The First 90 days of Building a SaaS Startup

The First 90 days of Building a SaaS Startup
Illustration by Luc Chaissac
By Alex Kracov
ex- VP of Marketing at Lattice
CEO & Co-Founder of Dock.

Previously, scaled Lattice from seed to 2,000+ customers like Slack and Postmates.

Back in April, I left my job as VP of Marketing at Lattice to start my own company. Today is the first day we’re talking publicly about the company, Dock. (Read more about what we’re building in the announcement blog post).

To reflect on this moment, I wrote a post about what it’s been like creating an early stage company from scratch.

North Star

Our guiding light has been YC’s canonical advice of getting 10 users who love the product. When I think about how to spend my time, I evaluate the work through this lens. 

What have I been working on

Looking back at my calendar, to-do list and email history the past couple months, here’s how I’ve been spending my time. 

The percentage breakdowns are directional and only account for my personal time spent. Keep in mind that I have two co-founders. One of them has been working full-time on coding the product. The other co-founder has been designing the product on nights/weekends while he wraps up his full-time job. 

Customer feedback and product execution (65%)

Above all else our main focus has been talking to customers and building product.

Customer conversations came from a couple sources: 

  • Sent an email to my newsletter list with a P.S. mentioning that I was starting a company
  • Posted on Twitter and LinkedIn
  • Intros from friends and VCs

In total, I've had ~150 conversations with prospects and customers over the last couple months. I’m doing my best to run the founder-led sales playbook. The insights from these conversations helped inform:

1. What we should build 

2. The order we build

Before talking to customers, we had a solid vision of what we wanted to build. But the conversations helped us to validate what was most important and how we prioritize our many ideas. For example, we learned that the majority of sales folks are not going to take the time to build a Dock Space from scratch. As a result, we’ll need to provide the ability to duplicate spaces and create templates to shortcut the process. 

The founding team takes the insights from these conversations and puts together a roadmap for the coming weeks. The roadmap is managed very simply with a spreadsheet and GitHub issues.

Every week we revisit whether something is still worth building and the order in which we’ll need to build. Our decisions are usually based on a combination of vision (what we want to create) and customer feedback (what our customers are specifically asking for). We’re mainly operating off of intuition to make these decisions. 

One of the most surprising experiences has been the level of detail we need to actually execute building the product. As a marketer by trade, I've only needed to operate at the feature level, but it’s been really interesting to be forced to think through all the specific flows in an exacting level of detail. I’ve had to think through every specific screen, every error state, and random edge cases I didn’t even know existed. I’m very thankful for my technical co-founders (Victor and Luc) in helping to guide this product development process.

It’s also been interesting to feel our software mature overtime. In the early days, there were a lot of random bugs and the creation experience felt janky. But as we used Dock, we kept filing bugs with Loom videos and Victor would work on a fix. By repeating this process over and over, the software started to feel professional. This was a tedious process that felt a bit like playing whac-a-mole, but I’ve learned so much about what it takes to actually develop software and built up a ton of empathy for product teams along the way. 

Overall, I've been happy with our product development pace. It seems like we’re able to build any feature we want within a week or so. The game really just comes down to prioritization and the order that we build. We need to just stay one step ahead of customer requests and make sure we’re building for the right ICP

It’s been really rewarding to see the product come to life and I'm excited to see how it evolves in the future.

Customer Onboarding (20%)

We launched our alpha program in early June, so since that time we’ve been inviting users to the platform and helping them get started. Without templates, the product is a bit of a blank slate, so in the interim, I've been building templates for customers. It feels like the classic “do things that don’t scale” move. 

This process has helped customers visualize what they see in the product, but the downside is that it doesn’t really teach the customer how to fish themselves. We’re planning to rollout templates in a couple months to solve this challenge and set up our self-serve flow. 

It’s also been really interesting to watch our SaaS funnel emerge right away with customers at various stages of getting started with Dock. Some users got hooked immediately and started using the product. While other users realized they won’t have time to get started until later in the year. 

For the customers that stick, it’s been extremely rewarding to watch them use the platform and start to invite other people on their teams. The first signs of “it’s working” have been a huge sigh of relief and gives me confidence that we’re building the right thing. For customers who are not quite ready yet, my focus moves towards nurturing the relationship and keeping in touch until they are ready to use the product. 

To assist with customer onboarding, I've done everything from creating a help center to email templates to setting up Dock spaces. 

Operational Foundation (5%)

There’s been a significant amount of work to set up the back office of the business including HR, Finance, Legal and Operations processes. This is not my area of expertise and to be honest, has felt a bit tedious. It feels like there’s always one more annoying thing we need to do and it distracts a bit from the core company focus. 

Here’s a few example workstreams that I put into this category…

  • Worked with lawyers to incorporate and set up founder shares
  • Set up an Airtable for our sales and investor CRM
  • Invested in compliance so we can work with bigger companies (ex. Legal Center). This has meant everything from buying insurance to setting up GDPR processes. 
  • Researched and set up software for core processes (payroll, credit cards, etc.)
  • Built dashboards with Metabase to measure early product adoption

Despite being tedious, this is the one area where I've learned the most about what it takes to be a founder. There’s so many hoops you need to jump through in order to succeed. It’s also an area where I know that investing in high-quality processes is really important especially to protect against downside risks. That’s why we’re overinvesting in compliance and legal for a company of our stage. 

Relationships with Investors (5%)

We were fortunate to start the company with a pre-seed round, so raising additional capital hasn’t been a top priority. That being said, we’ve been taking meetings with a number of VCs.

The reason for these early meetings is to start to build relationships. We only want to work with people that we enjoy working with and trust to be a productive member of the team. In today’s fast paced fundraising environment, it can be hard to build those relationships ahead of a round. That’s why I've been using some time to get to know different VCs, how they operate and get feedback on what we’re building before we’re really ready for another financing round. 

One positive takeaway - I’ve been surprised at how helpful a number of VCs have been in setting up customer intros, which is the most supportive thing we need at the moment. 

Early Marketing (5%)

As a former VP of Marketing, the most surprising observation is that I really haven’t spent much time on marketing. The main marketing workstream has just been thinking through our positioning and we’ve done some early brand work like creating a logo and marketing website. Most recently, we’ve prepped for our beta launch by writing a blog post and building out the website. As we start to talk about Dock more publicly, I imagine I’ll start to spend more time on marketing and growth. 

Shower Thoughts (??%)

Beyond these different workstreams, the reality is that I’m also thinking about Dock pretty much all the time. It’s basically infected my thinking. It’s honestly hard to think about anything else other than Dock. There’s a lot of conversations that I have with myself about everything from product strategy to future company culture. 

How I set myself up for success

I’ve had a few key advantages that have helped to shortcut the company building process. 

Previous startup experience

My experience at Lattice helped me to see what founders do in the early days. I knew from watching Jack that talking to customers and building products is the most important thing a founder can do at this stage. This experience also made it easy for me to raise a pre-seed round and allowed me to develop some relationships with potential users. 

Personal Audience

I have a tiny audience on Twitter and email, but my posts on both of these channels drove the vast majority of my customer conversations. The time I spent writing the occasional blog post and tweet was time well spent and I'm extremely thankful to everyone who joined those calls to learn more about Dock. 

Product prototyping

We didn’t start building the product from scratch. We had spent almost two years slowly validating different ideas with Figma and Webflow prototypes. By the time we started to code, we had a really good sense of what we needed to build to solve our customer’s problems. 

These advantages we’re not accidental. They were deliberate and years in the making. For the last ten years, I've been trying to gain experience and start projects that would make it easier for me to start a company. That’s why I joined an early stage company, started to blog and learned Figma/Webflow. I knew these skills, networks and audiences would be helpful when I eventually became a founder.

Moving forward

I’m really excited about what we’re building at Dock and will do my best to build in public and share lessons learned along the way. To stay in the loop, subscribe to my newsletter below or follow me on Twitter

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