“When you create products you love, it shows”
Over the past two years, Benjamin Dell has launched three successful products on AppSumo. His latest launch, HeySummit, earned $140,000 outright + $100,000 ARR — without giving up any equity.
Alex and I sat down with Ben to talk about what makes good SaaS products and why he keeps coming back to AppSumo to jumpstart his businesses.
Tell us a bit about your background.
For ten years, I ran a bespoke SaaS and web technology agency in the UK. Whilst I was running the agency, I also launched a couple of SaaS products for myself. Two of my SaaS companies sold. The third was missinglettr.
My agency grew to the extent that — while I knew there was a future in it — it was also clear that my emotional future and capabilities were in building SaaS products for myself as opposed to building them for other people. When that tipping point arrived about three years ago, I sold my agency and decided to focus full-time on missinglettr.
So how did you get missinglettr off the ground?
I’ve been in a mastermind with the same group of people for the last four years. As they saw me launching missinglettr, one of them mentioned AppSumo. I had never heard of them before. And consequently, I signed up thinking it could be good.
There was a waiting list. About ten months passed, maybe slightly less. Then I had a call with their business development team. They loved the product and thought it was potentially a good fit for them as well. Within a couple of weeks, we had the deal booked. And the rest is history.
Why AppSumo and not other common funding methods (VC, angel investors, crowdfunding)?
My psychology is such that I don’t like authority. So that basically means that I need to be the boss — which is why I run my own businesses. That also translates into how I think about investors and taking investments.
I hate wasting time. I don’t like the idea of spending months and months trying to woo investors and jump through all these hoops. And then at the end of it, to lose control of your business? I knew I wanted to keep my businesses: the control and freedom to innovate and iterate as I see fit.
From the get-go, I was not interested in taking outside investment. When I stumbled upon AppSumo 2.5 years ago, it was clear to me that the potential of this could be quite considerable to bring in some cash and customers without relinquishing any sort of control. And it gives you that immediate sort of jump.
What made you come back to AppSumo for two more deals?
Since I found AppSumo, I have really seen the benefits. Yes, the cash injection, but more importantly, the community. This is something that is less spoken about.
Sumo-lings are very intelligent and tech-savvy. There’s a lot of FOMO, of course. But generally speaking, I don’t see a lot of AppSumo customers buying just for the sake of it but not really have a conception of how they might use the tool and how it might benefit their business.
They buy because they see and understand the value. That aspect of the community cannot be underestimated. It means when we have conversations with them over support or social media, they get why the business exists and the problem it is there to solve. They come to the table with a whole fresh perspective that actually, largely, I’ve just trusted.
So I think community is a big part of it. It’s one of the reasons I’ve come back the second and third time with the other tools. If the quality of the clientele would have been terrible, I would have never entertained it because no amount of cash is worth bad customers. They’re great people.
You’ve been really successful in this business. How would you advise someone thinking about building a SaaS product?
First of all, I would challenge people to think about the type of founder they want to be and the type of company they want to create.
In my case, I’ve always known that I wanted to work remotely. I spent ten years running an office-based agency, and so that was a decision I knew early on. Crucially, I knew the type of founder that I was and the type of businesses I wanted to run.
I think many entrepreneurs take a lot of time figuring this out or at least being honest with themselves about what they want.
Figuring out what kind of business you want to own
A simple example: You observe the marketplace and see a trendy new product that’s making a lot of money. A founder might think there’s a good business there so they go out and build a copycat thing, following the market and building a product that already has some established paths. Yes, there is a bit of competition, but it’s a bit of a no-brainer.
There are lots of founders that can do this, and I think it’s great. If you can make a success of it, then go for it.
But if that’s not the sort of thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, then it doesn’t matter what the idea is. You shouldn’t be chasing that type of business.
So I have come to realize that I personally don’t get out of bed for a copycat business. That’s not to say this is the path that other people need to take, that’s just me knowing me. For me, it’s always been about finding a business that is either innovating an existing market or creating a brand new market, either through an evolution in the tech or a whole new paradigm shift in approach. We’ve had competitors since launch, and that’s fine. We can’t control that. But we’ve been first to market.
Once you’ve understood that, then you can start doing the basics: determining whether the product is attractive, lean, and actually solves problems, etc. I think it’s so important to enter the right business that suits your psychology, the way you like to work, and the style of business you want to have.
When you create products you love, it shows. Create a business that attracts the type of people you want to work with — through the way that you operate and the passion and style of how you’re operating.
How do you use AppSumo to grow your businesses?
My focus has always been in executing these deals: how can we use what we’re given through the deal — cash and customers — to create a more sustainable setup from that point forward? And it’s something I’ve iterated on from the first missinglettr deal all the way to HeySummit.
From my personal perspective, I’ve been building out businesses with legally independent teams with their own executive teams and boards. Going up another level, my wider goal is to create sustainable businesses that are afforded the ability to grow and become sustainable along their own path.
HeySummit is a great example of how we’ve matured our relationship and how we work with AppSumo. We’ve hired 5 people over the past 4 weeks—and that’s been really, really powerful.
With any sort of business, you’re trying to see if there’s an appetite for it. When you’re chasing product/market fit, you want to know when you’ve reached it or at least if you’re on the right path. And the best way to do that is to have people paying you.
What are your tips for new AppSumo partners?
1. Make sure that your product is ready… enough
It’s never going to be perfectly ready. No matter how ready it is, AppSumo customers will always identify that one killer feature that they need or say they need. They’ll say they can’t believe you launched without that thing. But if it wasn’t that thing, it would be some other thing.
So you need to balance this as a founder/team. Be confident in the stability and maturity of the product once you know it’s ready. Yes, there may still be things in the pipeline, but at some point, you just have to pull the trigger.
2. Creating your AppSumo deal
The plan that you want to provide to your customers ideally needs to be in the middle. Don’t go for your smallest plan or you’ll give the impression that you’re shortchanging the community. But you also don’t want to give them the largest plan because, quite frankly, most of them don’t need that big plan.
Don’t rush into it: think about the plan you want people to have and leave room for those who want to grow into the larger plan. Because there will always be a section that wants to do that. And make sure that when they’re on that middle tier, you give them the features that they need.
That’s what is really, really powerful about working with AppSumo: they know their shit — not only their audience, but they also know what makes a successful SaaS business. They know how SaaS businesses run, grow, and evolve. Present them with the plan you want to provide, but then have a two-way dialogue about the features that will be best for the community.
Be open and trusting that they know what will make a good deal. You’ve gotta trust that they are doing it for the right reasons. And I firmly do. I wouldn’t have run three deals with them if I didn’t.
It would be really easy for someone in AppSumo’s position to say, ‘Well, look, let’s just give them everything.’ But they’re absolutely not doing that. They’re looking out for the interests of both their customers and their partners doing the deals — and trying to strike that balance. So listen to them and take that opportunity — it’s been powerful. Once you’ve got that plan that’s ideally in the middle, you can also give Sumo-lings somewhere to grow.
3. Plan to keep momentum up after your deal ends
Use your AppSumo deal to build a connection. I also recommend having a secondary focus on how you can use these benefits in terms of building and growing revenue at the end of the deal. Think about what your strategy is to continue with the traction and the momentum after the deal is over.
4. Think about how your product fits into the marketplace
Is your product in a trendy category? Or is it a slightly more boring GDPR thing that helps with accounting, etc.? One thing that’s interesting comparing my deals: they’re in three different industries.
missinglettr is social media and blogging. HelpShelf is customer support. And HeySummit is widely marketing but more specifically for online conferences. Just for reference, we did about 4K in sales for missinglettr, 2K in sales for HelpShelf, then 6.5-7K sales with HeySummit.
It just goes to show, the success of your deal will be impacted by the industry in which it sits — and how that fits with the AppSumo community writ large.
What can founders do while their AppSumo deal is live to capitalize on the opportunity?
1. Customer Service
During the deal, I can’t emphasize just how important being on top of customer service is, both within your platform and on the deal page. During my three deals, twice I saw Olman post a reply because he just happened to catch something while I was asleep or whatever. And then I was like, “The fact I’ve seen him do that means I haven’t been responsive enough.”
Thank you @Missinglettr for the fast support. Good customer support always deserves a shout out.
— Alexandria Ingham (@aingham69) March 4, 2019
2. Don’t be a business robot
One strategy I’ve doubled down on is being nice, open, and honest. Don’t be that business robot that says, “Sorry, cannot compute.” I would always be friendly and sign things off with my name, “-Ben.”
It may sound really silly and inconsequential, but I recommend replying, “No, actually that’s an interesting point. I see your frustration. I understand how that could be great for you.”
3. What happens if you make a mistake?
Don’t be afraid of admitting a mistake. Mistakes happen multiple times throughout the deal. You may take a stance on day one: “Our mission is to do X, Y, Z and we’re probably not going to do this feature.” Of course, you may get a lot of people talking about that feature.
The amount of times I’ve done a U-turn 2-3 days later — after sleeping on it and seeing other viewpoints? Several times.
There is power when people see that you are adaptable and flexible — and again, human — not just being pigheaded or having that bravado that stops you from admitting fault. Admitting that perhaps your vision was wrong initially is a powerful tool.
Next, make sure that roadmapping is in place. As you listen to people and respond to those hundreds and hundreds of comments on the deal page, update your roadmap and categorize it so people can understand it. That’s really important.
5. Automate FAQs and announcements
Find ways of getting information in front of your customer whilst the deal is running. HelpShelf, for instance, enables us to link the roadmap — Trello for us — or user guides or FAQs.
Here’s what I did: As I was listening to people ask the same questions millions of times, I would go in there and create an FAQ and that would then get synced up with the HelpShelf widget. So we were actively reducing the repetitive questions we were responding to within the AppSumo deal through the use of HelpShelf.
We also used the Announcements feature in HelpShelf, which enabled us to go one above the FAQ. It would open up on the deal page if there’s a new announcement from us. If people wanted to read more, they could click and view that announcement.
All AppSumo deals will now use the HelpShelf widget. We’ve seen HelpShelf work really well for other AppSumo deals — when founders have changed their minds and done a 180 on a decision, they will write an announcement and it will pop up for every visitor, so they can read a statement from the company about a new feature or rollout right there on the deal.
It’s just another example of how the AppSumo ecosystem is facilitating a lot of business for us.
Ben’s replies were edited for length and clarity.