SaaS marketer Henry Brown can tell you how marketing a pre-revenue SaaS product typically goes.
It’s a guessing game.
You create hype around features you think people will love and what you believe your product will be able to do. You collect emails based on that hype.
The problem is, you don’t really know if the leads captured will actually lead to revenue. Sure, people are interested enough to sign up for more information, but does that mean they’ll buy the product?
Without a product ready to ship, you don’t really know.
That’s how it usually goes.
But during the early days of PageCloud, a visual website builder that competes with apps like Wix, Weebly and Squarespace, the team decided to do things differently.
They converted lean startup methodology used by developers into their marketing mix. With no publicly available beta, they evolved their pitch using feedback from designers, developers, and business owners into a robust idea that got the attention of seed investors and—more importantly—attracted actual paying users.
During the six months before PageCloud launched, 10,000 people bought licenses for it, paying money for a product they’d never tried—netting PageCloud a total of $1 Million in revenue.
Riding those numbers, PageCloud then raised $8.5 million in seed and Series A funding in the year after launching its product.
Henry, who’s the head of PageCloud Customer Acquisitions, told us exactly what worked with their pre-launch strategy, including:
- How pre-pitching to meetup groups led them to the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt
- How hyperbolic Facebook video ads create the buzz needed to spur their campaign
- How they used a referral campaign to maximize their pre-launch sales
Want to completely turn your pre-revenue marketing on its head? Read on to see what might work for you.
(Note: If you want an easy way to capture more leads or emails from your current website, try Fieldboom.)
How to Run User Testing on a Sales Pitch
PageCloud’s pre-launch success story begins with its sales pitch.
Craig Fitzpatrick, Founder and CEO of PageCloud, tried one of his first pitches on Scott Lake, one of the co-founders of Shopify. Scott also happened to be the Founder of Craig’s previous startup, Source Metrics, for which he acted as VP of Product.
Craig got the idea for PageCloud back in 2011 when Apple discontinued its website building program iWeb. Craig, who loved iWeb, believed he could recreate the experience it offered and started working on it as an evenings and weekend project.
By 2014, Craig had enough of a prototype together as a proof of concept, but besides hotkeys and drag and drop creation, there was no visual interface to actually build a website. It was enough though.
After seeing Craig’s presentation, fellow Shopify co-founder, Tobi Lütke, signed on as a seed funder, as well.
And with that, PageCloud was off and running.
Craig brought over three people from SourceMetrics to continue working with him on PageCloud. This included Henry, who would head up digital marketing.
Before Pitching VCs, PageCloud Practiced With Local Professionals
Craig and Henry started attending as many meetups in the Ottawa area as they could to pitch the concept of PageCloud. They pitched to the four groups they believed would be most interested in their product:
- Business Owners
- Digital Marketers
- Print and Web designers
“We had a hypothesis of how we would pitch our product to each audience,” Henry explained. “We filmed ourselves pitching and then really pushed hard to get a lot of feedback about what these people liked or didn’t like. It enabled us to really craft this fantastic, value-heavy elevator pitch.”
Using lean startup methodology, PageCloud used the feedback from their sales message the same way the creator of a minimum viable product (MVP) would get feedback for the product itself.
Henry explains they used the process to “get ahead of some of the most common objections that we thought our current target markets would have.”
After each presentation, they came away with more information than they had before about how different audiences reacted to their pitch.
Developers, for example, were wary of limited access to the backend code.
No problem. Developers would have full access to the backend. So, Craig built a new line into the pitch to address that concern.
The designer audience needed a system that worked with common design apps like Photoshop to save time integrating their work.
Done. Added to the pitch.
Business owners wanted the ability to make quick edits on their own without needing advanced tutorials or specialists.
Also done. Also added to the pitch.
“We tried to appease or address some of these concerns right away,” Henry said. “I think the immediate pitch of PageCloud’s thesis is: ‘Haven’t you ever just wanted to move something one inch to the right, or the left, and you can’t, and it cost time, money, or both?’”
The Invitation to Present at TechCrunch Disrupt
With a refined pitch ready to go, PageCloud started meeting with VCs and potential partners.
One of the team’s first major opportunities was an invitation to present on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield—a highly publicised one-day event where promising startups are invited to launch their products in a competition-style format.
“Those practice pitching sessions were what really helped us market and brand ourselves, stand out from the crowd, and really catch the eye of the people at TechCrunch,” Henry told us. “I think because we nailed it so well, it enabled us to become a finalist and top six.”
In May of 2015, PageCloud debuted at the major startup event. The team didn’t have a publicly available beta, but—adhering to the rules of the event that they had to have a launch date to participate—they announced a “Fall 2015” launch.
TechCrunch Disrupt legitimized PageCloud to much of the startup community. But Henry doesn’t believe it’s the only reason the product found traction. He believes the true key to their success was attending all those meetups back in Ottawa.
Practicing their sales pitch and solidifying the features people wanted out of a website builder allowed them to know what users wanted.
Which they built into PageCloud and then sold back to those same audiences.
The Pre-Launch Sales Campaign
As they worked on the product, the marketing team at PageCloud began to discuss the idea of running a true pre-sale campaign.
Instead of asking people to “sign up to be notified,” they would ask people to actually “pay in advance” if they were interested in using PageCloud when it released.
Henry and others on the team saw how people were becoming more comfortable with funding platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter—people investing in a product even before the product has been built. They thought a similar model could work with a software product.
“We thought, why not software?” Henry told us.
So they ran with it.
The 3 Elements of PageCloud’s $1 Million Pre-sale Campaign
A month before presenting at TechCrunch Disrupt, PageCloud built the ability to pre-order the product into their website and moved all its marketing efforts away from email capture and list-building.
Instead, they focused on promoting the presale offer.
They used three primary methods to drive sign-ups:
1. Guaranteed Lifetime Discount
People who signed up for PageCloud before it launched were guaranteed a lifelong $99-per-year rate (as long as they remained a current customer), regardless of future pricing changes.
This was positioned as a 65% discount compared to the price of the product after launch.
By itself, this was a major incentive to sign up for the product. Customers entered their credit card information to sign up, but—importantly—PageCloud didn’t begin the customer’s annual subscription until the official launch in November of 2015.
2. Hyperbolic Video Ads on Facebook
Henry explained that entering a saturated market with competitors boasting multimillion-dollar marketing budgets, “anything we could do to get eyeballs cheaply was great.”
They quickly found the biggest return on investment on video ads shared on Facebook.
PageCloud spent just under $600,000 on Facebook ads during pre-sale with the majority used to boost video views. On a scale of 1-10, the video’s relevance scores averaged between 8 and 10.
Their videos featured masked product shots and simple but dramatic teasing copy like “Website creation is about to change forever. Find out why.”
They were also able to use their appearance at TechCrunch Disrupt to capture more interest.
The bold claims paid off and the videos scored thousands of views and likes and created viral organic shares.
“People loved to share it with their own commentary,” Henry said. “People saw it and it incited a reaction in them. Either they really agreed with what we were doing and were like, ‘Oh my God, this is what I’ve been waiting for!’ or they saw us as a threat and were like, ‘Oh my God, I hate this!’”
Whether for positive or negative reasons, people shared the videos with their community, which was fine with Henry.
For a new product like PageCloud, any share was a good share.
3. They Used an Ingenious Referral Program
“Refer a friend during the pre-sale period, and we’ll give you a third of your money back.”
“Refer three friends and we’ll refund your entire purchase and you get to use PageCloud for free, for their first year.”
That was PageCloud’s referral offer, which was good only during the pre-sale period. Together, the two promises drove almost 2,000 of the 10,000 sign-ups—representing almost $200,000 in annual recurring revenue.
The referral program was easy to use for customers who signed up. After a customer pre-bought the service, PageCloud’s welcome email included Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn email buttons with pre-populated copy and the customer’s referral code.
Henry explained how the refund also helped alleviate user’s concerns of investing in a new product.
“By referring three people, you weren’t really committing to anything. You knew that you’d be able to spend a full year with PageCloud after we launched to test it out. If you didn’t like it, you could cancel before the year two renewal without spending a penny.”
The referral program was especially impactful in the last few hours before PageCloud’s launch.
The company pulled in over $100,000 in sales during the final 24 hours before launch by hammering ads and email campaigns about the referral program.
“It wasn’t so much that the pre-sale campaign was ending,” Henry said. “It was that the opportunity to get this for free [via the referral program] was ending.”
The buzz around the $99 lifetime discount and the money-back referral program also earned PageCloud an unusual amount press coverage which, as they would soon find out, makes it much easier to attract the attention of venture capital investors.
$9 Million in a Year Post Launch
Canadian-based venture capital firms have a reputation for being extremely cautious and risk-averse.
But after launching with a working product and over $1 Million in annual recurring revenue, PageCloud had investors lining up to provide capital.
There was so much attention, in fact, that Henry laughed when we asked him about the experience.
“This is not the experience people usually have when trying to raise investment money,” Henry told us. “Usually you’re the one chasing them. But after we launched, we had people calling us asking if we wanted were open to taking their money.”
Within a year, PageCloud secured a total of $9 Million in investment dollars, enough to fund the firm for years, especially since it already had well over $1 Million in annual revenue from paying customers.
“Having paying customers made all the difference,” Henry said. “We didn’t even have to use the investment money for operations. But it was just there for us to use as we planned for future growth.”
What PageCloud Would Have Done Differently
Despite the tremendous success of PageCloud’s pre-sale campaign, there are still several things Henry said he would have done differently if given the chance:
1. They would’ve released a beta sooner
PageCloud ended up launching a beta to pre-sale members a month before the official launch. In lean startup form, the beta release helped the team collect feedback and make small changes.
But even so, Henry wished they’d gotten a beta out much sooner.
“You hear software people talk about releasing early, but we fell into the trap—I think we held onto it too long. Like, it’s not ready, it’s not ready, but it’s never going to be ready … We should’ve put something out the second we had something people could kind of play around with.”
There are two good reasons why beta testing isn’t just an issue for engineers but should also be a top concern for marketers, as well.
The first is that it’s easier to sell a better product that’s been tested by users.
“What we ended up launching with wasn’t all that we’d promised it would be, and it took us about six months to catch up those initial promises from TechCrunch Disrupt,” Henry said.
Second, Henry found they were wrong about their assumption of who their primary users would be. They thought designers would be the group that really took to the product. But, it turned out that business owners and web DIYs with a small amount of technical design chops became the largest user base.
If they’d gotten a beta out sooner, they could’ve figured this out earlier—and changed their marketing for SaaS products tactics accordingly.
2. They would have maintained email capture during the pre-sale campaign
PageCloud essentially abandoned list building after pivoting to the pre-sale campaign pre-launch.
Looking back, Henry recognizes that as a missed opportunity. If he could do it over again, he’d lead with the buy-only option and remarket to those who didn’t buy with a hidden secondary page that has email capture.
“If you have the runway, you should test this for a couple of months. If you’re not capturing any sales, then you can flip over to email gathering, or vice versa.”
Is this strategy reproducible?
It’s hard to tell the importance of getting on the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, or whether this product was simply the right thing at the right time.
But, as we noted earlier, Henry believes the real value of the strategy was talking to people who would be end users as soon as possible.
“We can take something as far as we think it’s good, but we’ve got to get eyes outside of the organization on it. Otherwise we’re working in a closed environment,” he told us. “Practice your pitch to people who are representative of who you’re ultimately selling to—that way you can see how they’re going to respond as an unbiased third party.”
(Note: If you want an easy way to capture more leads or emails from your current website, try Fieldboom.)