needed solving.

Both of them had come from a financial-tech startup in Brazil, so they pivoted their idea to something more familiar. They learned the value of finding founder-market fit. 

To find founder-market fit, ask yourself: “How am I uniquely positioned to succeed with this startup?”

Your answer will probably be a combination of: Resources (money, IP, team) Market insight (customer, technology) Industry connections (early customers, investors)

These make up your startup's unfair advantage.

Speaking of unfair advantages, see how Brex was able to increase signups 200% using this simple playbook.  

The 5 Founding Hypothesis

Early in the founding of Mutiny, founders Jaleh Rezaei and Nikhil Mathew took a step back and asked themselves: “For our vision of success to become reality, what hypothesis needs to be true?”

Portrait of Jaleh Rezaei

The purpose of this exercise is to define all the assumptions that live in your mind and put them out in the open. They knew that if they could make them all come true, then Mutiny was going to be the huge success they knew it could be. 

They wrote each hypothesis down and attached a metric to them to make them measurable. 

For example, the first hypothesis was a technical one. If Mutiny was going to offer effective no-code website personalization capabilities to other companies (hypothesis), they’d first need to be able to identify at least 50% of the buyers and customers within any of the marketing channels they operate in (metric). 

Having the founding hypothesis clearly defined allowed the very early team to move quickly to solve the hypothesis the whole company's vision was built on. It was also effective for recruiting new team members because it made a huge vision much more tangible, breaking down the problem into smaller projects that candidates could get excited about.

It’s OK to start small 

All startups have massively ambitious visions of what their company could be. But early on, you’re going to need to find a smaller part of the market that you can get a footing on. This first entry point into a larger market will act as your wedge to bigger and better things once you have size, scale, and resources. 

For example, Brex started off just offering corporate credit cards to other startups. They knew that their real ambition was to offer cards to large enterprise companies. But before they could compete with legacy credit card companies like Visa, American Express, and MasterCard, they needed to earn their seat at the table. Mutiny started with website personalization for B2B startups before moving into ABM and outbound channels.

Decision #2: Product Walk backwards into a product your customers can’t live without

Once you choose your market, now you need to figure out what problems you're going to solve and how. 

Mutiny and Brex did this in different ways, but they both used a similar methodology: back into a problem to be solved instead creating a new one. 

Solve the same problem, but differently

Knowing that Brex’s competitors (corporate credit cards) had deeply ingrained relationships with their customers, they needed to approach the problem in a different way. Rather than trying to convince companies to switch from using a legacy card to Brex, they needed to become the card of choice for new companies. 

But what to build? They began asking startup founders: “If we built something better than the other corporate cards, would you use ours instead?” 

This gave them a shortlist of “must haves” that their product needed to have: needed to work like software (easy permissions and sharing), perks and rewards, competitive price. 

With the minimum viable product defined by getting specs from their target customer, they knew exactly what to start building.

Uncover all the papercut problems your customers face

Once you get a working product into the hands of your customer, next comes the challenge of making them fall in love with it. 

Mutiny did this by setting a company-wide value that they would make all product decisions to benefit a specific ideal customer persona. Whenever users in that persona weren’t able to figure out the product or made a mistake, the Mutiny product team accepted that outcome as their own failure, not the failure of the customer. 

Sticking with that persona also removed the temptation to get contradicting product feedback from anyone and everyone. Staying true to the market they wanted to serve avoided going down product rabbit holes just because a single user asked for a feature. 

For example, if a customer agreed to implement a beta feature on a certain date, but missed that timeline, they’d curiously ask why. This line of questioning uncovered all the papercut problems – tiny areas of annoyance and friction – the customer faces in their day-to-day life. 

These tiny problems might not become insights that become product features, but they help the product team get in the mind and body of the end-user. If you can somehow solve these papercut problems for your customers, they’ll love you forever. 

Henrique Dubugras & Jaleh Rezaei at SaaStr 2021

Decision #3: Team Find number 2s eager to be number 1

Who you hire to help you build your product is the equivalent of choosing your spouse. They’re someone you need to be able to argue back and forth with at times, always coming to an agreement that everyone can live with. 


Hungry number 2s have something to prove

A strategy that both Brex and Mutiny followed was to find people who had worked at startups before, but in a supporting role. Maybe they were on an A-team, but weren’t the team lead. These people are extra valuable for early teams because they’ve seen how it’s been done before, but now want to go out and do it their own way. 

Instead of needing to figure everything out on their own, they’ll have a back-catalog of experiences (both positive and negative) and connections with people they know and trust. 

Give these hungry number 2s a chance to become number 1 and watch them run.

Build critical roles based on your needs 

Mutiny went against traditional hiring processes by building our own critical roles, rather than simply following the traditional SaaS org chart. 

For example, our first Customer Experience (CX) role looked a lot different than the first Customer Success (CS) role that most startups would have looked to fill. We needed someone who was equal parts analytical (had experience in data), and creative (to help customers with their marketing campaigns). 

By taking this approach, CX was able to go above and beyond the expectations of early customers. Many of the most popular features inside Mutiny started off as being done manually by the CX team. Once validated, the engineering team would find ways to automate the task, freeing up CX and keeping the customer in love with the product. 

It might take a little longer to find the right person, but it’s critical to be picky when building out the founding product team.

Summary: Designing a product your customer can’t live without

– Founder-market fit is just as important as product-market fit. The market you choose to serve will dictate everything you do. – Don’t hide from assumptions: prove or disprove them. Do this by assigning a metric and treating it like a hypothesis. – Start small, use customer momentum as a wedge into bigger markets. – Be aware of papercut problems your customers have. They might live outside the scope of your product, but if you can solve them your customers will love you. – Hire people who have done it before, but promote them. They’ll be able to move quickly, have supporting knowledge, but also have something to prove. – Hire your early product team slowly based on your needs, not based on how others built their teams.

Check out the exact playbook Brex used to increase product signups 200%

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