We have been working on Pastel for a little more than a year now and I wanted to reflect on some of the early ways we got in front of our first few customers.
For those who are not familiar with our product, Pastel is a website feedback tool that helps designers and developers collaborate on live websites. We started off as a SaaS product priced at $25/mo. Our ideal customer is a product facing creator (designer, developer or product manager) that participates in the feedback process during the process of building websites. These include folks that work at creative and digital agencies, freelancers, and enterprise marketers.
In the year or so since we’ve launched, we’ve tried a myriad of ways of connecting to those types of customers. Before reading this list, one thing to keep in mind is that some of these failed methods may still have legs and it’s possible that our execution on some of them were just poor. With that said, I’ve collected a list of the tactics we’ve tried, along with the outcomes and lessons we’ve learned.
We began our outreach by finding agencies we respected and tried reaching out to the creative director or the lead PM. This was important because we assumed that the tool was most helpful to the folks facilitating the conversations between the designers and developers. We kept the email to 1-3 sentences long and added a canvas link with their own website. Since they didn't have to sign up to comment, we were hoping that the recipient would try commenting and then sharing with colleagues. It didn't play out quite like we expected. Although open rates were high on personal emails and some even clicked on the link, we failed at selling the need for a trial account. We figure this is because of email fatigue and the noise that this audience is used to.
Result: No customers. Word of mouth possibly?
Lesson: Spamming doesn’t work. it’s better to offer something of value, have a conversation and see if your solution is even useful.
In search of more agencies, we narrowed the filter to our own city of Toronto so we could build relationships in person. Thankfully, the city has a high concentration of agencies and a slew of them were on the same street. We went door to door and asked if we could have some time to chat. Most folks resorted to a curt reply of no, but we managed to get a handful of impromptu meetings and even a demo.
Result: 1-2 paying customers
Lesson: In person relationship building is by far the best. It is definitely more intimidating to do but very useful in generating a buzz. Also, receptionists at larger agencies are really good at turning down solicitation attempts. Huge shout out to all the receptionists saving their teams from distractions!
Searching on twitter is one of the most underrated ways of validating something. A quick search of ‘website feedback’ showed not only the brands that were competing for those keywords but also surfaced user frustrations and current public behaviour. There were instances of people asking for feedback on a website they had just built, so we quickly created a canvas with the new site and replied to their tweets sharing our feedback. These twitter users found our feedback helpful and were delighted by the surprise. We even imagined automating this with a twitter bot creating canvases automatically in response to tweets mentioning certain keywords. If we ever do that, we can share our results in a future blog post.
Result: No paying customers, but good karma!
Lesson: Automated outreach needs to be followed up with real conversations or it just becomes a novelty.
People love free things right? Well maybe not when they are critiques. In an attempt to show the true value of Pastel, we spent time on some potential customer websites and left feedback on canvases we built for them. These were definitely time consuming because we wanted each comment to be helpful and actionable. We targeted high level executives and asked to have the email forwarded to the right person. Some thanked us for our time and told us they would review the feedback at a later time.
Result: No tangible ROI
Lesson: People don’t have time. Respect everyone’s respective process.
Having conversations with potential customers through our website chat tool, Drift, has made a huge difference. We were able to make each website visit or inquiry truly personal and memorable. People have recognized that and we have been able to have a good rapport with our potential customers. After every inbound inquiry, we would use the opportunity to find out more about their needs and how many people are on their team. Using a chat tool has helped us do customer support and user research at the same time.
Result: 20+ paying customers
Lesson: A short conversation can provide short term support for the user and can allow a brand to potentially build long term trust.
At the end of every trial experience, an apology email is sent if a user hasn’t been active or hasn’t converted to being a paying customer. This email has started incredibly honest conversations that might have never ever surfaced. Customers have told us stories about how often they actually used it, the tensions of introducing such a product internally within their companies or alternatives that they have tried.
Result: 10+ paying customers
Lesson: Having humility and asking straightforward questions can yeild honest straightforward answers.
The main insight that helped us narrow in on certain tactics to try was understanding the value of Pastel, which we determined was saving time while tracking feedback and reducing potential rounds of revisions. In order to test these assumptions, we contacted freelancers on gig platforms such as Upwork and Gigster. The thought here was if we entered the conversations where we would save people time, we would prove our value. It didn’t stick because it wasn’t something they were willing to experiment with when faced with the mounting pressure of a deadline.
Result: Zero customers
Lesson: Contextualizing in real business cases is powerful but the time commitment of onboarding a new tool and process is expensive.
We used design inspiration websites as a way to get exposure to designers. Since our audience spends time browsing such directories, product discovery through this was very successful in gaining exposure.
Result: 100+ trials started
Lesson: Anything you spend a lot of time working on for your product can be reused as marketing. Think about podcasting, interviews, inspiration and open source as ways of marketing the most time-consuming parts of your role. For us, we spent a lot of time creating the narrative for our landing pages.
Sharing our website on DesignerNews, a community where design enthusiasts keep up to date with design trends, was successful in creating an open and honest conversation on pricing. No tangible ROI on this but this conversation was trending on the site for a while and generated a lot of interest to the site.
Result: No tangible ROI
Lesson: Having conversations online can expose you to honest feedback and can sometimes expose product vulnerabilities that you might have known deep down, but didn’t think were as important.
Asking ourselves what our customers currently use unveiled opportunities to see Pastel in a different light. If we were truly trying to make website creation easier with more iterative feedback, we needed to be more brand agnostic. So we called up Squarespace, Shopify and any ecosystem that have designers and developers at their core, building phenomenal things for that ecosystem. Brands wanted to reward their loyalty and solve their problems. Pastel solves the feedback problem so we approached these brands with ways of helping their respective communities. This unlocked a new way to working together while increasing our revenues.
Result: Interesting revenue generation
Lesson: Understanding the challenges of other companies can surface ways to working together in mutually beneficial ways.
Pastel was born out of another product called Flowcast, which was suffering from unclear branding, messaging and customer alignment. After a few months of rebranding and redesigning the product from the ground up, we grew very quickly. Once we had closed the chapter on that obstacle, we were in a space to start talking about it. Thus, came a blog post that became pretty popular and attracted more attention to our product than two paid ad campaigns we experimented with.
Result: Huge growth of trials
Lesson: Being more vulnerable and sharing stories can help gain supporters and empower the growth of your business.
This was something we thought would benefit both the business as well as our design space. We purchased a banner ad on a site that was trending on ProductHunt, but unfortunately it performed poorly. Seeing brands like Squarespace sponsor similar projects, I think the results might have been different if the time horizon for such an investment was longer.
Result: Zero paying customers
Lesson: In the beginning, prioritize inbound efforts over uncertain expensive outbound.
Getting coffee and meeting local Toronto shops like Equal Parts studio helped us learn about agency challenges and shaped our understanding of the changing creative landscape. An email is all it take to reach out and meet someone.
Result: Met some awesome super supportive friends.
Lesson: Learn about your business and the business of your customers.
This started as a way for us to bankroll through a month or two of runway but also seemed like a good opportunity to put Pastel to the test. We used Pastel casually in our consulting engagements and got chances to use the product with our clients. We heard valuable feedback but unfortunately this tactic resulted in no paying customers.
Result: Added time to our runway
Lesson: Sometimes clever things can also be cleverly distracting.
You never know where you are going to meet your next customer. I usually bump into people at coffee shops. For techies, it is common to find someone’s interest in the form of a sticker on their laptops. Whenever I saw the logo of a brand I recognized, that was my cue to start a conversation.
Result: Our first serious demo for a studio
Lesson: Get outside your comfort zone and chat with people, wherever they may hang out.
Having clear and simple branding on your product can be a highly effective marketing tool. Think Apple logos on laptops or Starbucks logos on coffee cups. For Pastel, our artifact is the canvas. We started experimenting with a text link that says ‘Built with Pastel’. This could be a truly transformative strategy for us if we ever create a free tier of our product. If your product is social and shareable by nature, have a think around how you are branding it to folks who have never heard of your brand.
Result: Hundreds of visits to our landing page
Lesson: Own your product. Control the message.
As founders, we have to listen deeply to what our audiences are doing and talking about so we can find the right conversations, join them and earn their trust.
For you founders out there, how did you find your first customers?