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Apr 19, 2022

How to grow a B2B Saas startup

Ferruccio Balestreri

Everyone wants to get more customers. But what are the ways that work to do it? What are the different trade-offs and strategies?

While building June over the past year, we've talked with founders and operators of 500+ B2B subscription companies and learned all the different ways companies grow, from proof of concepts to seed stage, Series A, and growth rounds.

Customers can come from two sources, inbound and outbound.

We'll first cover all the ways you can do outbound acquisition and then cover how to get more inbound.

Before diving in, it's useful to read this cheatsheet, to shorten the list of what you should be thinking about doing depending on your product price and market size:

  • Niche B2B $10,000+ per year — Try doing cold emails, and get warm introductions. Over time you'll get leads through Search optimized content, webinars, partnerships and ads. A good example of product in this category is Abacum or Vanta
  • Broad B2B $1.500-$10,000 per year — A startup in this category would be small business software charging a flat $150 per month to send automated emails like Customer.io. The previous paragraph applies here—with one tweak: as you grow, you'll likely place greater emphasis on ads and content over sales.
  • Niche B2B $100-$1.500 per year — Perhaps rethink your business if you're trying to make more than $2mm USD per year because you're facing an uphill battle. You can neither afford ads nor sales. You have to rely on breakout word-of-mouth, community building, product-led growth, and content. It'll likely be a slog.
  • Broad B2B with low ARPU $100-$1.500 per year —  For broadly applicable software products like Buffer and Krisp. You'll most likely succeed with ads and product-led growth. You might succeed with partnerships, integrations, and referrals.

Outbound

Outbound means reaching people pro-actively, where they already are.

It works best if you know precisely who your target customers are.

By precisely I mean that you can connect who they are with the problem they have.

The first step to understanding whether outbound is a good channel for you is understanding who has the biggest burning problem and the highest willingness to pay.

This means positioning your product as a solution to an open-ended problem like:

"I want to get more customers"
"I want to have my engineers spend more time building new features and less time doing undifferentiated work"

Then you want to map the problem you solve in a very specific way with some easy-to-collect data.

Here are some real-world examples of signals that make people good target customers for some B2B Saas companies:

Healthcare companies with 100-150 employees and no full time security engineers - Great target for Snyk or Sqreen at the early stage
Operations heavy companies that just raised growth rounds, but have less than 10 engineers - Great target for Retool at the early stage
Product companies with teams of at least 4 researchers - Great target for Dovetail
Trucking fleets operating less than 10 trucks - Great target for CloudTrucks
Shopify stores with more than 6 paid plugins - Great target for Alloy

Once you know who you're going after, you can start thinking about how you'll reach these people.

Pro-actively reaching out to people that have a problem can be done through various channels:

  • Cold email and messaging
  • Warm introductions
  • Ads
  • Cold calls
  • Participating in communities

Cold email and social messaging

Advantages: Proven to scale, works both at very early stage and late stage.

Drawbacks: Only works when the contract value is big enough to have a salesperson ($10.000+ per year). Also, it's hard for people to have urgency to pay, so this makes deals take a longer time.

An example cold email from Secureframe 

If you know that your customers read their emails or use Linkedin or Twitter you can do outbound sequences.

The way you'd go about it is by first using something like Linkedin Sales Navigator to find your target users. Then you'd use Evaboot to scrape the results you get and find the emails of the people you're targeting. As the last step, you want to import all your leads to a CRM like Close where you can start defining your touchpoint sequences.

Now that you have some leads, you want to go through them one by one and write short and friendly messages that are as relevant as possible. The key here is not to be too specific with customization, but to make sure you speak to a problem they have and to articulate the pain and its root causes better than they can.

In each message that you send you should try and make sure that the next steps you propose are straightforward. Whether the call to action is doing a call or signing up for a trial it should be clear.

Warm introductions

Advantages: It's a great way to start out with some friendly first adopters

Drawbacks: Hard to keep doing this as you scale

One of our investors introduced us to Orb, a usage-based billing company

If you're extremely early stage or are building a product that requires high trust from end-users warm introductions are the best way to get customers.

Typically seen seed-stage companies with annual contracts starting at 6-figures get customers through warm introductions.

Examples of products that fit this description are security or infrastructure-related products.

The extreme of this is when angel investors are the first customers of products.

In the long run, if your product is something that VCs can suggest to their portfolio companies and be perceived as a value-add then this is a great channel. We've seen both fractional HR companies and compensation benchmarking tools like Pave use this successfully as a go-to-market.

Ads

Advantages: Easy to start and proven to work at scale

Drawbacks: The cost of acquiring customers keeps increasing over time

If you are building something that is a general-purpose tool you want to try and let Big Tech™️ algorithms help you figure out different kinds of personas for your product.

The way you want to do this is by uploading your customers' list to Facebook and creating Lookalike audiences.

Using paid marketing to have a steady stream of users go through your product and marketing materials will help you harden your value proposition, funnels, and activation.

On top of these smart ads, it's also worth experimenting with advertising on newsletters, radio (yes, you read it right, it's a good channel if you're selling to truckers), and other forms of media like Youtube channels.

As a rule of thumb for early-stage companies, we see that it's acceptable to spend around 2-3% of your monthly burn on ads.

Cold calls

Advantages: Works best when your customers are in traditional industries and when the sale is a quick transaction, not a long process. We've seen this scale successfully to hundreds of reps across different verticals (hospitality and trucking).

Drawbacks: If your audience doesn't do phone calls like developers it won't work

If the persona you're targeting is small to medium-sized non-digital businesses or enterprise companies, then you should be doing cold calls.

We've seen cold calling scale to hundreds of reps for companies in the following industries:

  • Hospitality - b&b, local restaurants, and hotels
  • Trucking - Independent and small trucking fleets
  • Construction - Small construction companies and sole traders
  • Healthcare - Pharmacies and small clinics (veterinary ones too)

Most of the time these cold calls are to prospects who provided a phone number in an ad campaign on social media or that participated in an industry conference. Other times it's public record phone numbers.

For instance, if you're targeting hospitality businesses you'll be able to find the owners' phone numbers on the internet.

Participating in communities

Advantages: Great way for a founder to hustle and start getting the first 100 customers

Drawbacks: It's hard to scale this to more than one person

Communities around interests and forums are great places to sell. If you're selling to developers participating and adding value in conversations in places like Hacker News can be a great way to grow your business.

The outbound way of participating in conversations is all about finding conversations on something related to your product if you're a Shopify app that means participating in e-commerce forums, subreddits, and maybe even the official Shopify community.

The idea here is that in places like Github there are a lot of eye bulbs for high-value prospects like developers. If they're talking about something related to your product and you actively step into those conversations you can make more revenue.

A good way to get alerts when people talk about something in your product area is by having a Google Alert set up to let you know any time someone talks about your product, your competitors, and your partners.

Inbound

Inbound means making people come to you.

This means you're targeting people that have high buying intent and finding them where they already are.

So where are people:

  • On social media
  • In specific communities
  • Searching on Google
  • Buying similar products
  • Talking with friends and peers in the industry

The channels that allow you to reach people are then:

  • Partnerships
  • Social media content
  • Search optimized content
  • Creating communities and projects
  • Referrals
  • Product-led growth

Partnerships

Advantages: Hard to replicate for competitors and proven to work great for businesses targeting companies with 100-600 employees.

Drawbacks: It's hard and takes time to form the right partnerships, and most of the time they don't bring any customers.

Having win-win partnerships with other companies can be a great way to grow.

Companies with an integrations store want to promote apps. This is because having multiple tools integrated makes it harder to churn. The easiest example is Google Oauth. The more apps you sign up for use it the more expensive and time-consuming it is for you to move off of it. More B2B specific examples are the Segment and Hubspot app stores, where the more you integrate these tools, the harder it is to churn.

The second way of growing through partnerships is forming alliances with brands.

This is the software version of Coca-Cola partnering with McDonald's and Pepsi with KFC.

This is common for B2B companies sharing deals and it creates long-term relationships that are very hard to copy for competitors.

The best examples of this are when companies make partnerships to win deals over larger incumbents.

Good examples I've seen with my cofounder Enzo working at Intercom were the partnerships between Intercom and Aircall.

The results of the Intercom partnership program

As a company, we did some partnerships with On Deck, Segment, and Bubble in the past.

Social media content

Advantages: If it works you'll get huge spikes of traffic

Drawbacks: It's unpredictable and hard to scale

In this case, you're writing content with the goal of causing a strong enough emotion in people that they'll want to be associated with you.

An in-depth analysis or whitepaper surveying industry is a good example of this.

Great examples of social media content are the articles the team at Segment shared over the years.

Their most popular post is about their engineering process, for example in this article they talk about ditching a micro-services architecture.

Another example is this article by Retool that went viral, explaining what's SAP.

One of the many tweets sharing the article Retool wrote

I personally wrote a couple of articles that got tens of thousands of readers examples are:

The key to content that does great on social media is that it has to be personal, deeply researched, and relevant to your product.

The main drawback of this type of content is that someone reading your article isn't very likely to start using your product. Content marketing is great for brand awareness and becoming a reference, in the long run, but it's not predictable and won't convert as much as more targeted channels.

Search optimized content

Advantages: Very defensible in the long term, allows you to target the highest intent people

Drawbacks: It takes at least 6 months to kick off and in established industries keywords are extremely hard to rank for

Selling products is all about need, timing, and having decision power.

People search for solutions to all of their problems on Google. From how to clean a wine stain from a white shirt to life and career advice.

This makes it a great place to reach the right people at the right time.

Search engine optimized content is about harvesting existing demand.

The most competitive queries to rank for are generally the ones where the person querying is close to making a buying decision. For instance, most people searching for "Plumbers in NYC this afternoon" are going to be customers of the first result on google.

So the first thing marketers do is try and get some headspace in queries of people looking for alternatives to existing services.

If you Google "Zendesk alternatives" the first two results are one ad of a competitor and one piece of content marketing from another competitor

People writing these queries are most likely unhappy with the services Zendesk provides and are looking for alternatives.

These people are closer to a buying decision than people writing queries like "Customer success tips for Saas companies".

The second strategy for doing content marketing is to have a lot of articles that talk about a niche. This helps people build a reputation and collect emails, so when the timing is right for people to buy a new tool, they will have the product in mind.

Creating communities and projects

Advantages: Hard to reproduce and builds long term trust

Drawbacks: Most of the time it doesn't work

So something great developer tools do is open-source internal tools, sponsor GitHub repositories, or use open-source projects for lead generation to paid products.

A great example of open-sourcing internal tools is Vercel creating and maintaining projects like NextJS and Hyper. Other good examples of this are Stripe running Indie Hackers and Shopify running a domain name generator.

A great example of sponsoring a repository is Typefully sponsoring minimal twitter a project built by a hobbyist that shares the same audience with Typefully.

Algolia's Docsearch

A great example of using Github projects for lead generation is Algolia's Docsearch. Algolia offers its product for free for open source projects that need search in their documentation.

At June we launched several side projects like our iOS widgets and Analytics Pack - a collection of metrics for different kinds of companies.

If your product has a high contract value then a great way to build communities is by organizing and hosting regular events and executive dinners that help people connect. The catch here is that you need to make these events genuine and have no direct sales pitches. We've seen Pilot do this very successfully.

Referrals

Advantages: Viral and exponential growth

Drawbacks: For most products, it's hard to make this work

Referrals and word of mouth are the best ways to incentivize people to share your product.

The results of the Dropbox referral campaign

I thought that the days of referrals like Dropbox did almost 15 years ago now were over, but it turns out it still works to encourage your users to talk about your product.

A recent example of B2B tool growing using referrals is Krisp. In the last two years their referral program allowed you to get more free minutes of noise cancellation by sharing their product. This allowed the company to grow fast.

Loom also uses a referral program to incentivize people on their free plan to share their product.

So in some cases, it's possible to still make a referral program work.

Superhuman's in product referral program

As a rule of thumb, product referrals seem to work best for products that are too cheap to have a salesperson.

The team at Superhuman learned that the person on the receiving side of the referral has to have double the discount or gift than the person on the referring end.

If your company has higher contract value we've seen some B2B Saas companies ask their customers for introductions to industry peers. This works very well if you're selling to niches were people are connected in real life, like the general counsels of automotive companies.

Product-led growth

Advantages: It allows exponential growth, each new user can bring in more users

Drawbacks: For most business products it doesn't work

A specific type of referral that is worth mentioning is product virality or product-led growth.

Every product that allows you to create some artifacts that can be shared with the outside world should invest some resources in external virality.

Amie, a calendar app does this by adding a default description to every event it creates.

Amie default event description

Other products like Loom are all about collaboration, so they spread more and more with each person using the product and sharing a video.

As a rule of thumb, this kind of virality can be leveraged with any product that generates some content that is exposed to users that are not the creator.

When people share a Google Doc, a Notion page, an Airtable table or join a Zoom meeting from a calendar event, they're participating in the external virality of these products.

Intercom receives a great number of sign-ups from people clicking on "We run on Intercom"

Intercom includes a link to the product in their chat 

Conclusion

There are two ways of growing your customer base if you're a B2B Saas company. It's either pro-actively reaching out to people (outbound) or making people find you at the right time (inbound).

In the early days, it's worth trying or evaluating every possible channel to find something that works best and doubling down on that.

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