How Two Friends Bootstrapped A SaaS Business To $55K MRR
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey there! My name is Christopher Gimmer and I’m the co-founder of Snappa - a SaaS app that helps non-designer create online graphics in a snap. We make it super easy to create graphics for social media, ads, blogs, and more!
We officially launched on November 23, 2015 and we’re currently doing over $55k USD in monthly recurring revenue (MRR).
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started off my career in finance working for the federal government. Then in 2010, I took a trip to southeast Asia that changed my life. Towards the end of the trip, I dreaded the thought of going back to the office and I no longer wanted to do work that I didn’t enjoy. That’s when I first started thinking about starting a business that would give me more freedom and meaning in my life.
One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned over the years is the power of the long game. For starters, this applies to business and life in general. Sometimes you just need to play the game and things will happen.
A few years later I met Marc (now my co-founder) at work. After we became friends, I found out that he knew how to code and he was dabbling in some side projects. We discussed the idea of starting a business together and we were both pumped to do so.
The first thing we launched was a student dating website called ClassmateCatch. Although we generated 1,000+ signups (mainly through flyers), we had no idea how to scale the business and we didn’t really know what we were doing. The business ultimately failed. That’s when I started reading everything I could about online marketing and how to grow a business.
After learning how to do keyword research, we discovered there was a lot of search volume for Bootstrap themes and Bootstrap templates so we launched a marketplace called BootstrapBay (we’ve since sold it). We managed to grow that site to $10k/month in revenue strictly from SEO and content marketing.
While creating content for BootstrapBay, it was always a huge pain to create images for our blog posts. I wasn’t a designer and my Photoshop skills were lacking. When I looked around to see what other tools were out there, I found that all the graphic design tools were either overly complicated or too basic. I felt like there was a need for a simple, yet powerful graphic design tool geared towards marketers and entrepreneurs like myself.
Fortunately, around this time, I wrote a blog post about where to find free stock photos that went viral and started ranking on the first page of Google. Because of that, we created our own stock photo site called StockSnap.io (we’ve since sold this as well) which started generating a lot of traffic.
Now that we had an audience to market to, we promoted Snappa on StockSnap.io using a simple banner ad and sent this traffic to a landing page where we collected email addresses.
Once we got a few hundred people opted-in, I sent out a few surveys and did 15-20 customer interview calls to validate the idea. Once we were convinced that Snappa was something people wanted and were willing to pay for, Marc got to work and started building the prototype.
Take us through the process of building the product.
When we first started working on Snappa, I had taken a 1-year leave of absence from work.
This was kind of risky on my part because I dropped out of the CPA program as well so I would have been demoted if I ever needed my job back (talk about embarrassing). I also went from making $95k/year to paying myself $2,000/month from the profits we were making from BootstrapBay / StockSnap.
Marc broke ground on code in March of 2015. At that time, he was still working nights and weekends only. But after a few months into the project, he realized that he needed to go full-time otherwise the release would take too long. So, he joined me full-time (also making $2,000/month) and development really started to pick up.
After several months of hard work, we launched our beta on July 1, 2015. Looking back, it was a pretty stupid idea to launch on Canada day but that’s a story for another day…
During the open (free) beta period, we collected as much feedback as possible and analyzed the engagement data as best we could. We realized pretty quickly that we had to include pre-designed templates before launching. As you would expect, most non-designers struggle to design without a template to start with.
After adding templates, we agreed on a few more features that we needed to add before we felt comfortable charging users. On one hand, we didn’t want to launch with a shitty product. On the other hand, we were bootstrapping this and couldn’t afford to delay launching for too long. We felt like it was better to launch earlier than later.
Given the nature of our product, we decided on a freemium model. We felt that this made sense because:
1) A free tier allowed people to try the product with very limited friction. This was important since we were dealing with small businesses and solopreneurs.
2) We hypothesized that making the product ‘free’ would help it spread and encourage more people to link to us and refer the product to others.
3) Our hosting costs were minimal so it wasn’t going to cost a ton of money to support free users.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Once we fixed all the major bugs from the beta and added what we felt were necessary features, we settled on an official launch date of November 23, 2015.
At this point, we had about 15,000 people that had signed up for our beta. Remember that we collected email addresses while building the product and we continued to send traffic to Snappa’s beta page from our free stock photo site with a simple banner ad.
Just start with something small and easy to get off the ground and treat it as a learning opportunity. As you start working on it, you’ll naturally start thinking of better business ideas and you’ll have a much better understanding of how to execute on them.
On the day of the launch, we added a paywall and a pricing page to our website describing the free and paid tier. Simultaneously, we sent an email to everyone that had signed up for the beta letting them know that they’ve all been placed on the free tier and they’d need to upgrade to the premium Pro plan to get unlimited access and full functionality. That’s basically all we did for our ‘launch’. Since there were still a ton of improvements we needed to make, we didn’t want to promote our product too much in the beginning (we waited seven months before launching on Product Hunt).
To encourage upgrades right out of the gate, we offered a 33% lifetime discount for anyone that upgraded within the first week. After the initial launch week was over, we were generating $2,000 in MRR. $500 of that came on day one and another $500 came on the last day of the promotion. By the end of December 2015, we broke $4,000 in MRR and it was clear that Snappa was going to have some legs.
At that point, I officially handed in my resignation at work and never looked back :)
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
When we first launched Snappa, we were getting pretty much all of our leads from StockSnap and our free stock photo blog post. I spent the next few months trying to optimize the amount of leads we could get from these two sources.
One thing that worked super well was creating an animated gif of our product in action and adding it to a popup whenever someone downloaded an image from StockSnap. This is what it looked like:
Once I implemented the popup, we doubled our signups for Snappa overnight.
We relied pretty much exclusively on StockSnap and word mouth to drive acquisition for the first year or so. However, we knew that we were going to plateau if we didn’t figure out other marketing channels.
Eventually I started focusing on content marketing and SEO. In the beginning, our content marketing efforts weren’t driving any results. I realized after the fact that our content was too generic and we were focusing way too much on top of the funnel content, ie content that targets a large group of people that may or may not ever need your product.
I decided to take a step back and look at all of the use cases for our product. For example, you can use Snappa to create Facebook covers, Twitter headers, Pinterest pins, and so on... I then started plugging-in these various keywords into the AHREFs keyword explorer (using phrase match) to get a list of potential keywords. I quickly realized that there was a huge amount of search volume related to the sizes and dimensions of the graphic types we offer.
So with that, I put together a guide that walks through the proper Twitter header size. After a few months of promotion, it started ranking #1 in Google and was bringing in a significant amount of traffic.
With the success of that post, we created a similar article for the Facebook cover size, the YouTube channel art size, and pretty much every other size that we supported in Snappa.
The best part about these blog posts is how relevant they are to our product. Clearly, if someone is searching for which size to use for a Facebook cover, there’s a good chance they need to create a Facebook cover! So in order to drive leads to our product, we added a call-to-action right after the introduction to let them know that we’ve integrated Facebook’s cover dimensions and safe zones into our product and they can create one for free.
Since the Twitter header size post worked so well, we decided to focus almost exclusively on getting these posts to rank and spent several months doing outreach and writing guest posts. All the hard work paid off and you can see from the screenshot below that we significantly increased our traffic after implementing this content strategy.
Today we’re continuing to double down on content and focusing heavily on topics that are most likely to convert readers into signups.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Currently we’re doing $55k in MRR and we’re on pace to break $1M in annual recurring revenue (ARR) by the end of the year. We’re still bootstrapped, profitable, and have no immediate plans to raise funding.
As for the future, we’ve begun a massive code refactor in order to better support product initiatives moving forward. Our goal is to continue building the best possible graphic design tool for marketers, entrepreneurs and non-designers.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned over the years is the power of the long game. For starters, this applies to business and life in general. As you can tell from my story, it took years of launching random things before it lead to Snappa. Sometimes you just need to play the game and things will happen.
It seriously doesn’t matter if your first idea sucks and you completely bomb. You will learn so much in those first 3 - 6 months and at a certain point you need to apply what you’re learning from blog posts and podcasts.
Playing the long game is also relevant when it comes to marketing and scaling your business. In the past, we’ve wasted a lot of time pursuing opportunities that gave a one time bump in traffic / sales but didn’t really amount to anything sustainable. On the contrary, some of our content took months (even years) to pay off but it continues to drive meaningful traffic and signups to this day.
I’m not saying that you should never do things that don’t scale (you should especially do this in the beginning), I’m simply saying that you should never avoid doing something simply because it will take a long time to payoff. In my experience, those are almost always the best things to focus on!
On a related note, I still remember what it was like making $10k MRR after 6 months of launching Snappa. I simply couldn’t imagine ever getting to $1M in ARR. But after continuing to chip away over the past 3 years, we’re now on pace to hit that goal by the end of the year. Sometimes you just need to be patient and continue playing the long game. Your future self will be glad that you did!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As you can imagine, we use a ton of tools to run our SaaS business. This is by no means an exhaustive list but these are some of my favourite and some of the most useful tools that we use:
Slack: We mostly work remotely so this is key for collaborating and keeping everyone in the loop.
Trello: We use this for our content calendar, development roadmap, and task lists. I also use it as my own personal organization system.
Stripe: All our payments go through Stripe. I couldn’t imagine building a SaaS app without it.
AHREFs: We use it for all our keyword research and to track our search rankings.
Help Scout: Used to run our customer support and knowledge base.
Mixpanel: Tracks in-app behaviour and end-to-end conversion funnels.
Baremetrics: Tracks our subscription metrics and helps us forecast into the future.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
One of the best books I read was Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares. This opened my eyes to all of the different marketing channels available and why it’s so important to think about traction before building your product.
Another resource that was hugely beneficial was Backlinko. I learned a ton about SEO and how to generate organic traffic thanks to Brian. I would encourage anyone that wants to learn SEO to read every single blog post on that site.
Finally, I really enjoyed listening to Mixergy, Startups For The Rest of Us, and TMBA.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I hate myself for writing this because it’s so damn cliché and everyone says it but the best advice I can give is to start something. It seriously doesn’t matter if your first idea sucks and you completely bomb. You will learn so much in those first 3 - 6 months and at a certain point you need to apply what you’re learning from blog posts and podcasts.
When we started BootstrapBay, there were already other competitors and we certainly weren’t “disrupting” anything. I learned so many valuable skills while working on that business and there’s no way I’d be running Snappa today had I not started it.
Just start with something small and easy to get off the ground (services business, eCommerce, affiliate stuff, anything!) and just treat it as a learning opportunity. As you start working on it, you’ll naturally start thinking of better business ideas and you’ll have a much better understanding of how to execute on them.
Beyond simply getting started, my next best piece of advice is to focus on one channel at a time. As a startup, you simply cannot be focusing on multiple marketing channels at once. Find the one that works best and double down.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We sure are! We’re looking for a graphic designer and a customer success specialist. You can learn more about career opportunities here:
If you don’t see an opening but you have skills that you can bring to the table, please reach out to me directly. You never know when we might be hiring next :)
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Snappa has provided an update on their business!
About 2 years ago, we followed up with Snappa to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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