📻 — The Community SaaS Playbook: Building a Modern, Community-Driven B2B SaaS Product Step-by-Step — #COMMSAAS

Good morning yenizens!

I’m grateful for the interest in yesterday’s issue! We had quite a few new sign-ups and I’m glad to connect with more passionate community & business builders!

For the uninitiated… our community, the yeniverse (and our growing resource & tool hub) is dedicated to one, singular mission: Democratizing community building.

Want to join us? We’d love that! Becoming a yenizen is simple: You behave in a manner that helps, not hinders, the ability for others to learn how to launch, grow, and scale profitable communities & businesses! 👌🏻

We hope you join us and we’re glad you’re here!

To infinity & community,

— john


A Better, Modern Way to Build B2B SaaS

Yesterday I shared Monica Lent’s story and step-by-step process of how she went about building not just a community but also a growing, SaaS product and it’s definitely a #mustread!

Starting there will also give you a high-level of what I’m about to unpack for you as well here as I plan on showing you how I’ve used a similar approach to building a community-centric B2B SaaS product.

Don’t miss this fundamental difference: #COMMSAAS builders put community first before everything else. In fact, community is in every single step of their process, not an afterthought nor an outcome or box to check-off on a list.

These folks are living in the future, the coming “decade of community“:

[We just came from] the decade of code. Now, we are moving into the decade of community: One where community, not just code, is at the center of product development and successful organizations.

We expect better, we deserve better, we demand better… it’s no longer optional to have good community.

Adapted via a16z

It’s deeply-embedded into the way that they build, operate, and launch products and services. It’s both a mindset and an operating protocol, a systematic and data-driven a way of creating. These folks are creatives, builders, operators, support technicians, and more.

But here’s the surprising insight that I’ve earned after building software and communities for 20+ years: Community building is much more scientific than it is art.

And if that hurts your face then I feel sad for you son because you’ve got 99 problems but ignorance ain’t one. 🎵

Regardless, let me show you how… because that’s who I am.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ


🦄 — Community builders are the most valuable roles in the entire enterprise. It’s always been this way but only recently have we begun to more formally and officially recognize their importance and see that reflected in their total salary and compensation packages. We can do better!


And above all else they democratize community building by writing & sharing what they know: Building in the open is their psychological operating system — their default “install” — not something they’ve adopted or acquired through explicit training.

They build systems to capitalize on the “biggest arbitrage opportunity” available to them and they don’t need to be schooled on the real truths of community “portability” — they were born decentralized, everyone else has merely adopted it for survival.

They build their own frameworks and playbooks and then give them away! Here’s just a sampling of the foundational library of knowledge that #commsaas builders are putting together:

Not to mention the rapid ascent of the “Community Gigster” and “On-Demand Community Leader” is paving the way towards a different class of B2B SaaS products, transforming our world into a persistent, never-ending “multi-player mode” — twenty-four-seven, three-sixty-five.

I call this the “#COMMSAAS WAY” or The Community B2B SaaS Playbook, an original thought published earlier this year where my cornerstone was simple: Community first, everything else a very distance second.


The Community B2B SaaS Playbook

Here are the high-level steps that I’ve used to build a modern, community-centric B2B SaaS product:

  1. Start with Why: You must know why you exist and how you will operate your community (i.e. actual rituals / behavior).
  2. Create a landing page with an email newsletter and/or waitlist.
  3. Interview folks on the waitlist to understand their problems.
  4. Build products that solve their problems.
  5. Communicate consistently to your community throughout the entire process.

Now, I’ll show you how I’m building mine…

… ready to rock-and-roll?

Let’s go.

🚀


Step 1: Start with Why

First off, if you happened to roll your eyes when you read this then you’re not ready to build a #commsaas — I’ll just hit you straight. So, you can go read something else instead… here, this is good.

BUT! If you’re committed to building a community & product that you’re super-proud of and one that you won’t tire easily of serving or burn-out from… then please continue forward my fellow yenizen and adventurer!

You see, what I’ve discovered and learned from building a number of successful products and communities is that most folks use “community” as a “feature” or “value-add” to their product and platform, a “tack-on” or “bonus” ” that doesn’t intersect with product design and development.

This is fundamentally bad and decouples the most important communication channel that you have in the early-stages of product development — your early, passionate, true believers.

Community is — and should always be — an intimate part of the entire process, from end-to-end! That’s why I don’t have an explicit “build community” step in my 5-step process! We’re doing it from the jump!

The Web 2.0 era (I’m dating myself) enabled this “unlock” to happen but most folks are just waking up to the fact that you can actually use community in their product workflow — who would have thought.

In short, community is where you start and end and everything in-between — it’s what you ultimately cultivate, grow, and then profit from as you build your #COMMSAAS.

And to build a vibrant, engaged, and competitive community-based product, you must win the hearts and minds of your audience, fans, and potential members, especially in an ever-increasing, “community copycat world” — you’re going to need a real edge that draws the right kind of people to the very universe and community that you intend to create.

You don’t need many folks; just your true believers. And around these parts, our true believers call themselves yenizens.

I “Start with Why” because it’s the only way to truly build a community-centric SaaS. As Simon continues:

To succeed, you must be clear about what you believe, disciplined in how you do it, and so consistent in what you do that it becomes a symbol of who you are.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that figuring this step out is the hardest part of the entire #commsaas playbook — it personally took me 2+ years to figure out “my why” for the community that you’ve only recently been introduced to!

So, I’m telling you straight-up: This #commsaas is the road-less traveled! This shit is hard! Or, Monica, in a slightly lighter-tone:

I recommend starting with an info product first because it’s easier to convince someone to buy a product one-time instead of a subscription. If you build a SaaS it will take a lot longer (and it’s a lot harder).

If this is your first attempt at building a product at all then a subscription product or #commsaas might not be the best initial LZ, but I’m never going to stop you from going all-out!

YOLO BITCHES.

We have a guide for you!

Step 2: Landing Page w/ Email Capture

When I first started my journey to build my next #commsaas I knew that I’d have to come out strong, make an impression, and grab valuable attention in an attention-starved world.

Gratefully, I was certain of “my why” and my own personal mission but I wasn’t sure how it would resonate in the market as an actual software product — all I knew was that I wanted to build a b2b saas.

I shared a few concepts with friends, “friendlies,” and even some venture capitalists to gauge both resonation and understanding — I gathered the courage to continue to press forward:

Consequently, I began constructing a simple landing page with email capture that would test-drive the market conditions around a simple question and hypothesis:

Would people pay me to coach them on how to build a profitable and scalable community-centric business and/or #commsaas?

To be honest, I wasn’t sure and so I wanted to keep my costs super-low and make sure that every dollar spent was directly tied to value-creation for my early-customers and community members.

In other words, my budget for this #commsaas experiment was a big-whopping zero dollars! But hey, it’s actually possible!

So I launched something embarrassingly-simple via ConvertKit’s platform which was free to start (up to 1,000 subs) advertising a “5-day community & business building workshop”:

I would continue to test-drive our landing page designs as each cohort and campaign changes, iterating on the design, language, presentation, and use of rich media which helped me understand how impactful certain types of messaging, positioning, brand, and even starting price-point(s).

I had one singular focus: See what resonates (e.g. more sign-ups per campaign) and kept track of the patterns that inevitably-emerged.

Here’s one example that I ran right after our first cohort began to fill-up, preparing to optimize my learnings (from customer interviews):

Hey, I think we’re in business! We shared the news via our social channels like Twitter & YouTube where we engage and upload content daily.

I wasn’t surprised by the amount of interest I received — a few hundred sign-ups in a few days — and I decided to go to the next step.

That’s it… not too bad!

Next on the list… it’s time to talk to my customers.


🦄 — POWER MOVE ALERT: Most folks only launch a landing page and, for many #commsaas folks, that’s good enough to get started.

But, game-respect-game, right? Yenizens aren’t satisfied with “just good enough”! Let’s blow this motherchucker up!! 🤯

I suggest you go further — if you have time and bandwidth — to also create a small, public blog to track and share your progress and process of building your product in-the-open.

Remember, legit community builders democratize community building in every way possible and they are rewarded for it with more attention, more fans, audience, and (future) community members.

In short, this virtuous cycle of giving-first can become an unbelievable “flywheel” of growth when you simply share your business-building notes with others.

🤔 — That’s literally what I’m doing right now with this post that you’re presently reading and digesting! Crazy how this works!

There are a billion ways to start a blog but here’s one, quick (and free!) way of booting up a blog in < 30 seconds: Head to Indie Hackers, sign-up, and then build out both a profile and product.

Does this work? Yes! How do I know that? Because we did it ourselves and we’re very happy about results so far:

You can see above that I joined Indie Hackers in late February with 1 Update and 1 Follower (myself). 11 months and 100 posts later we are now still growing, slowly, methodically, deliberately:

Want more support for using Indie Hackers? Naturally, I have a post that might help kick you off the fence:

👋🏻 — Their community leader, Rosie, is one of the more-experienced community leaders out there and will take really great care of you! Tell her that I sent you.

If adding another content source isn’t up your alley (right now) that’s fine! You can always add this content and distribution center later when you have better systems in place for execution.

/EndPowerMove


Step 3: Talk to Your Amazing Customers

The next step was to immediately & directly communicate with each and every new email subscriber, asking them questions about what they’d hope to accomplish and achieve in the course and bootcamp as well as any of the outcomes that they’d like to experience if they were to successfully complete the course and graduate.

I did this for two reasons:

  1. To weed out “bad” or “weak” customers that I knew weren’t ready for this type of cohort-based, education program.
  2. To test value props, pricing, and positioning.

I took careful, methodical notes for every customer interview and quickly upgraded my manual email workflow with some very light automation, starting with a high-level sketch and then building it with free and off-the-shelf tools, ensuring that my cost-structure was still batting $zero.

Feb 11, 2020

You can see that I was manually tracking sign-ups via email (hash-marks) and their answers!! This is as low-fi as it gets!

I then took this manual workflow and automated it slightly:

I was intentional and empathetic and I spent more time listening to their needs than prescribing or prognosticating a solution. I judiciously used my time to audit my existing market research against what my customers were actually saying and then beginning to outline the “product” that would be the actual bootcamp.

In short, my goal was to determine precisely what they expected to experience in the 5-day bootcamp intensive and then go build that very course at the price-point based on real, customer data.


🔋 — Quick Power-Ups: There is one resource and one reminder that I wanted to call-out specifically:

  1. The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick — An amazing book that taught me how to ask the right types of questions in customer interviews.
  2. Never forget to listen intently to the sound of money! Whenever I heard a potential customer spend money (to solve their problems) I immediately logged that as a financial transaction and potential opportunity to explore further. It also calibrated pricing.

🧠 — You’ve just been upgraded yenizen.


I did both async, real-time, and everything in-between. If they wanted to hold the interview via Twitter DM then that’s where I’d be. If they’d prefer a text (sms) message or iMessage or Facetime or even a phone call — I was there, willing and ready.

🛑 — Customer service isn’t something you start post-sale; it’s something you do the moment they encounter your business and brand! Speed is also a competitive advantage.

A few of the very first interviews with candidates for the YENCAMP ALPHA:

👋🏻 — Hey Calvin, Rita, Dan, and others!

I used free video services to do my interviews like Zoom and Whereby app that could even host group interviews as well.

After exhausting my interviews and finding clear patterns of value and opportunity, I told my team that it was time to start building what I originally called “an education course” but evolved quickly into an intensive bootcamp.

I only needed about two weeks of customer interviews to fill any of the “gaps” that I knew empirically. And, as Monica mentioned in yesterday’s issue, it’s quite possible to explore and begin building a lot faster than most people think, especially if you’re doing an info product.

But, in my case, we we’re doing both an “information product” as well as a #commsaas platform right underneath. This is common, by the way for “community sass” founders as they’ll more than likely have to launch multiple products (and iterations of those products) to quickly test-drive quickly market conditions, appetite, and the product itself!

So, I began my work, first attacking the information product: #yenCAMP.

As you can see — two weeks later — I laid out my case, in great detail, where I thought we should go, what we should build, and the justifications for my decision as the founder and CEO:

You can see the most important point highlighted — the first version of the info product — and then I also provide context for the #commsaas that we’re going to be building as well.

In fact, I had already come up with the first product-design the same night I designed the manual onboarding workflow seen above! It wasn’t much, as you can tell:

Feb 11, 2020 — On the back of the manual automation page!

Satisfied, I tweeted a few days latter a tease of what was to come:

And a few days later we went live:

I then held my breath…

… and waited for the results.

And, it worked. OMFG it worked. 2 days later, we had our first sale! We had used Gumroad’s free-to-use platform for sign-up and subscription billing:

But that wasn’t the only sale…

… another dropped… and another!

I shared the exciting news on our blog and realized that we were on on-track for 4-figures in revenue in < 2 days!

Well, fuck…

… I guess we gotta go build this thing.

Step 4: Build Products That Solve Your Customers Problems

One of the fundamentally-unique things about a community-driven b2b saas product is that the creator must change their mentality from building one product to many products — and you’ll never stop.

That’s why I say “products” — multiple, many!

The reason is because your community, the very lifeblood of your business, will never completely stop evolving just as the individuals grow, evolve, and mature (in / out) of your already-decentralized network.

Consequently, your business strategies and models must continue to adapt to these evolutions. In fact, the ones that can manage to persistently invent and reinvent themselves will be the category winners, moving toward global, inevitable hegemony.

Wait, what? How does that work? Because the companies with the biggest communities win, playa.

This is why Monica (and many others) strongly suggest trying an “information product” first and not at the same time as a #commsaas, especially if it’s your first time building an internet business or community-based product.

🗺️ — World domination, though, is on the menu for me because my vision for the future is one where there’s a community on every website.

With all that in-mind, I first started building the 5-Day Business and Community Building Bootcamp while thinking through the beginning workflows and automations for the #commsaas platform.

And four exhausting days later I had completed most of the course, built entirely on the free version of Notion:

A little more polishing and we’d be ready for our first batch to start their business & community building adventure with me!

Would it work? Would I find the hidden b2b saas platform gems that I had hoped I would uncover through the manual workflow?

We’d eventually find out.


🦄 — POWER MOVE ALERT: Most folks can get started with a quick “premium” bootcamp or paid workshop without ever having to move beyond the free email subscription tools and auto-magically created landing pages that many of these platforms provide.

You’ll get subscription management, lightweight communication tools, and even paid / gated access to content with the right sequence of tricky #nocode / #lowcode combos.

Fuck yeah, that’s cool. But you know what’s cooler? Blowing cash.

I mean, spending a little bit of your hard-earned dough on the business to give it that spit-and-shine.

💸 — For instance, a few things that you could do for a few benjis if you’ve got them lying around:

  1. Update your landing page with custom work so it doesn’t look like everyone else’s cookie-cutter, default, and out-of-the-box design.
  2. Create targeted, branded media in the form of audio, video, and image.

Using free tools like Canva allow me to get away with design murder! Wait, you thought I did all this shit myself?! Come the fuck on!

I’m a product engineer and writer — those are my two superpowers. For everything else, I hire help.

So, you know what I did…

… I pushed a bit harder and formally redesigned the landing page proper — here’s the original design with the first, brave cohort of excited #yenALPHA #yenCAMP members, as well as the schedule:

I also spent a bit of money on some video marketing material to increase exposure and to present a level of seriousness and professionalism to my customers and community.

I was going to take this serious!

The first video is a “teaser” while the second was an attempt at sharing, casually, what the YEN.CAMP experience was all about:

If you have time, margin, and maybe a little cash, I’d recommend leveling-up your presentation material to stand-out from the crowd.

📹 — Much love to my good friend Andrew for the video work! 🙇🏻‍♂️

/EndPowerMove


Step 5: Communicate Consistently to Your Community Throughout the Entire Process

Thankfully, this is a short section because the sub-head says all!

The most important part of this entire process is simply this: You must maintain a healthy and open communication channel between you and your growing audience, fans, and community.

This can be done in too many ways too count but at the very least you should start with the email list of subscribers that you’ve gathered in the first part of the #commsaas process.

I take it a step further and build out a communication strategy with an exact list of target properties, communities, social networks, and other networks / resources that I’ll continue to pour into and invest as I gather attention for my product, business, and community.

Becoming a Day One Company, again, and again, and again…

You can see above, dated November 23rd of 2019, that I had already planned this part of my communication strategy well-in-advance of even a decision as to where we’d go as a company or the products that we’d intend to build — we’d concentrate our communication efforts along four major social and communication vectors:

  1. Twitter: @yenFTW
  2. Blog: THE YENSQUAD
  3. Newsletter: YEN.FM
  4. YouTube: YEN.SHOW

I have since added YENTOK as well as small weekly deposits into Startup School, Product Hunt SHIP, a personal newsletter to my founder friends and CEOs, and a few Slack Communities where my commitment to serve them and democratize all the information that I know is so obvious and real that I get channels named after me:

Serve first, ask… much, much later.

It is quite an investment of time, energy, and daily resources — this very issue took me ~13 full, non-stop hours to create, edit, and produce!

I don’t say that to pat myself on the back because I live for this shit! This is my mission and my why.

If you’d like to see an example of how I calendar and schedule my time, I’ve outlined some of the basics & principles here (there’s a vlog at the end of that post as well for play-by-play):

Okay, so, why this insane amount of what is essentially just “content creation”? Perhaps you should take a moment and read my issue covering David Perell who knows, like me, that in order for people to take notice of you and your new project, you have to be willing to do things that are worthy of being noticed!

Paul Graham more famously says it this way: “Do things that don’t scale.”

Creating content consistently is actually quite rare and is one of those things that sit squarely under the “don’t scale” category!

This is also why most folks do not know how to build community because community building is more science than art, it’s a process, a system, a programmatic workflow of data — it’s simply communication.

You see, from a strictly technical perspective, community is nothing more than consistent and predictable communication between nodes on a network.

Yup, that’s me… data engineering super-nerd.

(⌐⊙_⊙)

🛑 — #COMMSAAS 101: Communicate consistently to your growing audience as you build, design, launch, and then monetize your products and community.

The tell-tale sign of a “dead” community is always just silence. If you stop, the community dies. And, the better communicator that you are, the better leader you become.

Because leadership is communication.


Epilogue: The Story Continues, Forever!

Wait, so, that’s it?

Yes. Well, kinda.

You see, at this point, you’re going to continue to communicate, grow, and scale. You’re going to continue to experiment with all-the-things until you have reach the holy grail of “product-market fit” (not “community-market fit“) and you begin to pay the cost of deciding to build a Community-Driven SaaS!

via Holly Liu

This shit takes time and you’re going to have to effectively repeat the above 5-step cycle and workflow while also adding an ever-growing and maturing #commsaas tool that you’re building behind the scenes.

What’s nice is that your community is ready, willing, and excited to test-drive anything that you’re building, especially because they’ve been invited into the process and feel a strong sense of belonging and ownership creates the ultimate competitive advantage and moat.

It’s just a .gif… or is it?! … it is.

And so, it’s at this time that I want to share some exciting news!

Our very own #commsaas platform is getting closer to onboarding the next round of beta-testers; future yenizens who are passionate about building a profitable business and community in 2021!

🛑 — Early-access will be delivered only through YEN.FM issues and will be first-come, first-serve. Our platform is uniquely designed to give creators community-building superpowers so they can launch, grow, and monetize (super-fast!!) without the need for expensive training or 10 years of community management experience.

So, here’s your final reminder to do the right thing: Subscribe!

Our solution is a community-driven one, born out of the very lives of our customers, community, and yenizens:

That’s text-book #COMMSAAS. 💥 goes the 🧨.

🦄 — We can’t wait to get the next round of folks into our real YENIVERSE!! Stay tuned… it’s coming…

To infinity & community,

— john


A few great reads to pass around in your communities!

  1. Michael Jordan’s next investment via Joe Pompliano
  2. Social trading is still very much a thing via Public
  3. Where to build your next startup via NFX, James Currier
  4. Carter shares some important takes on Pornhub.
  5. Call of Duty had $3 billion in bookings in 2020… wtf.
  6. Cloudflare + Apple? Yo.
  7. A study on virality. Fascinating.
  8. Building products (for yourself) in Myanmar via Rest of World
  9. Milliion dollar domain (sharing / swapping)… hobby.
  10. Interview with the new CEO of Substack: Newsletter Disruption?

And hey, being unoriginal… it works.

Have a great day folks!


Just One More Thing…

Okay, okay okay! Just one more thing

Most folks will follow these steps perfectly, hitting all the high-notes, the powermoves, and more…

… yet, you won’t see the success that I’ve seen. To that end, you’ll tell me:

John, I thought community-building was scientific! Why isn’t it working? Grumble, grumble, grumble…

You, probably.

Just because I said that “community-building is much more scientific than art” doesn’t mean that there isn’t the “art” part in there!

So, what “exactly” is the artistic part of community-building? That’s simple: It’s you, you’re the artist.

In a world of copycat communities the only way that you’ll stand-out and attract the attention that you so-rightfully deserve is if you simply… be you.

I know, not entirely helpful. (╬ ಠ益ಠ)

Learning and settling into who you are, as a person, takes time. I’m not saying that younger folks can’t find their personal why earlier in life — I know this because I see so many young(er) folks doing bigger, better, more sophisticated things all… day… long… and they seem to genuinely love their work and the people that the serve.

Fucking fantastic; that wasn’t my story.

Instead, I’ve spent the most of my 20’s and 30’s struggling to find a fertile “landing zone” for who I was as a person, warts and all.

Perhaps you’re like this? You’re sensing that “existential” struggle?

Here’s something that might help, a tad:

The good and best news is this: Community and business-building in 2021 doesn’t require you to be anyone other than who you want to be.

You can:

  • … create meaningful, deep, and abiding relationships with the connected world. Yes, real friends.
  • … share what you know, create the value that you want to create in the small and big ways! You’ll always be able to lean on your community to (financially) support you.
  • … worry less about what others are doing and focus on what you know to be fundamentally true: You are worthy of belonging to someone, to a community that gets you, respects you, and wants you to succeed.

I’ve created one such place: The yeniverse. This is just one universe of many to come. How can I help you build yours?

DM or email me anytime, I’m here for you: john@yen.io